If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
“You know it’s fully nude, right?” the woman behind the ticket counter asked. “And co-ed?”
“Yes,” we said, sliding the bills across the counter. Thirty-five Euros for a three-and-a-half hour bath and brush massage at Friedrichsbad, the famous bathhouse in Baden-Baden, Germany. The woman opened the till. Tom put his arm on the desk and leaned in. “Do people ever leave when you tell them that?”
One of the bathhouse’s managers standing nearby overheard the question and told us that people often do leave when they’re told the nudity is mandatory. Not everybody’s comfortable naked. As Tom and I walked toward the locker room, we passed a middle-aged French man with what appeared to be his three 20-something children (two boys and a girl). The four of them seemed to be having second thoughts. They huddled around the manager, whispering questions. The girl, in particular, looked anxious.
Like the French family, I was a little nervous. I’m an American, and therefore by definition pretty uptight about nudity. In the U.S., we will lock you up for streaking, and this sort of co-ed bathing just doesn’t happen back home. It comforted me that some French people, who I would normally assume to be more easygoing than Americans when it came to the naked human form, appeared so frightened. But as I disrobed and tried to prepare—mentally, physically, spiritually—for the rest of the afternoon, it occurred to me that I might look just as uneasy as the French. I figured, absent clothes, the only way to really draw attention to oneself in a place like Friedrichsbad is to appear obviously uncomfortable. I needed to stay calm.
Before I stepped out of the locker room, I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and slung my towel over my shoulder. I’d heard stories of Friedrichsbad’s bathing attendants snatching towels off of frightened Americans, and I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction. If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
BADEN-BADEN HAS A very James Bond feel, in that it reeks of wealth, is full of upper-class Russians, and sits in the foothills of an area in Germany called the Black Forest. All the Bond-extra-types that fill the town’s streets come for the city’s spas and its famous casino. The Casino, as it’s called, is the type of gambling establishment where the patrons wear tuxedos and ball gowns. (It’s also the setting of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.) Walking around town, seeing display cases full of gold Fabergé eggs and streets lined with Ferraris, you get the sense that extravagance has deep roots here. Mark Twain visited in the late 1870s, noting, “It is an inane town, filled with sham, and petty fraud, and snobbery, but the baths are good.”
Friedrichsbad, the city’s fully-nude, completely co-ed, 17-stage, thermal-powered bathhouse, was built in 1877 and has stood as an emblem to all that is high-class and naked ever since. The building sits up a small flight of stairs from Baden-Baden’s old town, right on top of a thermal hot spring. Its façade is all stone, and like all neoclassical buildings, Friedrichsbad gives an impression of vague importance. And as far as bathhouses go, it is important. Friedrichsbad is one of the landmarks for Germany’s free body culture or Freikörperkultur—FKK for short. (Link is not safe for work.)
The FKK movement began in the late 1800s, arguably as a kind of reaction to the griminess of the industrial revolution. If industry was the manifestation of human impurity, with all that soot and heat, being in the forest, naked, was about as far to the opposite end of the spectrum as you could get. For the last hundred years, Germany’s nudists have succeeded in relaxing societal opposition to public nudity—and the laws governing it— to the point where public nudity is almost a non-issue today. (By comparison, even in San Francisco, the U.S.’s most liberal city, it is still very much a big issue).
Today, you can find FKK clubs from the Alps to the Baltic and everywhere in between. The Internet is awash in FKK fan sites (NSFW, again) and forums, and it’s not difficult to find extensive maps (yep, NSFW) of places in the country where showing a little skin is the norm. Even some of Germany’s most prominent tourist locations, like Munich’s English Gardens, have been taken over by nudists.
THE FIRST STEP IN the Friedrichsbad bathhouse experience is to shower (stage 1). Then you put on some sandals and head into the saunas (stages 2 and 3), where the floors are too hot for bare feet. From there, you can follow signs directing you toward each subsequent stage, or you can just wander around the steam rooms, pools, and saunas because you’re naked and no one is going to tell you what to do.
Tom and I spent about 15 minutes in each of the two sauna rooms—one 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit), the other 68 degrees Celsius (154 degrees Fahrenheit)—sipping water from a nearby fountain when dehydration loomed. Both rooms were tiled from floor to ceiling and smelled of chamomile, which I later found in a small metal box hanging from the ceiling. The box looked like a tiny, silver birdhouse, which I thought at first was an ornamental pull-chain for the lights. Only half of the 15-odd cruise ship-style recliners and chairs were occupied in the 54-degree room, and I lay down near a sprawled, middle-age woman who looked up at us with the one-eyed glance of a dozing cat.
We sat and sweat. Bathers came and went.
