Although I am loath to admit it, I am a prude. I never would have thought myself to be uptight before now but being faced with the Freikörper Kultur has brought me up to speed. I am 100% American prude. What is the Free Body Culture, you might ask? Why it’s the Society of Naked Germans, of course! And with the advent of summer, the parks and lakes are overflowing with frolicking, happy nudists.
I have never before been even slightly weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to lie naked in the sun. It sounds rather naughty and delicious, actually. That being said, I have rarely been faced with an entire city of people who can’t wait to publicly shed their clothing at the slightest opportunity. Summer is here or at least June is and even though it hasn’t been anything even approaching warm enough to be called bathing suit weather, anything above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently warm enough to bare it all. Nobody worries about shrinkage. One day I was happily cruising around Berlin admiring the greenery and suddenly the next, the view had changed entirely. One might have fancied oneself in a veritable Garden of Eden were it not for the tattoos and lack of strategically placed fig leaves.
In truth, this year I was well prepared. Last summer on a visit the boyfriend took me to a lake to replenish our vitamin D deficiency. He had warned me that everyone would be nude and that was fine, I’d said, but it wasn’t going to be me. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what was. We were surrounded by everyone and anyone you could imagine, as long as you could imagine they were all white; Germany not being the most color diverse country in the world. There were tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, beautiful, those not traditionally considered good looking, some obese folks, someone going through chemo, someone who’d undergone a double mastectomy, someone who was clearly anorexic, spider veins abounded, cellulite glistened in the sunshine, waxed and unwaxed, shaved and unshaved, if you can think of it, it was there.
As I looked around I was overcome with admiration for the group of people so comfortable in their own skin. So unashamed of their bodies as they existed; a foreign concept for most Americans, let alone New Yorkers who are constantly under pressure to stay at the forefront of the fashion and body beautiful trends. And I realized I was more conspicuous as the only one with clothes on than I would be if I just let go of my Puritanism and freed my body from its spandex confines. It was elating to lie naked and unnoticed in a park full of people doing the same. But I didn’t kid myself either. The only reason I could do this at all was because other than my equally naked boyfriend, I didn’t know a soul. There is courage in anonymity.
This year for my birthday, he took me to a spa to relax a little. Once again I was prepared ahead of time for the lack of clothing. Given the park experience, I no longer felt the need to take a suit. But when we got to the spa and into the co-ed dressing room I found I was a little bugged out. I mean, yeah it makes sense. We’re all about to be naked together anyway, why separate us for the donning and removal phase? But regardless of the rationality, I somehow felt more exposed fully undressing that close to strange men. Then in walked the Swedish bombshells who parked themselves directly next to my boyfriend and proceeded to disrobe. Wait, what happened to all the every-bodies I saw at the lake? Where were they? Why was I wobbling my sizable nether parts next to Sweden’s Next Top Model? This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.
But we wandered down to the sauna anyway. Walking through the rooms filled with spa-goers, I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I couldn’t understand why at first. It shouldn’t feel so much different than it had the last time, after all I didn’t know anyone there. But as I took a seat in the very crowded sauna, I began to be conscious of the people around me. These weren’t the naked folks I’d been at the lake with. Nearly everyone there was under 40, somewhat toned or put together and were all painfully, horribly, nakedly close together.
I am a natural voyeur, a people watcher. I love to openly gaze and wonder at the happenings around me. But when you’re sweating together in a small room packed full of fellow nudists, you somehow lose the freedom to do that. If you spend too much time looking at someone, you could be quickly labeled a sicko letch and excommunicated. So there we all sat, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, peeking out of the corners of our own to somehow get the bearings of our surroundings and not talking. It was awful.
Today I went to a beach with some friends and was shocked to see the sand bursting with colorful bikinis and trunks.
“Where are all the naked Berliners?” I asked.
A fellow sunbather indicated a sign that said in big, black lettering, Freikörper Kultur, and pointed down the beach. In that moment I knew. I knew I was a prude because I was relieved. I was so relieved not to be faced with the pressure to be naked with my friends. I knew I couldn’t do it. As they say, some things are better left unsaid, but there are an equal number of things better left dressed on my body and I decided to agree with my friend Juan’s assessment. There’s something sexy about a little guesswork, even if it is just a little. So although I may again lie naked in the sun it won’t be anywhere I might run into someone I know and you can rest assured my blanket will be far enough away from the next guy so I can take in the beauty of a park full of everyone basking in their own glory. Just don’t tell my mother.