Buff culture: the shock of public nudity


in community,culture,identity,origin,self-image,society,taboo

Bather by A.Ashman


“You just need to get over it,” my Czech husband and his European friends tell me about the one aspect of life in the Czech Republic I find impossible to embrace: public nudity.

Much of the European lifestyle I find liberating. A slower clock. Their understanding of how to take a vacation from work. Their love and appreciation for the arts. I don’t think badly of those who enjoy public nudity, however I cannot seem to adapt or feel comfortable with it. My very strict Christian upbringing in the American Midwest, including a stint in Oklahoma — a place known as “the buckle on the Bible Belt” — makes it difficult to convert to such a practice.

The idea is instilled in me: nudity belongs in a marriage between two people. Besides medical staff and other caregivers, naked bodies are only for the bedroom.

Moving from Minnesota to Texas and New Mexico, my values felt supported. In fact, Americans are hardly ever completely naked in front of a doctor. We put on a paper gown, and a sheet. Here in Prague there are no gowns. My blood pressure readings show how much this stresses me out.

When I encountered my first instance of public nudity — a topless canoer on a boating trip with my husband — I was in shock. We out-paddled her to stay ahead of the sight. Sunbathing in the buff at a major city park. Naked women in ads. Hardly any naked men, though, I don’t know why.

I’m not finished learning how to live the European lifestyle, but realize I can be both flexible, and true to my values. My Czech doctor works to make me more comfortable and I avoid situations I won’t enjoy. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll try skinny dipping on a camping trip.

Which ingrained belief system of yours is overturned by life in another culture?
Sherry Vacik is a writer, editor and technical proofreader who blogs about her expat adventures at Czech Off the Beaten Path.

  • Peter

    I can understand not liking to be naked in public, but as someone born and raised in America I still don’t understand not being naked at the doctor’s office. It’s a doctor, after all. I just don’t see what is the big deal. When a doctor wants me to wear some silly gown, apparently so I won’t be ashamed of my naked body, I think he is some kind of freak. I just don’t get it. But on the other hand, I don’t like being naked in public or even at home much of the time. My kids on the other hand love being naked everywhere they can. I think that’s fine.

  • tusJohn Cox

    Do not assume that the Czech republic is unusual or different. That is your America-centric bias. It is the USA that is unusual; puritanical hostility to nudity, combined with almost total moral collapse, makes the USA the most hypocritical and dysfunctional place on earth.

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  • http://twitter.com/ShannonSoesbe Shannon Soesbe

    Well, I guess I could say it has gotten a little easier, but only in that I now know what to expect and so I'm not completely taken off-guard when it happens. Undressing in front of someone who is basically a complete stranger will never be easy for me. Not only do I have a modest Midwest background, but I'm also a woman of size, with all the body consciousness issues that entails. It doesn't help when European doctors tell me things like, “Are you aware how overweight you are?” with such a look of urgency and frank panic, even though there are plenty of heavy people around these parts. I generally tell them something along the lines of “No sh*t Sherlock” and go on about my business, but it still bothers me. :-)

    As for general personal space, I don't have as large of a bubble as most Americans I know. My family is Italian, though, and so I think that accounts for my comfortable attitude towards touchy-feely-huggy times. I only have a problem with personal space when it's someone I don't like, but I think anyone would feel that way. I do know that a lot of my American friends complain of Europeans having small personal bubbles, so I feel lucky to live here and not have a problem with it.

    Do you enjoy living in Czech, overall? Prague is my favorite city in Europe, but I haven't had a chance to go there in ages. Drink some Velvet beer for me! :-)

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    What an experience! I definitely would not have survived that one!

    The paper gown is truly only a gesture; it doesn't cover or hide too much. But I, for one, find some comfort even in the paper gown and sheet :)

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Thanks, but I certainly don't feel very brave. Actually, I feel a bit naked in sharing my experiences with nudity in Europe! :)

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    You mean it doesn't get easier after living in Europe for years? How do you cope when at the doctor's office?

