body politics

From nudes to prudes  

  • For almost a century Germany has been famous for its easy way with nudity. Public nakedness is not seen as sexual or deviant but as healthy, natural and socially levelling
  • Now the cameraphone and the risk of exposure on social media mean that Germans – and Europeans – are covering up
  • Politicians and cultural commentators are wringing their hands. We visit German spas to ask why this is happening – and why it matters

By Catherine Nixey

Neukölln pool in Berlin was built in 1912, but its foundations stand two millennia before, in the height of the Roman Empire. Massive stone pillars line its echoing cool pool; curved stone steps lead down to its waters and stone animals spew water over its swimmers. Should a Caesar or Cicero happen to stroll past the kebab shops and graffiti outside and decide to drop in for a dip, they’d feel instantly at home. Float on your back and you will notice its ceiling mosaic, a twining design of ivy last modelled by the finer villas of Pompeii.

But stay on your back and you’d miss one of the pool’s most striking features. As I watch the woman next to me, possessor of an admirable backstroke, I notice one of her breasts bob briefly, pinkly, above the water then sink back as her arm lowers. Splash, bob, splash, bob, all the way down the pool. To my left, a bare bottom, rounded as the backs of diving dolphins, appears above the water then vanishes as its owner dives down. For the most archaic thing of all about Neukölln is that its swimmers are entirely naked.

Naked swimming, to an English-speaking mind, carries certain connotations. But before your mind drifts, it must be stated that these swimmers are not naked in a frolicking-naked sort of way. They might be unclothed but they are still German. They still wear goggles, they still pound up and down doing lengths. They still have stern words for you if you talk in the sauna. It is just that on Mondays and Sundays they do all this entirely nude.

Which makes the swimmers here not merely an archaic species but a newly endangered one. For Germany, once home of the happily nude, is increasingly home to the self-conscious prude. Like some sort of national version of the Fall, the country that once strolled as naked and guileless as in Eden seems suddenly, Eve-like, to have looked down, realised that it is naked, and started to cover up – swiftly.

Even Berlin – the city of Weimar decadence, of cabaret and Cabaret, of nudity and nipple tassels – is starting to cover up. The head of the city’s pools has noted that demand for naked bathing has collapsed. A Berlin spa recently changed its rules to insist that in its pool all members, as it were, should be covered. In southern Germany, one swimming lake has banned naked swimming; another is requesting a ban. Politicians have become involved: Gregor Gysi, a left-wing figure, lamented that Germany’s nudist culture is being “abolished step by step”.

Sunbathing at the open-air pool at Halensee

It’s not just Germany, either. All over Europe, people are reaching for their towels. A recent study found that half of Danish women between 40 and 65 had previously gone topless but do not do so any more. Today only 4 per cent of Danish women women regularly do – and 85 per cent rarely or never. In France in 1980, 43 per cent of women under 50 sunbathed topless. In 2017, it was just 22 per cent.

In Amsterdam, spas such as the swanky Zuiver spa now offer “swimwear days”. “Want to enjoy our spa facilities in swimwear?” its website asks above a picture of a woman in a bikini. “Every Tuesday and Thursday are swimwear days at Zuiver.” (Though, as an asterisked footnote firmly and somewhat bafflingly notes in bold: “*Boxing Day exception: No swimwear allowed on Boxing Day.”)

Bare Boxing Day bottoms aside, the trend is clear. And, to many Europeans, upsetting. It’s not just Gysi who has been mourning it. Politicians in Sweden and the Netherlands have lamented the new prudery. The Swedish politician Ida Karkiainen recently declared that “Naked, we are equal”, and insisted on the importance of men and women continuing to take naked saunas together for the sake of equality, as deals are often sewn up in the steam of the “textile-free” sauna.

To understand why this covering-up is causing such consternation, it is necessary to understand what nudity means in Europe. For there, it is not merely skin deep. In Germany, the phrase used for going nude is FKK, short for Freikörperkultur, a term dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Literally it means something like “free body culture” but it refers to a far wider ideal, hinted at by that “frei-” at the start. Do FKK in Germany and you aren’t simply losing your clothes – you are gaining your liberty, and more besides.

FKK was the Germans' way of liberating themselves from industrial lives

As Hilda Rømer Christensen, sociology professor at the University of Copenhagen, explains, FKK was “a reaction to industrialisation, which happened very quickly in Germany”. As dark satanic mills filled the cities, people started to dream of a pre-industrial Eden – and, in large numbers, joined FKK to make their dream a reality. FKK had, says Christiansen, “a whole ideology around healthy bodies and a merging with nature”.

