The Naked Truth About German Nudists

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The Naked Truth About German Nudists

Postby Maverick » Mon Oct 24, 2016 3:52 pm

Original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/t-mag ... .html?_r=0
The Naked Truth About German Nudists
by Alice Gregory

Note: My German professor told us in class today that there was an article in the New York Times about FKK (Freikörperkultur/Free Body Culture) if we were interested. It is an ongoing joke in my class about how comfortable (too comfortable, some would say) Europeans are in their own skin, but it's all in fun. I thought this was a great article so I'm sharing it here with you all. You may find it easier to read on the NYT site because of how long the lines are on this site (at least on my monitor).

A FEW YEARS AGO, a black-and-white photograph emerged of three young women walking along a dock with an expanse of sparkling water behind them. All were smiling and were naked, and soon after the picture appeared online, gleeful commenters across the web began insisting that the woman on the left was Angela Merkel. The German chancellor’s office declined to comment, and while many now believe the photograph’s association with Merkel to be a hoax, there’s plenty of reason to think that Merkel, who grew up in a small East German town north of Berlin, came of age frolicking in the nude.

It would hardly count as conspiracy theory. Public nakedness is common in the former G.D.R.: Of the 8 to 12 million nudists in Germany, the majority live in the east and are over 50 years old. One regularly observes men and women of all backgrounds — from dull public servants to service workers to members of the German intelligentsia — relaxing and socializing without any clothes. They read alone in the park or chat in groups at the beach; some prepare to swim, while others wash down bites of bratwurst with pilsner.

They consider themselves members of an informal movement known as FKK, an abbreviation of Freikörperkultur, which translates to Free Body Culture. Despite the aggressive-sounding name, there is nothing confrontational or self-righteous or even erotic about it. Unlike in America, where public nudity typically has gay or countercultural connotations, in modern Germany it seems to have none. What began in the late 1800s as a kind of philosophy of physical health transformed, under authoritarian rule, into a mode of quasi-dissident leisure, and then later into something more temperate, a culturally ingrained but ultimately apolitical national pastime.

SITUATED HALFWAY between Germany and Poland, the 40-mile-long Baltic Sea island of Usedom has, for decades, been a destination for those who prefer to enjoy their holidays exposed. They call it “Berlin’s bathtub.” Pine forests edge the shore, which is lined with spired, sugar-white resort hotels and studded with ingeniously adjustable wicker beach chairs that look like upright baby cradles. A rumor that in the village of Koserow one could see people grocery shopping and even going to the movie theater naked proved untrue, but the beach there, which is marked by a small hut selling pickled fish sandwiches and shots of caraway seed schnapps, was indeed marked FKK.

The human terrain skewed elderly, stout and wurst-colored; the area was crowded despite an inhospitable chill that few American beachgoers would suffer through. Near the spot where my husband and I plopped down — in our bathing suits, for now — a married couple (aubergine-haired woman; uncircumcised man) began the afternoon collaborating on a crossword puzzle. He fell asleep in the sand — prone, splayed like a starfish — and she woke him up by prodding his gut with a foam noodle. Together they wandered into the bracing ocean, dove in and remained in the 50-degree water for over an hour. Nearby, a naked mother and her naked teenage daughter each ate two apples apiece, burying the cores beneath lumps of kelp. Some bathers appeared appropriately outfitted for the gusty climate and came equipped with nylon half-tents, which, when pitched perpendicular to the shore, provided wind protection but no privacy at all. Most others, though, seemed unperturbed by the weather.

Those who were not swimming lay perfectly still, holding themselves steady not in pursuit of a golden complexion but in homage to some antiquated notion of fitness. Germans, known to credit oddly specific activities with salubrious effects (e.g. walking barefoot through damp grass), retain an atavistic faith in the advantages of full-body sun exposure, which was prescribed to tuberculosis patients in the late 19th century. “Of course it’s more healthy when it’s 15 degrees out not to have a suit,” a German musician told me, waving his hand with impatience.

