Column: Getting cold feet in the steam room

A column written by Lesley Stones for Longevity.

I’ve never understood women who insist on undressing in a cubicle rather than in the communal changing room in a gym. Or those who wear a swimsuit in the single-sex sauna. We are all at the gym to improve our body, so at least learn to live with it in the meantime. But even I suffered a pang of self-conscious angst on a recent trip to Madagascar with a bunch of other women.

We were heading for the rasul, an Arabian cleansing ritual best enjoyed by couples who smear mud all over each other and then inevitably generate some heat of their own in the rising temperature of a steam room. It sounds deliciously naughty, but with five other heterosexual women involved, it just sounded kind of goofy.

Outside the rasul we were handed towels and tiny strips of black material and string pretending to be panties. They’re unisex, apparently, but I’m sure no self-respecting man would ever admit they fitted him.

We put them on and trooped into a small marble chamber where steam was beginning to hiss through the hatches. Pots of gloopy cream were dotted around, and we each scooped up a handful and started blathering it on our skin. I prudishly applied all my own cream, thank you very much, and was most surprised when one colleague smacked a large dollop on her friend’s bum and gleefully rubbed it in. Soon the steam had us surrounded and one woman started moaning that her panties were uncomfortable. And so insubstantial that there was no point wearing them anyway.

Whoosh. They were off. “They look like a hat,” she said, comically draping them on her head. “It’s more like a pirate’s eye patch,” giggled another woman, whipping off her own and jauntily positioning them over one eye. In a second, the three others also snapped off their undies and turned them into mock catapults and earmuffs. They were in hysterics, fooling around, feeling totally uninhibited in the nude, and bonding through the shared silliness of the moment.

Yet, I’d discovered that it’s possible to get cold feet in a steam room, because I just couldn’t join in their antics. I sat there as good as naked, feeling self-conscious for not being able to cast off this nonsensical piece of material in heady liberation. Even though the flimsy scrap of pussy protector wasn’t actually achieving anything.

These were all intelligent, funny, successful, lovely women, so it’s not as if I felt somehow superior. In fact, I was feeling decidedly inferior at suddenly discovering my long buried inner prude. I was mortified to find myself turning into a character from a 1820s novel, where a risqué flash of ankle demands the smelling salts. I stoically clung to my ridiculous square of material like a lonely revolutionary defending the last barricade.

Who was this old frump materialising in my head, and what had she done with Lesley? And now, after skinny-dipping in my swimming pool, I’m remembering the rasul and it’s still bugging me. Maybe I’m not as liberated and self-possessed as I want to be. Or maybe the others had been secretly slurping pina coladas and were just behaving outrageously?

But I’m worried that some unwelcome, uptight aspect of my character is hidden even from me, masked only by a filament of cheap black cloth. No doubt a psychologist would have had a ball observing us. But only if they’d been willing to perch their knickers on their head and climb in, too.