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Is nakedness out of fashion?

As The Globe and Mail reported recently, a University of Alberta study has suggested that some women may be avoiding the gym because of changing room self-consciousness. And lately, at a beloved Toronto water spa, something has been coming between women and water: bathing suits.

Billing itself as "Canada's first water spa for women," Body Blitz is a cathedral-ceilinged former warehouse where voices, like lights, are kept low, providing a ritualistic, near-spiritual experience.

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Before treatments, women can sip organic energizing drinks while moving between pools of Dead Sea waters and green tea. An aromatherapy steam might be followed by a cold plunge. The smell is citrusy and the experience is wonderfully indulgent ($54 just for the waters), but devotees swear by the soothing powers of water – yuppie baptism.

Jane Clapp, founder of the boutique Toronto gym Urbanfitt, has been a regular since the spa opened in 2005.

She sent me an e-mail about a recent visit with the intriguing subject line "No beavers at Body Blitz."

"I've never seen so many one-piece bathing suits in one place," she wrote. "I saw maybe three totally nude people and even saw women in bikini bottoms covering up their boobs with their towels… this is new."

Silvia Clulow, a Toronto artist, recently had the odd experience of finding herself and her mother-in-law the only naked bodies in a crowded pool. She first visited three years ago on a naturopath's advice and, back then, swimsuits were extremely rare.

"With everyone covered up, it feels like a resort, not a therapeutic experience," she says.

Another friend speculated that the divide was chronological: "The twentysomethings are prudes."

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The idea of being the one nudie in a pool of suits is, to me, akin to the nightmare of showing up for a final exam unprepared, with the added detail of being naked. Nudity works best as a mass experience.

It's like the "herd immunity" argument in favour of vaccines: The greater good occurs if we're all in it together, but only when everyone opts in.

When I recently visited Body Blitz, the receptionist told me it's still "bathing-suit-optional." I had my suit in my bag but hadn't made up my mind. When I stepped into the pool, the majority of the 15 or so women were in bathing suits. The two nakeds were on the high end of the age scale with me, late 30s and up. Many in suits reached immediately for towels as they walked between the pool area and the sauna/showers, covering their coverings.

The naked women weren't so urgently wrapping.

Attitudes toward nudity zigzag along cultural lines.

I've seen hijab-clad Muslim women swimming in India and nude German tourists buying cigarettes before heading back to the beach.

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But Genesis still has its grip: "I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself."

Outside the Judaic tradition, Greeks and Romans have worshipped the human form, but repressive times bring repressive garments. The puritanical Victorians were so fearful of flesh that even hands were covered.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the female body has been socially contested lately. In Canada, a backbench MP in the Harper government recently attempted to nudge open the abortion debate. And who would have believed that, in 2012, birth control would be an election issue in the United States?

Meanwhile, the hyper-sexualized, airbrushed fantasy of the female body remains –sigh – the cornerstone of consumption.

According to one American study, adult women feel worse about themselves within one to three minutes of seeing images of thin models.

Has the self-loathing become so all-consuming that being alone with our bodies, even in the safe space of a spa, is impossible? A 2009 article in The Guardian reported that French women are sunbathing topless less.

That grand tradition started in the sixties, but it's mostly the same pioneers who are doing it now. Younger women between 18 and 30 reject the practice. For their mothers, nude bathing was empowering; for them, it's objectifying.

"It's less about women feeling at ease and free," historian Christophe Granger has said.

"It has been linked to the harsh cult of the body beautiful, where no imperfection is tolerated."

At the spa, I left my suit in the locker. Being a near-solo-nude wasn't traumatic, but I missed that communal bathing experience found in so many other cultures.

In a naked group, sameness emerges among all that physical differentiation: no shame, no scrutiny. The naked part gets forgotten and we are just bodies, hoping to be healed.

Editor's note: A backbench MP in the Harper government recently attempted to open the abortion debate. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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