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Photography Kate Bellm

How getting naked in a German sauna helped me come to terms with my body

LA expat Sabrina Cooper on the first time she ditched her robes in public

German spa culture requires nudity in the saunas. No underwear, no swimsuits. Just your skin and whatever hair and tattoos you might have on it. A towel is required to lay on the sauna benches, but wearing anything else is strictly verboten. When it comes to this particular brand of self-care, part of the adventure is letting go… of everything. But for an expat like me, who has certain hang-ups about their body, this can prove highly challenging.

Today there are over 2,100 communal or privately run facilities in Germany. According to the German Sauna Association, saunas are equally popular among men and women, with an average age of 40. In total, 31 million Germans hit the sauna on a regular basis, reaping the many benefits that saunas provide, from stimulating the metabolism and detoxifying the body, to purifying skin, boosting the immune system and relaxing both muscles and the mind.

Nudity in saunas is nothing new. It happens in places like Japan, Turkey, and Hungary. But why do Germans specifically go bare? Rainer Brenke, a former consultant doctor of the German Sauna Federation, puts it down to health and safety. "It's best if you can sweat unhindered,” he says. "One can not rule out that dyes and chemicals in the bathing clothes cause allergies." “There is no factual reason to wear swimwear in the sauna,” adds Hans Jürgen-Gensow of the German Sauna Association. “This has always been the case in Germany.”

Indeed, culturally speaking, nudity isn’t as big of a deal in Germany as it is in other countries. Today there are only a few legal restrictions on public nudity, while a sizeable nudist contingent called Freikörperkultur (FKK or free body culture) has existed there dating right back to the 19th century, and currently boasts a membership of 60,000 people. Locales like the Schönfeldwiese in Munich’s English Garden, a section of Berlin’s Tiergarten, and some islands in the North Sea like Sylt promote social nudity. It is also routinely present on TV and media with no obscuring of private parts. According to Deutsche Welle, “While explicitly erotic scenes à la Hugh Hefner's magazines are forbidden on prime-time television due to youth protection laws, simple nudity is not.”

I’ve lived in Germany for almost 10 years but I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where the cultural stance on nudity is less laid-back. Initially, I found the idea of getting naked in a public space absolutely terrifying. But I also wanted to live the full German experience. So a few years ago I went to Mediterana in Bergisch Gladbach: a sprawling wellness wonderland that houses a hotel, sports gym, restaurant, and multiple saunas with pools. My German boyfriend was there to help navigate me through the process.

"Perhaps the voices were louder because I was being confronted with my naked body in a way I wasn’t used to"

I was sweating even before I touched a sauna door. I remember trying to hold my boyfriend’s hand the entire time as he led me from the mixed-gender changing area to the saunas and pools where people are free to roam without clothing. As I disrobed in front of our first sauna, I immediately grabbed my towel and held onto it like a child clutching a security blanket.   

I’ve always been self-conscious about my pot belly and the extra fat on my inner thighs. Plus I’m half-Asian and tall with dark hair-- which isn’t the norm here in Germany. I don’t groom my armpits, legs, or bikini line, which I’m comfortable with when I’m clothed or even in swimwear. Exposing myself in public, however, was a different story. I had these fears of people laughing and pointing at me. But as I soon realised, eye contact is saunas is minimal, it’s where people come to zone out. There was no pointing or laughing, and I took comfort in the fact that when I looked around I saw nearly every body type represented. There were bigger shapes and smaller ones. Older and younger. Some groomed and some not so much. Essentially, the environment was telling me to come as I am and it didn’t matter what I look like. Of course, I still had those nagging voices in my head, criticising my thighs and belly. Perhaps the voices were louder because I was being confronted with my naked body in a way I wasn’t used to. But I gradually eased into the pervasively serene mood. After 40 minutes, the novelty of being naked in public wore off and I welcomed the effects of the sauna working on me: the tension eased in my shoulders, my neck, and my back. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin. It felt good to be naked.

Zoë S., a 30-something transplant from Brighton had a similar experience on her first sauna visit. “The first time I went to a sauna, it felt totally surreal and I was very uncomfortable being around so many naked people,” she says. “Over the time I was there, I started to realise that no one is looking at anyone else. No one cares what you look like...There is something so liberating about being comfortable being naked in front of others.”

These days I go to the sauna every three months or so. Don’t get me wrong: I still have to prep myself mentally every time before I go. But I keep going nonetheless. Not just to reap its benefits (although my skin is a testament to that), but because German sauna culture pushes me to let go of my body anxieties and embrace what I have: my imperfections, my junk in the trunk and all. I go to these saunas to do something beneficial for my well-being so there is some proof of love for my body. I make mindful efforts to focus on the positive atmosphere there rather than feeding my inner conflict between self-criticism and self-love. Naked saunas might not be for everyone, but I’ve dared to bare and have enjoyed its healing, transformative power and would highly recommend you try it too.