Icelandic Naked Body Scrubbing

I’ve always been weird about nudity. I don’t want to be naked in front of anyone and I don’t want to see anyone else naked. I don’t hate my body; I take care of myself and like how I look in clothes; I just prefer keeping them on. And I love my HBO shows for the acting and writing, but I cringe when everyone’s topless or especially pantless or especially especially both. I can appreciate a shirtless man with a nice chest, but I honestly don’t need to see anything else. It’s always a relief if I’m watching a show on network TV and it’s obvious that the characters are going to hook up, but you know that the sheets of the bed will conveniently fall right over the girl’s boobs (with nary a nip slip) and will stay glued right above the guy’s waist. I mean, there are special movies for all the people who want to see all that, so can’t it just stay out of my shows and movies where I care about the story?

Nudity was the last thing on my mind when my sister and I booked a trip to Iceland. We were both home from college for the summer and just sitting around watching TV before our night shifts at our respective crappy jobs, and I was surfing the web because I had already seen that episode of Friends at least three times. I never had any desire to go to Iceland and didn’t really know anything about it, but it was a great deal that I could actually afford after miserly saving my pathetic tips all summer. Plus, having next to no social life since my parents’ house was three hours away from my school and most of my high school friends were cool enough or rich enough not to have to come home was convenient for not wasting money—boring, but convenient. It would give me something to look forward to when I was back at school in the fall slaving away during my senior year.

The deal was for December, when apparently Iceland only had like four hours of daylight, but it still counted as Europe and was less than $800 for airfare, three nights at a hotel with free breakfast, and two excursions. One was to this famous (so it said) geothermal spa called the Blue Lagoon, which means there’s a big crater or something in a lava field with water that comes from way below the earth and is crazily hot, so it’s like a huge hot tub with saltwater and freshwater combined, and there apparently are all sorts of health benefits. I’m not a massage or facial kind of girl who would ever choose to go to a normal spa, but the pictures looked awesome and it was part of the package.

Nina and I had never gone on a trip together except with our parents, but she was there when I found the deal and I didn’t feel up to expending the effort of contacting any of my real friends, and my “relationship” with Derek probably wasn’t going to last to December anyway, so I thought I’d run it by her after I filled out everything just to see if that was the real total price or just a fake price to make you want to go before they jacked everything up.

“Feel like going to Iceland in December? There’s a deal for $800.”

Nina slid her eyes from the TV over to me. “What’s there to see in Iceland? Ice? Penguins?”

I peeled myself off the couch and took my laptop over to her to show her some of the pictures. “We’ll both be home from school then, and you said you weren’t going back to your job over Christmas break. Don’t you want to see the Northern Lights?” I flipped through the thumbnails. The second excursion was a boat trip for that very purpose.

That got her attention, and she told me that she needed to check her bank account and think about it, and she’d get back to me by the morning, which was the latest she could commit, since it was one of those 24-hour deals where you had to take the plunge or that was it and you missed it.

She thought about it, and we were both kind of bored with our mundane lives, so we bought our tickets and marked it on the calendar (well, in our phones). Mom and Dad were pretty pissed that we didn’t consult them, but as we were 19 and 21 and paying for it ourselves, not to mention doing some sisterly bonding, they eventually got over it. Mom was super happy to be the one to tell Nina that, even though Iceland was in Europe, the drinking age was 20 and therefore she wouldn’t be able to get served in bars there. Nina was pretty pissed and I kind of was, too, since we both thought the drinking age would be 18, and Nina would be turning 20 that coming February, so close to when we were going on the trip, but we just figured I could buy beer and drink at the hotel if we really wanted to.

We were feeling all worldly and grown up that we had international travel in our futures, and the allure of this helped me deal with my humdrum life as I worked at the lamest bar in town night after night, making horrible tips and fending off advances from various village idiots, but then Nina came home one day with some news.

“You’re not going to like it,” she said, but she was kind of smirking, so I wasn’t actually nervous or anything. She told me all about this one coworker at her restaurant who had actually just gone to Reykjavik, and she showed me all these gorgeous pictures from this girl’s Instagram.

“It’ll look different for us, though, since it’ll be winter and not summer, so it’ll probably be all dark when we go,” she said.

This was not news to me and I said so. “It’ll probably be all snowy which will be cool for December; it’ll be Christmasy,” I said. “So what?”

We were looking at pictures of the Blue Lagoon. I had already seen the video on the website about 50 times, where the nice little Icelandic couple in their matching sweaters enjoys all the spa has to offer.

“Do you know that they make you shower before you go in? For hygiene reasons.”

“Yes,” I answered, sort of testily, since I felt like I knew where this was going. She knew how I was about naked people and being naked in general. I had read the FAQs and everything and checked that there were private showers rather than only out-in-the-open ones like in middle school gym class. I was certainly no exhibitionist, but I could appreciate that the facility had standards.