Slip out of the restrictive stays and corsets of turn-of-the-century fashion and not only were you no longer stifled by clothes, you were also freed from social hierarchies, too. What did it matter whether you were a bricklayer or a bank manager? Naked, we are all the same. Indeed, naked, the brickie might look rather better. This was a world of open-air gymnastics and idealism; of naked camping – and of astonishingly frank photography.

Look at those early FKK pictures of naked Germans cavorting (the word is not too strong) in fields and they look like the sort of thing that might be a collector’s item among the more dubious sort of collector. However this was emphatically not, says Christiansen, to do with “sexuality”.

Certainly the spas I visit don’t appear to crackle with sexual tension. Christiansen suggests that this is less in spite of the nakedness than because of it:If you don’t see the whole thing the fantasy is much more lively than when you can see everything.”

Camping at Senzig-Waldesruh, 1989

Moreover with FKK naturism was as much about nature as nudity: “The nude body was seen as the most healthy.” Even today Germans retain an almost religious belief in the value of getting sweaty without a stitch on. Those I meet in the spas in Berlin speak in hushed and horrified tones about any nation who go into saunas wearing swimsuits. “The Italians,” they will hiss in hygienic German horror.

The modern attitude to the health-giving benefits of nudity is directly traceable to the early ideals of FKK – which in turn was based on ideals of the ancient Greeks. As Ian Jenkins, senior curator of ancient Greece at the British Museum explains, the Greeks all but invented the idea of nudity. That’s not to say that people hadn’t taken their clothes off before. Obviously they had. But when they did so in art it was unwilling and always shameful. “If you’re naked in Assyrian reliefs,” says Jenkins, “you are likely to be [being] staked or flayed alive. It’s as bad as that. You don’t take your clothes off.”

Then into this carefully covered-up world burst 5th-century Athens, with its democracy and liberty, its tragedy and comedy and, crucially, its gymnasiums and pert-bottomed statues. The world changed for ever. Previously, Jenkins says, those shown naked in art had been prisoners or slaves. From the time of Socrates onwards those who were naked were Greek gods. “A sane mind in a healthy body – mens sana in corpore sano – was,” says Jenkins, “suddenly the order of the day.”

Naturism was a family affair for East Germans in the 1980s

Traces of the FKK ideology were still clearly visible when Christopher Isherwood came to Berlin in the 1930s. “I am a camera,” Isherwood famously wrote in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, the book which inspired Cabaret. A camera, with “its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” One of the things Isherwood recorded was the nakedness of Berlin: the naked cabaret. The naked flatmate. The naked child on the beach.

Despite some Nazi disapproval, FKK struggled on through the Second World War and after the war not only survived but thrived in East Germany. The official FKK magazine was printed, featuring people with healthy bodies and a healthy disregard for depilation doing wholesome things in the countryside. Everyone stripped off. One photo (whose authenticity is hotly debated) appears to show Angela Merkel, very much pre-trouser suit, strolling along naked next to a bathing lake with two friends.

Nudity has become a trope, even a joke, in films about East Germany. In the recent Cold War series Deutschland 83 and 86, not only are there abundant scenes set in bathing lakes, there is also a scene in which a CIA operative is told that “the only time you’ll ever know that an East German isn’t wearing a wire is when he’s naked”. Which is fine as in Germany, he goes on, naked swimming is something that “they all do”.

But while FKK could survive Nazism and Communism, it is seems that it is unequal to the challenge of Silicon Valley. Today it’s less I am a camera, than I have a camera – just here, on my phone – and its shutter is open too. I also have an Instagram account, a Twitter account and a Facebook page and if I so choose then I can put your nude body up, in a second, on all of them, for all the world to see.

That, Christiansen thinks, is part of the problem. “There are not any safe spaces any more in public,” she says. “Everywhere you go, you are on display. If you go to the beach and you happen to have bare breasts, you can suddenly find yourself on social media.”

Not only does social media mean that young people are seeing fewer real – and realistic – bodies they are also seeing many more “perfect” bodies. There is now, says Christiansen, “this general dominant image of how one should look, with long blonde hair, slim, sporty, trained and toned. Look at Trump’s daughter; look at our own crown princess; look at your royals. You don’t see small, plump bodies in this landscape.” So if you happen to have a small, plump body, you may well no longer want to uncover it.

The judging goes both ways. The author Naomi Wolf has written extensively on feminism, body image and sexuality (her forthcoming book is Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love), and she suggests another reason for the recent reluctance to go to nudist beaches.

