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?