Spa nudity: Are we just that modest, ashamed of our body, or is it something else?

Avianca and I visited Burke Williams about two weeks ago to celebrate my birthday and for much needed R&R. As we walked to our lockers, we encountered two fully exposed women changing into their clothes. Nothing odd about that…. After all, we are in the women’s spa area. We proceeded to our lockers to change our clothes by removing our outer garments, immediately placing on a robe, and then removing our bra and panties. We tightly closed our robes and walked over to the waiting area for our masseuse.

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Photo credit: Diva Scribe

My 50 minute Burke Williams Massage was excellent! It definitely reminded me of how important it is to make time to take care of your mind, body, and spirit. I really wished that I could have purchased the 80 minute massage, but anyway I digress… I returned to the women’s area to search for my sister after my massage. Not finding her, I decided to take a shower so I can enjoy the other amenities of the facility. I tried to find her again after showering. I noticed a younger female, that I initially thought was Avianca, near the locker area. I realized it wasn’t her, but I instantly picked up on one thing about this young woman; her apparent unease about changing in an open area.   Her swift movements to cover up as quickly as she could were awkwardly familiar, but I hurried along not fully formulating my thoughts.

Still not finding my sister, I made my way to the sauna. I thought the sauna was empty so I reveled in the idea of being alone in my thoughts and even considered removing my towel while I was in the sauna. I opened the door only to see a naked woman lying on the floor with her legs propped up on the wall. Excuse me, I thought as I scurried past her and sat at the top landing tightly pulling my towel around me.  Moments later, I noticed the same young female from the locker area outside the sauna. She had a towel wrapped around her and it appeared that she also had on either her under garments or a bathing suit. She looked as if she was trying to decide where to go next. Interestingly, I pretty much predicted what would happen in the next few minutes. The young lady decided to come into the sauna, because from her viewpoint, I was the only person in the room; however, as soon as she opened the door, she also noticed the naked woman lying on the floor. She quickly turned around and walked out.

It was after this observation in the sauna that I began to think about my past experiences and cultural differences I’ve noticed around spa nudity. I’ve been to the day spa numerous times either by myself or with friends/family for various reasons. Based on my experiences, it seems that Caucasian women tend to be more comfortable with being naked while women of color, particularly African-American women, are not. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every Caucasian woman walks around as free as the day they were born or conversely every woman of color spends their spa time covered up like a complete shrewd. Additionally, research shows that Americans generally have more conservative views around nudity; and therefore, are more modest about being so in a spa setting  when compared to other countries.  However, over the years and as I witnessed that day, I’ve noted this “modesty phenomenon” more so with minority women. The lingering question percolating in my mind, especially as we are reflecting on self appreciation and love for our bodies this week, is why is this the case?

I thought about this further as I reflected on my most recent actions in the spa prior to my massage. My sister and I didn’t leisurely take off all our clothes and then put on our robes. To avoid full disclosure, we removed our undergarments only AFTER the robe was in place. In essence, our behavior was very similar to the other African-American female which is why I could identify it so quickly. Even after the massage, I considered removing my towel once in the sauna, but changed my mind once I saw the naked woman lying on the floor. Why did I change my mind? She wasn’t paying attention to me nor was I paying any more attention to her than I needed to ensure that I didn’t trip over her while walking to where I wanted to sit.

My sister and I talked about it once I finally found her in the steam room. Why are we, as African-American women, modest about our body? Is it just a L.A. or West Coast thing? Are we ashamed? Are there underlying ramifications from historical injustices that have been passed along through generations thus making us generally more modest and uncomfortable with nudity? Did our moms tell us it wasn’t hygienic to walk around the spa or use its amenities while naked?  Are we concerned about what other women may think about us being naked (although they are naked too)? Are we so victimized by objectification and sexualization that we have internalized this to be modest about our bodies even when we are in a relatively safe space away from that level of scrutiny?

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Photo Credit: Kevin “Wak” Williams

We couldn’t come up with a definitive answer as maybe it could be none of those reasons or a little bit of all of them. It was at that point I felt liberated by our conversation so I removed my towel while in the steam room. This actually wasn’t a major stand given that the only person in the room has seen me naked throughout the years anyway (lol). I will say that I was a little less conservative in my approach to changing back into my clothes. Maybe next time, I’ll forego the towel when entering the sauna or steam room regardless of who is in the room.

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