Ah, Germans. Our efficient, humorless Teutonic friends have bested us (and the rest of the world) at soccer, and their domination of the grocery-store commercial oeuvre remains undisputed. They are better than us at cars, public transport, and bicycle commuting; at wearing tiny glasses, and at yelling at people when they break the rules. They are also better at not being big uptight prudes at the beach, where, a recent Telegraph survey revealed, when they are not showing off fluorescent Speedos or the bottom halves of tiny bikinis, Germans are the most likely people in the world to bathe in their Geburtstag-suits.
Nude bathing has a special German name, of course: FKK, which stands for Freikörperkultur, or “free body culture,” and despite what you’ve seen in Eurotrip, it’s less about sex or exhibitionism and more about convenience and freedom. In fact, it’s far more popular with older Germans than it is with younger ones, although young people are hardly prudes either. “I don’t remember the last time I went swimming in a bathing suit,” scoffed my 23-year-old German boyfriend back in college, as he doffed his clothes in broad daylight and plunged into Berlin’s Krumme Lanke.
At first this does not seem too far removed from American nudists (or naturists, as many prefer to be called), who also take part in a self-professed free body culture—one that is, again, not about sexuality but more about a lifestyle choice (though that doesn’t stop us from making gawky reality shows). But whereas American nudism (and even topless sunbathing!) is restricted to certain beaches and communities, it is not uncommon to see a German (especially a child, but often an adult) go FKK at any informal natural bathing spot. An exception—lest you find out the hard way like Nathan Englander—is public swimming pools, though topless sunbathing on the nearby lawn is ubiquitous.
I’ve done my share of swimming and bathing in Germany and Austria—always, alas, in a demure one-piece, a cover-up, and a huge hat, as per the vampire code—and engaged in etiquette discussions with many of my German friends. And they always express chagrin at opinions like the one held by modest-swimsuit designer Jessica Rey, who lectures people about how tiny bikinis turn otherwise Godly men into slavering assault beasts.
Germans also shake their heads at the quintessentially American aversion to the Speedo and to public nudity in general. For as frantic as Americans get about the public dirty-pillows-baring of nubile young women, even self-professed progressives seem to balk at the free flaunting of a diverse array of bodies, i.e. nudity that “nobody wants to see”: older bodies, overweight bodies, scarred bodies, bodies who dare to have birthed children and remain unashamed about it. Consider Jezebel’s Kelly Faircloth, who just last week scolded the entire Speedo-wearing world—on a site that prides itself on body acceptance.
You’ll never see a German shocked at the sight of a rotund 65-year-old man with his Schwanz und Eier semi-clad by a Speedo or totally nackt; young Germans frolicking bare-breasted by the pool will receive at most a blasé once-over from their male companions. Of course, if your religion (or, like me, your infernal pallor) requires modesty at the beach, then by all means wear whatever you want. But for those whose prudery (and dislike of seeing others) comes not from necessity but conditioning? Maybe a little “free body culture” wouldn’t hurt.