Photo by Jernej Graj (Unsplash), Unsplash licence

E&M Lisa O’ Leary reassess her relationship with nudity as a lapsed Irish Catholic living in Germany

It’s hard being an Irish-European. We grew up on a tiny Island far away from the rest of Europe, our closest neighbours are the British, we don’t speak any foreign languages, we have no experience with a hot climate and we’re not very sexy. While the rest of Europe is sipping espressos and being polyglots, the Irish are busy applying factor 50 and fighting over indoor dinning.

It’s not all bad though. We are a nation of many talents. One, in particular, being the unique power of getting undressed in public without anyone ever seeing us naked. It is a technique learned from a very young age, handed down to us by our elders who were masters in the art of camouflage. Have you ever seen a naked Irish person? Exactly! (flashing at a football game doesn’t count).

From an early age, I had proudly perfected the ability of getting into my swimwear *without* having to remove my underwear first (if you know, you know…). Everyone in swim class could perform this optical trickery in somewhat impressive record time. We were like some kind of ridiculous martial arts academy – skilled only in the art of changing clothes. Superman in the phone booth was our Sensei. There is no such thing as “topless sunbathing” along our coastal waters and you can forget about any of these so-called “nudist beaches”. It is, in fact, illegal. (Section 18 of The criminal Law (Amendment) act 1990).

In summary: nudity = bad. Modesty = good.

Cut to me standing in the changing rooms of my German gym. A sea of exposed flesh – bending and reaching in every direction. A myriad of nipples attached to various shapes and sizes. Not a towel or a technique in sight! If this isn’t culture shock, I don’t know what is. Am I allowed to be here?

Gif by Giphy. Giphy licence.


It had occurred to me during my European travels that nudity – despite my prior, limited experiences – is not, in fact, a big deal. You do not burst into flames if you disrobe on the beach and to my utmost surprise, the rivers do not turn to blood when you reject a wrapped towel in the changing rooms. So where did all of these hard-learned concealing efforts come from? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that growing up in an oppressed, strict catholic country has left many generations feeling ashamed and embarrassed of their bodies. As I stand stark naked in the communal showers with my fellow female gym-goers, I feel angry I was ever made to think my body was considered some sort of “vessel of shame”.

Gif by Giphy. Giphy licence.

Shame, when undressing, feels like a constant battle between personal belief versus cultural indoctrination: My brain knows it’s ok to be naked but my body is fighting it. My cultures uncomfortable relationship with nudity is literally embedded into my motor skills! It’s a powerful feeling (it’s also probably an amusing sight but thankfully no one ever looks up to notice because – again – no one cares that you’re naked!). After much trial and error I think I may have finally arrived at the *Zero Shame Zone*. A place where where getting naked is a practicality and your body is respected and free from judgement. Where have you been all my life zone of zero shame?!

As I stand stark naked in the communal showers with my fellow female gym-goers, I feel angry I was ever made to think my body was considered some sort of “vessel of shame”.


My German gym changing rooms are now a place of liberation and freedom. What once felt like an awkward tug of war between brain and body is now a space of solace and safety. There is no panic covering at the risk of revealing a flash of nipple or uncomfortable balancing acts when attempting to pull off wet togs! Just a community of friendly women getting their workout in.

This act of worrying less and embracing more has -interestingly- forced me to review our entire relationship with our bodies. Aside from being told the naked body is offensive or shameful, we are also expected to feel insecure and doubtful of our physical selves. Not proud or grateful – but shameful and judgemental. Disrobing so frequently these days has shown me what a lie this all is. A scam. A dirty rouse thrown together by toxic cultures and greedy industries to make us think our bodies always have something wrong with them! Now however, having ample opportunity to look, it really follows a similar theme to the popular nudist story of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’: non-existent. Kept alive only by those who encourage it.

I’m not a full convert just yet. The thought of doing all this in Ireland is fairly terrifying. But I think of writer and activist Amy Pence Browns quote and am reaffirmed we’re on the right path:

“In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”


Cover photo by Jernej Graj on Unsplash

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    Lisa O' Leary is a freelance video producer and writer originally from Ireland, now living in Hamburg. She studied Multimedia Communications in Ireland and Human Rights Law & Film abroad.  She has a passion for impact storytelling and mostly produces video content for NGOs or documentaries.

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