A recent Economist article, found that nudism was in steep decline in Europe. Apparently the fond images of nudist beaches and topless tanning have been curbed by a social media era – young Europeans are too afraid to bear all with an army of smart phones slooming.

On top of this, in a hypersexualised society, where the dangers of sexual harrassment are more known to us than ever, young Europeans apparently are increasingly unwilling to shed their clothes in public.

But is this really the case? And if so, what does this mean to young Europeans? E&M investigates:

Justine, 30, France

When I was growing up in the South of France, it was the norm for women to sunbathe topless, and I always saw my mother and grandmother do it – those pesky tanlines, am I right? But by the time I reached puberty something had imperceptibly shifted, neither me nor my friend took our bikini tops off, and even my mother and grandmother stopped. I never asked them why, maybe I assumed it was an 80s and early 90s fashion coming to an end, or increasing awareness of the damages of the sun on the skin. Yet I was never particularly modest at home: even as a teen I would strip off in my bedroom and walk up the corridor to the bathroom in the nude, to the great despair of my younger brother who, I admit this now in hindsight, never consented to seeing me like that.

But outside the home it was different and I suspect it’s a French thing: don’t show anything that is not perfect. Had I been more tanned, more toned, I would have had no qualms about showing off that bod. This mindset changed when I moved to the UK for my Erasmus, as suddenly there was much less judgement on people’s appearance, less street harassment too, and more freedom to wear (or not wear) whatever you want.

Fast-forward a few years, still in the UK, I have joined an intergenerational community of artistic, counter-cultural folks who like to dance naked around bonfires. It’s a thing, don’t knock it till you try it. Seriously though, I’ve never felt more free to take off my clothes or keep them on purely based on how I feel at the time and not what society dictates is decent or not. We all share an understanding that nudity isn’t an invitation to leer or to touch, and when someone oversteps the boundaries they are quickly called out on it. We look after each other. The desexualisation of naked bodies and the absence of judgement mean that nude and clothed people can coexist in the same place, although there is usually a space for clothed people who do not want to be exposed to others’ nudity, and naked people respect that as well.

The desexualisation of naked bodies and the absence of judgement mean that nude and clothed people can coexist in the same place

Maybe the younger generations have been bombarded with images of perfect bodies through advertisement, social media, and porn, and many don’t feel confident enough or safe enough to seek out environments where they can enjoy being naked for the joy of it around people who respect them. They’re also more connected and better informed about the existence of other, “alternative”, lifestyles, and I hope this will lead to more societal acceptance of different levels of comfort with nudity along with a desexualisation of women’s naked bodies especially. After all, we’re the same perfectly imperfect semi-random aggregates of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Friederike, 31, Germany

Similarly to my co-authors, I also grew up in a household that was not overly concerned with nudity. We had a Sauna in the house (not bragging, it was tiny) and during the morning rush hour there were times in our bathroom when my Mum did her make-up, I (half dressed) fought for a place in front of the mirror, Dad was on the loo and my brother in the shower. Not ideal, for sure, but also not odd. Every holiday we would spend up on the Baltic Sea coast and as East Germans, nudity was just simply not a big deal.

Photo: a l o b o s (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Of course this changed a little when I hit puberty and this little change still sticks with me. For a while back I would stop wearing bikinis, change in my room, close the bathroom door with a key and hate changing at school after sport.

Nowadays I am proud to say that I am finding a new ‘whatever’ attitude to mine and other people’s nakedness. It does not offend me, I love it. Get changed once you get to the beach. Let your kids run around naked. Being naked around other people in ‘normal’ situations makes you realise that we all have normal bodies. It’s so beautiful!

Having cleared that up – going to a Sauna event with my co-workers though would still make me extremely uncomfortable. I wish I could say I don’t care, but I do. But I think I care, because I suspect that not everyone is at my level of acceptance or ‘laissez-faire’. When I look at you, I don’t think “Eurgh that’s gross please work out more” I think nothing, or I admire. However, I am not confident enough yet where I am above others looking at me and judging me silently – though of course, I cannot know what they think.

I am well aware that it is my very own insecurity that I need to fight and put into place.  I am sure I will get to that point one day though, maybe in a decade? I hope I will. Because I cannot wait to finally give zero fucks.  

I am well aware that it is my very own insecurity that I need to fight and put into place. I am sure I will get to that point one day though, maybe in a decade? I hope I will. Because I cannot wait to finally give zero fuck.  

