Fancy spending some time relaxing with a bunch of naked Germans? It’s easy: head to one of the many saunas in winter, or a park or lake in summer.
Germany has a well-established tradition of embracing nudity in its many shapes and sizes. ‘Freikoerperkultur’, which translates literally as ‘Free Body Culture’, is based on a non-sexualised view of the body as a source of pride rather than shame or embarrassment. Nudist baths and beaches became increasingly popular in Berlin and other parts of Germany from the end of the 19th century.
This movement was in stark contradiction to prevailing Victorian attitudes of prudishness. While straitlaced Britons and puritanical Americans were stuffing themselves into corsets and suits and sweating beneath layers of prim and proper attire, Germans were sweating in an altogether different way, namely, nude.
Today, liberal Berlin continues to be a centre for those partial to a bit of frolicking au naturel. It’s 11am on a Tuesday and I’m dripping away in a sauna full of naked men and women. Sweat trickles down glistening skin as the oven fires up and the sauna attendant fans the peppermint scent she’s poured over the sparkling coals towards us. Two middle-aged men chat quietly about work.
The grandmother beside me smiles. ‘Ganz schoen heiss!’ – ‘Really nice and hot!’ – she says. A heavily-tattooed man lies down on the top bench, stretching his legs wide. There’s a relaxed ambience. Among these people – thin, fat, old, young, straight, gay, male, female – there’s no sexual atmosphere.
Emerging from the scorching sauna, I shower, rub cold ice on my skin, and sip peppermint tea. I feel the blood pulsating through my veins like neon sparks. My neurons are sheathed in a tranquil haze. Lying naked on the lounge beneath the trees outside, no one stares or gawks.
This sort of situation is hard to imagine in Australia, America or England, where there is generally a much stronger connection between nakedness and sex. Prudish attitudes towards nudity remain strong in the Anglophone world, where the body is often experienced as a source of shame. Statistics relating to anorexia, bulimia, obesity and other forms of self-harm are testament to this.
In Australia, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration reports that 70% of teenage girls suffer from bodily dissatisfaction, obesity among men and women has increased by 75% in the past 30 years and 9% of the population currently suffers from an eating disorder.
At the basis of all of these problems lies the question of the relationship individuals have to their bodies. Dominant beauty ideals, impossible to achieve and impossible to escape in a world filled with photoshopped bodies in the media, influence and often distort this relationship.
However, Anglophone nudists do exist. They just tend to have a much tougher time getting on with things than their German counterparts.
Take the example of Stephen Gough, otherwise known as The Naked Rambler. Between 2003 and 2005, the 56 year old walked the length of the UK twice, wearing nothing more than shoes and sometimes a hat. The “crime” of engaging in a bit of peaceful nudity has resulted in over twenty prison sentences and more than nine years behind bars.
In Germany on the other hand, the criminalisation of nudity is practically unthinkable. ‘Nacktwanderung’ (Naked hiking) clubs are not only legal but also popular throughout the country. Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s largest parks, is full of people lying naked and happy in the summer sun.
In winter, saunas like the Stadtbad Neukoelln are heaving with bared bodies of all sorts. Of course, there are codes of behaviour to adhere to in these places. Staring, making sexual comments or gestures, or taking photos is completely unacceptable.
So next time you’re in Berlin, forget all those silly stereotypes about uptight Germans and head to the park or sauna for a bit of naked relaxation.