Getting Naked in Germany

No stereotype about the Germs holds more true than that of the Teutonic fondness for nudity. Kids here run around without bathing suits until just before puberty, after which there’s about a five year period where disrobing is done in the locker room without much shame before the teenies discover the strangeness that is singles’ night at the mixed-gender sauna, complete with disco balls and strobe lights, and corporeal shame is left in the locker room with the trousers and pants.

I wish I could say all this nakedness bothers me, because I’m American and Americans believe bodies are evil and wrong to look at (unless we’re paying to do so), but after seven years in Germany, I’m a bit more “to each his own” about it. Don’t get me wrong — I do believe in a time and place for nudity. I’m really not okay with other adults stripping down in the park in full view of everyone just because the sun has shined for the first time in what feels like a decade. I am an expert eye averter but that doesn’t mean I don’t *notice* nudity around me.

Still, I don’t think that when the weather is sweltering it’s such a godawful idea to let the Diva run around in the buff on the balcony. Or to strip down to jump in the lake, even if the bathing suit was left behind in the car.

no nudityIt’s taken me a while to get to this point. The first time I met my friend Ingrid’s parents, they invited us to go swimming at a local hole, hiked us down a little path in the woods, and stripped naked (except, ahem, for the standard black trouser socks and Birkenstocks, which were later left on the lakeshore) before putting their own bathing suits on. My jaw still hadn’t properly shut by the time they’d swum across the lake and back and stripped out of their wet suits and back into their practical summer gear and asked me what my problem was, why I was still standing on the shore in my bathing suit, dry. At that point, I don’t think I’d even seen my own mother naked in decades, and my mother was extremely open, so having to look Ingrid’s parents in the eye after that was impossible.

My membership at a sauna has really worked toward changing that for me, at least in terms of my own acceptance of other people showing off their bodies. Though that’s not putting it correctly, because for Germans, it’s not showing off. It’s getting naked and it doesn’t matter. Just like not a single German I knew was shocked by Bravo magazine (and were shocked, instead, at my shock), no German I know seems to get it when I talk about how weird it is to be sitting side by side with dozens of nude, sweaty people.

You sure won’t see any Germans writing blog posts about how uncomfortable they are with stripping down and doing the sauna thing (even though the SEOs on those posts would jumpstart their blogs). You won’t see me doing it, either, really — Resident on Earth created a nice guide for the newcomers on her blog — as I have become the master at staying as fully dressed as possible in the sauna (hint: wrap an extra-large bath towel under your robe) so I don’t find it uncomfortable at all. At least, not during the hours of 10 and 12 on non-holiday weekdays, which are the only times my ass is sprawled out on a towel (careful not to drip a drop of sweat on the wood) because that’s when the sauna is empty.

I will, however, say this: although I’m still not a fan of running around without clothes on myself, at least not in broad daylight, and you won’t see me playing beach volleyball (or frisbee, whatever) at an FKK campground, I think that being forced to confront every inch of your body — and being faced with every inch of other peoples’ bodies, not airbrushed — has really helped me overcome body issues that growing up American ingrained in me. And I’m doing it now, faking it a bit when I say it’s no big deal that that other kid’s wee-wee is hanging out while they’re splashing in the mud at the playground, because I don’t want the Diva growing up feeling ashamed of her body. I’d much prefer her to be German in that regard. Maybe not stripping down to her black socks in the park at the first sight of sun. But to be proud enough of her very normal body so as to not turn her chest to the wall of lockers, even in a single-gender locker room, is a real plus when it comes to being a woman in the world today.

In California this year, I got my first taste of how well that worked and it was pretty amazing to witness this cultural difference. While Diva stood in the locker room at the swimming pool naked, gnawing on her fruit leather while I changed out of my dripping bathing suit, a family of four girls and their mom all walked in, hid in the corner, and began to discuss why there was a girl without any clothes on. As if seeing a naked toddler was the biggest, worst thing to ever happen to them. Diva, German as she is, remained oblivious to the uproar she was causing to this family by nature of her god-given existence (especially the problems she was causing this mother who simply could not fathom why my daughter did not have her robe wrapped around her body and repeatedly told her kids as much). And so instead of getting all worked up and covering her up as that mom would’ve liked me to have done, I took off my own suit and walked with her through the locker room toward the toilets, leaving the towel behind on the bench. I may not be fully Germanized yet, but I sure am happy to be leaving that American body shaming behind.