In a conversation with my housemate the other day we talked about how getting naked for the first time with a new person can be so daunting – the nervousness if you like that someone so much, the excitement of having sex, the thoughts that creep in – do I look good in THAT position? She said she shuts these thoughts out. “Any guy or girl can be lucky to see me naked in the first place, no matter how I look. Also, we are both naked, it’s an equal game. And no one looks good with your legs flung over the shoulders of someone who then leans into your body. Show me one person whose belly doesn’t do triple love-handles. Do what you want – and get naked more often.” Preach, sista.

Niina, 27, Finland

Since the good year of 2009, my 12 best friends and I have frequently got together and hung out naked in a small, steaming hot room, one sweaty bum right next to the other. We’re all shapes and sizes, female and male, single and married, students, IT successes, textile artisans, army officers, peace activists… Here, we’re all equally naked and grunting when someone throws an extra bit of water on the burning hot rocks of the sauna stove. And there’s absolutely nothing sexual about nakedness here – it’s literally hot enough as it is!

Photo: Karl Gunnarson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | DDR Museum, Berlin.

I grew up going to a sauna with my whole family, so nudity was an obvious, natural state of being. I felt no taboo about it until the insecurities of teenage hit me, and for some years, I stopped going into saunas. When the cabin trips with my friends started, I was still shy about it, and I know some others were too. But the sauna is too good to miss out on with good friends. So I went, shyly at first, trying to be seen as little as possible. It took a few trips together to get over that shyness, but it helped knowing that there was a general agreement over a de-sexualised, natural attitude towards nudity.

In my grandparents’ youth, the sauna was a necessity to wash with warm water. It was heated up for a short time to save on wood, for the whole household to have a wash at the same time. My parents’ generation was the first to see the sauna in the luxury or celebratory sense, as society on the whole grew richer and running water and heating became a given. However, it also became more common for women and men to bathe separately. Nowadays the fashion is perhaps more towards mixed saunas among younger people again. Nude beaches have never been much of a thing in Finland – we get to enjoy that freedom regularly in the sauna and skinny-dipping at summer cabins. Swimming suits are often worn in mixed public saunas and on most public beaches, but are an exception in private or semi-private settings like student sauna evenings, even in mixed-gender settings where not everyone knows each other.

Nude beaches have never been much of a thing in Finland – we get to enjoy that freedom regularly in the sauna and skinny-dipping at summer cabins.

Personally, my attitude towards nudity changed drastically when I started doing capoeira, acrobatics and more dancing; it made me love my body as a tool that made it possible to do all these wonderful, fun things. The curves, the skin and hair – it all started to matter less, because that had no effect over how I could use my body. I avoid trying to project any certain sort of image of myself on social media, and if I do it’s mostly through text, sharing thoughts on articles, trying to bring more meaning into the shallow world of social media that often so negatively affects our self image. However, body positive media discourse is slowly increasing, and may hopefully make the virtual – and physical – world more permissive of different bodies and therefore of enjoying our own lovely bodies in their most natural state. Meanwhile, I recommend a trip to a Finnish cabin to anyone that needs more stripped-down freedom and equality in their life.

Nicoletta, 24, Italy

As a carefree teen on my European interrail at 18, with my fellow carefree friends, it seemed only natural to tan topless – how else would I obtain that seamless tan? I remember feeling empowered and impervious to onlookers. This was a moment for me and my friends to feel free and do what we wanted. When my mum, a staunch 70s feminist, saw me sunbathe with my whole bikini on she would persistently protest that young women not only can but MUST sunbathe topless – it was our new found freedom to do so and we must embrace it. Naturally as a young teen these words from my mother nearly made my ears bleed, but today as I reflect I see a decline in nudism perhaps as another evolution in feminism, rather as merely an increasing fear. Today, women embrace their naked body in a plethora of ways, whether in cleverly censored instagram posts, in selfies for themselves or others as we observed a few issues back, by going topless at the beach, completely nude in a nudist beach or sauna, or by themselves in the comfort of their own room.

Photo: Estonian Saunas (Unsplash); Licence: Unsplash

The important development is that the nude and anatomically female body to be exposed in public is no longer the benchmark for feminism. Rather, different expressions of the nude body, whichever form it takes, take a form of political protest in different avenues rather than just in public beaches. This tells tales of the way our generation is moving, towards being more inclusive across the gender spectrum and different expressions of femininity that aren’t just the anatomically female nude body that must be gazed at. To me, this ties in a lot with the outrage around the burkini. What enrages powerful cis-men more than anything is the impossibility to gaze at the woman’s body as if it was wholly theirs. So I think too there is much power in the growing covering of the female body in public.

Cover Photo: Jernej Graj; Licence:Unsplash

  • retro

    Thoughts and experiences of young Europeans from across the continent.

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