Women in Berlin can now swim topless in the city’s public pools if they choose to – just as men can.
As well as being hailed as a step forward for gender equality in the German capital, the measure introduced this week is symptomatic of Germany’s love of Freikoerperkultur – literally translated as ‘free body culture’ – which has its roots in the late 19th century.
Berlin’s authorities took action after a female swimmer said she was prevented from attending one of the city’s pools without covering her chest in December 2022. The woman lodged a complaint with the city’s ombudsman’s office at the Senate Department for Justice, Diversity and Anti-Discrimination.
Authorities agreed that the woman had been a victim of discrimination and this week said that all visitors to Berlin’s pools, including women and those who identify as non-binary, are permitted to go topless.
It follows a similar incident at a Berlin water park in the summer of 2021. French woman Gabrielle Lebreton sought financial compensation from the city after security guards ordered her to leave the premise when she refused to cover up her breasts.
She was with her five-year-old son when the incident happened. Speaking to German newspaper Die Zeit at the time about why she believed it was gender discrimination, she said: “For me — and I teach this to my son — no, there is no such difference. For both men and women, the breast is a secondary sexual characteristic but men have the freedom to remove their clothes when it is hot and women do not.”
Berlin’s state government confirmed the move in a press release Thursday. “As a result of a successful discrimination complaint, the Berlin bathing establishments will in future apply their house and bathing regulations in a gender-equitable manner,” the statement reads.
The head of the ombudsman’s office, Dr. Doris Liebscher, hailed the move as a step forward for gender equality in the city.
“The ombudsman very much welcomes the decision of the bathing establishments because it creates equal rights for all Berliners, whether male, female or non-binary and because it also creates legal certainty for the staff in the bathing establishments,” she said.
Berlin resident Ida – who asked not to give her surname – welcomed the loosening of restrictions while questioning what it would really do for gender equality.
“It is certainly great that a simple complaint has made this ‘topless’ development a reality in Berlin. However, I am not exactly sure how this serves gender equality,” she told CNN.
“Women, if comfortable with their own bodies and sometimes gawking strangers, won’t have a problem displaying their torsos in any case. It is great that there are no penalties for an accidental nip-slip so all in all, this is a beautiful thing.”
Ida also remained skeptical at how widely women would make use of the new rule. “I was once at a swimming pool in the Pankow district and remembering the audience, I would not go topless there. Germans, as a rule, are very neutral in that regard and won’t mind, but whether that translates well, we have to wait and see.”
The move is not unprecedented for Germany, with Goettingen in central Germany becoming the first city in the country to allow women to swim topless in public pools last summer.
City authorities made the decision following a gender identity row which saw a swimmer asked to cover up at a local pool. The swimmer refused on the grounds that he identified as male, and was subsequently banned from the premise, according to a report by Germany’s public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
‘Another way of being’
As well as gender equality, the move also speaks to Germany’s love of Freikoerperkultur or FKK – which has its origins in the German Empire.
Rather than sexualizing the naked human body, the movement places emphasis on the health benefits of communal open-air nudity while exercising or being in nature.
Keon West, a professor of social psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, has investigated attitudes towards nudity in various countries in Europe as well as further afield.
“Most people understand that Germans are much more relaxed about nudity than Britons or Americans,” he told CNN.
“The major contrast in attitudes towards nudity in Germany compared with the UK and America is that naked people in Germany are not kept separate from others.
“Instead, nudity is simply accepted as another way of being.”
He explained that this is because, in Germany, people who are “nude in public spaces are not automatically seen as dangerous or deviant.”
“They tend to let people do it and be very comfortable with it.”
Germany’s passion for nudity finds its origins in late-19th-century health drives. The country’s first FKK organization was established in 1898 and the concept quickly spread around the country, according to Deutsche Welle.
In 1920, Germany established its first nude beach on the island of Sylt. Barely a decade later, the Berlin School of Nudism, founded to encourage mixed sex open-air exercises, hosted the first international nudity congress.
The nudist movement was initially banned by the Nazis in a moral clampdown. However, it continued to gain popularity and had support among members of the paramilitary SS.
After World War II, nudism remained prominent in both East and West German states but was particularly prevalent in East Germany, becoming a form of escape from the uniforms, marches and conformity of the communist state.
The cultural movement remains popular in modern Germany. Today, there are about 600,000 Germans registered in more than 300 private nudist or FKK clubs and a further 14 affiliated clubs in Austria.