We are prepping for a hot springs adventure, doing a final supply inventory before hitting the road.
"Check," I chirp, tossing a bag of kale chips into my overstuffed tote bag.
I roll my eyes.
It's Ojo Caliente's most glaring downside: their lame-o Bathing suits required rule. Nothing pervs a nice day of sun and soaking like a damp swath of elasticized Lycra suffocating my nether regions.
"Wearing it," I grumble, my neck already sore from the straps digging into my upper cervical spine.
I'd moved back to Los Angeles last year and found myself missing the Santa Fe soak culture something fierce. And so it was that I availed myself to the constricting annoyance of the bathing suit for a chance to spend the day lolling in a tub of steaming hot arsenic water.
I'm hogging the waterfall in an otherwise empty pool when I see her.
Wait, I think to myself, double-taking on the meaty 50-something human lowering herself into the tub. Is that a woman? A woman without a bathing suit top?
Upon further examination (thank you, mirrored sunglasses), I feel confident in saying that the person who has joined me in the pebble-lined pool, and who had opted out of pairing a top with her bikini bottoms, is definitely a woman. Upon further, further examination, I realize she not only isn't wearing a top, she isn't wearing breasts, either, instead brandishing long, horizontal scars where they clearly used to be.
Rad, I think, offering a smile as she settles in.
It's a bold move, choosing to flaunt the scars a more timid woman might self-consciously hide behind the (allegedly mandatory) swimsuit top. I love her for it, silently showering her with praise for baring herself to the world, or at least this tiny Northern New Mexico segment of it.
Still, I admit I'm a little thrown off.
"I don't get how that works with the rules," I muse when I reconvene with Ross in the swimming pool. "I mean, the policy says: Bathing suits are required—not Nipples must be covered."
"Yeah, but guys don't have to cover their nipples," Ross reminds me, gesturing to his own.
"You're right!" I exclaim, more stymied than ever.
Nipple discrimination is a hot topic of late, what with groups like Free the Nipple and Topless Pulp Fiction galvanizing around their perky pink plight. As chick nipples the world over (Europe, Ko Samui and a handful of Caribbean islands notwithstanding) endure unchecked marginalization, these outspoken activists are hell-bent on liberating the nipple from cultural/government/social media-enforced shrouding, boldly insisting on nipple equality for all.
"So, if it's not a nipple thing, is it a mammary flesh one?" I ponder aloud on the drive back to Santa Fe. "But then, if it was, wouldn't man boobs have to be covered, too?"
"Not necessarily," Ross counters. "Men don't have mammary glands. Man boobs are just fat."
Later, I find all kinds of science-y types who say men do have the glands, albeit tiny ones that really don't do anything. Take that, Mr. Topless Wherever He Damn Well Pleases.
Turns out it had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with being invisible, because when I follow up with the Ojo folk to get to the bottom of what I was now calling their bottoms only are a-okay for some women but not others rule, it seemed no one knew what I was talking about.
"If the Ojo staff had known that a woman was bathing topless in the public tubs, she would have been notified of the policy and offered a private tub," Ojo's public relations rep Jennifer Hobson-Hinsley explains via email. "Everyone who enters the public tubs is required to wear a swimsuit…This includes bottoms for men, and tops and bottoms, or one-piece swimsuits, for women."
So much for groundbreaking policy changes going down at Ojo Caliente.
Days later, Ross and I head up the ski mountain for a(nother) soak, this time at Ten Thousand Waves.
"Welcome," Paul, the fresh-faced desk clerk, says just before informing us that the newly renovated Grand Bath (i.e., communal tub) is no longer clothing optional, as well as also closed for (more) renovations.
Let the record show the only reason I didn't throw a full-fledged tantrum right then and there was because Ross had already broken the news about the bathing suits required policy the Waves started enforcing in July, which I received about as well as a 4-year-old being told her puppy had been abducted by aliens.
"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" I'd screamed, collapsing onto Ross' kitchen floor in a floppy heap of (over)dramatic dejection.
That was the Waves' best feature, their clothing-optional policy (well, that and the sake they serve next door). There's something liberating and delightfully hierarchy-smashing about a group of mixed-gender folk being naked together, without any pretense of orgy or genocide. It's, like, the great equalizer, nakedness, leveling the playing field of wealth, status, education and achievement, uniting us as one human tribe by way of our primal meat suits and the lumps, bumps, scars and flesh folds that mark 'em.
