In which I reflect on nudity, swimming clothes, and words from Katherine Mansfield
Germans strike me as remarkably comfortable with nakedness. Where public nudity is more or less illegal in most of the U.S., that is not the case here.
The textbook used in my language course includes a two-page spread of a cruise ship filled with people, many of whom are nude. We were supposed to recite sentences aloud to explain what activities took place on the different decks of the ship: dining on decks 5 and 10, swimming on 11, massage on 3, etc. The fact that this was a cartoon illustration and not a photograph didn’t make it any less surprising to see. When one of my classmates asked our instructor why so many of the people on this fictional cruise ship were naked, she walked over to the whiteboard and wrote three letters in: FKK. “Das ist normal,” she announced. A few weeks later, when I was perusing a German flatshare website, I came across an ad written by someone who was trying to establish an entirely nude flat. Even though it’s not exactly part of mainstream culture, the concept of Freikörperkultur did start here, so perhaps I shouldn’t be feel so surprised in these types of situations.
In one of the later stories from Katherine Mansfield’s In A German Pension, titled “The Luft Bad,” she recalls the experience of spending a day at an outdoor swimming pool or lake of sorts (it’s not entirely clear which.) Her embarrassment at seeing “fellow-bathers walking around very nearly ‘in their nakeds’” is something that I found somewhat relatable, based on my experience of the German attitude towards nudity thus far…. even though it seems like at least some of the people in this story are wearing swimsuits. She reports feeling self-conscious about her legs, and ducking away to to look at her watch on multiple occasions. There is even a brief exchange with another woman, who asks first if Mansfield is an American and then if she is English. The German woman goes on to say, “You must be one of the two; you cannot help it. I have seen you walking alone several Times. You wear your –” before an abrupt shift from dialogue to action. It’s a stereotype that the English tend to be quite modest people, and my English friends absolutely confirm this, but perhaps the German (or at least European) perception of Americans is similar. I found this passage amusing.
It’s only March, and therefore too cold for nude or semi-nude sunbathing at the lake, but apparently this is something that I am supposed to look forward to in the summer months. Nudity isn’t the draw, of course; it just so happens that people aren’t wearing clothes, but there is nothing inherently sexual about it, or so I am told. One friend explained that, “It’s mostly East Germans, and it’s mostly older people who you wouldn’t want to see naked anyway.” I am very freaked out by the prospect of encountering this – or worse, being in a situation where I am expected to participate (i.e., being the only person who is wearing clothing or a swimsuit) – and can say with absolute certainty that this is one aspect of the culture which I will not be taking part in.
(Image: a few of the nude cruisers from my textbook)