NACKTKULTUR, THE OTHER TERM by which Freikörperkultur once went, has a disputed etymology. Some allege it dates back to the natural healing movements of the late 19th century; others claim it was coined around 1900 by Heinrich Pudor, an author whose early books promoted a vegetarian, nudist lifestyle, and whose later work was almost exclusively anti-Semitic. Well into the 20th century, outdoor nudity was thought to cure respiratory illnesses. Membership in early German nudist clubs — there were over 200 of them — was evenly split between men and women, and by the end of the 1920s, there were almost as many books published on the subject as there were about sports and dance.

Adolf Koch, a former schoolteacher who believed in nudity’s pedagogical benefits, founded a network of nudist schools, and in 1929, the Berlin campus hosted the first International Congress on Nudity. FKK groups were initially banned by the Nazis, but the practice soon returned and was wanly tolerated throughout the Third Reich. When authorities began to patrol Baltic beaches in the 1950s to prohibit nudity, there was an outcry — and many protests.

The culture of FKK persisted after the war, and became a means of escape from a repressive state. I met an 86-year-old retired United Nations employee outside of Berlin who spoke of his youth in the wistful way people do when recalling periods of politically inflected happiness. “We couldn’t go to France and not to Italy,” he told me, “and so we went to the Baltic Sea or to a lake near Berlin and took off all our clothes and we were free.”

The enthusiasm that today’s FKKers feel for nudity is tinged with nostalgia for this feeling of evading oppression. But there isn’t a bohemian subtext to the practice. On the beach in Usedom, I saw no tattoos or ethnic jewelry or patches of untrimmed hair. Instead, I saw people without tan lines, a fact that doctors apparently always note when treating FKK-beach-frequenting patients. There was cellulite, and stretch marks and ingrown hairs. Matronly nipples. Trembling paunches. Scars from cesarean sections and skin cancer scares. All the unsightly relics of life were there to see. It was grotesque at first, but with time — and a beer — the vista became lovable. Soon, it seemed not only vaguely embarrassing to be the only one in a bikini, but also unfair. I took it off.

The removal was a nonevent. Nobody cared; my relative youth went unnoticed. The wind felt colder but the sun felt warmer. Whatever self-consciousness is inevitably induced by those few square inches of Lycra vanished. I read my book and buried my feet in the sand. I waded into the waves. My bathing suit, wilted there, in a threadbare pile slowly saturating the end pages of a dog-eared paperback, seemed suddenly despicable: lifeless, damp, maybe even diseased. That it was something I had once picked out, bought with money I earned, did not matter, though it was easy to imagine hating it even more had it been from some government-ordained fabric.

Still, even in 2016 it seemed a relief from a lot: the puckered neon spandex, the oversize athletic logos, the irrepressible discomfort elicited by beachwear.

That this austere freedom was enjoyed just minutes from the seashore hotels, all of them sites of unrelenting ornamental abundance, amplified the beach’s virtues. The resorts, so pretty from the outside, had universally hideous interiors. Friends had warned me of it; they called it “heavy.” The pastel palette made even luxuriously large lobbies feel like nursing homes. The wood was pickled, the glass embossed. Fake orchids decorated every surface. But it wasn’t the result of negligence — in fact everything was irritatingly fussy — and it wasn’t the result of a tight budget, for the production values were actually quite high. But the place was saturated with an incorrect, purely superficial interpretation of plenty: Two sunken pillows on the bed, for instance, were topped by a single red rose. In lieu of one decent buffet meat, one could enjoy eight mediocre ones.

My husband, who is originally from Russia, observed all this with a sigh. He looked out at the chintzy dining room and was reminded of childhood holidays spent with his grandmother in Russian sanitariums — industrial vacation destinations that looked like high-rise hospitals. He felt distinctly unwell realizing how similar this part of Germany looked to Russia. It was unnerving, even for me, to realize that after almost 30 years a political system — not a cultural history — could still be imposing bad taste.

The next morning, as we sipped our coffees, I looked around the room and counted various pieces of decoration I despised, while my husband seemed to sink into a melancholy trance. “They don’t even know it’s not supposed to be this way,” he said. I told him he was being dramatic and suggested we go to the beach. We could go this second, I said, we didn’t even need to change into our suits.
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