“Naked and proud.” In international circles, the phrase is often uttered – half in shock and half in awe – about Danes and their lack of inhibitions. Most of those commenting are conditioned, like me, a body-conscious Brit, to expose as few of my erogenous zones in public as possible.
We raise our eyebrows at what we witness in Danish changing rooms and on beaches. Nude bodies are almost perpetually on show – uninhibited and free.
I have some theories about why Danes feel so free in flashing their flesh. It could be the Law of Jante, which, in this instance, might roughly translate as, ‘no person should look down on another’s imperfect body’. Alternatively, the wave of Danish feminism in the 1970s may have created strong women who are busier working than worrying how they look. I wonder too if the early sex education in Denmark also plays its part.
After another day at the beach spent contorting myself into my swimsuit while shielded by a towel the size of Texas, I became determined to understand why Danes can do something I cannot – be happy and naked in public.
An old woman’s game
I started out by assembling a sample group of Danish acquaintances, friends and strangers. They quickly shattered my preconceptions and unanimously pointed to a generational divide on matters of nudity.
“There were a lot more topless women on the beach 20 years ago,” says Anne-Mette Pedersen, 39.
“Now, there’s increasing pressure from Facebook and other social media outlets for us to present ourselves as picture-perfect. So I think it tends to be women aged 40 and over who don’t care so much how others view them.”
Hanne Frederiksen, 37, agrees.
“I have detected a trend toward being less free and naked than we used to be. Nakedness is increasingly being interpreted as something less natural, or something related to sex or the danger of sexual harassment,” says Frederiksen, who admits to nude early-morning dips, so long as it’s in a private setting.
“I was inspired one morning when this elderly and distinguished man who was standing close by calmly took off all of his clothes and went in, very elegantly and naturally. Somehow it just made me feel a bit ridiculous with my swimsuit.”
Indeed, swimsuits can be unwelcome, particularly in the winter, explains 67-year-old Dorrit Damm-Ottesen (below).
“Being nude when winter bathing is just a practical thing – have you ever tried to wear a wet swimsuit when the temperature is below 5 degrees Celsius? You would not want to!”
Liva Hyttel, 31, doesn’t think that her generation will embrace nudity in old age in the same way the current generation has.
“I would never do it myself. I have this sense that it was the generation in the 1970s that was consciously choosing to have a different attitude to their bodies and nudity and gender, and I think it’s left over from them. That generation was the exception.”
Statistics seem to back her up. The average age of outdoor bathing club members is rising, says Jens Rasmussen, chairman of the 1000-member Danish Naturists Association, who confirms that the organisation is trying to return to the free ideals of 1970s.
Further research supports the hypothesis that the confidence to ‘dare to bare’ is more associated with Danes who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In the 1970s, nakedness was not necessarily linked to being sexy and could just be considered a state of being,” says Lise Dilling-Hansen, a PhD student researching body image at the University of Aarhus.
“Younger people live in a different cultural context than older Danes. Naked bodies are now always judged as attractive or non-attractive, and beauty standards are more demanding now than they were decades ago,” she says, adding that young people are also generally more insecure about their identity and looks.
“They are at a place in their lives where they are finding out who they would like to be, and are therefore more sensitive to public ideas of how they should look.”
Other research suggests, however, that Danes are among the world’s least inhibited people. A survey by the University of Zurich earlier this year saw the Danes voted the most shameless people in the world. Perhaps this is because a mere 1.62% of Danes suffer from gelotophobia, or fear of ridicule, the lowest proportion of the population in any country surveyed.
A lack of shame does not entail a nation of self-confident nudists, however, warns psychologist Pernille Lanev.
“Foreigners often comment on how common it is to find Danes naked in swimming pools or in the sea, but that’s not necessarily about confidence, it’s more a lack of modesty. Danes are a bit more liberated than their American and British counterparts, but nudity is also more widely accepted here. It’s built into the social structure.”
All of my sample group confirmed that nudity, rather than being a bold statement, is actually more of an unconscious habit.