Previously, “there wasn’t an overabundance of opportunities to see other naked people”, she says, whereas now “the firehose of naked bodies on pornography has made nudity less special and alluring”. Once, young Germans had to take their chances at the local FKK nudist beach in the hope that they might catch a glimpse not only of naked ageing hippies but also of hot young things. Today, they can order images of the precise variety of hot young thing they want directly to their screen. “Instagram may have raised the bar of what you expect to see,” Wolf says.

Prerow, German Democratic Republic, 1977

Meridian Spa in Berlin is the one that banned naked swimming. It did so after looking at the market over the past five or six years and finding that there was less demand. As Anja the receptionist (who doesn’t want to give her surname) says, “the younger especially don’t like being naked”. They didn’t base their decision just on abstract market research. As Anja recalls, they had some customers who came, stayed for 15 minutes then returned to the desk and said: “We want to check out because we don’t like it if somebody else in the pool is naked.”

Though there is a paradox. Porn means nudity is everywhere – but Instagram and Facebook are American companies and are governed by American mores. And, as Wolf says: “In North America, nudity really has always been associated with sex – and often with illicit sex.” It is also, in many places, illegal. So while the internet offers young people an abundance of naked nips in online porn, it makes nudity seem odd, even deviant, in everyday life. “Nipple bans” are in place on many platforms, leading to movements such as the #FreeTheNipple campaign.

Tourism too, is cited as an effect, as is immigration. American travel guides to Berlin will warn travellers earnestly about the alarming local tendency to strip off in saunas. Now spas in Berlin and elsewhere are changing their policies in part to cater to this more prudish market.

Back in Berlin, things are not yet that bad. Vabali Spa is a fashionable Berlin spa that still offers “textilfrei” swimming – and is enormously popular. On a sleety spring day, steam-pink Berliners stroll between its buildings and sit, naked and contented as Japanese snow monkeys, in its hot outdoor pools. In the saunas its “infusion ceremonies” (essentially saunas with added smell) are hugely popular.

Am Zeesener lake, Senzig-Waldesruh, 1989

Nonetheless even Vabali’s customers recognise that things are changing. In its changing rooms I speak to Caterina Foti, a willowy 26-year-old blonde. She grew up, she says, in a world where nakedness was the norm. “When I was 15 we always went to the lakes in Berlin,” she says. There, she and her friends would “swim just in knickers” or nothing at all. Which, to an English mind, seems astonishingly liberated.

As indeed does Foti herself. Despite having a foreign journalist approach her in a changing room – something that would send most British women scuttling to the cubicles – Foti continues to get changed as I interview her, pausing her flow of perfect English only occasionally to disappear beneath her jumper, or bend down to take off her jeans. As she stands answering me in her bra, pants and socks, I find it hard to decide which I admire more, her perfect English or her liberty.

However both she and the friend she is here with, Tatjana Kuut, feel things are changing. The last time Kuut was here, two men appeared in the swimming pool with Speedos on. “I was so mad,” she says, “because the second someone is dressed and you are naked you feel so vulnerable.”

Lake Grillensee in former East Germany, 2012

They and their friends are not unaffected by the endless stream of “perfect” women online (“The problem for me is pubic hair styles,” says Foti. “What do you do with it?”) – but despite that they are still here to enjoy a day out. However the atmosphere among the next generation of Germans is changing. Foti’s younger brother is 15 and he, she says, would never go to the naked lakes as she had done at his age. And “this place would be horrible for him”. There is, she says, more tension for those of his age about looks. He and his friends spend their time “working out… They are more conscious of how they look.”

The younger generation are turning their (Lycra-covered) backs on nudity while the older generation still embrace it. This may be the beginning of the end for the naked rear end. But it’s not quite over yet. In the sauna beyond, another set of naked Germans cram themselves together for an infusion ceremony. As the sleet falls, they sit, close as cuts of meat on a kebab, gently roasting before the coals.

All Photographs by Getty Images

Further reading

Philip Carr-Gomm’s fun Brief History of Nakedness follows the story of nudity from Alexander the Great to air travel (“No hot drinks were served”), and opens with the unusual injunction to “Stop reading and start taking off your clothes.”

Michael Hau’s The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany offers a detailed history of the FKK – as well as reproducing some splendid adverts for “Steam Bath Devices”

If you want to dip a toe into the world of Weimar Berlin with its nudity and (eventually) its Nazis, it’s hard to do better than Christopher Isherwood’s wonderful Berlin Stories