"A bunch of people being naked together breaks down all masks," yoga teacher and hot springs fanatic Jodi Blumstein says when I ask her what she liked about soaking naked at the Waves. "Everyone very quickly adjusts to their natural state."
"So, is it still cool to jerk off in the communal sauna," I rib, as Paul explains the new clothing is nowhere near optional policy, "as long as I keep my bathing suit on?"
The girl manning the gift shop giggles. Paul doesn't quite know what to think.
"She's kidding," Ross explains, hoping to put the young desk clerk at ease.
Paul doesn't realize my inside joke is a reference to an SFR column I wrote in 2012 about witnessing men masturbating in the communal sauna. No matter, I think I'm hilarious.
"Here," Paul says, tittering nervously while thrusting a glossy pamphlet, entitled New Communal Tub Policy, in my direction. "This explains the new policy."
According to the pamphlet, and allow me to paraphrase here, an excessive amount of aggressive staring, spread-eagle ballsack flaunting and generalized "bad behavior" enacted by male guests frequenting the communal tub inspired the powers that be (i.e., owner Duke Klauck) to rescind the clothing-optional policy that had been in place for 34 years, now requiring guests to wear bathing suit bottoms in the communal tub.
"If men behaved as well as women," the pamphlet reads, "we would not be changing our long-term clothing-optional policy."
Later, I speak to Klauck over the phone about what inspired the new bathing-suits-required rule. He explains that women were feeling outnumbered in the communal tub and weren't entirely comfortable with the sexual energy they were experiencing there.
"For this reason," the pamphlet continues, all firm and authoritarian-like with this suddenly boldfaced proclamation, "we will now require bathing suit bottoms at all times in the new communal tub."
It's devastating news, given how much fun Ross and I used to have squeezing each other's butt zits on the raised deck next to the sauna.
"We never do that," Ross quickly explains to Paul, shooting me a sideways ix-nay, on the it-zay eezing-squay look, while trying to save face.
"Wait, how come just bathing suit bottoms?" I ask, re-reading the sentence again, the extra thick/dark/inky one that was kinda screaming at me. "Why not tops, too?"
"I don't know," Paul replies, shrugging, and then he asks if we wanted to see the Grand Bath, anyway, even though it didn't have any water in it.
Not to be all tit-for-tat about it (pun intended, while garnished with a sheepish grin), but the bottoms-only communal tub policy presents a scenario in which the vulnerability scales are necessarily tipped in the dudes' favor. I mean, sure, bathing suits are lame, and #nipplefreedommatters, but there is something unsettling about exposing your goodies when you know at least half the folks you're hanging out with are prohibited from doing the same.
"It seems awkward," Santa Fe resident and Ten Thousand Waves-goer Bettina Lancaster says of the new policy. "Everyone being naked feels like it's on more equal terms."
"What do you think nipple equality is?" Ross asks, calling me on my hypocrisy. "Besides, you didn't have a problem with Miss Mastectomy going bottoms only."
I don't actually have a problem with anyone going bottoms only, except for women with prettier tits than mine, because I tend toward the petty and the envious. And though I feel totally aligned with the Free the Nipple plight, and dream of experiencing nipple equality in my lifetime, something about this particular bottoms-only rule feels fishy.
"Our policy of suit bottoms at all times has symbolically sent a message," Klauck writes in an email explaining the gradual devolution of the clothing-optional policy. "The tub is no longer just a male club."
Given that the Waves is citing sexual misconduct as the primary reason for the policy change, with both Klauck and in-house publicist Mary Johnson attesting to the fact that they've fielded numerous complaints from a variety of women claiming to feel neither safe nor comfortable in the communal tubs, it seems a little counterintuitive to then create a policy that encourages women to be topless in the mixed-bathing area.
Men are visual creatures prone to sexualizing female breasts. As such, wouldn't having a tub full of topless women in a totally lopsided bottoms-only required setting be the standard definition of "a male club," in terms of that old school, hetero-normative women exist as decorations to be sexualized as inspired sort of perspective?
"The males that want to be naked don't find that [read: exposed breasts] enticing at all," Klauck assures me, when I ask about the mixed message of the bottoms-only rule.