“Anna, they don’t just make you shower. They scrub you.”

“No, they don’t,” I said quickly and defensively. This sounded ridiculous and untrue, but still my mouth went a little dry when I said it.

She shook her head, and it ticked me off to see that grin back on her face. “It’s like a health code violation or something so they take it super seriously. You can’t go in without being checked over first. But, you know, they’ll be professionals. It’s just part of the job, I’m sure, like cleaning toilets.”

This didn’t comfort me a bit, and I imagined a big Viking lady with a giant toilet brush scrubbing me as I cowered sobbing in a corner. “Nina. They can’t do that to me,” I managed. “Are you really serious? That wasn’t in the video.”

She nodded. “Look. Stacey told me that it was weird and she wasn’t expecting it, but they’re really serious about hygiene. They have to wash you without your bathing suit to reduce contaminants into the lagoon. It even said that in the video.”

I knew about that. “Yeah, but I thought I would wash myself in my own little stall. I don’t know that I can handle someone doing that.”

“Well, we bought our tickets, so you’re going with me. And the website said there were individual showers, so I guess they go in with you. No one else will see you. I know you’re weird about that.” She was probably thinking to my birthday when she bought me a pedicure and I got totally skeeved out when the lady started massaging halfway up my calf. “It’ll be fine.”

“Sure,” I said, and thought about the Northern Lights and the snowcapped mountains and the eerie, murky, hot water into which I would get to relax after enduring a rubdown in the buff by someone who may or may not be named Helga.

Summer passed, and school started and made me insane for a while as I waded through endless labs and research, and I ditched Derek after he got super clingy following very little contact when I was lonely and home for the summer, so it was good I planned my trip with a different travel companion. August somehow flowed into Thanksgiving and then finals, and I was back home with just a few days before Iceland. I had checked the Blue Lagoon’s website several times and still didn’t see any mention of the part where they supervised and cleaned you, but my sister assured me that she wasn’t lying. I just kept hoping it was a joke. A mean, stupid joke.

The flight was uneventful and the hotel was pretty nice; clean and roomy for two people. Everyone seemed to speak perfect English even though their own language had far more consonants than I’ve ever seen in groups without vowels, and we got a kick out of trying to read the Icelandic signs we saw. The hotel breakfast was kind of sketchy with pickled herring as one of the main offerings, but the coffee was decent and there were rolls. We had learned the folklore, like about the Christmas cat who will eat children if their parents won’t give them clothes for Christmas. We ice skated in the town square and walked along precariously on about four inches of ice, and we lamented that it wasn’t puffin season when every single shop had tons of puffin merchandise, so that was disappointing.

Saturday came and we took a bus out of Reykjavik about 45 minutes to the Blue Lagoon. The scenery looked pretty from what I could see, but it was 4:00 p.m., so the sun had almost set completely (after coming out for a day of cloudy, gray lighting around 11 a.m.). As we rode I tried to think calming thoughts and rehearsed my plea: I have anxiety and my therapist says I must wash myself. I promise I will wash myself, but I can’t be touched. There’s nothing really wrong with me (that I know of) and I don’t actually go to a therapist, but it just makes me uncomfortable.

We finally got off the bus, walked in a single file line into the building, and stayed in line until it was our turn. Everything was efficient and the staff helpful, so we quickly presented our confirmation numbers to receive a towel, a special bracelet which works to activate a locker and pay for any drinks you get, and a little baggie with some sort of mud mask and lotion.

Time to face the music. There was nothing to do but walk into the locker room and get this business over with so I could move on to the main attraction. Obviously, I’d been in locker rooms before, but it was still an assault on the eyes to see the blatant nudity.

Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t look at the woman with the scary pendulous breasts shamelessly flopping all around the room, threatening to slap strangers.

I tried to focus straight ahead to find a private stall where I could change into my swimming suit before storing my clothes and moving on to the shower, but I didn’t see any. Everywhere I looked, which was mostly at the ground, I saw saggy and perky boobs and flat and squishy butts and I don’t want to say what else, because it was horrifying and needing all methods of grooming. I only saw open areas and this was bad not just because I’m more modest than every woman there, apparently, as no one was even trying to change behind a towel, but also because I had to pee after the long bus ride and the Coca Cola Light I consumed while on it.

Finally, I spotted a door marked WC, so I waited impatiently for what seemed to be this single bathroom for at least 100 females currently in this huge place.          

I did what I needed to do, and I found my sister who had also changed, thank goodness, since I hadn’t seen her undressed since we were small and I was quite content with that status quo. Naked strangers are bad enough, but I especially don’t need to see a naked person I know. We activated our special bracelets to lock our clothes and wallets in a locker, but, flustered by all the nakedness, I accidentally closed my stuff in an open locker which wasn’t linked to my bracelet.

