Every other faucet in the shower room had already been taken by the time I arrived. Under each, a slim, long-legged woman rinsed off beneath the steaming water which, in Iceland, comes in only two temperatures: frigid or scalding.
As a rule, I try to avoid public nudity, but if you’re traveling in Iceland, and want to enjoy the country’s plentiful hot baths, a little bit — or a lot — of stripping down is required. The actual pool facilities require swimwear; but pre-swim showers, completely in the buff, are first mandatory.
And not just any showers, either. The women’s shower at the Sundhollin pool in downtown Reykjavik consisted of only one L-shaped basin with no stalls, no curtains: just a row of faucets spaced about every two feet. It was exactly like the shower in the dungeon of the girls’ locker room back in my high school — except there, no one ever took a shower after gym class. The fear of stripping completely in front of one’s peers was far worse than going a bit stinky to Algebra.
There were no hooks in the vicinity of the showers so I left my towel on a plastic chair and shuffled across the slick linoleum to one of the open faucets. I kept my eyes fixed in a death stare at the wall as I fiddled with the levers. The water came out first frigid, then scalding. It was impossible to stand facing the wall without it dripping into my eyes. Cautiously, I turned around, my eyes carefully fixed on the floor.
I think it’s safe to say that many women, especially American women, feel uneasy being naked in front of complete strangers, even when those strangers are other naked women. Put me in an open shower and my prudish American will come out, silently cursing the lack of stalls and curtains. (How hard is it, really, to put up some damn dividers?)
By contrast, the Icelandic women looked … well, bored. They moved with more assurance than I did, gliding gracefully across the tiles with straight backs and confident strides. No one hunched over, tried to make herself small or hide any goddess-given asset. They didn’t bother standing still as statues under the water as I did, hoping to disappear. They spun around freely to wash fronts and backs. They raised arms to shampoo, leaving breasts exposed and nipples free to peek about the room.
As a woman, I’ve been trained to judge myself in comparison to others. It didn’t help that all the women surrounding me were somehow, ridiculously, the conventional models of feminine beauty. They were all thin. Although not exactly tall, their legs were all impossibly long. They had flat stomachs and small, neat breasts that could rest easily within one’s palm. They had no bulges, no cellulite. And they were all smoothly waxed, their bare pubic bones shining as pale as their breasts.
But therein lies the other reason behind the anxiety swirling in my own gut. I wasn’t just another woman: I was a lesbian. Part of me might have been self-conscious but a larger part of me had her curiosity seriously piqued. But rather than feel that I had fallen into some lesbian version of Candyland, my attraction to the women around me reminded me that my sexuality likely marked me as an outsider.
True, any of the other women around me could have also identified as queer. Statistically speaking, however, it’s likelier that most of them were straight.
When I was growing up, I felt different from the other girls. I was too clingy, too attached, too desperate for female friendship. Eventually, the friend — whoever she was — would grow tired of me. I’d be left to mope, with a sneaking suspicion which I’d somehow internalized. I couldn’t be trusted around other girls.
Now that I’m out, this feeling hasn’t gone away. I might live in a world that’s far more accepting of same-sex love than the one I grew up in, but I am still guarded when pursuing female friendship, especially when the woman in question is straight. I still hesitate when mentioning my wife in the presence of new company, for fear of how someone — especially another woman — might react.
That self-consciousness is magnified when I’m naked in a shower with other women — not that this happens all that often. Before Iceland, I’d run into this problem while hiking in Japan, a country where volcanic activity makes hot, communal baths the relative norm, especially in rural guesthouses. The baths are small, intimate pools that are conducive to friendly conversation among strangers. On the occasion I encountered someone who spoke English, and she asked me about a husband/boyfriend, I slipped back into the uncomfortable lie: Yes, I had a boyfriend, whose name — if asked that — was just a few letters off from my now-wife’s name. I hated to lie, but admitting I was gay in front of another naked woman felt even less comfortable. Would she grow quiet, or stammer awkwardly something about a gay cousin? Would she instinctively cover her breasts with an arm? Would her action, whatever it be, and without her intending it to, make me feel like some leering monster, prowling for her next meal?
I didn’t have to worry about conversation in the Icelandic shower, whose purpose was more functional. Not a lot of chit-chat happened under the faucets. But if anything, the lack of personal connection amplified my fears: without the semi-awkward small talk, or locals asking me how I was enjoying Reykjavik, I had nothing to focus my attention away from the women’s bodies, turning me into the leering monster I feared they feared I was.
Shame is a complex creature. No matter how we twist, it always has us in its claws. I wasn’t ashamed of my sexuality, but I was ashamed at my blatant objectification of the women around me. At the same time, I was also ashamed that I felt shame in this natural expression of my sexuality. What was so wrong with staring at other women?
What wasn’t wrong with staring at other women who have no choice but to be naked around you?
Sure, I was careful not to gawk like a 14-year-old boy at the first sign of bare breasts. I made sure my glances were quick, delivered side-eyed or when I twisted my head to rinse shampoo from my hair. I was not actually leering like a sleazy stranger you might pass on the street, hoping to either entice or intimidate you with his laser focus. But what made me different from a stealth peeping Tom, peeping through the curtains or a hole he’d drilled into a shower wall?
Plenty made me different. I wasn’t hiding, for starters. I was as exposed to the women around me as they were to me, as much part of the display as the observer. I hadn’t come in seeking sexual gratification. I wasn’t taking and sharing images of the women, nor would I brag to my bros about what I saw.
But for me, this is the dilemma of being a queer woman raised in what is still a patriarchal and heteronormative world: I’m painfully aware of how that world continues to define women of all sexual orientations and identities by how pleasing their bodies are, even as I recognize that I’m driven by the same attraction which inherently leads to the evaluation of those same bodies. I can’t just “check out” another woman without recognizing the implications behind my own gaze. And I can’t break down the implications of my gaze without wondering if I’m caving to internalized homophobia.
I finished my shower and slunk back to the safety of the changing room. I wrapped myself as quickly as I could into my towel and fumbled through my bag for my swimsuit. I wanted to get myself as quickly as I could into one of the super-heated hot pot pools and sweat the shame clogging my pores.
Without meaning to this time, I let my gaze fall onto a woman standing a few lockers down. She was completely naked, and in no hurry to dress, as she secured her shower-wet hair into a loose knot at the crown of her head. At the moment I looked her way, she turned in my direction.
It was the first, and only, time I made actual eye contact with someone in the locker room, and that someone made actual eye contact with me. While it didn’t absolve me of my guilt, it did, at least, make me feel less of a leering stranger. I see you, she seemed to say. The woman didn’t seem at all bothered by my gaze. She looked right at me as I looked at her, and then she smiled.