Text: Emanda Percival
My first visit to Iceland I cycled. It rained everyday, the wind was always against me; it was a difficult trip. What kept me from abandoning the bike and jumping in the next passing car were the endorphins of exercise, and hot pools; naturally heated water bubbling out of the ground captured by a municipal pool, river, or a concrete tub in the middle of nowhere. They soothed my cycling frustrations – muscular and mental - and entertained my nights.
Municipal pools in Iceland are like those anywhere in the world, large enclosures concreted over with a large rectangular hole in which to swim. Most of them are outside – I often swim in snow and fog – all of them are heated.
What Iceland’s pools have that the rest of the world doesn’t are hot tubs; one shallow for children, one about 38°C, one 40°C, and one a cold plunge pool. When people in Iceland say they are going to the pool, 90% of the time they mean they are going to the hot tubs.
In recent years a trend has started for constructing elegant hot pools surrounded by nature, such as Geosea and Vök Baths. They are more expensive than municipal tubs and there are no spa treatments on offer, other than shampoo and conditioner in the showers. But they offer a unique experience in outside bathing. Geosea in Husavik sits nestled next to the mustard-yellow lighthouse. Four consecutive pools perch on the cliff edge overlooking the fjord.
When I was last there the mountains opposite were obliterated by passing snowstorms and the gulls and kittiwakes were beginning to nest below the pools. I lounged in warm water, my chin resting on my arms watching the birds play with the wind, drawing the shapes of air currents with small flicks of their wings. Bird watching in luxury.
Like every hot pool in Iceland, Geosea requires communal showering before you put on your swimsuit; with everyone pre-washed the pools remain cleaner. Other than hygiene I have often thought this practice must have a positive effect on body image. Icelander’s strip, wash and go with the ease of common practice, while first time visitors clutch their towels around themselves, often stepping into the showers already suited - the only time you will ever see Icelandic people scowl at someone in the showers is when they come in pre-dressed.
My first communal shower I felt the skin prickling sensation of anxiety, many of my foreign friends had to actively talk themselves into it. As people from less Nordic, more prudish countries, we are raised with an innate sense that to expose our body is shameful. Displaying all of our imperfections: gravity, cellulite, fat, hair - the regular trappings of flesh - makes us tremble, as if nakedness is unnatural and we will be judged, or reveal ourselves as faulty.
Comparatively my Icelandic and Nordic friends have a deep-seated comfort and ease within their bodies, even if they might like a tweak here or there. Even Icelandic teenagers, experiencing those intense years where their bodies are moving from child to adult, tell me though they occasionally feel uncomfortable exposing themselves in the showers, it’s never enough to make them hesitate in doing so. These teenagers also notice the difference between their own discomfort and that of their foreign born friends who try to hide their bodies, rushing through the shower, conscious of every set of eyes not on them.
There is a positive for those us born into a culture of body shame. The more often we visit hot pools and communally shower, the less self-conscious of our bodies we become. Even those friends who have held the most self destructive sense of body shame report their shame diminishing the more they saw their body was just another body, none of which are photo shopped for daily life.
If there is a conclusion to this musing it is this; hot pools help make the Icelandic experience unique; whether you’re cycling or not. They’re a place to meet people and unwind. But they could also be giving us something even more valuable, an acceptance of our own bodies. And all you have to do is bathe.