Oh really, now?
Granted, Klauck says the primary problem was less about men lasciviously ogling women, and more about exhibitionists getting off on being seen in the buff. Still, I'm pretty sure plenty of men using the tubs are finding "that" (i.e., untethered titties) sufficiently enticing.
I ask Johnson (the Waves' publicist, who seems more than a little irked to have to talk to me about the matter) why they decided to allow women to remain topless in the communal tub.
"Because men don't wear a top," she explains, "and they're the ones that are behaving badly."
Johnson makes it sound like the men lost the privilege of exposing themselves, and are thus being punished accordingly, while the women have only lost the right to expose half of themselves, except—by this line of reasoning—I'm still not sure why. It kinda misses that whole women don't feel safe or comfortable in a communal tub full of leering men thing, which, when it comes down to it, still doesn't seem like reason enough to change an entire policy, given that the women's tub a) exists, and b) is (still) clothing optional.
So now, aside from the private tubs, which cost more to rent per hour than an entire day at the communal tub, men have no other on-site options for them to get their full-body vitamin D fix on.
"This…was my 'go-to' place to relax when visiting NM," writes Yelp reviewer Tony G. "I would give it 5 stars if there were clothing optional sessions in the Grand Bath…which requires bathing suit bottoms at all times, yet the women's communal bath continues to be clothing optional. So for the males amongst us who prefer to bathe au natural, the only option now is a private bath."
I empathize with Tony G, having gotten used to hanging at the communal tub in the buff with Ross, who now has all of zero options to brown his butt-cheeks, spendy private tub notwithstanding, whittling my own (admittedly codependent) choices down to either soaking in a suit or soaking without him. Sigh.
"Check out this part," Paul says, pointing to the bottom of the pamphlet, trying to offset the scowl overtaking my face with a dash of cheekiness, "where it encourages, like, super skimpy bathing suits."
"If you've ever visited a European beach," it reads, "you know that there are swimsuits out there so tiny that it's hardly more than a gesture to modesty!"
Johnson mentions something similar when I interview her.
"Europeans wear the smallest of bathing suits," she says, "some that aren't much more than a string in back."
While I appreciate her enthusiasm for the G-string, and the implied G-strings-encouraged policy (except not really, because, um, Ouch), I still find the caveat confusing.
"Isn't that a mixed message, though?" I press. "I mean, on the one hand you're announcing a shift toward the modest, inspired by sexual misconduct and 'younger people's' alleged discomfort with exposed genitals, while in the very same blurb, you're inviting people to get all crafty and exhibition-y with their swimsuit bottoms. Can you explain the paradox?"
"No," Johnson replies.
About those "younger people"…
"Younger people now feel uncomfortable sharing a clothing-optional environment with strangers," reads the pamphlet, which—admittedly—was proving to be a damned interesting read.
"And how are you defining 'younger'?" I ask Johnson, when she repeats this very statement.
"Younger," she parrots, as though this totally answers my question.
"Younger, like, millennials?"
"Younger, like, under 50."
Oh, right; Santa Fe younger.
Klauck echoes a similar sentiment, theorizing that with more progressive parents than, say, the baby boomers who popularized the whole naked hot spring culture back in the '60s, today's 20-somethings are way more conservative when it comes to public nudity. The guy owns a clothing-optional spa, so I defer to his experience, while still wondering if the alleged millennial aversion to nudity might have more to do with the fact that 20-somethings spend so much time posting selfies on social media and have thus taken to erring on the cautious side, given that their identities are shaped and anchored by carefully curated virtual personas, and all the incessantly uploaded mementos —complete with duck-faced pouts and ironic facial hair—that comprise them.
"I feel completely comfortable being naked in the communal tub, provided everyone there is being responsible with their sexual energy," says Stephanie Kuehn, a 28-year-old filmmaker. "But it does seem like a lot of my peers are more attuned to selfie culture, which has them more concerned about the production value of their life experiences than maybe the older generations are."
The Internet isn't to blame for just millennial modesty; it was a major contributing factor in the Waves' bathing suit (bottom) policy shift. Turns out the spa was taking some hits on social media and crowd-sourced review sites, with folks posting ads for casual sex and then proposing to meet at the Waves for carnal shenanigans, plus a bevy of scathing reviews citing nudity at the communal tub as prohibitive to women, families and decent people the world over.
