There are two types of travelers: those that go through the world fearlessly, excitement housed deep in their bones, and those that travel hesitantly, sticking to their rulebook and constantly second-guessing themselves. I’ve always prided myself on being the first type, but when I discovered myself cold, 3,000 miles from home, and expected to leave my jeans—and dignity—in a heap on the floor, I experienced, for the first time, sheer terror.
I looked to my left to find myself face-to-face with the first naked woman I’d ever seen in person. Her breasts were uneven, and the way she held her shoulders back put on display the tiny mole at the bottom of her stomach.
“I’m sorry,” she said sweetly. “Are you using this locker? I’m using that one, but my daughter needs a locker to put her things in.”
I fumbled for words, untangling them and rolling them around on my tongue: I was using that locker, I really was. I just hadn’t had time to peel off my clothes. As she turned away, my eyes lingered for a second too long on the way she jiggled just so. A throat cleared. I pushed my eyes back to the floor, heat rising in my neck.
I don’t know which country had the privilege of presenting to the rest of the world the woman to my right, but looking at her body was akin to being smirked at by an entire population at once. Black hair as long as it was thick fell to the middle of her breasts, and her arms were taut as they removed her shirt to show a toned back that eventually gave way to a rounded backside, and, further down, a pair of naturally bronzed, firm legs. I looked on quietly, feeling the spotlight bright and hot on the water weight I was sure to be carrying.
The Blue Lagoon is a must for anyone travelling to the strange, tiny world that is Iceland. In 1976, a geothermic power plant’s wastewater formed a pool that people began bathing in for its healing qualities – in particular, it soothed psoriasis. Not long after, in 1992, the pool was given its name and opened to the public, quickly becoming—and staying—one of the most visited attractions in the country.
Like the country itself, the Blue Lagoon seems to be worlds away from reality: instead of the rolling green hills dotted with miniature horses that Iceland is famous for, the land looks like the surface of the moon, jagged black rocks covering the ground. The deep, unmistakable smell of sulfur air blankets the landscape. The water, in stark contrast to its dark surroundings, is a pop of milky blue straight out of a cartoon, and sits comfortably at 98-102 degrees, heated by a flow of lava.
Not that I would ever see it. Not that I would ever get there, frozen as I was, terrified of getting naked in that locker room.
The pool is waiting for you. Baby steps, I told myself, shutting my eyes to escape. Sweater first.
While the purpose of a body is, to some women, a question mark, I’ve always understood it as a vessel, but also a tool of empowerment and pleasure. With it, I have the power to make a man feel good, but more importantly, I can use it to make myself feel good. Somehow, though, this was different—instead of being undressed, I was the one doing the undressing.
I took a deep breath, moving my fingers to grasp the hem of my red sweater, only to find them stuck, immobile in their curled position. My arms stilled as well, crossed at an awkward angle at my hips, and I began to panic, my breath coming in short bursts and my ears ringing.
It’s just a sweater. It’s just a body.
It’s hard to grow up in the middle of a celebrity-obsessed world in the shadows of glossy women who were colored perfectly inside the 36-24-36 lines that the artist provided. I am not one of these women. While my lines have potential, they’ve been drawn a bit lazily: 5’11”, 39-29-39, the nose a little severe, the legs a little uneven, the hands able to palm a basketball. Moreover, I was sculpted in a harsh shade of ivory and topped with a head of messy blonde hair.
Heat surged to my fingertips, a sheen of sweat breaking over my forehead. My breathing slowed as I let go of my sweater. The woman next to me had, at some point, shut her locker and sauntered off in what I was sure to be a bikini small enough for her daughter.
My fingers found the hem once more. I clenched my jaw, tried to pull. Once again, my arms refused.
Come on! my mind shouted. Just pull the damn thing over your head.
I knotted the hem in my fists more forcefully, and as I did, the locker room in Iceland became the locker room of a community college in New Jersey, and the women around me became my high school swim teammates, getting ready for practice. We were laughing and gossiping, debating where we would eat dinner that night as we stepped into our bathing suits in bras and underwear. We taught each other the tricks of the trade, and knew them by heart: once in our suits, we bent at the waist, pulling one side of our underwear all the way down, stepping out of that side to pull them back through and step out of them completely. Bras were easy, simply unhooking and shrugging out of it, pulling it out of one side the way we did our underwear. Nobody ever blinked because we weren’t there to tear each other down, or even focus on each other’s bodies at all – we were there to put on our bathing suits and do something great.
In high school, however, we did it without showing as much as our bellybuttons. In Iceland, nobody was concerned with modesty.
The heat began to spread again, but my fingertips felt light at the end of my hands. They loosened their grip on the hem, holding on just tightly enough to keep it in their grasp. Quickly –
As quick as I could, I jerked my sweater over my head and threw it in the locker.
