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The dreaded requirement of showering naked

There was a pretty interesting report the other day on RÚV about the thing that tourists to Iceland dread the most on coming here: having to get naked in the shower before entering any of our numerous swimming pools.

shower police

Here in Iceland we are so used to showering naked among strangers at the swimming pool that we think absolutely nothing of it. We’re brought up with it, and most of us have been doing so since before we can remember. And obviously the reasoning behind it is pretty basic – we want our pools, which most of us like to visit regularly, to be clean and to stay clean.

In the report, it was noted that every single bather can potentially bring one billion [!!!] bacteria with them into a pool. Also that the bacteria gradually becomes immune to the chlorine [which note bene Icelandic pools use very little of to begin with], so the more bacteria that gets into the water, the more chlorine is needed to keep it sanitary.

So you can see that scrubbing down before getting into the pool – including your private bits – is really very essential.

But as we all know, the practice of showering naked with strangers is really daunting to some of our foreign visitors. And, presumably, so is the strict enforcement by the shower police. Because if you don’t scrub down, and the shower police don’t happen to catch you because they’re looking the other way, the Icelanders will squeal on you. Bank on it.

The terrified tourist issue aside, there were a couple of things in the report that I found really fascinating, and that I hadn’t ever really thought about. Mainly this: that there are unwritten rules among Icelanders when it comes to shower etiquette. One is that you don’t talk to strangers when you’re naked. [Not always adhered to – I can think of several instances when I’ve had conversations with strangers in the shower while we were scrubbing.] Another is that you don’t look. You just don’t look at people when they’re washing themselves. Except maybe just a passing glance out of absolute necessity, like so that you don’t bump into them and knock them over. This is something I had never really articulated to myself, but it’s completely spot-on. It’s also something we’ve learned to do automatically – and it’s one of the few physical courtesies that we Icelanders show one another.

Anyway, if you are or have been a tourist in Iceland, you may want to have a gander at the video, even if it is mostly in Icelandic – if for no other reason than to hear other tourists relate their experiences of the naked shower dilemma. And incidentally, the title on the RÚV website is pretty telling: “Had never seen her girlfriends naked” … which probably tells you everything you need to know about how alien that concept is to us Nicelanders.

[The illustration above is from the hardback version of my Little Book of the Icelanders and is by Megan Herbert.]

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  • Chris November 5, 2013, 9:42 pm

    Sorry, but bacteria are not getting immune to chlorine – this is biologically impossible. The problems is that more germs are transferred into the water – either by more guests, not optimal cleaning conditions of the water or not properly cleaned bathing guests.
    BTW: This amount of bacteria on our outer surface is normal and important. In our inside we habour by far more bacteria.

  • tourist November 6, 2013, 12:49 am

    Sorry,but I think it is just not right to be nacked like that infront of people. I had this experience my self and I felt so embarassed!,I had to leave finally because I found it very strange to be……. exposed like that. chlorine has effect on bacteria no matter what, and any way….If it the rules or traditions are to be nacked ,at least a small booth will make a huge effect.
    Have to think of people who do not want to be nacked in public,or surounded by nacked people.
    A recent study showed that 82percent of child abusers target swiming pools!!!
    Another one shoewd that 85 percent of school bullying happens in swiming pool showers or gym.

  • Thomas November 6, 2013, 1:18 am

    Mr. Tourist,

    Can you be more specific? Is this % from Iceland (not really…) or from your own country?

    My opinion is that when kids grown up with their friends and the element of “being ashamed of being naked” goes away, they have a stronger relationship, as they don’t judge each other in terms of who is “handsome” in television standards, they experience the same body changes together and are being more honest between them.

    Plus, father and son (and mother and daughter) are going often together to the pool and that’s also build a closer relationship with your family.

    I don’t say that everything is perfect in Iceland but the above statistics, I don’t believe that apply in Iceland.

  • Icelander November 6, 2013, 2:34 am

    “Here in Iceland we are so used to showering naked among strangers at the swimming pool that we think absolutely nothing of it.”

    Actually, I’m Icelandic woman, born and raised here, and I feel self conscious about showering naked in front of strangers. I haven’t been to a public swimming pool in years.

    I didn’t mind when I was a kid, but after being sexually abused as a teenager (not in a pool, mind you), gaining and losing weight, having a child etc. I have body image issues and it essentially put an end to my swimming. So I can sympathize with the tourists.

    I loved it when I went to the Blue Lagoon and some of the shower stalls had curtains, presumably for shy tourists, and I used one even if I was a local. 🙂

  • Icelander November 6, 2013, 2:37 am

    I do think the statistics “tourist” quoted here are questionable, and would like to see a source. I would also like to see research (don’t know how it would be performed, maybe with volunteers) to certify that the showering we do before entering the pool actually makes a difference!

