Fig Leaf in the Wind

by Sharon Thom

I can remember distracting myself in a class at Berkeley with the vivid realization that the man at the lectern, expounding the subtleties of psychoanalysis, was naked beneath his clothes. The only difference between us, except that he was male and I am female, which is to say a lot, was that he was standing on a stage exposing himself before 500 students, and I had the relative safety of a back-row seat.

Not everyone I meet gets the x-ray treatment; sometimes I forget to look. And for the most part, I follow the convention of wearing clothes, taking comfort in the visceral sense of privacy they provide, particularly at business meetings. Wearing clothes is one of our most revealing traditions, as we leave our eyes and hands naked, thus circumventing our own efforts to conceal who we are. And yet we continue to perpetuate the emperors clothes myth that we are covered up when dressed relying on clothes as a defense against being seen, even as we use them to display ourselves. The common anxiety dream about showing up naked at work or at a public gathering illustrates how intensely vulnerable we can feel when unveiled.

Being naked is a leveler. There will always be someone fatter, skinnier, whiter, more spotted, or hangier. For me, its a great relief to know I can put on or take off ten pounds and it doesnt account for much. Breasts that have endured several years of breast-feeding have a special appeal, so I tell myself; and I don't want to be Kate Moss, I want to feed her. Regardless of what I currently look like, when I go to the Esalen baths I see myself in other women: the young girls not yet in bloom, the full-bodied mothers embracing their babies, and the older women who have even more experience with gravity than I.

Along with our physical attributes, we bring to nude communal bathing less tangible but even more important characteristics: invisible burdens of expectations, experiences, family histories, and wherever we are in the hormonal present. We carry with us what we think about our bodies and what weve been told to think; what we think about sex, whether or not were thinking about sex at precisely this moment, and our anxiety concerning what other people are thinking. We can also bring to one another a warm acceptance that makes being naked in a communal setting pleasant and reaffirming. For better or worse, one person can make all the difference at the baths.

At Esalen, the convention of clothing has long been challenged, and although the times and the clientele have calmed down a bit from the sixties, for the most part guests go nude at the hot springs, and ardently defend their right to do so. During my first year as Esalen's CEO, I've asked staff, workshop leaders and guests about their experiences at the baths, trying to gauge the importance of nudity at Esalen. I have learned that it is very important, although the actual significance of being naked varies widely among individuals. Both men and women spoke to me about how comfortable and easy they have found being at the baths, and their surprise and delight in how quickly they became acclimated to the Esalen custom. But I also received comments from participants in emotionally challenging workshops who are reeling from the intensity of accelerated process work and feel especially vulnerable; who find the communal dressing room and showers, and the simple act of choosing a tub, to be intimidating; who, by going to the baths, put themselves into what feels like a threatening situation and are unsure how to make it safe for themselves.

As a woman, I know that quickening sense of panic, the feeling of being crushed by a remark that is meant to be funny but isnt, and the pressure to be more open or what another person is trying to convince me is open when I am not ready and dont want to be. I understand and sympathize with those who have been more deeply affected by abuse than by love, who carry with them undiminished memories of the horror one person can inflict upon another.

I also know that shame, guilt, and fear can be transformed into something wiser, kinder, and useful. I know from watching others, and from retraining myself, that healing is possible. Some of the work done at Esalen can be extremely helpful in this transformative process, but it is difficult, painful, and the transition period can be lengthy. At times, it can seem hopeless.

When going to the baths, its important to keep in mind that not everyone there is ready to be naked in public. Some people are experiencing nude communal bathing for the first time, and it feels okay. Some are experiencing it for the first time, and its not okay. At Esalen, where one learns to speak ones own truth, it is a temptation to think that ones process is not intimately hooked up to everyone elses, but it often is, and in significant ways. It may be one persons truth to reach out and touch someone in the baths, and it is just as likely to be another persons truth that he or she needs not to be touched.

I dont think one can be too respectful of another human being.

People often remark that although Esalen has a clothing optional policy for its baths, almost everyone goes nude, making the choice to wear clothing even more difficult. Several times I have been asked why we dont have some hours which are women only or men only or suits only. The answer, quite frankly, is that we dont have the police force it would take to enforce such rules. The majority of people who come to Esalen want the freedom of coming to the baths, day or night, without restrictions on the baths use. Attempts to segregate the tubs have failed. Massage crew practitioners have always had the option not to wear clothing while giving massages if the client is comfortable with the practitioners nudity. In the massage reservation book it is stated, Clothing has always been optional at the Esalen baths. We respect the wishes of our clients. If you are uncomfortable with your practitioners nudity, please tell him or her. We will honor your preference.

The massage crew policy reinforces the concept of self-responsibility. For a few people, self-responsibility for stating ones preferences directly, and for making arrangements to ensure ones comfort and sense of safety is a new, and quite difficult, experience. But being given the opportunity to exercise self-responsibility is one of the best gifts Esalen has to offer. Make good use of it.