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13 thoughts on “Getting Naked in Germany

  1. Janis Felidae May 21, 2013 / 8:03 am

    To be honest I find the socks-in-sandale-thingy more embarrassing than any nudity 😉

    Your post reminds me to an interesting article (in 2009) on “USA erklärt/USA explained” about the cultural difference or rather about the (German) prejudice of “the prude American” … here´s a link to the article http://goo.gl/UF7gV – pretty long read and in German. It explains as a roughly rule that nudity in public is frown upon if kids are around. The other way round the article points to brands like “Playboy” or movies like “Sex and the city” … however, an interesting read, an interesting blog at all, I find.

    • Milly May 21, 2013 / 1:00 pm

      Love it — that’s a great post! I always thought it funny how burlesque could be a thing in the US but not over here, and this is exactly why… “Amerikaner machten nebenbei aus dem pin-up so etwas wie eine Kunstform. Das wurde in Deutschland zuerst nicht gewürdigt – Betty Grable ist hierzulande trotz How to Marry a Millionaire wenig bekannt – vermutlich weil man damit beschäftigt war, auf die entsprechend verzierten Flugzeuge zu schießen.”

  2. barbtaub May 21, 2013 / 9:21 am

    I thought all modesty was eliminated after my years at all-girls school. But to really make sure that any lingering traces are eliminated, one only has to give birth in a large metropolitan hospital. If there was anyone there, probably including the janitorial staff, who didn’t end up with an up-close and personal intro to whatever my girl parts were oozing out, I would be surprised.

    • Milly May 21, 2013 / 12:58 pm

      Oh my god, totally relate to the birthing process. Between ripping my shirt off as I walked in the door and wandering the labor and delivery ward in the buff right after the birth, the whole damned hospital saw me in the nude. No modesty or paper gowns allowed, though a midwife did chase me down to wrap a sheet around my shoulders (likely to keep the other moms from going into shock).

      Which is why instead of appreciating the “beauty” in all these pictures: http://birthphotographers.com/2012-international-association-of-professional-birth-photographers-image-of-the-year-competition/ , my reaction was, like, “What, they’re wearing bras? Those poor women….”

  3. Amara May 21, 2013 / 11:34 am

    Haha, so true! I live in Austria and here it can happen that you blink and PAFF! suddenly the person you were chatting with is fully naked.

    Once my cousin was visiting and we went for a picnic and she wandered off a bit and then hurried back to me with big eyes telling me that THERE WAS A SEX MANIAC!!!
    Turned out the molester was a distinct Herr in his late sixties, who was having a quite stroll in the buff.

    • Milly May 21, 2013 / 1:02 pm

      I got way more used to the idea of nudity after being a mom. I’d be holding a nice, adult conversation and suddenly there was a nipple in front of me. I’ve now seen the breasts of every German mom I know and it’s not such a big deal. But these dudes who just wander through the park. Gotteswill people, keep your clothes on! It’s not that damned hot out.

      • Amara May 21, 2013 / 1:19 pm

        But what about my ongoing battle with tan marks? They don’t get such problems!

        Truth to be told, this was not in an urban park, but in the real Nature. Here you won’t see much nudity in the city, just bra and undies are common – in parks, but also in shops if the changing rooms are crowded.

      • Milly May 21, 2013 / 1:25 pm

        Tan lines? You need the sun for those…. 🙂

        The only place I seem to be free from seeing women in their bras in Germany, funny enough, is at the gym. While my gym in the US has a sign reminding women *not* to work out in only a sports bra, at my gym here, no one dares to bare. Go figure.

  4. Had a few beers May 23, 2013 / 3:31 pm

    I can’t like this enough. I keep meaning to go back and do another, more serious, post about Germans and their acceptance of the human body, in all it’s shapes and sizes.

  5. ebe October 22, 2013 / 9:00 am

    Fascinating! I don’t think a newbie like me is ready for friend’s parents nudity….ever.

    • Milly October 28, 2013 / 9:25 pm

      I admit, it was difficult to see at first, but since I’ve become a sauna pro, I’ve gotten a bit more comfortable with the sagged look. Don’t know I’d like to see any of my friends’ parents again, but I have become a pretty expert eye averter so may not ever have to repeat that shock, thankfully. Here’s to you two on your bravery, though, and wishing you more good nude times to come.

  6. Jana Herwig October 20, 2015 / 11:04 am

    Well, well:) The other day, I went to the sauna (which I was introduced to rather late in life) in my gym and tought: Wow, it’s so great that we have places here where men and women can strip naked next to each other and nobody thinks its for titillation. It would be such a loss if we didn’t have this! (@digiom from twitter)

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