I didn’t have a notepad, on account of the moisture and nowhere to, uh, put it. After sitting for a while, looking around, I realized my intense interest in my surroundings—my mental note-taking—might be freaking people out. It’s not that I spent three-and-a-half hours ogling the other customers. (Although you should know, reader, that I felt ogled at times.) But as I looked around, my gaze would inevitably fall upon the naked bodies of the other bathers—and, well, it got me thinking.
Throughout our lives, how often are we actually naked? Excluding showering and (for some) sleeping, it happens pretty seldom, right? I mean, the only other time we shed clothing is when we’re getting intimate. Try as we might, it becomes difficult to divorce intimacy from the act of being nude, and this coupling casts a certain strange, erotic shadow over the proceedings at a place like Friedrichsbad. Don’t get me wrong, there was no hanky-panky going on (and frankly, there’s not a place in Friedrichsbad where it could). I only mean that it creates a social situation that’s ripe for misinterpretation. Turning to look at a person when he or she enters a room becomes complicated because anything anybody does—those perfectly normal, friendly signals we give to one another all the time without even thinking—is re-routed through this erotic zone in our brain that has been activated by the absence of clothes and which we can’t really turn off. So a casual glance becomes a potential check-out. A friendly smile is now a creepy wink. That’s what it seemed like at first, anyway.
AS I WORKED MY way through the idea that the inside of the bathhouse came with a different social contract, it came time for my brush massage (stage 5). When my number was called, a middle-aged, bald masseur led me to his massage table and said something in German that I didn’t understand. I asked if he spoke English, and his response was “Face up, please.” For the next 10 minutes or so, he scrubbed my every pore, save the obvious. The guy was thorough. After he was done, I was finally able to fully relax. Nothing’s weird after you’ve been cleaned like a farm animal by someone who speaks another language.
Next, Tom and I hit the steam rooms, the first of which was near capacity. People shuffled around, stretched, and hosed themselves down with the cool water that was piped in along the walls of the two rooms. The seats in the steam rooms were like step pyramids, and at one point the couple seated on the step above me stood and began cupping the higher, warmer air in their hands and scooping it down onto one another. When they left, I stood up and tried it myself. It was like reaching up and grabbing handfuls of Mississippi summer.
The more time ticked by, the more ridiculous my initial angst over how to comport myself in the bathhouse seemed. Why should I feel eye contact with a stranger passing in the hallway was inappropriate just because we were both nude? Why was I feigning interest in the ornamental ceiling when a woman stood up and exited the Jacuzzi? After a while I couldn’t figure out what was weird and what was normal, and it took me the better part of an hour to realize there really wasn’t any different social contract in the bathhouse, just because everybody was naked. Everyone had signed on for this, and the same rules applied: just don’t stare.
After a while, considering the novelty of the situation, it almost felt wrong not to look around. Although I must confess: I saw some things I wish I could un-see. I encountered an old man whose butt looked like two globs of mud dripping down a wall. I watched an obese man with an apron-like belly displace an impressive amount of water in the warm, stage 9 bath, which had a filter that slurped and gurgled whenever someone waded in. At one point, Tom turned to me and remarked on the incredible effect pants have had on the shape of the human body. He had a point; everyone at Friedrichsbad looked like he or she wore an invisible belt.
IN FRIEDRICHSBAD’S PROMOTIONAL LITERATURE, the pools get the most photo space, especially the stage 11 “Thermal kinotherapeutic” domed bath, a circular, about-40-feet-in-diameter, three-feet-deep, exactly-28-degrees-Celsius (82.4 degrees Farenheit) pool located under the building’s central dome. The red-white-and-gold dome is molded with deep quadrilateral reliefs, which converge near its apex around a circular skylight. It’s quite a striking place, especially when compared to some of the other rooms, which have little ornament on account of the steam. The domed room is also the place where Friedrichsbad’s two wings meet and one of the bathhouse’s two permanent co-ed areas. (During “separate bathing” days, the two wings are segregated by sex, but the central dome and an adjacent, warmer pool remain co-ed. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays, and bank holidays—we were there on a Sunday—Friedrichsbad is 100 percent co-ed, and, male or female, you’re free to wander as you please.)
Tom and I had floated around in the pools for about a half-hour when the French family we’d seen in the lobby entered the pool area. The four had been tense when we’d seen them earlier. Now they were naked and couldn’t hide their fear as they tiptoed quickly through the pool area and then back into the wing from which they’d come. As they scurried, they covered themselves—hands over crotch and across chest—as though someone had just yanked back a shower curtain on the whole family.
For the first time that day, I saw heads turn. Some people frowned in disapproval. It looked like I was right: the most assured way to attract attention in a bathhouse is to show fear. I empathized with the French family, who seemed to be having a genuinely terrible experience. For some, public nudity is just a non-starter.
I lay back on a large, almost full-body jet, and as bathers around me came and went, I began to float. It was nice—the warm water, the weightlessness, the bubbles. I closed my eyes, let my head sink underwater, and thanked God I had the good sense to not bring my parents to Friedrichsbad.