Is it OK to walk around naked in the middle of a major city? The idea of seriously debating this question might seem bizarre, but that's just what the city of Munich has been doing for much of this year. Statewide laws controlling nude sunbathing in Bavaria expired last autumn, and Germany's third largest city has had to decide for itself whether or not to allow sun-seekers to strip off in public.
The answer they came up with is a qualified yes. People in Munich are now officially welcome to go naked provided they restrict themselves to six designated areas across the city. While these areas' locations in parkland gives them a degree of seclusion, none of them are fenced off or hidden away. One spot is barely ten minutes from Munich's main square, located along a stream to which tourists flock.
In officially allowing nude sunbathing in these six places, Munich is in many ways only acknowledging a practice that has gone on for years. It's long been common to see people hanging out in the buff in the city's beautiful Englischer Garten and in spots along the meandering, island-filled Isar River. Indeed, the practice is common across Germany, where the first naturist beach was set up back in 1920. In the former East Germany, the activity is more popular still, possibly because the longtime absence of strong religious influence there made people less anxious about it.
Plenty of Germans are tanning obsessives, but it’s all about far more than avoiding tan lines. Public saunas, a standard part of many people's weekly routine in the country, are generally naked-only and mixed sex (though single sex days happen once or twice a week). Indeed, you can actually be asked to take your bathing suit off if you turn up with one. This is – I think – in case the sweat it collects ends up on the sauna's wooden benches, or to assure you don’t make other people feel uncomfortable in their nakedness.
Given that so many Western countries have taboos around public nudity, how does Germany manage this insouciance? It would be going too far to claim that Germans accept no link between sexuality and the naked body – German pornography is not noticeably full of people in floor length gowns and chunky turtlenecks. What Germany does have, nonetheless, is a strong cultural tradition that seeks to escape artifice and the pressures of city life to return to something supposedly more natural. Seen in this light, stripping off in public is the voluntary removal of a heavy mask, a return to unvarnished honesty rather than some titter-worthy peek-a-boo. Places where this is allowed to happen are spaces of truce, where there is a generally observed agreement that people will spare each other physical scrutiny and appraisal.
Thus even a place with a fairly buttoned-up reputation like Munich sees allowing naked sunbathing as a public good. It's a reminder that, even in the midst of a big city, nature and peace are still there to be enjoyed in what many like to consider, accurately or not, a natural state. As my time working in Munich as a tour guide taught me, however, there’s always an occasional tourist who chooses to butt into this municipally approved summer idyll with a roving zoom lens.