Since moving to Finland in August, I spend most Saturday nights sitting around naked with my neighbors. Stripping down and sweating it out together in a sauna is a beloved part of Finnish culture, so much so that there are two million saunas in this country of just over five million people. Finns even have a special word, saunanjälkeinen, for that blissful post-sauna feeling. But while Finns are used to hitting the sauna with everyone from their parents to colleagues (they say more decisions are made in saunas than in boardrooms), my first trip to my apartment building’s shared sauna was nerve-wracking. Would my sauna-mates judge my body? Would they judge me for not shaving recently? Or worse, what if they were au naturel and thought it bizarre that I shaved my nether regions at all?
According to a 2014 body image survey conducted by Glamour, my insecurities were far from atypical for an American woman. 54 percent of women surveyed were unhappy with their bodies and a heartbreaking 80 percent say that just looking in a mirror makes them feel bad about themselves. I, admittedly, have struggled with body image throughout my life. I suffered from borderline eating disorders in my early teen and college years, and the thought of prancing around in a bikini bottom still makes my heart race. So taking it all off in front of newly made friends and people I see daily at breakfast or in the elevator was a disconcerting thought, to say the least. I had to gather up all my courage the first time I hung up my towel, swung open the door, and tried to gracefully find a seat among the other women.
But as soon as I shyly peered through the steam at the other women’s bodies, I realized just how refreshingly different they all were. There were bodies stretched from childbirth, marked by scars, changed by aging. There was an amazing assortment of body types, boobs, nipples, and body hair. There were even boobs and asses that looked like mine! Every person there had some version of what the beauty industry often tells us are flaws, and seemed to be comfortable with it.
Instead of finding the whole experience uncomfortable or awkward, I found it liberating. Between television, magazines, and social media, we’re inundated with more pictures of women’s bodies than ever before. But these are typically images that have been posed, edited, and curated, and comparing ourselves to them only makes us feel worse about ourselves. In fact, the Glamour study mentioned previously found that 64 percent of women say that they feel bad about their bodies after looking at sites like Instagram. Even beyond the media, the bodies we see held up as "ideal" are often squeezed, smoothed, tucked, and lifted by support garments or other unseen forces. We rarely have a chance to just see other women naked — to see bodies that look like ours.
As I continue to visit the sauna, I grow increasingly empowered and comfortable in my own skin. I feel better about my body, not because I think mine is “better” than other women’s, but because I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for how beautifully diverse and unique all our bodies are. There is no such thing as a “perfect” or even “normal” body. And those things that we’re told are flaws and spend our whole lives hating? They’re not flaws at all. They’re just part of most women’s healthy bodies and visual reminders of the wonderful things our bodies are capable of. I have, rationally, always known this (good little women’s studies major that I am), but seeing and experiencing this diversity over and over again in the sauna reifies it in a completely new way. It provides a critical — and previously missing — foil for me to the picture-perfect, photoshopped images of women’s bodies I see everywhere else.
The sauna also provides a safe, woman-only space where there’s no male gaze, no sexualization, and no criticism. It’s a depressingly rare opportunity to be in a space where my body isn’t considered sexually distracting or potentially "offensive," where I don’t have to constantly negotiate that impossible balance between being told that I'm "too sexy" and "not sexy enough." In the sauna, my body exists solely for me. The ritual isn’t about that exhausting, seemingly never-ending process of making yourself thinner or more beautiful or "better" in any way at all. It’s about coming together with other women to relax, enjoy, and feel fully present in the body we currently have.
Saunas are commonly lauded for their physical benefits, but these feminist implications of regular sauna time are rarely mentioned. Children in Finland (who grow up going to sauna with their parents, first as a family unit, and later in gender-segregated groups) constantly see other real, naked bodies. They grow up surrounded by women and men who are comfortable with nudity, and who don’t think of bodies as something shameful or something that should always be carefully concealed. While I haven’t found any studies that directly link Finnish sauna culture and body image, I would suggest that it does have an impact — and I would not be surprised if this level of comfort with bodies contributes to Finland’s very low eating disorder rates. Only about two percent of Finnish women deal with eating disorders (for comparison, around ten percent of women in the United States do — one of the highest rates in the world).
We all deserve to know that our bodies are beautiful. The images we see and compare ourselves to in the media simply aren’t real – they’re just smoke and mirrors. While once terrifying, my trip to the sauna has now become my most cherished weekly ritual. All those women who share it with me remind me that no body is perfect and every body is perfect. Just the way they are.
Images: Shannon Hill