    Something you said really hit me between the eyes: “…it is less unnerving to me than having no barrier between myself and others…” We Americans love our privacy and keep our personal space larger than in the rest of the world. Here, at least in the Czech Republic, the personal space is less than half what an American considers to be a comfortable distance. I'm still trying to get used to this.

    Personal space and privacy vary by culture. What are your experiences?

  • Briget_Murphy

    I don't get the paper robe thing, either, and I'm American. I've never considered myself “prudish”; however during my first short visit to Istanbul, I went to a hamam recommended by my hotel. I undressed and wrapped my little plaid tea towel around my bottom and much to my surprise when I arrived inside, there were men customers along with women! Ok, I accepted it. What I cringed at was being bathed and massaged by a male. I laid on my stomach for the first part and the attendant told me to turn over and I just laid there like I didn't hear him. He said, “Burjet! Over please.” Reluctantly I rolled over. I just shut my eyes and tried to block out the image of this man-stranger rubbing his hands all over me. For the European women here, that wouldn't bother you? I wouldn't do it again :-) I'd make sure a woman was on staff to take care of me!

  • http://twitter.com/ShannonSoesbe Shannon Soesbe

    I've lived in Europe for a few years now, in France and Poland, and I will never get used to not having a gown or sheet at the doctor's office. Or having to undress right in front of them! Public nudity, in general, I can deal with, as it's not my own (and I grew up in Iowa); it is less unnerving to me than having no barrier between myself and others, even when that other is a doctor. I was recently back in Iowa and went for a checkup, and I was practically giddy at how they gave me a gown and then left the room for several minutes in order to let me put it on privately. Such a luxury that we just take for granted…

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    I agree. I've had pleasant conversations with some people while in the US, only to watch their eyes glaze over when I mention I live in Turkey. The concept that anyone would choose to live abroad is unfathomable (especially in such a “conservative Islamic” country), so they tune out. They'd be shocked to find a vibrant cosmopolitan life here, somehow co-existing with those women in chador. Yes, I admit, it is rather mind-blowing…so better not to think about it, right?

  • Catherine Bayar

    I think you're the brave one, Sherry – you've 'exposed' yourself to a much larger audience!

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Sounds like a great idea. I'm ready to read your 4-woman post!

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    You're so right. Don't you think these people feel threatened by the world outside their borders? Anything new might make them have to think in a different way, and then maybe they wouldn't fit into their spot in society.

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    You're right, Yazarc. We need to remember each place is truly a mix and we shouldn't get caught up in generalizations.

    Here, in the Czech Republic, most of my Czech friends find American prudishness strange and amusing. They don't understand how embarrassing and even shameful nudity can feel for some of us. I'm working on finding the best way to be comfortable here, and still maintain my beliefs.

    Speaking of beliefs, I don't condemn those who choose to practice nudity in parks, on beaches, etc. They can do what they want. I'm the one who is uncomfortable with the situation. I'm uncomfortable around the nudity of others and don't want anyone to see me. I don't want to change Europe–that's impossible and not the right way to do things. I just want to find a way to live here and be comfortable without pushing my ways and thoughts on others.

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    I'm happy with so much discussion taking place on so many aspects of this topic. I was very hesitant to share my story so openly online for fear I would come across as a weird lunatic. I'm gaining so many insights from all the discussion, and even learning about my home country! I had no idea California isn't so “with-it” as we all thought. We always hear about the crazy stories, strange people, the excesses and drama of the stars, but never have I heard California is more on the conservative side.

    Your example of nudism in Turkey (the breast exam) made me shudder. You're pretty brave, as far as I'm concerned. Again, a surprise about a culture we all believe to be very Islamic and very conservative.

  • Katja

    I agree with you. Spitting, drinking in parks (men), wearing high heels any time, any place, any age (women)… It disturbs me because it complies with all cliches we have in Germany about Russians, including this unfriendliness, that makes living in Russia sometimes very hard.

