Earlier this year, my friend and I planned a road trip across the Bavarian Alps. The itinerary was pages-long, and we decided that after a few days spent navigating the infamous German Autobahn, a little relaxation would be necessary. I can’t say she didn’t warn me about Friedrichsbad, a renowned bath house in the spa town of Baden-Baden, but apparently there’s a part of my brain that just kind of Zens-out upon hearing words like “ancient thermal baths” and “dry brush massages,” so the “totally naked” side-note didn’t sink in. Little did I know that several months later, it would sink in—right as I was literally sinking (fully exposed) in an ice-cold pool with men who were as old as they were nude (which is to say, very).
After spending a night in Heidelberg drinking heavy hefeweizens and downing plates of cheese-soaked spätzle, we hit the road and arrived at Hotel am Markt late afternoon. Suddenly aware that despite having just consumed our weight in German carbs, we would soon be hoisting our unclothed bodies into thermal pools. While debating what we should wear to eventually disrobe, my friend and I split a lager that we found in our hotel lounge, paid for only on the honor system (3 Euros, in case you were wondering; those Germans sure are efficient). Sharing that beer was the biggest mistake I made the whole trip. Looking back, we should have had two apiece. At least. Nerves were setting in—I hadn’t shaved my legs (or any other part of my body) in a week—and a beer belly was the least of my worries. Eventually, we put on leggings and t-shirts, which didn’t matter because they were coming off in a few minutes anyway, and then we walked a few cobblestone blocks to the spa.
Friedrichsbad is majestic, like an ancient Roman castle—if ancient Roman castles smelled like incense and crawled with nude people (and who knows, maybe they did!). After checking in, we were given wristbands, lockers, and towels, and we immediately surrendered our clothes. At 27, I’ve never been naked in a locker room in my whole life. I’ve changed in gyms only a handful of times, and each time, I’ve tried very hard to seem unfazed by the casual nakedness of the women who just don’t give a fuck. I give a fuck. So much so that I wrapped the towel around my waist, carefully removed my leggings, took my shirt off, then shimmied the towel up, modesty fully intact like a 15-year-old changing clothes before p.e. class. I can do this, I thought.
And then I walked around the corner.
This particular Roman-Irish bath house is based on the concept that there are 17 stages of well-being: shower, warm air, hot air, shower, massage, shower, steam, hot steam, full bath, whirlpool bath, exercise bath, shower, cold bath, towel down, cream application, relaxation, reading, and an eventual return to being a fully-clothed human again (that last stage is my own addition—and also my personal favorite).
In the first stage, you give up the towel you’ve been safely wrapped up in for a few minutes and shower with half a dozen other women in an open room. Fortunately, the water pressure was so distractingly incredible—like a steaming waterfall!—that I instantly forgot my surroundings and was just happy not to be in my own Brooklyn bathtub that has more of a lukewarm drizzle (even if I don’t have to compete with other women for shower heads at home).
The second and third rooms were piping hot saunas, and they felt so good that I didn’t think twice before sprawling out on the lounge chairs and didn’t care that there were two gray-haired women blissfully unaware of the body parts society expects to be bare these days right next to me. My friend and I didn’t deliberately try to stay together, but because we started at the same time, we were on the same timetable. It was nice to have someone go through the steps with. Even though we couldn’t really talk, “Wait, so now we have to plunge into this small body of water with 50 naked women?” is a pretty easy-to-read facial expression.
Midway through, right about the time I was beginning to feel relaxed and comfortable, I could see into the next room with the next pool...and it was filled with men. Very, very naked men. We hung back longer than necessary, but eventually, we had to face the inevitable. So we pulled ourselves out of the water and kept going. I’ve never been the new kid in school, but stepping into that room is exactly what I imagine it feels like—all eyes on you, except instead of prepubescent kids with pimples, it was middle-aged men with paunches. And I was naked.
The water was freezing, but we jumped in anyway. Then we realized we were in the wrong pool. So we had to get our naked butts out of the water and move to the next one, which was a very shallow reservoir, and also unisex. There were at least twelve men and—for reasons that still baffle me—no women. My friend sat down, and instead of sitting right next to her like a sensible and sane person, I got nervous and did a full-on dive over her even though it was two-feet deep, max, and the last place in the world you should do a dive. It happened so quickly. I’m not sure how I didn’t die either from head trauma or intense mortification. I had to go underwater to keep from laughing the kind of nervous, hysterical laughter that creeps up at the least appropriate times (church baptisms, college presentations, job interviews, and apparently, naked spas in Germany). No one else looked amused.
We stayed in the pool longer than the suggested 20 minutes in hopes that all of the men would leave first. But they did not, and we were eventually ready to face the embarrassment that a dozen-and-a-half dudes were about to see our bare asses climb out of a pool. Our embarrassment was presumably nothing compared to theirs—because that next pool, also coed, was ice-cold.
The rest of the three hours were a blur of pruney toes, relaxing pools, and warm towels. When all was said and done, my skin felt softer (curative spring water naturally infused with minerals like lithium, cesium, silica, boric acid, sodium chloride, and magnesium is no joke), and I felt pretty euphoric. Like anyone who has a lifelong habit of comparing herself to other women—specifically other women who look like Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss—I don’t always have the best body image. I don’t love being naked, but spending an extended amount of time surrounded by women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and levels of hairlessness made me feel better about my body than I have in my life—but not because my body’s better than anyone else’s. It's because we all look totally different and also exactly the same. Following a visit to Friedrichsbad, Mark Twain supposedly said, “After 10 minutes you forget time; after 20 minutes, the world.” I’m not sure I totally agree with Twain, but you certainly forget your worries—especially the worry about what your body looks like. Except, maybe, if you’re a dude jumping into an ice-cold pool in front of a bunch of women.
Casey Lewis is a Brooklyn-based writer, currently searching for the perfect volumizing product that'll make hair satisfyingly big but not frizzy. Suggestions are welcome. Photos courtesy of Hotel am Markt. For more, read about what it's like to experience a Japanese onsen.