"I got a fantastic massage here," Peter D from Brooklyn writes on Yelp, "but there was entirely too much male genitalia on display. At least for me. And my wife. And the parents who I feel should have been warned before they brought their child up there."
Peter's review raises the obvious question: Just how much male genitalia is enough when it comes to communal soaking? A three-penis to four-vagina ratio? One to one? And does that ratio differ for parents, and families, and all the children Peter wants to save from the horrors of male genitalia?
He goes on, "What they don't tell you about the communal hot tub is that there will be lots and lots of penises all over the area. My wife and I discovered this abruptly when we stepped around the barrier and came face to penis with an older man…doing naked yoga."
Peter's isn't the only negative review to make mention of seemingly unattached body parts, contextualized as wholly offensive by virtue of a) their existence, and b) the old/ugly/fat/hairy humans to whom they belong. A cursory search through TripAdvisor and Yelp for "Ten Thousand Waves + nudity" brings up dozens of penis mentions, plus plenty of "balls" and "nuts" and "ass cracks," with each reviewer thoroughly objectifying their fellow soakers, thus dehumanized as nameless, faceless and—essentially—meaningless bodies attached to parts too shameful to warrant exposure, their personhood tossed aside in favor of petty insults hurled at the (wholly subjective) aesthetic (un)worthiness of the compartmentalized pieces the reviewers seem to take no responsibility for staring at/obsessing on. (If you don't like all the penises, Peter from Brooklyn, how 'bout not straining your neck to look at 'em?) The ad nauseum genital mentions point to a way bigger problem plaguing our culture: the ubiquitous objectification of the body as a disassociated means of sexual titillation, to be either hidden, hated and ashamed of, or flaunted, coveted and debased.
But bad online reviews are bad for business. And Ten Thousand Waves isn't (wasn't) just a bastion for naked soakers, it's a "luxury mountain resort spa" intent on turning a profit. This is America, for Chrissakes.
"As a business, if we provide something that our guests want, they'll buy it," Klauck writes me after our phone interview. "If we try to impose our ideas in conflict with changing culture or customer needs, we die. Think Netflix. If they still just sent DVDs in the mail when their customers wanted to watch a movie, they'd be out of business today."
It's a valid point. Sort of. Except that DVDs are man-made technology built for profit and short-term obsolescence, while human bodies have been with us forever (or, at the very least, since humans have existed) and (probably) always will be. Except there are people on the planet who have never seen or owned a DVD in their life, and yet there is no one on the planet who doesn't have a naked body, even if it's hidden beneath their clothes and their hang-ups.
"This was a hard decision to make," laments Klauck, who is, essentially, stuck between that rock and its proverbial hard place, wanting to stay true to his vision, while sustaining a safe, welcoming and profitable environment.
It's tricky because sometimes the naked guests are going out of their way to attract a particular sort of genital-based attention, just as sometimes they're simply enjoying the sun on their skin, while the lady wearing the one-piece Speedo and the perpetual frown freaks way out about all these body parts she's not used to seeing because she thinks sex is dirty, and foreskin is gross, and couldn't tell the difference between her clit and her G-spot to save her life.
"It's too bad people cannot handle themselves or others completely naked," longtime local Ana Biel says of the factors contributing to the Waves' policy change.
We're living in some weird-ass times, inside a swiftly crumbling culture, on a planet that seems to be suffocating beneath the weight of our slumber. And sure, it's easy for me to take issue with a decision I judge as kowtowing to contracted consciousness and to wounds and hang-ups and perversions and thin skin. But I've never owned a business. I wouldn't know how to keep a luxury spa afloat for 34 years.
I suppose it doesn't matter. What's done is done. Still, I am sad that our sexuality is so out of whack, and I am sad that a handful of inappropriately expressive pervs and repressed judgy-pants tight-asses had to up and ruin it for the rest of us. And sure, I can always soak naked in the women's tub, but really, what are the odds that any of the ladies there are gonna be as eager to squeeze my butt zits as Ross is?
Dani Katz is a writer and artist based in Los Angles who formerly wrote the column "Hi, Desert" for SFR.
Santa Fe Reporter