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'I took a deep breath': An American's first dip into German nudity

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'I took a deep breath': An American's first dip into German nudity
A sign for Wannsee's "Naked Beach" tells visitors they can't record or take photos. Photo: DPA
18:10 CEST+02:00
For one American journalist, swimming in a Berlin lake proved to be the (at times comic) moment of liberation she had hoped for.

Last month, on a listless Sunday in Berlin when it was too hot to do anything else, I made like the locals and took the S-Bahn to a lake on the city’s southwest edge.

On the train I did a bit of research on Strandbad Wannsee, the beach I was heading to. Berlin’s tourism site touted that about ten percent of the beach is “FKK zone.”.?

Having only been in Germany for two weeks, I didn’t know what FKK meant. It sounded like a militia, but given the context, it probably wasn’t. Perhaps it meant family-friendly?

Not exactly. As a quick turn on Google revealed to me, FKK is shorthand for Freik?rperkultur, or “free body culture” -- nudism. Well! I’d heard about Germans’ fondness for nudity, especially at its lakes, and particularly in the East. I knew immediately I was going to try it.

READ ALSO: The dos and don'ts of public nudity in Germany

A view of Wannsee outside of the 'FKK Zone'. Photo: Laurel Wamsley

The naked truth

Like many Americans, I can count the times I’ve been naked in public (or semi-public) on one hand. A couple moonlight skinny dips in the Atlantic. A gals-only soak in a tub at a Japanese-style spa for a friend’s birthday. And the one that left a lasting impression: A visit a few years ago to King Spa, a 24-hour Korean spa in the Chicago suburbs in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.

At King Spa, the pools, saunas, and steam rooms are gender-segregated and clothing is forbidden. As I sunk into a pool of hot water, shaking the winter from my bones, I delighted at a spectacle totally unfamiliar to me: women of every age, colour, and shape wearing their bodies openly and comfortably.

Scars, tattoos and piercings. Mothers and grandmothers, bodies changed by time and children.

The older Korean women seemed especially at ease, scrubbing their bodies and moving with purpose from pool to sauna.

I left King Spa feeling nourished -- my body warm and strong, my soul more connected to humanity. Why was it, I wondered, that it took a Korean-style establishment for Americans to take it all off??

Memories of that visit flickered through my mind as I biked along the wooded trail to the beach at Wannsee. Would German-style nudism be as revelatory?

Safety in numbers

The regular beach was thronged with people. I took a deep breath and turned right, toward the FKK zone. It was marked by a fence that began on land and stretched a hundred feet into the water, separating the naked from the clothed.

As I crossed into the zone, sure enough, clothes were in short supply. I glanced quickly around me, not wanting to look like I was staring.

Nearly all of naked bathers were men, but there were a few women, too. I set my towel down a few yards away from the only other young-ish women I saw, figuring safety in numbers.?

READ ALSO: A guide to Berlin's secret swimming spots - from the woman who wrote a book on it

I’d read that the beach had security guards to enforce the FKK zone’s clothing-free policy. A few people wore bathing suit bottoms, but not many.?

It turns out the prospect of being yelled at by German security guards scares me even more than being naked in front of strangers, so I quickly pulled off my swimsuit. Like any other responsible thirtysomething, I put on sunscreen, though it took longer than usual due to the additional terrain.

I gave myself permission to look around. So many men! Mostly older men in their 60s and 70s, and a few older women too. Toward the back were clusters of young, fit men lounging together. A pair of younger women were casually tanning. I was apparently the only woman there alone.

Wannsee in July. Photo: DPA

To the water, then! If I couldn’t wear clothing, I would wear the lake.?

I walked across the sand, telling myself I was not interesting enough to look at. These naked people probably encountered naked people all the time. This was a way of life, a kultur! -- some of these folks had likely been coming to this lake for fifty years.

A strange fad workout

At last I reached the water and I waded in...and waded and waded. Reader, that water was shallow. Fifty yards out, the water was approximately at my knees. I trudged along naked, as if being punished or doing a strange fad workout.

After what felt like approximately four hours, my body was submerged. I gazed across the lake to the woods beyond, a scene so familiar that I could have been at home in southeast Ohio. I looked back at all that exposed skin on the beach: I was definitely not in Ohio.

I felt the cold water all around me, and tried to appreciate the particular sensation of swimming sans a suit. I regretfully report that it feels not much different than swimming in a suit.?

I glanced toward the non-FKK beach, and suddenly realized that the fence separating the two areas did not go out enough to actually block the view of the nude from the clothed. Not only had the denizens of the FKK zone been able to watch me wading out -- so had everyone else. Hello, families of Germany!

I willed myself to swim a bit longer: I’m having fun! I told myself. Being natural in nature!

The slow wade back to shore was even more nerve-wracking than the wade out, because now I faced everyone on the beach, and they faced me.?

Despite what I’d read about naturism -- that no one really looks at each other’s bodies because everyone’s just so busy with volleyball and croquet and what have you -- that was not the case here. As at any beach in the world, the main activity was looking at people.

Doing my best to look and feel casual

Mercifully back at my towel, I laid out and tried to read a book. I pulled bag of Haribo gummy bears from my backpack and ate a few, doing my best to look and feel casual, just a totally normal woman eating a beloved snack.

Suddenly I found myself thinking about that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry dates a woman who hangs out naked in his apartment all the time. At first he thinks it’s great. But as he sees her do everything in the nude, he concludes that some activities are “good naked” and some are “bad naked.”

The image of his girlfriend’s foot straining as she tries to open a jar of pickles has been seared into my mind for two decades.

Was eating gummy bears good naked or bad naked? I wondered. I ate a few more, but I was not having a relaxing day at the beach. I knew I was doing FKK wrong, but it’s hard to undo a whole lifetime of body consciousness at the drop of a swimsuit.

As I tried reading my book but was unable to focus on it, I felt something I hadn’t anticipated: physically vulnerable.

Though I was slowly acclimating to others seeing all of me (and me seeing me in this new setting), I didn’t feel especially at ease being a naked woman around so many naked men. I was without my reliable armor of fabric, however skimpy. I knew I wasn’t in any kind of danger, but my brain didn’t seem to care.

Enough character for one afternoon

After unsuccessfully reading for a few more minutes, I decided I’d built enough character for one afternoon. I tugged my swimsuit on and immediately felt at ease.

Walking back to the land of the clothed, I passed a snack bar that hilariously bridged the two worlds: half the people in the queue were swimsuited, the others wore nothing but sandals. All of them were hungry.

Strolling around the regular beach now, it seemed ho-hum. Where was the thrill, the nightmare-inducing rules? It could have been a beach anywhere in the U.S.

I glanced back at the FKK, where in the water beyond the fence a group of naked older guys stood chatting in the sunshine. Suddenly I was envious of Germans, for having places to go when you didn’t want to wear anything -- and they’d made this practice mainstream, rather than fringe.

It’s hard to find that in America, the “land of the free” that doesn’t always feel that way.

I’d like to try FKK again before I head back to the States next month. Perhaps at a smaller, less busy beach, and with a friend to share in the jittery experience. When I go, I’ll be there with my same body -- a self that somehow I know a little better after taking it out in public.

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