  • Heather November 6, 2013, 2:45 am

    Well who cares, some have more to show , some have less. But basically it is all the same, seen one, seen ’em all.
    It is not the showering naked that bothers me, it is that sometime one has to get out that lovely warm water, and whatever it is in the water, you can be sure, most likely only around 6 c or less when you get out. I have watched the people run like hell from the natural pools, not talking Blue Lagoon here, shivering, turning blue, trying to say h o ow gr e a t it I S
    Yeah sure it is;-)))))))))))

  • alda November 6, 2013, 10:10 am

    @Icelander – quite right, I should not group all Icelanders under one hat. I’m sure some people feel very differently, as you have now pointed out. So thanks for that.

  • Michael November 6, 2013, 11:37 am

    Ever since I was told that people – young and old – are also peeing in the pools I have come to prefer my hot pot and bathtub where one can even relax in the nude.
    Ps.: The Blue Lagoon is also taboo for me ever since it was turned into a tourist industrial complex and one has to make advance bookings.

  • Thomas November 6, 2013, 3:30 pm

    @Icelander – Totally understand your point too. Hope you are planning to go back of enjoying the swimming and the hot tub in Reykjavik, because the main swimming pool “laugardalslaug” has private change facilities and private showers too.

  • Jonathan November 6, 2013, 3:40 pm

    Well I travel to Iceland as often as I possibly can. From Australia. That’s because I fell head over heals in love with the most beautiful and amazing Icelandic woman. Really! I mean who wouldn’t? You should see her! It was love at first sight, no kidding. Didn’t even know she was Icelandic because we met in Switzerland at a conference. How cool is that?
    Oh yes, about the hot pools and showering naked. I get to visit hot pools often whether I like them or not, both the commercial ones and the natural ones in the middle of nowhere (you don’t have to shower first with these). I’ve learned that Icelanders like them very much. On my first visit I got told off by a big man in uniform because I didn’t shower for long enough. These guys have a 6th sense for non-natives. Water isn’t as plentiful here in Western Australia you see, being economical with it is a habit. Then the second time I forgot to leave my towel in the shower area before running outside through the snow and jumping into the pool. Then… well it’s a bit complicated, but you have to dry yourself after the shower you take when you come out. Only my towel was round the corner with my clothes. And the man wouldn’t let me leave the shower area to get my towel because I was wet and dripping. Quite sensible really. When I told my lover about this afterwards she laughed for 3 whole days. In the end I had to laugh as well. Your picture reminded me of the incident, except that I had no clothes on and he was fully dressed and very big.
    I don’t see a problem about being naked in public showers. There’s a good reason for it after all!

  • Dumdad November 7, 2013, 9:32 am

    Does that mean, after showering, that you swim in the pool completely naked? Otherwise, shouldn’t your bathing trunks or whatever also be scrutinised and cleaned?

  • Michael November 7, 2013, 11:35 am

    @Dumdad: Good question re. trunks – cleaned or not. But swimming nude!? No way, far to prude in the protestant tradition. Besides, trunk or nude people are likely to pee in the pool anyway.

  • Jen November 7, 2013, 12:54 pm

    I’m an American and had a wonderful experience visiting Iceland for the first time this past summer. I avoided the commercial swimming areas and choose to walk down to the local, community swimming pool not far from my apartment. Although I do understand some peoples need for privacy in the changing and showering areas I found the experience of showering naked in this venue to be quite freeing. It was refreshing to experience a culture of people who had no shame about their bodies and just went on about their business of preparing for a lovely swim and soak in the hot tubs.

  • Sanndy November 8, 2013, 2:21 am

    I was a new resident in Iceland and wonderfully enjoyed the free and natural way that people showered and moved about naked in front of others. I had some practice as I was athletic and used to showering in front of fellow players. I was also used to disrobing, though not fully naked, when we student physiotherapists practised techniques on each other. I think that I became more accepting of my imperfect body after seeing how everyone moved about unashamed no matter their age or physique.

    I also thought that it was a healthy way to raise children so that they too were not ashamed of their bodies and could also see the many shapes and sizes that people came in. I empathize however with the Icelander’s reluctance after being sexually assaulted.

    I have carried on the practice of showering naked in an open stall now that I am back in Canada although I feel very self conscious if little girls stare at me and try not to be naked when they are around. I know that they are not used to such sights. I’m waiting for someone to complain about a naked lady showering in the change rooms!!! This has made me feel more self-conscious again about my body.

    I also want to say that it may be an unwritten rule that Icelanders do not look at each other while naked, but I did. I have been studying human movement and fascinated about why and how people move the way they do since I was 10 years old and continue to do so as part of my profession. There wasn’t one body that I did not find beautiful.

    I must say that my children who were raised in Iceland have grown up with an unabashed freedom to be naked. I should also add that my mother did not like the practice when she visited us in Iceland so that the 2nd time she came, she did not bring her bathing suit so that she didn’t have to go through THAT again!! It is nice to have some stalls to accommodate those who do not feel comfortable with the Icelandic custom.

