The body and the Eros of the Earth
We arrived, and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I fumbled to light a cigarette.
I was fucking nervous, and I smoke when I’m nervous. No, it’s not a good habit, because there are plenty of other ways to breathe through anxiety. I just don’t do them often enough. I don’t drink, I go to the gym three days a week, I hike, I bike, I grow some of my own food, I watch almost everything I consume, and yet I still smoke. Smoking is cheating myself, I know, and eventually I’ll play more fair. But not yet.
My companion shook his head. “You don’t have time for that. We have three minutes.”
I put the cigarette back into its pack, and sighed.
My companion could tell I felt ashamed about this, and smiled. “Just don’t think about it. I’ll show you everything.”
We all need someone in our lives to tell us not to think. It seems especially a pernicious curse on writers, because we’re always thinking. The few hours it takes to actually write an essay is overshadowed by the hundred and maybe thousands of unguarded minutes in which thoughts are strung together, and then unstrung, and then restrung into other threads.
Friends are a good cure for overthinking, and this one particularly.
I followed his quick gait out of the parking lot and towards the main building. He’s much taller than I am, and he was hurrying like an excited dog on his way to an off-leash park. It almost felt like he was pulling me onward, and to be honest: I needed that pull.
We arrived on time, and he paid for my entry. Following his fast stride while trying to strap on the wrist bracelet they’d given me for admission, I barely had time to look around at all the other people. No time to indulge in fearful fantasies of how they were all judging me, no time to compare their bodies to mine, no time even to notice I was terrified, and especially no time to notice I also wasn’t.
He led me to the lockers, and he was undressed before I’d even put down my gym bag. I clumsily pulled off my shirt and tried to fold it slowly, trying to postpone the moment of full nudity.
“Just throw it in your bag. We have to hurry.”
He smiled as he said it, and there was no harshness in his voice. It was just a statement, neither impatient nor coddling, and its neutrality was anyway what I needed.
Actually, I needed all of this. I’d needed it for a very long time, at least the last 34 years, ever since I found myself crying in a gymnasium full of hundreds of laughing, jeering, and mocking twelve year olds.
Before I knew it, I was naked. I put on the flip flops my husband had let me borrow, and then wrapped a robe around me. I clutched my towel in front of me, in case I’d not tied the robe enough, and then followed my friend out of the changing room, outside across stone floors, across a small footbridge, and then up steps leading to cabins clinging to a hillside.
Outside the cabin he stripped again, hanging his robe on a hook and motioning for me to do the same before we rinsed ourselves under a shower.
“Let’s go,” he smiled. I nodded, too overwhelmed with the urgency to let myself be nervous, and I followed him into the crowded room full of naked people.
My companion had brought me to my very first sauna. Actually, we were at a sprawling complex built upon a thermal healing spring. Thermes such as these are quite popular, and are often prescribed by doctors for the sick, the anxious, the depressed, or the over-worked. A one-week stay (and sometimes several weeks) is covered by the socialized health care systems in most European countries, and many also have on-site physical and psychological therapists, doctors, and life coaches.
This one is both a healing retreat and also a kind of public utility. It has scores of sauna cabins, multiple steam rooms, a large thermal spring pool, several whirlpools and jet pools, yoga and fitness rooms, a cold plunge, massages, and even a restaurant. Anyone can buy a few hours of time (a little under 30 euro for 2 hours), and groups of friends make this place their weekly meet-up ritual.
The history of public bathing in Europe is very, very long. Celtic and Germanic peoples bathed together in sacred healing springs. The Greeks, and then the Romans and the Turks, expanded the practice and perfected the construction of baths and the channeling of thermal spring water. With the advent of Christianity and the collapse of Rome, the practice fell out of favor in many places, while continuing on in the Islamic world and pagan Slavic and Nordic lands.
Many towns in Europe built public bathhouses in the Middle Ages, and though the official Church position saw public nudity as dangerous, priests, bishops, and even a few popes tolerated their existence. Clean people tended to be healthy people, and the gnostic influences on Catholicism meant purity of soul was often linked to clean bodies.
This tolerance changed significantly during the transition to capitalism. The obsession with sexual repression that fueled the Protestant Reformation bled quickly into the Catholic counter-reformation, as well. The body — especially the body of the poor and the body of women — became a thing of terror for both religious and secular leaders. Bathhouses were closed in almost every city during the 16th century as part of a much larger war against the body involving new regimes of “moral” behavior and physical punishment. Nakedness, in particular, suddenly became a severe crime throughout Western European cities, since the unclothed body was a site of potential sin and social disorder.