“I can see how it looks to foreigners – you go to the gym and the swimming pool showers and we are naked. But that’s because of the rules. It’s a habit, but we are not necessarily that comfortable,” confirms Liva Hyttel.
“All the way through kindergarten and grade school, you take showers together, and that’s just what you do. I don’t remember feeling comfortable – especially as a kid. You just get used to it. I really think that habit is very strong. It’s like when we all stop at red lights waiting to cross even when there are no cars. Maybe we just follow the rules. That’s the particularly Danish thing, not the happy being naked part.”
There are signs, though, that Danes are becoming increasingly uneasy about their bodies. Last year a record-breaking 11,712 people went under the knife, with breast enhancements or liposuction being two of the most sought-after procedures, according to the health research organisation Statens Serum Institute. The number of cosmetic surgical interventions is steadily rising, and increased 11% in the past year.
Body insecurity is also manifesting itself in a worrying rise in eating disorders, with 75,000 Danes suffering from either anorexia or bulimia, and another 80,000 at risk, according to figures released by The National Association for Eating Disorders and Self-harm.
Reinforcing the theory that body confidence belongs to a former age and has not been passed down to today’s youth, a recent study conducted by the University of Strathclyde established a connection between time spent on Facebook looking at other people’s pictures and a surge in insecurity about physical appearance.
While the research, presented at a conference in Seattle last year, found no link to eating disorders, it did discover that the more time women spent on Facebook, the more they compared their bodies with those of their friends, and the more negatively they felt about their own appearance.
“Spending more time on Facebook is not connected to developing a bad relationship to food, but there is a connection to poor body image,” said study researcher Petya Eckler. “The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media because the participants are people we know.”
Somewhat tellingly, I had a hard time finding young women to talk to me on the record about body confidence in their age group.
“We are constantly bombarded with perfect-looking women who make us feel bad, even though we know that they’ve been edited on a computer,” one fifteen-year-old told me. “It’s rubbed off on me. When everyone around you talks about their faults, you can’t help thinking there’s something wrong with you, too. I never go to the swimming pool anymore because I feel uncomfortable in the changing rooms, even though it’s just girls.”
She pointed specifically to the photo-sharing social media platform Instagram as being a primary source of body envy. But women are not alone in feeling the pressure. Dilling-Hansen points to the rise of so-called ‘spornosexuals’ – coined by combining sport, porn and metrosexual. This hyper-sexualised and body-obsessed breed of new man sees his body as the ultimate accessory.
“Working out doesn’t just improve my physique, it gives me a goal and keeps me focused on how to get there, which makes me feel confident in the way that I look and feel,” says one CrossFit fan, who would give me only his first name, Mads, 29. “Nothing’s more rewarding than achieving my goal, and being fit in time for summer!”
Some young people want to do something about their generation’s body anxiety. Petruska Miehe-Renard is a 25-year-old fashion student who launched her latest swimwear collection, I Prefer to be Naked, online during Copenhagen Fashion Week this August. When the website went live, there were no clothes to be seen. Instead, there were portraits of 69 models, nude except for a dolphin mask.
“I wanted to spark a reaction when people expected to see swimwear but instead were confronted by naked bodies,” she says.
She got the idea while living in London. When reading Danish news online, she observed how much bodies and body image were being discussed. She had already considered making a swimwear line to earn some money, but realised that more clothes are the last thing we need.
“We should be better at taking our clothes off and showing what we really look like. The media generates these images of perfect bodies that are unattainable. It’s ridiculous for most of us to even try. Most people aren’t even beautiful, and instead rich people are buying themselves beauty. We are just going to end up with a beautiful rich upper class and an ugly underclass. It’s a hierarchy we need to avoid. I even have friends who are saving money for fake boobs rather than their education. Something is wrong.”
While the bodies in her swimwear presentation all appear rather young, they cover the spectrum from fat to thin, and from athletic to soft. What unites them is their lack of conformity to the idealised parallel world the media presents to us.
“The debate about body image is incredibly negative and reactionary,” she says. “But what is interesting is that since the website went up, more and more people have been in touch, wanting to participate. So I think it’s a much-needed positive contribution.” M