FREED NIPPPLES? EGALITARIAN BODY POLITICS IN GERMANY

TOM MCLAUGHLIN

APRIL 2018





It is well-known that Germans, as a rule, aren't afraid of showing a bit of skin. Freikörperkultur (often abbreviated as FKK), literally 'free body culture', is almost a national institution. The roots of the worldwide Naturism movement can in fact be traced back to Germany. How then, do German attitudes towards the exposed human form fit into the wider worldwide debate surrounding body politics, and how does it stand in comparison to attitudes promoted by equality campaigns, such as 'Free the Nipple'?

To tackle this question, we must first make sure we are all on the same page regarding Freikörperkultur, and ascertain whether it is a phenomenon of any particular political leaning, or if it's just a quirk of modern and contemporary German society. Its roots can be traced back to the Lebensreform (life-reform) socio-philosophical movement of the late 1800s, a largely apolitical phenomenon where proponents espoused the benefits of a return to a more 'natural' lifestyle. This encompassed education reform, vegetarianism, organic agriculture, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and nudism. Not only did early adopters of FKK believe in an array of purported health benefits provided by full-body exposure to sun and fresh air, referred to as 'heliotherapy', but they also held strong political beliefs on both sides of the political spectrum. During the relatively socially progressive Weimar-era of German history, FKK was propagated largely through membership to private clubs, which often had overtly political credos. German naturists could join specific groups to discuss either the struggle of the proletariat or the protection of the Christian ‘Fatherland’ while they sat nude playing chess and eating bratwurst. Under Nazi-rule, FKK-clubs alongside all other form of recreational nudity were quickly outlawed. However, soon a much less inclusive government approved Naturism law was instated, designed to reinforce the perceived superiority of the Aryan race. To this day, it is hard to ascertain whether naturism was politicised by the Nazis, or whether it was only naturist groups who held similar political beliefs to the Nazis that were permitted to reform.

Once the Third Reich was toppled, Germany became divided in two. The ideological backbone of each state differed, but naturism prevailed. In the East, FKK was initially banned, but due to widespread protest and civil disobedience the ban was rescinded. Subsequently FKK flourished in East Germany: naturist activities were allowed with a few stipulations, namely that 'naturism-clubs' as such were deemed exclusionary and therefore remained illegal. This meant that, in comparison to the West, where most naturism occurred within an organised setting, public nudity was much more prevalent and not confined to certain situations and activities. To this day, even after reunification and the relative homogenisation of German culture, FKK is considered more an East-German phenomenon than anything else.

Throughout the history of Freikörperkultur, it has been unclear whether the movement was a fundamentally political phenomenon, like the 'Free the Nipple' campaign, or whether its proponents were simply often banded together with others who share their political convictions. It would make sense, if naturism were to be seen as a hallmark of egalitarian socialism, as one's wealth, job, religion, and societal status are not present when they are standing wearing nothing but what God gave them. It therefore would be easy to draw parallels between the tenets of socialism and the egalitarian aims of the 'Free the Nipple Campaign', and that would be the matter closed. However, it's not quite that simple. While it is true that FKK enjoyed the zeniths of its popularity during politically left periods of German government, such as the during the Weimar era and in the GDR, modern day office workers in traditionally conservative Bavaria are equally as likely to swap their business suits for their birthday suits during their lunch-break as their counterparts in more liberal North-Rhine Westphalia. Freikörperkultur has occasionally been turned into a political talking-point, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is in itself a political phenomenon.

Despite Germany's lax attitudes regarding public nudity, there is in fact a history of naked political protest within Germany. From the student protests of the 1960s right up to the present day, nudity has been utilised by male and female protesters in Germany in varying ways for many different causes. Students have stripped down to symbolise the 'stripping down' of their education due to funding cuts in the 1980s; rioters have chosen nudity to symbolise their vulnerability in juxtaposition to rows of fully armoured riot-police. More recently, protesters from the radical feminist group FEMEN have scrawled messages across their bare chests and exposed their naked bodies in protest to a number of different causes, such as the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Music Hall’s decision to host a series of concerts performed by Woody Allen, an alleged sex criminal. In each of these examples, protesters have utilised the naked human form not only for its metaphorical significance, but also for 'shock factor' - a shock factor which is has not diminished even in FKK-loving Germany. 

The preposterous, hypocritical, and discriminatory female toplessness laws and taboos against which the 'Free The Nipple' campaigns are not really a German problem, in that Oben Ohne, public toplessness to us Anglophones, is not illegal. The only circumstances in which a woman can be prosecuted for baring her naked chest, is when someone feels so personally offended that they sue on terms grounds of molestation, an unlikely event to arise from someone merely not wearing a top. However, this doesn't mean that the naked female form is not needlessly sexualised for Germans in the online-sphere. Every single one of the top five most-used social networks in Germany censors any depiction of female toplessness, yet allows pictures showing topless men to be seen by any users without any sort of censorship or age-restriction. This means that the vast majority of depictions of female nudity on the German-speaking internet are pornographic, thereby sexualising something which is not normally regarded as innately sexual within German society. These websites, granted, were not created by German people, or specifically with the sensibilities of Germans in mind, however they still have an effect on representations of the bodies of men and women in Germany.

It is for these reasons that I don’t doubt that there are German supporters of equal censorship on social media platforms, and that the support shown by these Germans has a great impact on the movement. Germany stands as a shining example, refuting any possible suggestion that the widespread acceptance of the naked human form throughout society leads to moral corruption. Naked bodies don’t have to be pornographic. We are always naked under our clothes, whether we are old or young, male or female, disabled or able-bodied, light-skinned or dark-skinned – this is an unchangeable, oft-politicised fact of human existence, and Germans do their part to help us realise that nudity is okay.

To tackle this question, we must first make sure we are all on the same page regarding Freikörperkultur, and ascertain whether it is a phenomenon of any particular political leaning, or if it's just a quirk of modern and contemporary German society. Its roots can be traced back to the Lebensreform (life-reform) socio-philosophical movement of the late 1800s, a largely apolitical phenomenon where proponents espoused the benefits of a return to a more 'natural' lifestyle. This encompassed education reform, vegetarianism, organic agriculture, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and nudism. Not only did early adopters of FKK believe in an array of purported health benefits provided by full-body exposure to sun and fresh air, referred to as 'heliotherapy', but they also held strong political beliefs on both sides of the political spectrum. During the relatively socially progressive Weimar-era of German history, FKK was propagated largely through membership to private clubs, which often had overtly political credos. German naturists could join specific groups to discuss either the struggle of the proletariat or the protection of the Christian ‘Fatherland’ while they sat nude playing chess and eating bratwurst. Under Nazi-rule, FKK-clubs alongside all other form of recreational nudity were quickly outlawed. However, soon a much less inclusive government approved Naturism law was instated, designed to reinforce the perceived superiority of the Aryan race. To this day, it is hard to ascertain whether naturism was politicised by the Nazis, or whether it was only naturist groups who held similar political beliefs to the Nazis that were permitted to reform.