This weekend some friends and I went down to Schlachtensee to beat the heat here in Berlin. Schlachtensee is a small squiggly lake in the southwest of Berlin:

mapI wasn’t too sure what to expect as I had only been to Wansee before (slight to the west of Schlachtensee on the map) and that place had a proper beach. Wansee also had a pay gate and a lot more crowds, which is why we chose to go to Schlachtensee. Schlachtensee by in large lacks proper beaches and people just set up their towels on the banks of the lake. This was a bit strange to me because I had never really gone swimming in a place without beaches before. (But then the more I think about it, the fact that this is strange to me is in itself strange…) Nevertheless, we set out to find the perfect section of bank, given that the immediate location where the train drops you off was over crowded with families.

We ended up walking for 15 minutes before we found a spot that was “good enough.” This place was a low lying area, concealed by trees, just next to a small stone wall. We set up our towels and blankets and sat down to lunch on the food we brought with us.

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It wasn’t too long after we had sat down that we saw an older couple get naked and wade out into the water. “Oh, so this is happening…” was my first thought. My other friends just rolled their eyes and we continued on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Although you can trace its roots back to Scandinavia, “Naturism” is relatively strong in Germany compared to other European countries. Freikörperkultur (“Free Body Culture” aka, “FKK”) was founded in Essen at the very end of the 19th century. The idea is that nudity is not inherently sexual or shameful. This runs very much to the contrary of the attitudes of the environment I grew up in. Here is the state flag of Virginia, my home state:

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Back in 2010, the attorney general started wearing a different version of the state seal, where Virtue (the woman in the picture) did not have her left breast exposed. American culture by-in-large loses its mind when it comes to nudity. The most famous example is perhaps the Superbowl XXVIII half-time show controversy where Janet Jackson’s right nipple was exposed on air for just a moment. She was blacklisted from all further Superbowl shows and the Federal Communications Commission increased the “indecency violation” fine from US$27,500 to US$325,000, per each individual “indecency.”

The mindset of the environment I grew up in was always very much of the thought that nudity, especially female nudity, was inherently sexual and shameful given that sexuality is sinful. Now that might sound a little extreme, and it didn’t always manifest itself in extreme ways, but nonetheless it was there. I believe I wrote about this when I first came to Germany. It’s not uncommon to see naked female breasts in news magazines or advertisements. I’ve spoken to a few of my European friends about this subject and they’ve all remarked in one way or another how absurd it is to want to “protect the children from the sight of a boob.” I’m very much inclined to agree with them.

I can’t help but feel a parallel here with “offensive words.” A word is a word. It’s meaning is all in how you interpret it. There is no such thing as an “offensive word,” rather, only “people who take offense to certain words.” I feel like nudity is much the same. There is nothing inherently sexual about the human body. It’s only when you look at something sexually does it become sexualized.

As the day at the lake continued, I saw more and more people go skinny dipping and it wasn’t a big deal. Nobody was freaking out, nobody commented on it, nobody felt ashamed of it, it was just natural. Nevertheless, I imagine it will still take some time for me to become deprogrammed to be surprised at the sight of it.

For the rest of the day we ended up renting a pair of stand up paddle boards and Insa and I took turns paddling around the lake.

She flipped us twice…