  • dutchessabroad

    There's not much symmetry to my bits Sezin, but literally shouldn't pose a problem ; )
    Great idea. I've been mulling over my contribution for expat+HAREM for a while now. During our road trip I came up with a tree-part essay with a red thread that actually leads through California.

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Agree, cobblestones and beachwear don't mix.

    Last time I was in Rome (….in August when only “dogs and Americans” are in town — from the Italian expression i cani ed i americani) I found out why. It's not because of the unbearable heat on the streets and the 2,000 year tradition of Romans escaping it to the coasts and country. It's the British in their infernal beachwear. Maybe they were Americans. I didn't know where to look.

    There's a corollary to this as well, which I feel as an overheated American woman sometimes and it grates particularly for me in the Muslim countries I've lived in. Casual and revealing outfits (or nudity) only work where everyone is dressed like that. Otherwise, you can be uncomfortable wearing it or uncomfortable being subjected to it.

    BTW, Californian nude beaches have an inordinately high amount of old dudes “beachcombing”, I find. Strolling/parading up and down and up and down along the water. This behavior alone makes me wonder how natural the environment really is even for 'out-there' Cali.

    More to say, but a storm is coming and might lose power…

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    I think it's such a mix in any country and we shouldn't forget that in our generalisations.
    In a small town in Turkey I went to an all-female hamam where everyone wore their underwear in the hamam. I thought that was bizarre.
    And my most embarrassing nude moment was in a Colorado swimming pool shower when I was hailed across the shower by the department secretary. The main reason for the embarrassment was that I had to squint across the steamy room as I didn't have my glasses on, giving everyone else between us a good eyeball in the process.
    Ireland as usual is somewhere in between, some people more relaxed than Europeans, some more uptight than Americans.

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    That's a great point, Catherine. It would be really interesting to read all of our takes on this topic and could really highlight all of the issues of identity, culture and personal experience we talk about here. What do you say Judith and Anastasia? A four-woman piece? Nice symmetry there. :-)

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    Exactly, Catherine! I have zero patience and tolerance for that kind of attitude, and the older I get the grumpier it makes me. :-)

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    Perhaps we should all co-write a piece, since my perception of CA is a mix yet different than both of yours, and Anastasia's would cast yet another light as well.

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    I've noticed too Sezin there are people there who wear their provincialism like a badge of honor “We already live in the greatest country on earth, so why should we go anywhere else”? Fearfulness and a lack of curiosity are two traits I have little time for. I've learned to walk away from those types, since anything I have to say will not listened to, no matter how diplomatic I try to be.

  • Catherine Bayar

    Wow, where to jump in on this great convo, everyone! Very well done, Sherry – you've got us all worked up on this subject. Being another of those weird, wacky, non-average (God forbid!) Californians, I completely agree that state is far more provincial than progressive, and important to note, far more conservative in the last couple decades than it was in the 60's and 70's when I was growing up.

    Our 'normal' beach town (not Venice, a world unto its own) had several nude beaches if you knew where to find them (and locals were always happy to share the info) and no one was ticketed, though I remember the police standing on the cliffs and 'patroling' ! Men wore those tiny Speedos on public beaches and at family pools. As I recall, it was always the teenaged boys that were most freaked out to see them.

    The comments about beach attire in town made me laugh, since in both Selcuk and Santa Barbara you could always tell who the tourists were – locals knew better. And why is it always those who have far too many kilos to be flaunting all that sunburned flesh?

    Here in Turkey, I must admit I was freaked out the first time I went in for a breast ultrasound. I was asked to strip to the waist and lie back on the table in a room with several male doctors and technicians along with other waiting women, and the door to the crowded hallway open. My husband thought I was acting like a child to ask the doctor for some privacy. “What's the big deal? Everyone's seen breasts before…” Guess that turned my opinion of what's conservative in a Muslim country on its head.

