By Anne-Kirstin Berger, photos by Guki Giunashvili
Water is dripping from Alexander’s hair as he heads out of the dressing room of Aarhus’ swimming pool. The wet trunks and his towel are stuffed in a bag on his shoulder, while he closes his coat to face the winter outside. Alexander, a Danish student at Aarhus University, has just taken a shower and dressed up together with a bunch of strangers – and he does not mind at all. “Of course you have to get naked when you shower. It’s just practical this way, I don’t really think about it.”
The easiness that Danes show when dealing with nudity can be stunning for people who are not familiar with this culture. But being naked is not a matter of promiscuity. It rather indicates that many Danes seem to be more content with themselves and less worried about how they look.
“To me, at least, being naked doesn’t mean anything”, Alexander says and guesses that the same is true for most Danes: “I think basically everyone has this relaxed attitude towards the body, in public rooms at least, because it serves a pragmatic purpose. We are not told to feel ashamed of our body.” Researchers have proven Alexander’s impression. When asking a group of university students from England and Denmark how they perceived their body, half of the Danes said they felt it was “just right”, but only one third of the English students answered the same. Danes seem to be more satisfied with their body image – a factor that comes with higher self-esteem.
Why is this the case? A few years ago, the British newspaper “The Telegraph” gave Denmark the title of “the most shameless nation on the planet”, referring to a study by a group of Swiss and Italian researchers. The psychologists analysed the percentage of people across 16 countries affected by “gelotophobia”- the pathological fear of being laughed at. Gelotophobes are people who are humorless, because they interpret each and every laughter as a negative putdown. In Denmark, the researchers detected the lowest occurrence of this fear – only 1,6 per cent experienced it. England, by contrast, scored high, with 13 per cent of the population worried of being ridiculed – remember that it was English students who are frequently dissatisfied with their bodies. Although it is disproportionate to call Danish people “shameless” based on such a specific case study, the findings are still remarkable. They fit Alexander’s impression that Danes “don’t have to make a big deal about [their] bodies”, because they do not fear to be insulted.
The respect towards others, which includes refusing public flaunting, is an element deeply rooted in Scandinavian culture. Humbleness is a virtue in this culture, and it applies to financial wealth just as much as to the own body shape. The sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s also played a significant role, because it eliminated taboos around nudity. Today’s young adults are the children of those who grew up during this revolution, and they were raised with liberal views. Still, not everyone adheres to the open body culture, be it for reasons of age, religion or personality. An exhibition in Aarhus’ Steno Museum tackles this difficult topic.
The sound of water merges with children’s voices in the distance, coming out of a dark room. Behind an open door they suddenly appear: a young woman with nothing but a towel on her right shoulder, an elderly lady, water dropping off her curly hair and a mid-aged man with a tattoo on his back, washing his armpits. When one of the exhibition guides, Villads Jacobsen (21), introduces eighth- or ninth-graders to the exhibition “Dear Difficult Body”, the teenagers react quite strongly. “At first they are a bit uncomfortable [when they see] the picture of a naked person and they are not really sure how to react. But during the process they get more comfortable.”
The exhibition shows changing beauty ideals, eating habits and gender perceptions and tackles many youngsters’ fear to undress in the locker room after sports classes. “When we were young it was normal – after physical education classes, we had to bath”, remembers visitor Hans Henrik Rasmussen, who is 65 years old. “But today especially girls are scared of their naked bodies.” Hans Henrik Rasmussen and his wife Birte are standing close to a heart shaped door behind which visitors can write their thoughts about their own body on post-its and pin them on a wall. When high school classes visit the exhibition, the post-its play a central role, because they enable the pupils to express personal reflections. Birte Rasmussen has her 13-year old granddaughter in mind while she goes through the exhibition: she would never undress with other people present.
Is the Danish body culture in the retreat? Villads Jacobsen does not agree. He rather thinks it is a phase during adolescence when people struggle with their changing body. “Later [in life] people get over the shocking part, or the uncomfortable part. And I know now it’s very popular among students to go to the vinterbadning [winter bathing].” In fact, the sauna club Vikingeklubben Jomsborg located at Den Permanente in Aarhus is a good example of liberal body culture and its boom: the club stopped accepting new members after reaching a record last May. After all, even the arrangement of the exhibition “Dear Difficult Body”, with life-size photos of people showering, mirrors how widely accepted topics of nudity and sexuality are in the Danish society. Aarhus Svømmestadion does not even have private changing rooms or separate showers – there is literally no room for chasteness. People shower next to each other while discussing their plans for the weekend and the best æblekage recipe – all this totally uncovered.
For more information: Find the research on body images in England and Denmark here and the study on Gelotophobia here. The exhibition “Dear Difficult Body” is a permanent part of the Steno Museum in Aarhus, with more information in its website.