It can seem hard to grasp this, but the shame, embarrassment, and the countless laws and morality around the naked body in our modern world is historically new. Much of it was birthed through these state and religious campaigns during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the particular strand of Calvinism which formed the foundation of American cultural consciousness was very good at inculcating shame and disgust.
Puritanism never really took hold on the European continent, which is at least partially why public thermes and saunas in Europe are much more common than they are in the United States. Also, though, occult and esoteric health ideas, especially in Germany, helped revive pre-capitalist conceptions of the body even as they were narrated as new. The Lebensreform movement, which was really multiple movements including vegetarianism, homeopathy and natural cures, hiking and camping in nature (the Wandervogel movement), and even body building, had a strong emphasis on the neutrality and even goodness of the naked human body. Germans are still renowned for being naturists (“nudists”), a cultural tendency that even has its own name: Freikörperkultur (free-body culture).
In America, and also in Anglo culture in general, nudity is almost immediately equated with sexuality and eroticism. This would not be in itself a problem, except that sexuality and eroticism are strictly policed through cultural, social, and legal mechanisms. One need only think of how a 2004 split-second appearance of Janet Jackson’s nipple resulted in massive fines and years of public discussion. Likewise, consider how “bathhouse” and “sauna” in the United States and England are often slang for a gay cruising club, whereas in Europe you’d have to add the word “gay” at the front to indicate that’s the sort you mean.
Of course, the problem with the association between the naked body and sexual desire is that there’s no real correlation. The more naked bodies you see, the clearer this becomes. By “naked bodies” I don’t mean pornography, of course, which depicts specifically sexualized bodies doing sexual things. Instead, I mean actual naked bodies, naked people sitting next to you on towels while a man waves wet birch branches over you to move the extreme heat of the air across your body.
My companion and I were the last ones to arrive into the sauna. He goes regularly, so often that he bought a yearly membership to reduce his costs. This particular sauna is his favorite of what’s on offer there, and that’s why we’d been rushing to be on time. It was scheduled to start at 3, and they don’t allow in late comers, and he really wanted me to experience it as my first.
I wanted this, too. Actually, I needed this desperately. I’ve lived forty six years on this earth, and too much of it has been clothed, ashamed, fearful of being body around strangers.
The very first time I wore no clothes in front of strangers was when I was born. I was too young at that point to know this was “wrong,” that I was doing something shameful and immoral by coming out of the womb showing my genitals. Fortunately, there were others to fix that for me, to make sure I was “decent” and no longer offending anyone with who I was.
The first time I remember feeling ashamed of being naked, however, was much later. That was in the locker room when I was 12, changing out of my sweaty clothes after the nightmarish hell of gym class. I was so embarrassed, and so nervous, that I dressed so quickly I put my t-shirt on inside out. Not wanting to endure another second of naked shame, I chose to leave it on that way the rest of the day rather than take it off again to fix it.
I wasn’t the only boy ashamed, of course. Some didn’t even take off their sweaty clothes at all, deciding instead to put their other clothes over them. Still, it felt as if most of the boys around me didn’t feel anything strange about what was happening at all, which then led me to think maybe it was just my body that was shameful, not theirs.
This got much worse a few months later. The state had mandated scoliosis testing for all students, which was done during one of the gym classes. This involves taking off your shirt and bending forwards while a nurse looks at the curvature of your spine.
Our school had industrialized this process quite efficiently. Boys and girls each line up on either side of the gymnasium with our shirts off (women could wear bras though) with no privacy curtains. Once a child was at the head of the line, he or she bent forward for 30 seconds in full view of the other two hundred or so children. Once finished, you waited on a third wall of the gym until everyone was dismissed.
I was a fat kid. I didn’t actually know I was fat until everyone told me I was, and they also told me that was a shameful thing. Once I understood this, I then decided that one of the reasons my body was so shameful was because I was fat, despite not really understanding “why” that made it shameful. I suspect it’s also the same for every child who was thin, or freckled, or in any other way could be designated as different from everyone else.
It was my turn. My last name starts with W, so I was one of the last kids to be examined while most of the others stood, bored, against the third wall.
I bent over. When you bend over and you have a lot of extra fat, it all hangs down. It’s a lot like the underbelly of a dog who’s had puppies, a bit pendulous. It’s adorable when it’s a dog, or when the person is your lover. When it’s not a dog and not your lover, but instead an awkward fat 12 year old boy, and you’re a bored a 12 year old kid watching it at a distance, you might say something like one kid shouted that day about me:
“Wow! That kid’s tits are bigger than my mother’s!”