    As far as your question about overturned belief systems, I'd have to say that I realized just how insular the US is, that it has very little consciousness of the world beyond, and that a state that I thought is progressive is disappointingly anything but. And that a country like Turkey is not a monolithic scary Islamic place, but is just as fragmented across the political and social spectrum as any country in the so-called West. (But a much heralded nudist hotel in Datca on the Aegean coast here was just closed due to “licensing problems” (Turkish lingo for “not in our backyard”). I guess that breasts are okay, but all those other bits are not?

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Yes, most people (outside of the US) don't understand how that bit of paper can make us feel “not-nude” in front of the doctor. I have never heard of an American doctor faced with the situation you presented! The paper must also be, to some extent, a modicum of protection for the doctor's view of our bodies. This is a new thought for me.

    I've had the opposite experience here. There is no dressing room, not a curtain or anything between the patient and the doctor. The patient undresses right there in front of the doctor, and there is no gown or sheet.

    The issue of being European at an American doctor's office is not such an easy situation. I would never have thought of this without you sharing your own experience.

    There is definitely a time and place for nudity. Nude works of art are not so difficult for me. But outright porn is what I detest. Here, porn magazines are in plain sight in the stores–directly where children can see them.

    Very interesting conversation–and I love hearing from you about the issues and situations you are facing in my home country.

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Hi Sezin,
    It is disturbing when the nudity is only one-sided–whether on this side of the ocean or on the other side. It might be more acceptable if there was equity in the matter of public nudity. I've never seen a guy here naked swimming, etc. However, they do where very, very tiny bikini briefs for swimming. When my husband goes to the US he has to be sure to have a “proper” swim suit with him. He can't understand why he can't wear his tiny bikini in a family pool in the US.

    Yes–many Americans don't have the urge to travel beyond their borders. This is sad, as if more people tried to experience the rest of the world, they would so much about how our country affects others, plus they would learn more about themselves and broaden their horizons in other ways.

    Thanks for the great insights!

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Hi Sezin,
    It is disturbing when the nudity is only one-sided–whether on this side of the ocean or on the other side. It might be more acceptable if there was equity in the matter of public nudity. I've never seen a guy here naked swimming, etc. However, they do where very, very tiny bikini briefs for swimming. When my husband goes to the US he has to be sure to have a “proper” swim suit with him. He can't understand why he can't wear his tiny bikini in a family pool in the US.

    Yes–many Americans don't have the urge to travel beyond their borders. This is sad, as if more people tried to experience the rest of the world, they would so much about how our country affects others, plus they would learn more about themselves and broaden their horizons in other ways.

    Thanks for the great insights!

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Hi dustchessabroad,
    What a great turn around! You have caught exactly what I feel here. At times there is utter dismay at the contradiction faced in our cultures and experiences. I completely understand what you mean about the peeping tom reporting their neighbor. Completely ridiculous, even in my “prudish” eyes. And I have never been able to understand why they leave out the KY gel and condoms in plain sight. These are my reactions to my own culture.

    And yes, the places considered to be more open minded are usually a bit more on the conservative side.

    Your comments are very insightful, and I couldn't agree with you more about the complexity of nude and prude ideas in the US and here, in Europe. Its always a great experience to view our own cultures through others' eyes. We all learn from this dialogue.

    • Anonymous

      Your post has triggered a passionate discussion. I wanted to share how much I enjoyed the link to Rick Steves’ blog post on going to a Spa. Hi-la-ri-ous. What a good sport he is. I used to detest him from bringing so many people into Europe Through the Backdoor. There we were trying to preserve our secret enclaves and here he came with his entourage of gawking tourists.

      Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how he educates not just Americans about other countries. And his Town Hall speech (interview with him about same subject) on how getting to know other cultures first hand can take away the fear that sits at the core of war, awesome!

