body image · fitness

What’s going on when even the Europeans are starting to cover up? Poor body image crosses the pond

Image description: wooden sign on wooden post with
Image description: wooden sign on wooden post with “NAKED BEACH” handcarved into it, on a white sand beach, shrubbery, sand, surf, and blue sky with scattered clouds in background.

We’re long known to be all messed up about bodies and nudity here in North America. But even as a teen backpacking through Europe I grasped that sense of freedom and body positivity on the topless and nude beaches from France and Switzerland to the Greek Islands. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men and women in skimpy bikini bottoms or naked. It wasn’t “for adults only.” It wasn’t sexualized. It rarely (though not entirely never) involved leering and creepiness. It was just an accepted way to be at the beach or poolside or in the sauna.

Flash forward to 2018. More and more people are covering up. The Economnist article “Naked Europe Covers Up,” says: “In recent years, commentators across the continent have remarked on a new prudishness.”

And while some would blame it on immigration, there appear to deeper reasons than cultural difference in attitudes about nudity.  According to the article:

The rise of social media has made young people more body-conscious, reluctant to display anything less than perfect abs. Smartphones with cameras make risqué undress riskier. The #MeToo movement has forced a reassessment of even fully clothed interactions between the sexes, let alone naked ones. And the increasing ubiquity of online pornography is making it difficult to de-sexualise the naked body, a prerequisite for nudist beaches and unisex saunas.

People are worried about being captured naked and unawares on someone’s smartphone camera. Between that, #metoo, and the (purported) difficulty people are having separating nudity from sex make it difficult to regard a naked body in a sexually neutral way. This isn’t a huge shock to those of us in North America, who are so game to conflate nudity with sexuality that we can’t even deal with women breast-feeding infants in public spaces.

But it’s sad and true. Quite a few years ago I wrote about the way a week at a nude resort actually helped me break through a lifetime of issues with poor body image. I don’t love that post as much as I used to because it links to a radio documentary of that experience in which I made some judge-y body-shaming comments that I would not make today. But it is absolutely true that being surrounded by nakedness and people of all shapes and sizes, it took me mere days to gain a sense of comfort with my body that I had never had before.

And that’s why it’s a shame that the need to cover up is spilling over into Europe. The article contains an interesting discussion of mixed sex saunas and how it used to be thought inappropriate to wear a swimsuit because it indicated that you were sexualizing bodies.  Now, however, many Dutch saunas have introduced clothing optional hours and even swimsuit days to cater to a new sense of modesty among clientele.

I’m not sure if “modesty” is code for prudishness, poor body image, or the sexualization of nakedness, but if things continue to develop in this direction, next thing you know they’ll be hiding behind towels in European locker rooms the way they do at my hot yoga studio. (See “A Tale of Two Locker Rooms” for a years-old discussion of the difference between the young more modest vibe at hot yoga and the older, more body confident vibe in the locker room at the Y).

One thing I know for sure, when other people are covering up, it’s harder to feel comfortable naked. At least that’s been my experience.  Here in Ontario, for example, women are legally allowed to go topless. But hardly anyone ever does. And the more hardly anyone does, the less likely anyone is to do it. But when everyone is naked (or if most Ontario women went topless at the beach), it’s not such a big deal. It soon starts to feel ordinary and unremarkable. That’s why some naturist (not to be confused with naturalists) communities insist on nudity, not on “clothing optional.”

Have you ever been to a nude beach, resort, sauna, or any place where everyone was naked yet not sexualized? What did it feel like from a body image perspective?

7 thoughts on “What’s going on when even the Europeans are starting to cover up? Poor body image crosses the pond

  1. I guess there are a few explanations. Heightened expectations of beauty and perfection, for sure. Fear of being mocked on social media is definitely another. But for me, it’s come down to fear of the sun and skin cancer. I’ve had so many friends with skin cancer and had someone close to me die of it before 40. The world isn’t the same in lots of different ways.

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  2. Overexposure to harmful UV rays, and my pale, easy-to-burn, never-to-tan skin never has/never will put me in a 2-piece suit, let alone naked in the sun. It’s not a hang-up over body image or nudity for me.

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  3. I love a naturist experience. Those are always the times I feel the best about my body! Variety, lack of shame and an openness that’s non-sexual is a unique and special freedom. It’s disappointing (and a negative trend), if the number of opportunities for that experience are dwindling.

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  4. The quote from the original article makes it sound like #metoo has made everyone a bit paranoid, and perhaps people are overreacting a bit (or maybe that’s just my interpretation of the article’s tone?). But as we know, one of the key things #metoo and similar debates have actually done is to highlight how much some wrong things were completely normalised. Reading about that made reminded me of a debate that got quite heated in Germany a few years ago around the founding movement of the Green party and the sexual practices that went on in some circles associated with it, in the late 70s and 80s. Some (not all, but some) of that stuff was essentially rape culture dressed up as “sexual liberation”, and it took people decades to speak up about it. So maybe in that sense the heightened awareness is actually a good thing.

    But of course the question then is what the result should be – and evidently ideally it would be a cultural change that allows people to feel comfortable showing their bodies rather than being afraid and covering up.

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  5. I was at two events this summer involving nudity. One was the World Naked Bike Ride in Portland, with over 10,000 other people riding in public. I got comfortable with it quickly but it was more a feeling of “safety in numbers” instead of completely natural. The other event was Burning Man, where nudity was present, but not featured. It was just part of the scene, and no one paid more attention to it than any other attire. I didn’t go bare there, mainly due to risk of sunburn, but didn’t feel any pressure either way. To me that’s how the “default world” should look at it. We’d be a lot healthier emotionally and socially, IMO, if we dropped the whole nudity-sex-Original Sin associations.

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  6. Decades ago, I was at a nude beach in the Canary Islands with a couple of friends from high school. It was mostly deserted, which was helpful for our still-adolescent Canadian self-image. Then we spotted two elderly people coming down the hill, decked out in sun hats, loud shirts, big shorts, and hauling chairs, a cooler, and more. We all giggled about the anticipated reaction when they realized they were at the wrong beach. The were at the right beach. It was a huge wake-up call for me about body diversity and being comfortable in your own skin. At around the same time, I went to a co-ed guiding/scouting camp in Norway where we used a co-ed nude sauna, bunked down in large common rooms when on field trips, and where the English girls who needed their own room and private sauna time stuck out like sore thumbs. We hiked, canoed, hunted for wild mushrooms, cooked, played music etc etc in a way that seemed more equal, healthy and normal than almost anything I have ever done in my life.

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