Monday, October 7, 2013

Thermal Pools and Body Image, Yo

Probably the most surreal experience I've had in Iceland was the thermal pools.

Early morning and the sun shining through the mist created when 48°C water meets air so crisp and frigid that ice has formed on the concrete, an obstacle to dodge as you go from pool to pool.

It is currently 1°C.

I lower my body in so just until my eyes are just above the surface. Heads bob in and out of the steaming pool like the aliens on Neptune I invented in an 8th-grade science project I did for Mrs. G. I've never felt so grounded and out of this world before.

I flip over onto my back and close my eyes, focusing on my auditory perception. This is one of my favourite sensory activities. I swish my fingers around my ears, keying in on the sound. In-inhale. Ex-exhale. Flip up. Back down on my back, floating in a circle in a vacant corner of the pool.

Then I head for the steam bath. Here, my entire body will feel alive as my dead skin melts of sloughs away and my pores breath in and out. I suck in the hot air into my lungs and feel a burning similar to a satisfying scotch but without the irreplaceable after-taste.

Lumpy bodies of all shapes surround me and I love it. I think they're all beautiful. Someone turns upside down against the wall. My calves start to burn. I stretch and focus on the hazing – or maybe focus is the wrong word. I try to focus but it's impossible with such thick steam. I relax my eyes and enjoy my new reality.

In the hot tub, I let my body be pummeled with a jet stream of water that bends my skin to unrecognizable contortions. “Water massage,” the man had told me. It reminds me of when I was in the Russian banya (steam bath, as well) and they started beating me with the birch sticks, declaring, “Russian massage!” All these countries have massages like I've never known.

This is my second day at the pools, my second morning, and I start to develop my own rhythm.

Steam bath.
Cold air.
Steam bath.
Hot tub with water jet massage.
Steam bath.

An hour slips by I realize it's time to get to the National Museum of Iceland to try and cram some sort of understanding of this culture into my head. I've already started to pick up on how they started out and what's up with the Danish sandwich shops.

The changing room is a healthy place for someone like me to be in. After the meadia shoving perfectly sculpted bodies in my face, I need to see what real humans look like – all types. I need to see the bodies of women naked. I know that sounds a bit crass, but it's healing, for me. I see stretch marks, cellulite, dimples, and spots on bodies I don't think anyone would (should) hesitate to consider “healthy” and “fine.” Heck, who are we to determine what isn't fine? I see beauty in each body.  One woman only has one breast. I take a look at my white body in the mirror and love what I see. It's not what anyone on the big screen would want to see, but it's me and I can accept that.

Each day I take the time to make sure I can like my body.

Some days take a whole lot longer than I'd like to admit.

I know it might seem like there are better uses of time, but when I don't, I end up feeling self conscious all day. I want to apologize to the world for my tummy and double chin as I turn my face down to read a book on the bus. But if I can look in the mirror and accept that that's who I am, I feel  a lot more confident. Not a cocky confident, just the kind of confident that mirrors what a lot of old ladies get when they stop caring about what the world thinks... or at least they tell me they do. In late night conversations and mid-day poetry jams, I've learned that each lady I meet on the street is self-conscious. I wish we talked about this more.

I scrub away dead skin cells with the pads of my fingers and skip shampoo and conditioner, as I have for months. I enjoy walking around in the nude, waiting to put on my clothes at the last minute. I'm not the only one. Clothes are so uncomfortable.

But when I do put on my clothes, after spending the past hour being aware of my body, it feels different. My toes nestle into my socks later on as I walk down the pavement. I feel alive.

I wrap myself in my Alaskan t-shirt (“Midnight Sun Playground”), a wool sweater (given me by Eva in Boston), and a fake-leather jacket (Aunty Mo) that I never dreamed I'd wear this much. Putting in my headphones, I found a song that just as well inspire an energized walk as much as a dance that leaves you feeling new.

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