  • dutchessabroad

    Your, or my tender bits made me recall an experience at the our first G.P.'s here in Seattle. I'd come in with a bad case of hives. Itchy blotches that seemed to spread across my body in a symmetrical fashion. At the time that I went to the doctor I I had them in my arm pits and on my breasts. “Let's see,” the doc said. Since I was wearing just a knit spandex shirt, I pulled it up right there and then. The doc quickly moved his arm in front of his face, grabbing a paper apron from a sideboard be handed it to me before rushing out of the room. I had no idea what I had to do with that piece of high tech paper. Honestly, not a clue. Since that time I've changed practice and been seen by a few more docs, all of whom have been women. And honestly I still don't see the reason why you have to wear an apron when they're making/taking a Pap smear. Basically what's hidden from view is your body from yourself. I mean, they are looking underneath the apron aren't they?

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    I agree about seeing flesh in cities, it's awful. Personally I think the only appropriate place is at the beach or swimming pool, but most of Europe is not so lucky to have beaches so people make do with parks and gardens. It enrages me when men walk around with their shirts off, and especially on the trams here when there is a possibility to make physical contact. YUCK! Major gross-out factor.

    I do agree with you that there is a time and place for nudity. Although I've never really understood bare breasts at the beach at all. Not because the sight of them bothers me, but I always wonder: Don't your tender bits get burned? 😉

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    I think you answered your own question re: average Californians in that I think the people that you know and have known there have been artists, activists and aware individuals. I lived in California from 1997-2002ish and while I was there my worldly friends were far and few between. Now, years later, I know loads of amazing artists, poets, writers and activists who live in California, but they have had many years to mature, travel, live abroad, etc. But going to California as an 18-year-old Third Culture Kid, all alone and being constantly asked whether I lived in a mud hut in India or how I learned to speak such good English set the stage for much frustration and disappointment. I don't know how to drive and never had a car when I lived there, so I'm sure that also contributed to a very awkward time in Car Culture Central. Then add Wendy's murder to the mix. Yikes. California was not for me.

    Isn't it amazing how we have had such magnificently different experiences of the same state? Maybe we should co-write something about this? You felt right at home there, I could not have felt more alienated. I think I even feel more comfortable in Prague than there! And that's saying a lot!

  • dutchessabroad

    Where on earth do you meet the average Californian Sezin? Having just returned from a road trip to Los Angeles, and thinking of the people I met while living and going to school there in the 70s and 90s I can't imagine what you mean by that. Even stereotypical doesn't necessarily bring forth an image, since that might be pointing more at Hollywood celebs tan and thin, or Orange County wealthy housewives than an average Californian Joe or Jane.

    In my mind CA was the hippie state, the land of the Freak Brothers, Donald Crumb, Laurel Canyon musicians, Venice Beach fair, Topanga Canyon theater ,Big Sur's Esalen and EST, In and Out the Garbage Pail, I'm Okay and You're Okay, all that Jazz of pop psychology. Last month I got a bit of the old taste again. Weird, oh, yes, weird, weird, weird, wonderfully weird!

    Apart from the stupid bra-on-the-beach rules California was the first place where I felt truly at home. Does that make me weird? I guess it does, but then I hail from weird old Amsterdam.

    I'll second Chabon's notes on Leftwing of the Plymouth Foundation wholeheartedly.

  • dutchessabroad

    Let's add Seattle to that list Anastasia.

    • JustMeInSeattle

      Although, Dutch-ess, just this past week, here in Seattle, I’ve been to two Seattle city beaches where men AND women were either topless or nude, and NO ONE that I noticed, so much as blinked at them. I was nude too, and no one stared or even noticeably looked at me.
      And of course we have the annual Solstice Parade in Fremont with naked cyclists, and our local instance of the World Naked Bike Ride (coming up this coming Saturday, I believe).
      And I say this as an otherwise-conservative Christian…

      • justmeinseattle

        Also, I was just recalling our first trip to Turkey some 8 years ago – my wife and I took a local bus to a resort area maybe 30 km west of Antalya, and walked through the tourist area and along the beach – where we were stunned to see topless European women.
        We have both visited nude beaches, hotsprings, and nudist resorts in the USA and Canada, so we weren’t offended in the least – but a little bemused. Prior to our trip, I had studied Turkish for a year in a language school, and this encounter was during our 2nd or 3rd week, but it was still a surprise!