About the baths, playwright Lynne Kaufman wrote, I've been at the baths naked for a period over 25 years. It was at Esalen, through the baths and through the massage, that I saw my body as natural. The amazing thing is that once people take off their clothes, there is more commonality. It was the clothing that made for differences. When released from that, they were just other organisms. What I saw was an acceptance of all kinds of body types, which was a very different experience: it was evolutionary. You see the youthful bodies, the old men and women. You see life.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, writer, and spiritual teacher-in-residence at Esalen, wrote to me: The spontaneous comment of many people, when they see Esalen for the first time is, This is like Paradise. We associate Paradise with innocent nudity. To wear clothes is not necessarily more modest than to go naked. Latin modestus means keeping the right measure or acting appropriately. A person who refuses to undress at a doctors office does not act modestly, but prudishly, precisely inappropriately. What makes nudity modest at the Esalen baths? Not that everybody does it. (That would be mere peer pressure, which could lead to puerile, immodest behavior.) Rather, for decades, Esalen has been an oasis of healthy acceptance of the body in the midst of a society whose attitude toward the body is puritanical, prurient, or both at the same time. (These two compulsive attitudes feed on each other and are both expressions of contempt for the body.)

Personally, I experience my freedom to be modestly (i.e. appropriately) nude at the Esalen baths, not as matter-of-fact (as in a doctors office), but as celebrative. Every time I take off my clothes here, I experience anew the joy of childlike simplicity.

A frequent Esalen guest relayed to me what being nude in the baths has meant to him. I'm embarrassed to say that I was never embarrassed about nudity. I grew up with nuns covered from head to foot. Esalen took the explosiveness out of nudity. Here, people didn't behave as if it were something special--there was a relaxed feeling. It helped break down a barrier that I wish never had been there in the first place. In the Judeo-Christian culture, there are only three figures that traditionally have been depicted naked: Adam and Eve, and Jesus on the cross. In these cases, the nudity is meant to emphasize their shame and degradation. In the case of Adam and Eve, it's the sign that they are fallen mortals; and in the case of Jesus, nudity is a sign of his humiliation by the Romans. There are some instances of Adam and Eve naked before the fall, but even that indicates a long-gone state of grace which is unattainable to us. Paradise is irretrievably lost, and you can't get it back, even by going all the way to the west coast of the United States.

Psychologist Allen Kanner addressed some of the potential difficulties of being naked in the baths: Touching others may mean nothing to you, but it can cause of lot of discomfort to another person: many people who come to the tubs are bathing nude for the first time. Gestures, and subtle but inviting language, can be ambiguous in nature. Their meaning may be clear to you, but not to others, and it's best to err on the cautious side. Kanner goes on to say that men and women experience power differences and a woman is more vulnerable naked. You have to stick your head in the sand to ignore the differences in gender attitudes and experiences. Women can feel threatened on the streets by the gaze of a man. How much more difficult, then, to be looked at by men while naked at the baths?

Along the same line, workshop leader Laura Day urged guests to develop effective defenses to make the experience of communal nudity safe. In an odd way, Esalen is about being at one with the environment. But even nature has to protect itself: roses have thorns.

Workshop leaders Judith Alexander and Nancy Rosanoff wrote the Esalen management a detailed letter about the experiences of participants in their recent workshop. For some people, being at the baths brought up a sort of psychological distress and duress derived from a perception of having limited options regarding nudity and personal boundaries. We were told that the co-ed nudity at the baths was such a powerful personal shame trigger, that it led to a sense of inadequacy, disempowerment, and lack of choice. Some people in our group felt that even though the upfront Esalen policy was that clothing at the baths was optional, the actual use of bathing suits was so rare as to be perceived as weird and would be an embarrassing thing to do. One participant in the above-mentioned workshop was uncomfortable being at the baths; as unfortunate as this was, it prompted a collaborative process in the group which had several beneficial results. The intensive group process led to increased empathy and understanding in a number of participants, especially the men, by allowing an intimate look into another persons sense of shame; the group developed an excellent strategy for going to the baths; and the individual who felt uncomfortable was given positive reinforcement for approaching difficult problems with hope.

For many guests, these feelings and issues dont come up at all. Some may be surprised to know that there are rules, but there are, and they are simple: Be respectful of others, and restrict your nudity to the following locations on the grounds: the baths (including dressing room and massage areas); within the pool enclosure; inside guest and staff housing; and inside workshop meeting rooms, on the few occasions when nudity is incorporated in the workshop content. Nudity is not permitted on the lawn, in the lodge, in the parking lots, etc. Your process may hinge on baring all on a given day, but the location of your unveiling must be in one of the above-mentioned preserves.

Further, we should not overemphasize nudity as a symbol for freedom and enlightenment, a temptation which represents a backlash against the Western convention of associating nudity with humiliation. Nudity is not freedom: we are always naked, and draping ourselves does not make us less free. Our need to hide, all of the time, behind a variety of decorative devices and professional excuses and whatever status weve managed to fluff up around ourselves, our need to avoid one another at all costs, is what makes us less free. Taking our clothes off lies a few steps short of authentic liberation.

Somewhere between humiliation and enlightenment lies the ordinary experience of going to the baths: spending a quiet hour in proximity to a few dozen naked strangers and possibly some friends, and watching ones reaction to that; observing what is easy and what is not; and both challenging and being gentle with ones own sense of boundaries. Brother David Steindl-Rast has said, God knows how urgently our deep innocence needs to be encouraged today. Nudity is a simple way of experiencing this innocence. Esalen is one of the rare places in our warped world where this can be done safely, festively, naturally. Everyone who comes to Esalen has the opportunity to contribute toward making this possible, both for themselves and others. We welcome you in this spirit.

Sharon Thom serves as Esalen's Chief Executive Officer.

Please send questions or comments to