Monday, February 13, 2017

Body Positivity

One of our neighbors and good friends at home in Minnesota is a therapist and dancer who talks about body positivity frequently.  I love what she has to say about embracing who you are and loving yourself.  I've always appreciated her perspective on this, but Finland has made me confront this issue head on.

My first experience surrounding this issue was when my advisor, Sanna,  invited us to her house for "dinner and sauna."  For those of you that don't know, sauna is a HUGE part of Finnish culture.  Huge. Dinner and sauna is a very traditional way to spend Saturday evening. Anecdotally, people say that all of Finland shuts down on Saturday nights for sauna. We had been warned that Finn's like to sauna naked.  So of course, being the good American that I am, I asked, "should we bring our swimsuits?" which Sanna laughed hysterically and responded with a big smile, "No swimsuits!  You can wear a towel if you want to, but we won't be wearing any."  She then went on to explain that men and women always sauna separately.  First the women and children go in, then the women get the kids all showered up, yell upstairs to the men to come dress the kids, grab a beer, and go back in the sauna for "peace and quiet."  Then when the women are done, the men get their turn alone in the sauna.

I was so excited to go to her house and experience this tradition, but I was also kind of nervous.  We had a lovely dinner, and then it was time for sauna.  Just like she had told me, she and I went downstairs with the four little girls.  I was definitely keeping one step behind everyone so that I could follow procedures appropriately.  But the second we stepped into the dressing room, all four little girls started stripping without hesitation.  For those of you that know my daughters, this is not surprising.  It was surprising to me that her daughters seemed to not care one bit that there was a new adult in the room with them.  Then Sanna started I decided I had better follow suit.  And here's where things changed immediately for me.  No one in the room (besides me) was being weird about it, so it was instantly not weird.  They have an incredible sauna "complex" that includes a dressing room, and large "wet room" with multiple shower heads, and the sauna - it's amazing!We took our pre-sauna shower and then headed into the sauna.  I couldn't believe how relaxed I felt being nude in such close proximity to these new friends that I barely knew.  And I attribute the relaxed feeling to the fact that I was surrounded by five other people who thought nothing of it.  It's that simple.

Jerod and I had a conversation that went something like this after our sauna experience:

Me: "I can't imagine being naked with my colleagues at home.  That would be so weird."
Jerod: "Well, you pretty much have been.  We've been swimming with some of them."
Me: "But that's different. They had swimsuits on."
Jerod: "Just bikinis."
Me: "But that's still different."
Jerod:  "Yeah, it is.  But not really."
Me:  "You're right."

A few side notes about going to saunna:  After we got the girls showered and went back in for our adult sauna, I was asking lots of questions about the tradition of sauna.  I asked about ice swimming. Sanna said she didn't typically do that, but she has and she described it as magical.  To give me a taste of what that feels like, we stood outside for a few minutes.  It felt GREAT!  I was surprised how good it felt to stand outside with my whole body soaking wet, with only a towel on in the freezing cold.  It didn't feel cold because our bodies were so hot from the sauna.  And it was really cool to see the steam rising off of us.  I'd also heard about the tradition of hitting one's self on the back with birch sticks . It has always sounded rather masochistic, but she described it in a very different light.  This is something that is only done in the spring when the branches are young and soft.  They tie a bundle of long, soft twigs together and then soak them in water until they are really soft.  Then they sort of fling the bundle of soaking branches over their shoulders and it thwacks their back.  She said it feels heavenly - kind of like a towel, or a massage.  I hope I get to try it before we leave.  Another thing I learned that I thought was interesting was that historically many political decisions were made in the sauna - particularly between Russia and Finland.  But if you'll remember, men and women don't sauna together, so this was an issue.  It meant that women were left out of the decision making process.  I guess that doesn't happen anymore.

Back to body positivity.  The next place where I encountered this comfort with bodies and nudity was at the swimming pool in town.  In America, my experience in locker rooms is that most people walk around covered up with their towels, except for those few weird old ladies that are totally cool exposing themselves.  Not so in Finland . Everyone is naked.  Everyone.  Different ages, different sizes, different body types, different amounts and lengths of hair in various places - none of it seems to matter.  You know those signs in locker rooms about showering before entering the pool?  And you know how in America most of us ignore them, or at best, we splash a few drops of water on us?  Also not so in Finland.  People shower with soap and THEN put on their swimsuits . Then they do it all over again when they are done swimming.  All of this to say, there's lots of naked time in those locker rooms, and everyone is completely chill about it. It is so different to me.  It is good though!

I can't say for sure that this next part is true, but I do think all of this seems to translate into a comfort level with bodies in the rest of society.  I have noticed people seeming more comfortable wearing clothing that is typically reserved for skinny people in America.

Why are we so weird about our bodies in the US?   Why is it okay to be basically naked as long as we cover up the parts of us that have hair or slightly darker skin?  Why are we so obsessed with bodies, but at the same time shame people for showing them?  And why does everything around this feel so sexualized in America?  It doesn't have to be that way.  There are still limits here - unless you are with your immediate family, men and women stay separate.  But beyond that, it's just your body, and it is no big deal.  There is no need to hide it or feel ashamed of it.  That's definitely an ideal that I would like to take back home with me.  So consider this your warning if you ever get invited over to our house for "dinner and sauna!" ;-)


  1. This makes me smile a lot that you're experiencing this part of Finish culture. We have finish friends here in Saint Paul and I remember my first sauna experience being exactly as you described, and now I love sauna social hour so so much. I remember thinking 'would I feel comfortable doing this with my other friends' and I think I said yes but as you said, I think the comfort comes when the others are comfortable or not weird as well. I can't wait to visit.

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