Running around, attempting not to slip on the floor, trying in vain to avoid all the boobs and butts and whatnots, luckily I stumbled upon an attendant who rectified my problem quickly. Nina had already gone off and I was glad because I know she thought it was funny that I’m so embarrassed about naked stuff.

With my swimming suit on and my towel wrapped around me, a shield from my future bareness, I walked to the shower area in the back of the locker room.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Okay, first of all, I found all the bathrooms, so that’s good, and they had separate shower stalls, so I didn’t know if I had to wait for the scrubbing person to go in with me. At least no one else would be there but a trained professional. But… I didn’t see anyone, so I quickly went in by myself, stripped and washed myself, making sure to get my hair wet so the inspector could see I actually did wash off any contaminants I might have brought in. I suited up, wrapped my towel back around me, and walked out of the locker room, hoping and praying I wouldn’t need to explain myself to anyone and have to go back in, with company this time.

No one stopped me and I kept moving. I got outside and it was absolutely freezing; it was even flurrying a little earlier. There was a rack to hang towels on with numbers to help you remember which one’s yours, and I was still afraid someone might take mine by accident, but it was so cold and dark, and I was still worried that someone would know I escaped the scrubbing people.

I hung up my towel and walked down the steps into the gloriously hot, steaming water, and Nina was waiting there near the steps, thank goodness, because with the dark and the steam it was hard to see anything.

It didn’t look anything like the pictures, where the water was fluorescent blue and the sun was out, but it was beautiful and much more mysterious. I could only see the people who were within a few feet of me, and they quickly dispersed in the huge lagoon, so even though the locker room was packed, it suddenly felt like we were practically by ourselves.

My face hot from the transition from cold to warm, I felt a little light headed after the bus ride, check in, and chaos of the locker room, but I got away with avoiding the scrubbing people, so I quickly found myself relaxing.

We used our bracelets to go to the bar area to get our one complimentary drink, and I could tell that Nina was excited since she ordered a beer and got away with it somehow. Relieved and feeling fancy to be at a spa in a different country, I went for a prosecco.

Walking/floating away to a more open area, we clinked cheers and sipped our drinks. “How was it?” Nina asked.

I knew exactly what she meant. “They didn’t get me! I just showered by myself and walked right by,” I replied triumphantly, a rebel eschewing the rules. My toes sank into the little lava rocks, but they didn’t hurt, and we’d moved to a depth where enough of our bodies were covered to no longer feel cold at all. The water, sort of murky and weird and gray looking with the steam rising off of it, made me think of some crazy horror movie, even though I felt so calm. 

Nina and I had our phones in plastic baggies to protect them, and we tried to take a couple of pictures, but they didn’t really come out. We just looked like disembodied white heads in a black background, and I felt so warm in the darkness that I started wondering if small children or senior citizens ever disappeared. But then I noticed someone who looked like a bundled up lifeguard, so hopefully that that doesn’t happen.

“So all that stress for nothing, huh?” Nina said, and I almost asked her if the scrubbers got her, but then she was fiddling with her phone again and I didn’t.

We finished our drinks and applied our mud masks, and I hoped it wouldn’t make my skin break out since it felt a little tingly, but I reminded myself that this was a legit spa, so I concentrated on just relaxing. Nina wandered away to explore the lagoon.

“I peed in the lagoon,” she told me confidentially when she came back, and I thought about how people were probably doing much worse stuff than that with how big and dark and misty and private the place was, but supposedly the lagoon cleans itself every 48 hours or something. So, the fact they wanted to scrub everyone under their bathing suits seemed like major overkill when they couldn’t control stuff like this.    

But we had a boat to catch late that night to see the Northern Lights, so we couldn’t stay forever and I was still lightheaded anyway. We got out, froze, found towels which were hopefully ours, and went back to the locker room. I got right into my own stall and showered as instructed, knowing that we were especially supposed to wash and condition our hair, and then I suited back up.

I finally got washed and clothed and no one saw me naked at all and no one even tried to scrub me, so I was happy. And I saw two hundred more boobs and a hundred more butts and crotches, but at least no one saw anything of me.  

We barely made the boat trip later and only saw the briefest flashes of the Northern Lights, but at least I got away with not being scrubbed.

It was only on the flight home that Nina told me she was making that up all along. Apparently there was someone monitoring the shower room to ensure people washed themselves, but Nina knew more than anyone how I’m weird about nudity and decided to make a joke out of it that she carried on for several months.

I was a little pissed that she let me get so much anxiety over nothing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so weird about nudity, but that’s just me.

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