A Nudist Spa Changed My Relationship with My Body and Chronic Illness

an empty pool at a nudist spa
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Last year I went to a spa in Northern Italy with my husband. It was my 30th birthday and we wanted to celebrate with a romantic getaway. But it became so much more, thanks to the Alto Adige tradition of nudist spas. 

I suffer from several chronic illnesses and as a consequence, have a weird relationship with my body. I’ve always known it’s not the perfect, beautiful, Mediterranean body that makes a person’s head spin when I enter a room. My face is also quite plain, except for an oversized nose. But its ugliness wasn’t my body’s most violent crime. 

Being constantly stuffed with medications, hormones and supplements, my body doesn’t function “properly” nor appear “healthy.” Functioning and healthy-looking: I always had the notions mixed up in my mind, and honestly hadn’t given much thought to my assumptions. I’m unhealthy, my body looks unhealthy, and I’m not beautiful. It is what it is. 

My mom, grandma, sister, and husband told me it didn’t matter. I was, after all, a college-educated woman with a lifetime of wonderful experiences and an enriched cultural background. I had a wonderful marriage and a magnificent job. 

Still, there was something wrong. I felt it every time I went to the beach, every time I compared myself to other, more beautiful creatures. 

It wasn’t something people said (although sometimes they did say hurtful things). Beyond a stranger’s gaze, and sometimes beyond a relative’s or a friend’s as well, I saw myself reflected as an ugly, unlovable creature. It was a creeping, guilty feeling that there was some error in my supposed lack of beauty. 

I couldn’t do anything about it. Until I went to that spa.

I always felt better about my body during the winter: my bad foot hidden under socks and boots; my bloated belly securely protected by sweaters; my hair, skin and nails concealed by layers of clothes. I was safe until the next summer. 

Then came that fateful trip 30th birthday trip. It was March, the winter season fading in the Italian Alps. My husband and I were heading to a luxury resort when he casually mentioned that in our destination region within Northern Italy, spas are nudist. I mean literally. It’s not a choice, it’s a tradition, and also a hygienic concept: you go there to cleanse your body. Therefore, you can’t wear a synthetic acrylic swimsuit. 

When we entered the spa, it was almost empty because snow was beginning to melt and Italian mountain resorts were closing. Slowly I started shedding my layers. Cap, scarf, sweater, jeans, socks. At last, the swimsuit. I was naked in a strange environment where people could enter any time. 

I looked around and then took a look at myself. Deeply, and for a long time. My breasts were small and pale; my stomach bulging and soft, my bad foot completely revealed. I hadn’t even shaved properly! It was disgusting at first sight. I wanted to scream, to run away, to cover my un-feminine, un-beautiful parts. 

Then the healing hay steam from the hammam took me in. I started breathing. Meditation helped me in those first crucial moments. Breathe in, breathe out. Look at yourself. Look at your husband, how lovingly he looks back at you. He is not perfect either, and you love him with your whole heart. Why don’t you do the same with yourself? 

Sweat trickling down my pale skin, I started thinking of all the beautiful things my body can do. It gives me and my loved one pleasure. It helps me walk, work, travel, live. Although not without difficulties, it does function. It is the main reason why I feel my muscles relaxing, my skin glowing in this weird place, my senses taking everything in. 

I decided then that I should, and would, love it from now on. It was giving me a sense of peace, after all that pain. It was loving me, even though I never loved it properly before.

We repeated this rest and relaxation experience last summer. Same geographical area, same rules: no swimsuit allowed. Except this time, it was peak vacation season and people were everywhere. In luxury hotels as well as thermal baths, there were people in every pool, in every sauna, in every steam bath. They were all completely naked. 

At first, I felt the same urge to run away and get a towel, a swimsuit, or even a blanket: anything to cover myself. But my husband wanted relaxation and a complete cleansing experience, and he was going to do it with or without me. At the end of the day, I wanted the same thing. So, reluctantly, I went inside the first sauna. It was weird, yes, but in a sense also liberating. Again, I felt my body truly, completely benefitting from steam baths and thermal pools. I also felt less awkward than I thought. 

People were relaxing, minding their business, reading their books, chatting with their friends or partners (no kids nor cell phones allowed). No one was looking at me, and certainly not in the same way I felt scrutinized when I was fully clothed. It was a change of scenario I couldn’t expect. All of my body’s ugly, weird, non-conforming details were actually…nice. Seen in the low light of the spa or the bright sunlight of the solarium, it was beautiful. I felt beautiful. 

Most of all, I felt like my beauty was nobody’s business. 

Learning to love one’s body is a societal issue. We likely all have experienced a difficult relationship with our appearances, one way or another. But what can we do to overcome these feelings, especially if we can’t go to a luxury spa every day? How can we achieve that same level of self-awareness and self-love without a trip to Northern Italy? 

Maybe the bigger question is: Why do we need a special occasion to fall in love with our bodies? 

Well, we don’t. We can just do it at home, by looking at ourselves the same way we look at others. Do we criticize them? Why? Could we be more gentle with others and ourselves, too? Look around. Even your most beloved person has flaws and blemishes. Do you love them less for it? Certainly not, so why do you put yourself through this torture? Maybe because the patriarchy taught you so. One must suffer to be beautiful, they say. And one must suffer the consequences of not being so, too. 

I recently re-read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, the feminist classic about the politics of beauty standards and the impossible level of perfection expected of women. The first time around, I couldn’t even finish it. It felt too personal, too raw. I almost felt like some things the author criticized were actually right. Yes, you shouldn’t go around with exposed wobbly legs or a soft stomach—I so, so wrongly thought. 

With this new reading, and thanks to a new Italian edition and translation, I understood. 

It’s never been my body nor my illness, or anyone else’s. It’s society’s ways of constantly undermining women. Men, especially cis men, rarely feel weird about their body. I mean, some of them do, but it’s not a political or societal imposition like it is for women and non-binary people. I thought about so many girls and women running away from the nudist spas, like I would have done if it weren’t for my husband’s stubbornness. I thought about women covering themselves, even after sex, even in front of their partners. I hope they are ok. I hope they stop running away from their bodies and especially other people’s perception of their bodies. 

Let me tell you, when we are all naked, we are all vulnerable. We are all beautiful. 

Giovanna Errore
Giovanna Errore is an Italian writer. Born in Sicily, living in Northern Italy with her husband. With a bachelor degree in Foreign Languages and a Master Degree in Fashion Communication and Journalism, she loves literature, cinema, fashion and pop culture. She works as a copywriter in the all-female Italian SEO agency Quindo. She also writes on her own blog www.sbirillablog.it.