Germans Have Decided Nude Bathing Is Passé

FKK is O-U-T, and other reasons my world is ending.

Nude beach, Cottbus, East Germany, 1985. Photo: German National Archive

Well, you guys, this has been another pretty shitty week in the US, but in the spirit of counterprogramming and, I don’t know, worldliness maybe(?), let’s all talk about something important: naked Germans. So, I have some shocking news: The venerated tradition of FKK (or “free body culture”), a.k.a. Germans chilling on the beach with their parts out and such, is out of style. A clothed Heidi Klum (vielen Dank) has just curtly cheek-kissed FKK and shooed it off the runway.

But how is this possible? I mean, when you think of Germans on a beach, you think of naked Germans on a beach! That’s the whole point of being German! Using any convergence of dirt and water to hang out in the buff for hours at a time, and not give a good goddamn whether your body is sexually arousing to someone else! Without FKK, all that’s left is punctuality and telling people they’re wrong. Oje.

I mean, at least part of me knew that ubiquitous FKK was probably a myth. After all, I have not beheld a personage under the age of 75 on a European FKK beach in my entire life—although, to be fair, I have seen my share of young Germans take it all off just to swim whenever. In fact, my German boyfriend in college used to brag about not owning a bathing suit at all, before doffing it all and plunking into the Krumme Lanke. But that was the 90s. He’s old now. I’m old now. “Nobody wants to see” us naked, and apparently we (all of us, Germans and otherwise) don’t know what nudity means anymore.

(Wo)man’s search for (naked) meaning is, in fact, the theme of a delightful, meandering essay in this week’s DIE ZEIT magazine by Kirsten Fuchs. Her piece, which ran on German Unity Day, is titled “The Nudity Of Others,” a wordplay on that Oscar-winning film about East German espionage; it evokes both Fuchs’s oft-naked upbringing in the GDR (in Chemnitz, though it was legit called Karl-Marx-Stadt back then), and then examines the millennial and post-millennial attitude, largely negative, toward the casual nudity that Germans once took for granted as part of their dubious national health ritual, which involves as much prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light as humanly possible.

Fuchs describes how she and her husband (who grew up as a Wessi, or West German) found themselves near a body of water on a warm day but sans swimming attire—so they spontaneously hit the FKK section, which at least still exists. (FKK may be out, but so is Fraktur font and you still see that around, too.) The couple was having a wonderful time until a gaggle of German teens tromped through on their way to a different (clothed) stretch of beach, whereupon this happened (translated from the German by yours truly):

As is appropriate for their age group, they played loud music as they walked along the path, and could not pass the naked older people without letting fly a litany of sounds: giggling, gagging, ‘eeeew.’

The worst of American culture has corrupted the German youth in innumerable ways—from leggings as pants to drones—but body-shaming naked sunbathers who are just minding their damn business might be the worst of them all. This set Fuchs off on a rich, musing journey into her own childhood—where, she says, the clothing they had available in East Germany was so ugly and uncomfortable that in the warmer months everybody shed it as quickly as possible. She weaves this in with German nudism’s interesting (and sometimes unappetizing) history: Public nudity wasn’t made taboo until the 18th Century, she explains, after which time “only crazy people were naked in public,” such as hippies or, worse, Nazis, whose penchant for strutting their Aryan stuff in the buff “spoiled nakedness for the West forever.” Where she grew up, however, “being naked was done defiantly, a little bit of freedom in the ‘un-freedom’,” or Unfreiheit (OON-fry-hite), one of those German words that is perfect until you try to translate it.

It was only when Fuchs veered into the here-and-now that I became profoundly depressed. This is because some of the reasons that FKK bathing is “out” are unique to the German consciousness—but others are disappointingly familiar. Why is so much nudity sexualized, she wants to know? Why are some bodies allowed to be naked (“attractive” ones), but others elicit gags and theatrical disgust? “How,” she wonders, “can something that is so intrinsically connected to nothingness mean so much?”

As a solution Fuchs recommends immersion therapy, i.e., making the youth of Germany look at casually naked “normal people” a little bit every day, something to balance out the Internet full of pornography and advertisements for dominatrixes that adorn the bus stop where the Kindergartners board for school. (Of course, she also realizes that the omnipresence of smartphone creepshots discourage public nudity as much as prudism or obnoxious teens.)

Why can’t we just see a body and think: Aha? Or nothing? And not: I want to fuck that, or I don’t want to fuck that. Life is not Tinder. We are not in the world for the purpose of being found attractive or not. (PROFOUND -Ed.)

Now I appreciate Fuchs’ thesis as much as the next wannabe-East German: that after reunification (which Germans refer to as die Wende, pronounced DEE WENN-duh, literally “the turning point”), Germany as we know it now is basically West Germany, with the better traditions of the East essentially steamrolled in the name of freedom. I’m sure this is true, at least partially—and my own take is not unrelated, but it goes beyond Germany’s borders. Here’s my revolutionary theory: Globalization and the omnipresent Internet have made it so that in the developed world, everywhere is pretty much the same, and it pretty much sinks to the lowest common denominator of suckitude. (If I were a sociologist, that’s what I’d study.)

I guess the comfort here is that Americans such as me have been saying this kind of shit about nudity for years, but this is predominantly drowned out by the chorus of prudes and body-shamers, those legendary freedom-lovers they. That Fuchs sees fit to write quizzically about a gang of teenage hecklers of “unattractive” naked people that “nobody wants to see,” and Germany’s most reputable newsmagazine sees these ideas as novel enough to print, means that there is, possibly, a little bit of leathery, gleefully-tanned hope left. FKK may be out, but thinking critically about it isn’t. It’s a qualified win, granted, but right now, I’ll take it.