New Findings from a Cultural Cliche
I’m sitting in a hot, dimly lit room with two family members and even more strangers. All of us – whether we know each other or not – participate in the soft-spoken conversation that might be about anything except work. We feel relaxed. We are sweating. We are naked.
We are in a sauna.
When talking about sauna, none of this should come off as surprising or odd to a Finn. Of course we can be naked with strangers in a sauna. Of course we can have a conversation with each other while at it and of course we are sweating.
But this is no ordinary sauna: this is the Finnish Sauna Society, an exclusive club if you will, dedicated to preserving the Finnish sauna tradition. The facilities are located at Lauttasaari, overlooking the Baltic Sea. The building contains six different types of saunas (ranging from very hot to very mild and from conversation-allowed to silent saunas), a shower space, a patio and a dock with a year-round possibility for a dip in the sea, and a cozy common room which includes both a crackling fireplace and a café that sells all kinds of delicious treats, sweet and savory.
The place is members only, but each member is allowed to bring up to two guests at a time. The weekdays are split between men’s days and women’s days, so no unisex saunas are taken.
How do you get to be a member? First of all, you need to be a person of good reputation, and your character needs to be generally deemed suitable for membership. Secondly, and more importantly, you need to have two references. These two people must be members. And members can only recommend one person per year, in addition to only being allowed recommend someone after being a member for at least five years. So getting in isn’t exactly a piece of cake.
I, along with my sister, went recently for the first time as guests of our cousin, who is a member. The dressing rooms were pretty commonplace, and my cousin warned us that the shower room wouldn’t be anything fancy either. But when we arrived it all felt exactly as it should be. Nothing was fancy or screamed big money, but it would be much more disturbing had it been that way. The place has an incredibly homey feel, cozy, quaint and traditional.
But what really was the biggest delight and the thing that kept me wondering about how special the place must be, was how incredibly natural everyone was with their bodies and nakedness. I saw people of all ages and all body types and we were naked in the presence of each other all the time, but not once did I feel the least bit self-conscious of myself, or my body. And not only did it make me realize how much I actually acknowledge and worry about my body constantly, but it also illuminated how pleasant and serene these occasions can actually be.
I don’t know what magic that place held, but I think a lot of it stemmed from the atmosphere. When everyone else acts like it’s not a big deal, it won’t be a big deal. There was no awkwardness. I felt perfectly comfortable in my skin and like everything was exactly as it should be. Like I was perfect as I am. It felt exhilaratingly liberating.
Of course this experience made me acknowledge the body image pressure we are constantly under in a way I had never acknowledged before. Why can’t it always feel like this? Why do we care so much about what other people think about us? Why is nudity such a taboo, even in Finland? Why is it considered gross? If we all just always dealt with our bodies the way everyone dealt with them in that haven of a place, wouldn’t everyone be a bit healthier? I feel like for myself, the experience was definitely a step towards self-understanding and self-acceptance. Being just a tad more comfortable with myself.
After a long and thorough sauna, we sat in the common room in no hurry, eating and chatting away, comfortably nestled in old armchairs by the window. And I thought: I can’t wait to be a member of this totally cool (or rather, warm) society.