  • Maria November 8, 2013, 11:34 am

    As a kid growing up here, my elementary school swimming class taught us more than just the crawl and treading water. In the showers, we were exposed to all kinds of women’s bodies from an early age. Young bodies, old bodies. Fat bodies, thin bodies, firm bodies, droopy bodies. Bodies that had been through a C-section, even a mastectomy without reconstructive surgery. None of this was made a subject of discussion, either with teachers or amongst ourselves – but we absorbed it as part of the natural landscape of our society. To wit, as mean as little kids can be, I can’t recall a single occasion on which we emerged from swimming and discussed, let alone made fun, of anyone we had seen in the showers because of their body.

    Everyone’s story is different, of course, and your personal experiences and cultural background will always play a part in how you respond to such situations. Showering naked is no panacea, of course, to judgments and prejudices based on body image. But I think on the whole, it makes us a little less judgmental, a little more comfortable with the idea that there are all kinds of bodies out there. I, for one, am glad I grew up with a wider perspective on the nude human form than is provided by the advertising and movie industry.

  • Vick Sawe November 9, 2013, 6:01 am

    All these bathing rituals seem like an obsession with germs, people swim in the Ganges without showering before or after and no one gets hurt. Frankly, who cares is what I say. Also, I’ve never been in a country where people don’t get naked in the change rooms, why is this such a big deal?

  • Iceraven November 12, 2013, 7:53 am

    Come on guys! I bet you shower naked at your own home. And believe me, no one is looking at you when you shower naked here in Iceland. This is how it has been for 1141 (+/- 1) years so there for this is not an issue for us. So don´t worry about it and have fun showering naked in our Icelandic swimming pools 🙂

  • zet January 23, 2014, 4:18 am

    “I, for one, am glad I grew up with a wider perspective on the nude human form than is provided by the advertising and movie industry. ”

    Well said. That applies to myself too.
    I’m glad that I was not raised into shame of my own natural imperfect body or to judge others’ bodies. I’m glad that I understand the difference between nudity and sexuality.
    (There’s a link between the two, but no causality. )

    For the ones who feel distress about the common shower area / dressing rooms ;
    think about the others of your gender around you as your team.
    They’re exactly in the same situation as you are, and there’s this unspoken sense of trust between you. There’s no room for fear or judgement.
    Just relax and trust the others as they trust you.

    Don’t spoil the relaxed atmosphere by bringing awkwardness and tension into the space.
    You’re not at home and the same social rules don’t apply there.
    So respect the customs of the country you’re visiting.
    You might feel a bit awkward in the beginning, but do it anyway.
    It pays off. Trust me.

  • MLP January 26, 2014, 6:59 pm

    Well, I’m sorry that there is no freedom of choice of naked or not naked. I’m visiting Iceland next week for the first and probably only time of my life and I was looking forward to trying out the swimming baths, of which I have read many wonderful things.

    But you see, I am travelling with my teenage son, who is autistic and cannot bear to be naked. Even at home, he showers with his swim trunks on, even with the curtains drawn, it’s a sensory thing, plus he’s prudish to the extreme and gets embarrassed at the slightest sight of uncovered skin, so whilst I have no hang-ups at all about doing this, there is no way my boy will be able to cope with this.

    I wish there was a bit more understanding and acceptance of other people’s habits and feelings. It can’t be that hard to provide curtains for those who prefer privacy and communal for those who don’t mind either way, surely?

    Very disappointed.

  • Thomas January 26, 2014, 7:15 pm

    MLP,

    I am sorry your your case but please, can you provide us with more information, regarding your situation. In any pool, there is a lot of “uncovered” skin: girls where bikinis etc

    Is that something that bother your son and you can’t visit any swimming pool around the world? Or is nudity part?

    Laugardalslaug has private changing rooms and a private shower too, for people who don’t want to show their naked body. But you are going to see other people, being naked, including children (any age) and children with special needs too.

    You can also have a shower in your hotel, get prepared (swimming suits) and when you arrive in one of the swimming pools, please talk with the manager of the shift. Icelanders are very friendly and understanding. Explain you situation and you may positive surprised from their respond.
    -Thomas

  • Another Icelander March 17, 2014, 9:21 am

    Well I do happen to get very dry skin and very itchy if I go to a pool with lots of chlorine in it, it is hard on sensitive skin. And my eyes itch from it. Chlorine water also tastes disgustingly. Floating fat and skin dirt in the pool from other people’s private areas also totally disgusts me. But I love going to the pool, especially the hot tub. So, it is absolutely polite to wash thoroughly, also the hair and private parts, before entering a pool thank you. I think it is very impolite of people to crave that natives here either stop going to their pools, or swim in private part sweat and dirt, just because they can’t take a thorough shower.

  • Pearl March 17, 2014, 5:48 pm

    Folks, please… What is the issue all about? Everywere you go, there are rules. If you go to the zoo, you do not feed the animals, if you drive a car, you stop for a red light and if you go to an icelandic pool, you shower… naked. Or just don’t go to the pool, the choice is yours.