“All guests must bathe before entering the spa.”
The sign was printed in both Swedish and English lest there be any confusion.
My girlfriends and I shuffled up to the sign wearing our spa robes and slippers. With nervous giggles we were going to have to bare it all in front of each other. There were dozens of naked women already bathing in the traditional Japanese manner. It was time to join the ranks.
The idea of spending a day at a traditional Japanese spa in Stockholm, Sweden, seemed like it would be relaxing until we found out that the “bathe before entering” part entailed bending over to fill up our personal wooden buckets from a communal spigot only to dump the warm water all over our heads and bodies—temporarily blinding us awkwardly. All while naked in front of about 30 women—some strangers but about eight who I knew quite well.
I had been warned about this very open, very exposed public “bathing” before this day arrived but knowing I was going Full Monty in front of my friends didn’t reduce my stress. These were my good friends and we shared many personal stories and details about our lives. However, baring my soul suddenly felt much easier than baring my naked body.
What was supposed to be a relaxing girls’ spa day at a swanky spa became clouded by my anxiety about being fully naked in front of my friends. The calming atmosphere of the spa was in a fight to the death with my insecure body image.
How did I get here? Is it too late to leave? Yes, yes it is.
If you live in Sweden and you are at a beach, swimming pool, spa, sauna, or any other type of communal environment that involves water then you’re going to see some naked bodies.
Maybe it’s due to the long stretches of darkness for months on end that Swedes feel the need to soak up as much Vitamin D as possible. Or, maybe it’s the feminist society not daring to dictate how anyone should dress or cover their bodies. Whatever the reason, nudity—at home or in public (with a few rules)—is a large part of Swedish culture.
Being from the modest part of Upstate New York, USA, my American-born, very prudish upbringing has resulted in distinct discomfort and insecurity around public nudity. For me, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Don’t I need to prepare myself first? Shouldn’t I do a few extra crunches? Tidy up a bit down there?
Such thoughts don’t even cross the mind of your typical elderly Swedish woman about to go for a swim in the Baltic. It is entirely culturally acceptable to swim without clothes—no bathing suit needed. Sunbathing requires a swimsuit unless you’re at a designated nude beach. But in non-nude beach areas, I’ve witnessed many Swedes strip down to their bare rumpas (bums) and walk calmly into the icy waters without flinching.
Based on what I see at the beaches on Sweden’s coastline, it’s safe to say that Swedish cultural body acceptance is common at all ages and it’s not just an old-lady-who-doesn’t-care thing (except the teenagers, they are still insecure—something teenagers share in common regardless of where they live).
In short, public nudity is easier to do when it’s culturally acceptable.
But I’m not Swedish, and no matter how many times I see other naked bodies at the beach, my personal bravery doesn’t improve in this area.
My mom taught me how to change in public underneath my clothing like a Cirque d’Soleil contortionist. It’s super easy. You take your arms out of your shirt, put your arms through your new shirt holes and quickly replace the two without ever revealing so much as your belly button. It takes coordination and years of changing in locker rooms surrounded by judgemental teenage girls to get the timing just right.
Or, if I was raised in Sweden, I could have skipped all of that nonsense and changed out in the open without worrying about who saw my body because nobody would say anything or care.
Swedish culture separates nudity and sex, whereas American culture intertwines them as if one could not exist without the other. (Read any argument made against mothers breastfeeding their children in public, and you’ll see that some people are intent on making everything about sex.)
A common assumption to explain the positive Swedish cultural body acceptance is that Swedish people are often quite attractive and who wouldn’t feel confident in an attractive, fit package?
This false assertion—attractive people won’t feel insecure—ignores all of the stories we have heard from US models and actresses in Hollywood complaining about the public scrutiny they feel to maintain a “perfect” body.
Also, the average Swedish female body is…well…average. The majority of Swedish women are not underweight, but fall within the normal-to-overweight range of the Body Mass Index (BMI). Shocked? I didn’t believe it either, but it’s true.
While 54% of Swedish women are considered to have “normal” BMI, compared to 36% of US women, both countries have close to one-third the female population (29% Sweden and 34% USA) classified as “overweight” according to the BMI scale.
I saw a diverse range of bodies in the spa that day—thick, thin, young, old, light, dark, lumpy, and smooth—nobody was a supermodel. I didn’t see women loving their bodies; I saw women not caring about who saw their bodies. They were body neutral—they didn’t give their bodies (or mine) a second thought.
This body neutrality begins at childhood and is reflected in how Swedes raise their children.
Naked children under the age of eight are commonplace in public spaces in Sweden during the warmer summer months. You’ll see kids being potty trained, running around fully nude, peeing in the streets and on trees. Naked kids running at the beach, pool, and in their front yards.
At some point, it becomes a bit culturally unacceptable, but for the most part, the comfort level of Swedish strangers around nude children is unparalleled to anything I’ve seen in the U.S.
Families and friends were a bit put off by our toddler going topless at the beach when we visited the New England coast one summer. My husband’s grandmother sent us some “special shorts” for our daughter because she felt it was inappropriate that we allowed our two-year-old to run naked on the beaches in Sweden.
I love that we are raising our children in a society that doesn’t give a hoot or a sideways glance when seeing a little booty on the beach.
Kids who are comfortable being naked on the beach will turn into young adults who may not have panic attacks while changing in the locker room.
I am not going to teach my daughter how to change underneath her clothing because she won’t need those skills. She’ll feel comfortable enough with her body because Swedish society has shown her, through repeated sights of confident adults stripping down, that bodies are bodies. Her worth isn’t defined by her shape.
To attempt to become more body neutral, I started taking small steps to set an example for my children.
- Walking around the house in my underwear or naked after showering
- No longer worrying if my body was “bikini ready”—it’s my body, and I own a bikini, so I’m all set
- Exercising because I like the way it makes me feel and not worrying about how I look
- Being mindful of the words I use when discussing my appearance, especially in front of my daughter
- Encouraging my children to swim naked at our nearby lake
These little everyday acts help me become a better body neutral role model for my kids. I don’t want them to feel insecure about their bodies at any stage in their lives, and my role as a parent can have an impact.
So for now, I’m doing my best to channel my inner 65-year-old woman, drop the towel, and accept my body regardless of its shape.