My first instinct was to double over, shielding innocent bystanders from the ungodly sight of the mole on my left shoulder, from the horrible vision of my breasts falling away from each other, rounding at the bottoms instead of sitting firmly together. I could feel every eye on me, could almost hear the whispered remarks about the way my stomach bulged just so over my jeans.
I wasn’t done. Not even close. I had won the first battle, but the war was still raging. I hung my head and let my eyes stay closed, willing my hands to stay by my side instead of pulling my sweater out of the locker and back over my body.
Sink your teeth into this: according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 47% of girls in the 5-12 grades want to lose weight because of pictures they see in magazines. 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Up to 24 million people suffer from an eating disorder, and 95% of them are between the ages of twelve and twenty-six. Those glossy, perfect women they find in magazines? Only 5% of women were born with those figures.
Women of all shapes and sizes continued to file in and out of the locker room, towels slung over their shoulders as they laughed with each other. I let them pass before I moved on to the next phase. My breath hitched as I watched my hands do their work, unbuttoning, unzipping, tugging at the waistband of my jeans. Wait! I wanted to shout. Just give me a second!
For years, I’d been speed-dating eating disorders. Although the relationships began beautifully and happily, each of us moving in sync with the other, my intimacy with the handsome shadows of disease always came to a slow stop. We just weren’t right for each other, but it tore me in two every time we walked away. Over and over again, I’d find myself on the floor in a guilty puddle of visible ribs, a sore throat, and an overwhelming desire for something substantial. The last time I found myself there, I rested my forehead gently against the cold porcelain of the toilet in the dark of my parents’ house and told myself that I had tried, but it might be time to consider taking myself out of the dating game.
One deep breath, two, then a third. I let my eyes fall shut as I pulled my jeans down slowly, mechanically, inch by inch. Pushing and pulling, I bent to wrestle them over my ankles. My cheeks burned, furiously—I had bent all the way over with my back to a room full of strangers.
Another woman appeared to my right, and I watched out of the corner of my eye as she calmly stripped out of her own jeans and underwear, turning to put them in her locker shamelessly, ass out for everyone to see. She didn’t even blink.
What is wrong with you? I thought, before realizing that maybe it wasn’t her, but me.
I straightened, my pants around my ankles, my goose-bumped thighs exposed to the world. Taking one more breath, I tugged off my jeans and tossed them in the locker, where they lay in a sullen heap, next to my sweater.
All of a sudden, I was in nothing but a pair of underwear and a bra that barely hid my freckles.
You should have put on lotion today.
My brow furrowed. That’s it?
That’s it, my mind said. Get to it.
I turned around, my ass out for everyone to see, and reached behind my back to unhook my bra, allowing it to rest loosely on my shoulders before shrugging out of it. I continued to stare straight into the locker as I thumbed the waistband on my underwear, telling myself that this was it—this was the last hurdle.
Hands shaking, teeth chattering, and eyes screwed shut, I pushed them past my knees and stepped out, creating a pool at my feet. I hooked my big toe through the waistband to flick them up to myself, catching them easily and putting them away with the rest of my belongings. Then I shut my locker, separating myself from my salvation.
My toes curled beneath me. I tried desperately to work up the courage to turn around. I wasn’t in the high school locker room anymore, nor was I standing in front of a man for the first time – I was alone in a crowd of women.
My palms became clammy as my eyes welled up. I bit the insides of my cheeks.
One – Don’t do this. Please don’t do this.
Two – The locker is right there. Everything you need is on the other side of the door.
Spinning on my heels, I stood, eyes open and arms dangling at my sides. I expected a spotlight to shine hotly on my body, illuminating the stretch marks on my inner thighs, the tiny, flesh-colored skin tag on my sternum, the red lines on my stomach from the way my skin creased as I sat, the ridges around my nipples. Why wouldn’t the women around me look on condescendingly, whispering about how I should have known better than to consider getting naked?
Here’s what the spotlight showed:
Nothing about my body was so repulsive or so incredible that it earned me a double glance. The veins on my breasts were on display and the curves of my hips were uneven. But that didn’t matter. The way my thighs touched wasn’t bizarre. And the way my stomach pooled at the bottom? So did everyone’s.
While the locker room has plenty of unspoken rules, there are only a few written ones, the most important being to shower before getting into the pool. I walked to the stalls, naked and calm, and adjusted the water before I stepped under the stream, and found myself humming as I let the water run down my body and into the drain by my feet. Strolling back to my locker to slip into my own tiny bikini, I declined a towel and let myself air-dry, my hair wet and resting heavily on my shoulders, my own slight jiggle on parade. The curtain had lifted, the spotlights had shone, and I had stood there, naked. Just naked.
For the first time in years I was, I realized, free.