Herräng, Sweden is home to the largest swing-dance camp in the world. It hosts hundreds of multi-national dancers in one small town for a month, literally doubling their population every year. Dancers spend their days taking classes, hiking, paddling rowboats, making new friends, dancing the night away to live music, or relaxing in the co-ed sauna.
Co-ed sauna. Those words struck fear into my heart. I was raised to believe that being naked meant asking for sex. I hated that I my C-cup breasts drew unwanted attention at age 15 as much as they did at age 21. I remember wearing a v-neck top—a modest one—and my then boyfriend trying to feel me up all night because, as he said, “why would you wear that top if you didn’t want the attention?” In short, I was terrified of being naked or showing skin.
The only naked female bodies I had seen were in my dad’s plethora of Playboy magazines. I thought I was hideous, and the sexual attention I received from my dad and other men felt so dirty that I dressed like a boy until my 20s.
Then in Herräng, my new Canadian friend Lucy invited me to sauna during co-ed hours, promising it would feel nothing like being in America. I heard that Europe was more laid back about nudity, but it still took me three alcoholic ciders to build up the courage. She took me into the changing area (also co-ed), and I stripped off my clothes in the same order she did, trying to act cool.
With us was an Australian man named Ben and an Irishman named Pat. I took my towel with me using the excuse that I wanted something to sit on, but really I wanted a safety blanket. We entered the sauna to find two professional dancers I idolized, though they seemed less intimidating naked. I sat down on a bench and looked at the bodies around me.
The professional dancer had cellulite on her extremely muscular legs. Lucy’s breasts hung just like mine, and her hips had a layer of fat that splayed out beneath her when she sat, also like mine. Ben and Pat talked casually, never once making sexual remarks or staring me in the boobs. We made jokes about Ben’s unusually large penis, and how painful it must be for Pat’s nipples once the sauna heated his nipple rings, but that was it. I felt relaxed, confident, and best of all, normal.
Soon, the four of us became a sauna team, meeting every night for ciders and delightful sauna conversation. While nude, I made new friends, danced, saw dozens of naked bodies of all shapes and sizes, and no one made me feel uncomfortable. Ben told me I had nice breasts once, but it was with such casual aplomb he could have been complimenting my shoes. After revitalizing our tired muscles in the sauna, we’d get dressed and go dance—no sexual tension, no misconstrued ideas—the sauna was as benign as a dive bar—
—until week three. At Herrang, week three featured famous American dance instructors, which in turn drew the American dancers. At dinner I remember overhearing American men talk about how awesome the co-ed sauna would be because there was a Danish dance team of barely legal girls at the camp—maybe they’d get to see them naked.
Sadly, this was a typical; the sauna’s week-three co-ed hours frequently filled with American men and zero women—because it was creepy. Armed with the knowledge that co-ed hours might be ruined for the week, my sauna team and I sallied forth regardless. Ten minutes in and I wanted a turtleneck. Even my male American dance partners looked at me like I was giving them permission to approach me sexually. On the dance floor, they’d hold me closer and comment on seeing my naked body. It ruined friendships.
I took two things away from my experience in Sweden: 1) women in America don’t see nearly enough normal, naked female bodies with which to compare themselves; 2) somewhere in their education, American men are taught that being naked equates the potential for sex.
I think a lot about behavior and how it’s formed. When we say it’s society’s fault that women feel ashamed of their bodies and men are pigs, who are we blaming? Society is us. It’s our own actions and behavior that perpetuate these ideals—and we are the ones who can change it.
What if women actually liked their bodies? What if men were taught in sex-ed that nudity doesn’t equal foreplay? What if neither sex was taught at an early age that a naked body was taboo? Would women’s near-constant quest to be more “physically attractive” cease? Would men’s ideas of acceptable sexual advances be curtailed? Would “asking for it” involve women actually asking men for sex instead of men assuming a low-cut top is a secret signal? I don’t know.
What I do know is that after four weeks of being naked in a Swedish co-ed sauna (excluding the American ogle-fest that was week three) I learned that it is possible to like my body, and for men to appreciate it without sexualizing it—two statements I never thought I’d hear myself say—which is really the saddest part of the story.