The entire gymnasium laughed.
It was another seven years before I ever took my shirt off — even to swim — in front of another human.
Much of my adolescent life was crippled by horrific shame. There’s a perverse problem that arises when you’re fat and ashamed of it: that shame actually makes you more fat. You become too ashamed to exercise in front of people, because you don’t want anyone to see all the “extra” bits of you moving around. Even when it’s really hot, you won’t wear fewer clothes, because you want to hide your body from others. That means you stop from heat exhaustion sooner, and then eventually just stop altogether.
Later, when I began dating and having sex, I often didn’t want to take off my clothes. Sometimes, I’d ask for the light to be turned off, or that we could stay under the blankets. In retrospect this is such a silly thing, since one of the points of sex is exploring bodies. Without that exploration, there’s just penetration, reducing a beautiful dance of joy to the mere genitals, just as the Puritans insisted it should be. In such sex, there must be a point, a goal, a clear purpose, and anything that makes it too much fun is “sin.”
This shame continued even when I was thinner, and even when I was with men much fatter than I had ever been. I never judged them for their size, and found their bodies things of beauty. Regardless, I still thought my body was somehow wrong, something I needed to hide from them or make amends for.
As time went on, the shame would subside for months and then suddenly return with vengeance. I was often crippled by this feeling, certain there was something wrong with the flesh and bone and skin from which my existence is composed. Therapy helped a bit, but it never really uprooted the problem. Relationships helped also, but I often felt my lovers were lying when they said they found me beautiful.
What really finally began to help was when I joined a gym. I don’t mean that this helped my body look less shameful, as if losing weight and having more muscle is what undid the dark Christian spell of self-hatred. No, I don’t mean this at all. What I mean is that lifting weights, stretching, biking, and all the other things I do in these strange temples of the body is a lot like what people did before they learned the body is a thing of shame.
In lifting, I have to learn to trust my body. I have to listen to it, to understand it, to speak its language and hear its voice.
But this is a funny thing, because while I write about my body as something external to or differerent from me, I’m really just talking about myself in the third person. I am my body, but decades of being estranged from it makes it still difficult to speak of this in other ways.
So in lifting, I have to learn to trust myself. I have to listen to myself, to understand myself, to speak my language and to hear my voice. Which is all to say, I have to be undivided from whom I am, to let those artificial divisions collapse back into an entire existence.
When you start doing that, it gets harder and harder to think of the body as something you have rather than are. There becomes less room for silly ideas that aren’t even yours in the first place. Shame makes no sense because there’s no place for shame to inhabit anymore. You’re full up with the joy and ground of existence, naked like the child depicted on the Sun in tarot. There is nothing to hide or hide from. You’re free.
My companion and I were the last ones to arrive to the sauna, and the steward closed the door behind us. It was quite full, but there was just enough room for him and I to crawl over a few naked people with our own naked bodies. Arranging asses and genitals in such close quarters is quite a dance, and my clumsiness was probably quite evident, but no one seemed to care.
And then I suddenly realised: I didn’t care, either.
I was nude in a sauna with twenty other people, only one of which I knew, and this didn’t seem like a strange thing at all. Of course we were all naked, because we were in a sauna and it makes no sense to have clothes on for that. Breasts and scrotums and bellies and other things were all dangling, unsupported by all the bindings we impose upon them to be “polite,” and that’s just how it is.
The old women and the old men, the younger men and the younger women, and all of us in between were naked, and we were beautiful because we were bodies. We sat in the heat together, meditating as the steward waved birch branches in the air (and later beat our backs with them), just being bodies. To say there’s nothing “erotic” or “sexual” about it wouldn’t be quite true, though: because what else do you call the energy of extreme healing heat sweeping across your skin from rocks, the light touch of water sprinkled from wet birch branches, and the pounding of those same branches against your skin at the end except “erotic?”
And I think that’s the core tragedy of our separation from body. The rays of the sun warming your skin, the light breath of wind across your neck, the tickle of grass under bare feet, the smell of pollen, leaf, and flower from warm forests and the sharp bite of winter’s chill: this is the Eros of the earth.
The world is always touching us, always making love to us, always reaching its desire out to us. We can only feel that desire, that Eros, that love, because we are bodies.
My companion looked at me, smiling, as we left the sauna and showered off the bits of birch leaves from our backs. Next would be the steam rooms, and then the long cold plunge, and then another sauna. But for now, there was just this naked moment under the open-air showers.
“So?” he asked, smiling.
“Uh? Oh. I just noticed,” I answered, laughing.
“Noticed what?” he asked, splashing water at me like we were kids.