  • dutchessabroad

    Here's my take.
    There's nudity and nudity and noodlety. One is beautiful and appropriate, the other in the wrong place at the wrong time just plane wrong, and the misspelled one is just for bedrooms and nude beaches.
    What I don't like is seeing people of either gender in beachwear in town. I detest the look of people's flesh in a city setting. I don't like being exposed to either women's or men's bare chests in public places unless it's on the beach, or in a park. Why men can take off their shirt when sunbathing and women have to wear a bra is beyond me.
    Haven't read the article you link too as yet, but thinking of the obligatory noodlety (think moving body parts) scenes in Dutch movies of a certain era makes my stomach turn. That, I've considered embarrassing, not the sight of bare breasts on the beach.

  • dutchessabroad


    How interesting for me as a European, who's been adjusting to life in “prudish” America, to read about your exposure to “our” exposition of flesh.

    I'm tempted to turn around the question posed at the end of your piece. “Which ingrained belief system of yours is overturned by life in another culture?” becomes: How my life has been overturned by the ingrained belief system of citizens of the United States. That may come across as generalization, but Sezin and Anastasia's responses show they as well consider inhabitants of even cities such as San Francisco and Berkeley less progressive than they're known to be.

    I recall my utter dismay (the tan lines!) at age eighteen, that I was expected to wear a bra while sunbathing on beaches in California. The idea that a woman in Venice, CA was ticketed for sunbathing topless in her own backyard because her neighbor had been able to see her nude —from the top of the ladder he'd climbed in his own yard made me think the prudish were peeping Tom's.

    On the other hand items that could only be purchased at the counter of a drugstore or pharmacy in the Netherlands, such as condoms and KY gel were lying out in the open, on shelves near toothpaste and vitamins, ready to add to ones groceries in the stores. With my teenage mind I couldn't understand why people would make a fuss over seeing bare breasts but had reminders of intercourse out in the open.

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    That is a good way to describe it, Anastasia. And Michael Chabon's is excellent too, and maybe closer to my sense of frustration with the average Californians. I have to say, of all the so-called strange places I've lived in my life, California (both northern and southern) was by far the weirdest. :-)

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    “Progressive provincialism” is actually how I've described* my hometown of Berkeley in the past, Sezin!

    *(and Michael Chabon has called it “a Leftwing Plymouth Plantation”)…

  • DividingMyTime

    Sherry, this was a great observation! I really felt for you in the canoe! I'm an American living in Russia and I can't get used to people spitting in public, which seems a small thing, but is just really disgusting as far as I am concerned. Other things include: excessive drunkenness in public, really tarty women and, of course, tacky tacky tacky everything. Yuck!

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    Well done, Sher! Though I didn't have the Christian upbringing you had, I can totally relate to this piece. What makes me uncomfortable about public nudity is the fact that, like you mention, it is so one sided. The nudity is always women, and it's everywhere. But never men. And it gets even creepier when it's the sexualising of very young girls. For me, this speaks to the inherent acceptability of fetishizing women's bodies via the male gaze, and that male gaze never turns back on itself.

    A friend posted an excellent blog piece about male nudity in film http://oklahomaward.blogspot.com/2010/05/actors… that ties in with your piece really well. There is such a marked double standard between male and female nudity in the media, and this speaks volumes to gender inequalities in Europe and even the USA.

    With regards to your question about which of my belief systems were overturned by life in a different culture…Hmmmm. That's a tough one for me. I think I would have to say that while I was living in America I was constantly confronted with people who had no desire to travel, let alone live abroad or explore the world. I met people who never even had a passport in their whole lives, nor did they have any plans to ever have one! That was a real eye-opener for me and while I can appreciate their comfort in America I had and still have a difficult time understanding such a limited and almost provincial view of the world, even from people living in so-called progressive cities like San Francisco and Berkeley.

    Great post!

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