Tsst-tsst-tsst shhhh. Steam hisses from hot coals in the corner of the sauna, almost in chorus with the deep exhales of 10 naked women lounging around me. I've never met these women before, and I can't even talk to them in their native tongue, but here we are without even a towel to cover ourselves, laughing, panting, and chatting in broken English in a 19th-century locally run sauna in Helsinki, Finland.
If I'd completely understood what the night would entail when I agreed on a whim to visit Kaurilan Sauna with a fellow travel writer, I probably wouldn't have gone. After all, the prospect of getting completely naked with strangers in a small, remote cabin in Finland sounds more like the makings of a horror story than a memorable travel tale. But to unbeknownst to me at the time, that random night would teach me more about nudity, female friendship, and body confidence than any experience I've had since puberty.
So how on earth did I get there?
When our taxi driver turned off the highway and onto a dirt road that wound erratically through dense forest, I should've known this wasn't a typical tourist experience. I was visiting Finland as a guest of Finnair, the country's flag carrier that's ramping up direct flights to European hot spots and internally to Lapland, but this experience was strictly off-itinerary.
I exchanged a few furtive glances with the writer who'd suggested the late-night expedition, sure that we were being taken into the woods to be murdered, when the car came to an abrupt stop. Kaurilan Sauna is hardly a local secret—it made The New York Times 2017 guide to Helsinki's best public saunas—but despite recent press, it's retained the charm and character of a traditional no-fuss Finnish sauna. Don't expect plush towel service or subway-tiled changerooms here.
The unassuming cabin sits next to owner Saara Lehtonen's modest home, and only a handpainted wood sign tells us we're in the right place. I pad through the snow and push open the unlocked wooden door to find four women sitting around a log fire, some in towels, some not. It's a bizarre sight for someone who was raised in Australia and lives in the U.S. Since childhood I've been taught that skin is to be covered, breasts are sexual, and nudity is strictly private. Yet here, in this warm cabin in Finland, there's a different narrative.
Last year, Finland was named the most socially progressive country in the world, and it doesn't take long to realize their views on women and sexuality are vastly different to those held in America (or, at least, in my experience). Finnish women have equality when it comes to government (almost half of the parliament are women) and were the first in Europe to receive the right to vote. Culturally, Finnish women are raised to respect and own their bodies, rather than hide or be embarrassed by them.
"We are used to being naked in saunas from the time we are very young. We take our children when they are a few months old so they get used to the heat," says a mother in her 50s who sits next to her teenage daughter in the sauna. Both are naked and recline on the wooden benches with a nonchalance that presumably comes from countless sauna trips together. If I asked my mom to join me on a sauna trip in the buff, she'd probably think I'd made a terrible joke, but perhaps if our culture normalized female nudity, I'd feel as relaxed and at ease with my body as the women around me.
The undressing process is awkward but quick; I shrug off my winter coat, layers of sweaters and thermals, and finally, my bra and underwear. Eyes down, I grab a small towel to sit on and shimmy into the smoldering sauna room, doing my best to pretend I'm totally at ease. Inside, there's a distinctly female energy: Girls and women of all ages sit cross- or open-legged on the wood benches, chatter rises above the hissing löyly (a Finnish word for the sauna steam), and the air is densely moist with a scent that can only be described as, well, female.
"Nobody looks closely at each other—it's not about that," a kind-faced Finnish woman in her 40s tells me in the sauna when she hears my accent. "It's not a competition. It's completely normal for us." The Finns are introduced to the tradition from a young age. Women used to give birth in the smoldering room because the walls were lined with bacteria-resistant soot, making it the cleanest room in the house.
If you're apprehensive about partaking in a traditional Finnish sauna experience, there's basic etiquette to note:
1. Take your clothes off outside the sauna and enter naked. Finnish women aren't shy about disrobing, so try not to overthink this step. Check the sauna rules first, as many public facilities require swimsuits on unisex days.
2. It's considered polite to shower before entering. Saunas are considered clean, hygienic places—this is not a public bathhouse.
3. Hydrate. The temperature inside saunas can reach 212ºF, so remember to drink plenty of water before and after using the space.
4. Jump in the snow. It's tradition to take a break from the sauna and roll in the snow or jump into an ice-cold lake (yes, really). Embrace the experience if you're game!
5. It's not a competition. The Finns consider saunas a way of life and can spend a day talking, drinking, and sweating. There's no pressure to spend hours on end in the sauna—take a break from the heat if you start to feel lightheaded, and re-enter when you're ready.
As beads of sweat dripped down my face and chatter rose over the hissing coals, any hesitation about nudity completely disappeared. After three sessions alternating between sitting in the steamy sauna and dancing outside in the crisp snow, I felt rejuvenated. I get it—this is why the Finns are obsessed with the tradition.
"It's about feeling healthy inside and out," founder Saara Lehtonen explains. "You drink the water beforehand to cleanse your inside then use the bucket in the sauna to wash the outside."
It's past midnight when I layer on my thermals, sweater, and coat again. Two local women offer to give me a ride back to the hotel, even though it's out of their way, and I leave the sauna feeling like I've spent the evening with a bunch of close friends. And that's when I realize the real value of the ritual: It's a chance for women to come together without all the trimmings that cloud our judgment in everyday life. When we let go of constructs like clothing and shame, it becomes easier to see that no matter your size, color, age, or the country you come from, we all have something in common.