My girlfriend Minna and I spent three full, fantastic days at the Oregon Country Fair this summer. If you have not been, it’s difficult to describe the experience. If I had to narrow down the OCF to two words, they would be “nudity” and “hippies.” If they gave me a third word, it would be “pot.” There was a wooded, winding forest trail leading to the entrance of the fair, where numerous unofficial vendors set up shop to sell pot to the fairgoers. Based on the nearly omnipresent smell, I’m guessing that business was good.
That, however, is beside the point. As I mentioned, nudity is a big part of OCF. It isn’t full nudity—your genitals must be covered, and there is no sexual activity allowed. That being said, women walk around with bared breasts (often painted in swirling floral patterns by other women at the fair), and I saw at least five men wearing a bag around their genitals and nothing else.
The experience was a bit jarring at first—seeing topless women casually walking around, or an almost-naked 70-something-year-old man laughing and talking with some random people. But in fairly short order, it ceased to be a remarkable thing and was just part of the atmosphere.
On each day of the fair, you could tell who the new arrivals were based on how much they gawked at all the exposed flesh. I laughed when a group of high school girls were whispering back and forth, and one said, “Oh my god! There’s a naked woman there!” Another replied, “There are naked women EVERYWHERE.”
As somebody who is pale and has some body image issues, I elected to keep my shirt on, though I proudly sported a kilt throughout. Minna is rather busty and in need of structural support, so she spent a decent amount of time good-naturedly grumbling and complaining about women with smaller chests. Considering it was 95 degrees in the very humid forest, it was definitely desirable to just take all your clothes off.
After returning from our trip and recovering from the bug bites and minor sunburn, Minna and I began talking about the nudity at the fair. This brought up a German concept called “Freikörperkultur,” which literally means “free body culture.” The idea of FKK, as the Germans call it in shorthand, is reflected by an acceptance of the body as it is, and the acceptance of nudity.
A recent article by Slate “Germans Love Getting Naked at the Beach. So Should We” accurately stated, “Despite what you’ve seen in Eurotrip, it’s less about sex or exhibitionism and more about convenience. You’ll never see a German shocked at the sight of a rotund 65-year-old man with his Schawnz und Eier semi-clad by a speedo or totally nackt; young Germans frolicking bare-breasted by the pool will receive at most a blasé once-over from their male companions.”
A question that arose during our conversation was how such normalized nudity affects sexuality as well as body image. Minna said, “It was nice to get away from the focus and self-analysis, and the hyper-consciousness about body image. There were large women with large breasts, and there were leathery men, and they were all naked and nobody cared.”
I asked if she felt this type of nudity reduces the sexual impact of nudity. She thought that it does so to a degree, saying, “I wouldn’t take it as far as the way Germans do FKK. It seems to me that it gets a little common and mundane. Breasts, instead of being titillating, become kind of blasé.”
I think the issue is largely one of context. While hanging out with friends and family at the beach, or when getting ready for work in the morning, nudity is definitely blasé to many Germans. However, in sexual situations, breasts and nudity are still a highly sexualized thing.
In the excellent German film Good Bye, Lenin!, the first thing the East German protagonist Alex does upon the fall of the Berlin Wall is visit a porn shop in the West, where he (and many other East Germans) stand around watching a video of a busty woman sitting in a cake, licking whipped cream off her own breasts. Context and actions made it sexual.
On a somewhat related note, as a grad student studying history and a big Germanophile, I must mention that FKK originally developed in Communist East Germany and amongst more left-leaning Germans in democratic West Germany during the 1960s as a reaction against the strongly conservative culture of the 1950s.
Listening to Americans talk about naturalism, I often hear people complaining about “seeing what cannot be unseen.” Frankly, that’s nasty and shallow. Everybody gets old. There are lots of overweight people and lots of people with injuries, or other things that may be unpleasant to look at. Who friggin’ cares? “Oh no! I saw a leathery old man’s ass and a topless fat woman at the fair, I’m scarred for life!” said nobody I spoke to at OCF.
Yes, it was a bit jarring at first, but by 20 minutes in, I didn’t even notice anymore. Furthermore, nudity should not be reserved for the immaculately fit and young.
The sort of homegrown FKK demonstrated at OCF is a good thing, and even though I was personally too nervous to take my own shirt off, it was incredibly nice to know that I could and nobody would say anything. I’d love to see FKK catch on in the U.S. in places other than the OCF or in the sporadic nudist colonies around the nation.
I’d love to see the characteristic American prudishness break down somewhat and to see people more comfortable in their own skin. It would make the world a better place, I think.