My Life in Lederhosen: Getting naked in Germany
Germany's relaxed attitude towards nudity may make body-conscious expats think twice about western attitudes towards the naked human body.
No stereotype about the Germans holds more true than that of the Teutonic fondness for nudity. Kids in Germany 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 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 my daughter 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.
It'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, stripped out of their wet suits, changed 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 towards 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, 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 tell my daughter 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 her 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 my daughter 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 mum 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.
My daughter, 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 mum 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 Germanised yet, but I sure am happy to be leaving that American body shaming behind.
Milly is the pseudonymous alter ego of an American expat writing from Cologne, home of Germany's most visited tourist site and Europe's busiest train station. After eight years in this crossroads, she's finally accepted she won't be leaving the country any time soon, even if life with zee Germans leaves her baffled most days. Confused musings about daily life in Deutschland, along with frequent vocabulary updates of the not-so-safe-for-work variety of German can be found at My Life in Lederhosen.
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