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Nudity doesn't frighten me. I'm the first to rip off my shirt in hot yoga, I avoid wearing a bra whenever socially acceptable, and in my first two years of college I posed nude for a figure drawing class. Somehow though, there's always been one place where the naked etiquette policy has eluded me: the women's locker room.
My confusion stems from high school, where you only had to take gym class if you didn't play a sport. Gym was so laid-back that we didn't shower afterwards because we never broke a sweat. But while my friends and I were walking in lazy circles around the track, the girls on the soccer team were mastering complex lessons on public nudity—like how to put on a sports bra without actually removing your shirt. And I missed them all.
I was forced to confront this hole in my education recently after watching a coworker strip down in the crowded lobby of a Manhattan SoulCycle. I admired her gusto, but I realized I had no idea whether or not it was weird that I just saw someone I work with mostly naked. After asking a few friends what the protocol is, I realized this is a pretty universal problem. So I set out to solve it, once and for all.
If season three, episode three of Sex and the City taught me nothing else, it's that a women's locker room is a safe space and you really shouldn't worry if anyone thinks your thighs are fat. But what about if those other women think it's weird you're blow-drying your hair in nothing but a thong?
I returned to SoulCycle this month to investigate. The showers at the Soho studio don't include built-in private areas to change: You hop in, get wet, and presumably dry off and dress outside each stall. I went through the motions of this but made the latter part awkward by doing that thing where you pretend to look for stuff in your bag while pondering your next move: How do I slip my underwear on without exposing my full pubic region? How do I put on a bra on without showing off my nipples to strangers?
Eventually I noticed that some women—maybe the ones who played soccer in high school—seemed to have it down to a science. You turn around, shimmy into your underwear, drop that towel, and put on a bra. From there, it's whichever comes first—pants or a shirt. Ta da! You're dressed, and no one is the wiser about what your vagina looks like.
In the locker rooms of the West 27th Street SoulCycle, each shower comes equipped with a small area to change. So that's one solution: Pick your SoulCycle location carefully. But on the day that I went the hot water was out. Women, myself included, could only stand to shower for thirty seconds at a time, and standing in that tiny changing area when you had just been blasted with frigid water felt like a PTSD flashback. We flooded out of our respective stalls, threw modesty to the wind, feverishly dried off, and dropped our towels—fuck being polite, it was so cold. Cold, but liberating.
The verdict: Don't make it awkward. If you take a shower, everyone gets that you have to get dressed afterward. Proper etiquette appears to be this: boobs are cool, butts are cool, but full-frontal can get dicey. A coworker of mine mentioned feeling compelled to keep her pubic hair neat when changing in front of other women, and that's just stress you don't need in your life.
Saunas and Steam Rooms
My first experience with a public sauna was baffling. I'd booked a massage at Bliss Spa and showed up early to milk each and every amenity before my appointment, right down to the free cups of tea. Outside the sauna were a pair of slippers; inside I found a woman totally naked and spread over the entire seating area. Were her slippers spa-code for "occupied"? Was I intruding on her personal dry heat?
Unfortunately, the rules aren't so cut and—wait for it—dry. Often it's up to the discretion of the spa, or the fearlessness of the client. Stuart Toledo, the lead massage therapist at the Fifth Avenue Red Door Spa, told me, "It's appropriate to be either robed or unrobed in a sauna or steam room based on the comfort level of the guest. However, if the spa has posted regulations regarding appropriate dress in a sauna or steam room, they should be followed."
There's a little more leeway in a steam room than a sauna, since it's so foggy in there. At a recent trip to Red Door, I found that the woman next to me could have been doing jumping jacks in the nude and I wouldn't have noticed.
The verdict: Before entering either room, take a look around and see if there are any rules posted. If there aren't, wear a towel and leave your robe outside. If you're by yourself, feel free to set the tone—whether that means keeping the towel on, removing it halfway, or taking it all off if you're feeling ballsy. Just keep in mind that it's a public space and not your personal naked playground, so you might need to cover up if you're getting weird vibes when the next person enters.
On the Massage Table
Even if you were clothed, a massage would still be extremely intimate. For thirty, sixty, or ninety minutes, it's someone's job to touch almost every part of your body, usually with slippery oil. The first few times I got one I wore a nude thong, as if the color of it was fooling anyone.
This past fall, I got my first clay treatment in Mexico—the kind where they slather your body in thick brown mud, which would be the worst place to wear a nude thong. I had already forfeited the idea of covering up with a square inch of cotton, but the part that was throwing me was the clay removal. Apparently it was my choice to rinse off in a private shower or the ocean. I asked the receptionist if I should wear a bathing suit—how are we getting from the massage table to the ocean?—and she looked at me as if I had requested to wear a three-piece suit. "I mean, you can wear a bathing suit if you want. But no one does."
Back in America, I asked a masseuse from Exhale Mind Body Spa about the normal attire. He says, "Your comfort is the priority. Generally, clothes just get in the way, but if you feel more comfortable wearing something, you can wear a full length parka if you want! Massage therapists keep you covered with a sheet at all times, only uncovering the part of the body we need to work on, (a leg, your back, or an arm) and then recovering that body part as soon as we've finished working on it."
The verdict: Skip the thong. Let it all breathe. And don't forget to take advantage of the free tea afterward. Comfort, in all of these scenarios, is key—especially if you're paying for it in the form of a $35 spinning class or a who-knows-how-much massage. Go with your gut instinct, and trust that whatever you choose to do, someone else has done it ten times weirder.