Naked Europe covers up
The decline of naturism in Europe.
Is life better in the nude? On the European continent there are many who would answer yes to that. In France, top naturist destination worldwide, nearly 2.6 million people regularly practise naturism. The city of Munich, in Germany, has six specified zones allocated for naturists, including in some of its central parks. However, recently, this practice has begun to decline in Europe.
Naked, we are equal,” proclaims Ida Karkiainen. The Swedish MP is addressing a packed hall at the 17th International Sauna Congress in Tornio, Finland. She draws a round of applause from the crowd, a mix of sauna entrepreneurs and enthusiasts from Europe and Japan, along with a few North Americans.
2. It is hard to imagine such a speech being made by a politician anywhere outside Europe. Beginning in the late 19th century, ideas about freedom, equality, health, sexuality and public space came together to create a distinctly European enthusiasm for going unclothed. In Scandinavia the focus was the sauna. In Mediterranean countries it was the beach. In Germany it was everywhere: the country’s Freikörperkultur (“free body culture”, or FKK) encourages stripping off while gardening, playing sports or taking lunch breaks in the park.
3. Yet Europe’s taste for bare skin is in retreat. Nudist beaches and resorts, topless sunbathing and nude unisex saunas are declining. Football teams report that players are unwilling to remove their underwear to shower after matches. In recent years, commentators across the continent have remarked on a new prudishness.
4. The retreat of nudity has unpredictable political overtones. During Germany’s election campaign in 2017, Gregor Gysi, the leader of the Left party, lamented the conservative turn represented by the decline of FKK, which had been strongest in the former East Germany. In the Netherlands, the issue is more often in- voked on the right. In 2016 Mark Rutte, the centre-right prime minister, worried about a future in which nude beaches have vanished because the country has “surrendered to the wishes of a cultural minority”—by which he meant Muslims.
5. But while immigration plays a role in Europe’s increasing modesty, other factors are more important. 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.
THE SAUNA CASE
6. If any space is more embarrassing for non-European tourists than a French nude beach, it is a German or Dutch sauna. They are e unisex and naked by default. All l bodies, thin, fat, young or old, are treated nonjudgmentally. The one thing that will earn a disapproving stare is wearing clothing, because such modesty implies an inappropriate level of sexual consciousness.
7. T The latest German innovation is t the aufguss (“infusion”) sauna, in which nude audiences enjoy La Las Vegas-style performances by muscular, towel-swirling em emcees who infuse the steam with herbal aromas. The paradigmatic Dutch sauna might be Z Zuiver (“Pure”), a spa complex o outside Amsterdam whose n name subliminally links nakd kedness with hh the country’s nothing-to-hide Calvinist morality. Yet in 2011 Zuiver introduced swimwear days, currently three per week. Most Dutch saunas now have clothingoptional hours. Fear of unwanted photos is not a problem: mobile phones must be handed in at the door. But sauna owners say that with mores changing, they need to appeal to potential clients who are more bashful, whether because they are young or from conservative immigrant backgrounds.
8. There are pockets of Europe where social nudity is getting a second wind. Jesce Walz, an architecture student researching saunas, notes a wave of hip new public ones in Finland, where they were once mainly found in private homes. In Sweden, more mixed-sex saunas are opening. French nudists say urban gettogethers such as nude bowling nights are packed, though overwhelmingly with men. But the vision of nakedness as a demonstration of freedom and equality seems to be faring less well.