Nakedness in Sweden is no longer as straightforward as it used to be. For some, it is still the obvious, healthy norm; for others, it is revulsion, sin and dishonour. This is because ‘one’ Sweden and ‘typical’ Swedes no longer exist.
Sweden is commonly associated with a relaxed attitude towards nudity. On beaches all over the world, a ‘typical’ Swede can be singled out by his blonde hair, but also by the fact that he changes his swim shorts without a towel. In the locker room at my Stockholm yoga studio, women do not get hastily dressed and do not hide in towelling robes. Naked, they chat with friends, look in the mirror, or sit behind glass doors in the sauna. They see no problem in carefully applying body lotion to their entire body in the middle of the changing room.
No clothes, no glances
Swedish savoir-vivre assumes, however, that people do not stare at each other. The lack of staring and the avoidance of eye contact can be felt not only on Swedish streets, but also, and perhaps above all, in Swedish saunas, swimming pool changing rooms and lakesides, where on a summer evening someone will always decide to take a skinny dip. In situations like this, nudity is completely asexual in Sweden. Sexuality requires a change of context. This is simply a matter of consensus; an unwritten social contract.
On a winter stroll through Hellasgården in Nacka – a wonderful recreational area by a lake – the sight of naked people of all genders, dashing from the sauna to the ice hole, doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Naked and barefoot – but with their woolly hats on – they mix with Sunday walkers in down jackets; nobody bothers anyone. While in the public co-educational saunas, the Swedes are less liberal than the Finns and would rather wrap themselves in a towel, nudity is fully normalized within the family. It’s no problem for a teenage son to see his mother bathing, or for a father to change clothes in front of his daughter.
On her blog, the Swedish journalist Lotta Gray, explains it as follows:
“Seeing their parents naked allows children to develop a better attitude towards their own body. My motto is that you shouldn’t make a show around nakedness. In my home we sleep naked and bathe in one bath; we do not cover up in panic when our teenage son enters the bathroom. Of course, I don’t walk around naked when his friends sleep over, absolutely not. Besides, I have always made a point of explaining to my child that their naked body belongs to them, that they must not allow others to touch them and that they should respect others’ privacy or gratuitously expose their nudity. A body is just a body; it is good and healthy to feel at ease in it and with it.”
This kind of attitude towards nudity simplifies many things. Mothers of small boys can take them freely to the ladies’ dressing room (or to the sauna) and no one will scold them with indignation; breastfeeding in public places is so obvious that it doesn’t even warrant debate. It is clear that the child must eat and that at the beginning of its life they eat from a woman’s breast. Whether in a restaurant or in a park – what’s the problem with that?
In Sweden, such an unselfconscious attitude towards nudity did not appear from nowhere. It is the product of a secularized society that loves nature, focuses on modernity and gender equality, and has a liberal attitude towards sexuality. Already in the 1930s, the well-known Swedish professor of medicine, Johan Almkvist, promoted naturism and a ‘liberated body’ culture. “Only actions can be shameful or indecent,” he wrote. “Whoever sees anything immoral in nudity is a sick man.”
There is no denying, however, that in recent years attitudes towards the body and nudity have become quite complicated in Sweden. In fact, they are becoming rapidly polarized. On the one hand, there are continued efforts to increase equality and freedom. For this reason, workplaces and cultural institutions, such as Moderna Museet in Stockholm, convert women’s and men’s toilets into co-educational spaces.
Brought up in the rather puritan US, the young Swedes participating in the reality show The Great Swedish Adventure could not be more surprised by the nudity on the beaches of Swedish Gotland. The Malmö Municipal Recreation Commission has decided to allow going topless in public swimming pools. In several of them, as well as many schools and gyms across the country, gender-neutral changing rooms have recently been introduced in an effort to make LGBT and non-binary people feel more comfortable, as well as those with disabilities, who may have carers of another gender.
On the other hand, there are fierce disputes about whether separate swimming hours should be introduced for women whose religious beliefs or cultural norms do not allow the use of co-ed swimming pools. In addition, there is ongoing disagreement on several other matters, such as whether schools should have the right to respect the wishes of religious parents who do not want their daughters to participate in mandatory co-educational swimming activities, or whether it is a good thing that the Sigtuna swimming pool sold ‘burkinis’, and that burkinis were purchased for some female school pupils in the municipality of Hässleholm.
“We know that there are schoolgirls who cannot take part in swimming classes without clothing that covers the entire body,’ one of the municipal officials explained to the media. “Additionally, we had problems with the quality of water and asked schools to ensure that students enter swimming pools in swimwear or burkinis rather than other clothing. In the past, many people would swim in scarves or pants and millions of bacteria would enter the water.”
At a swimming pool in the multicultural Husby district on the outskirts of Stockholm, burkinis are nothing unusual. Many girls shower in shorts or tops. This irritates native Swedes raised in the belief that it is necessary to shower naked before entering the pool for hygienic reasons.
Many columnists regularly protest the “return of gender segregation in public space”, as Sanna Rayman put it in the Svenska Dagbladet daily. For several years now, separate hours for women in swimming pools have been a bone of contention, provoking heated debate among politicians and journalists. Many opinion leaders believe that the integration of immigrants must be accompanied by the adaptation of the public sphere to their needs and sensitivities, meaning that separate hours for women only are perfectly appropriate. Others rebel against the departure from a free and open attitude towards the body and segregation – those brought up in cultures centred on shame and suspicions of corporeality, and who thus value the possibility of living in liberal Sweden, are by far the loudest critics. “The fact that men and women can swim together contributes to the desexualization of the body. Therefore, allowing separate hours for women at public swimming pools is a mistake,” wrote Marjan Hassanzadeh-Tavakoli in one of the dailies.
However, the question of swimming pool hours and dressing room savoir-vivre is only the tip of the trunk of the big elephant that has been in the room for a long time, even if it remains invisible to so many. Among the various challenges of multiculturalism, finding a new consensus in relation to the body – and especially the female body – remains one of the most difficult problems.
No clothes, no honour
One of the people I interviewed in my book Moraliści [The Moralists], an Iraqi women’s rights defender Sara Mohammad, speaks about how, especially in the Middle East, female corporeality and sexuality are linked with the honour of the family, present in many patriarchal cultures. “[...] a man’s honour depends on the sexuality of a woman. It is crucial to his dignity, and it is also the most filthy and horrifying thing about a woman. A woman’s sex is the enemy hidden within her body. Her hair, her round breasts or hips are dangerous and therefore ought to be covered. They are a danger to society. They can cause chaos...” Recalling her childhood in Iraq, Sara speaks of the constant inconvenience, so alien to Swedish children: “On the hottest days, I had to wear a long skirt made of fabric that hid my shape. Absolutely nothing body-hugging, nothing transparent, hair covered with a scarf.”
“Today in Sweden there are many families who think in such a way,” stresses Sara, “and their attitude towards nudity is radically different from the one we associate with the native Swedes.” It is worth noting, however, that these ‘new’ and ‘other’ inhabitants of the country are also mostly Swedish citizens and already co-create Swedish culture and customs. For this reason, when talking about the liberal attitude of the Swedes towards nudity, it is worth adding the word ‘but’ immediately afterwards, and it must be followed by a correction. The Swedes’ attitude to nudity is therefore extremely free and liberal, as well as tremendously restrictive and conservative-puritan. This is because ‘one’ Sweden and ‘typical’ Swedes no longer exist. Probably in a few decades’ time, some new and less-polarized consensus will emerge. For the time being, however, the discussion is ongoing and attitudes towards nudity are no longer as straightforward as they used to be.
Translated by Joanna Figiel