Scandinavian Attitudes to Nudity

Scandinavians are unusually cool about nudity in certain well-defined situations. The Finnish sauna is a well-known example. Within Swedish families, nudity is also commonplace, while many other nations feel that allowing your kids to see you starkers is tantamount to sexual molestation. (Which is a hot topic here at Scienceblogs at the moment.)

My wife and I once had dinner with a young couple down the street, where the man was a Chilean. His parents also had an apartment on the same street. He told us, chuckling, that his ma & pa could never draw the blinds in their kitchen, because every time they did there were naked people in the kitchen window across the street. This kind of rang a bell with me, and sure enough, that kitchen window belonged to the Rundkvist family.

Poor harassed Catholics! Similarly, I felt a little bad for my excellent Turkmen Muslim neighbour recently when he came to pick up his daughter at our place and the door was opened by my three-year old in her birthday suit (she had just had a bath).

Funnily, nudist beaches are rare in Sweden, and nobody gets naked at a public beach. Topless tanning is also regrettably pretty much out after its glory days in the 80s. Be nude, but learn the proper context.

Another peculiarity of us Scandinavians is that we have a strong feminist ethos and uncommonly de-specialised gender roles. This means that Scandy men are involved to an unusual degree in the care of their children. Combine this with our attitude to nudity, and try to imagine the consequences in, say, the changing rooms of a public bath.

I took my eight-year-old to swimming practice Monday night. As usual, the changing rooms were full of nude men and toddlers of both sexes. I really had to admire this one guy, a fiftyish Chinese recent arrival, who was there with his two daughters. I imagine it takes some cultural flexibility in a man like that to accept that a) he's taking the girls to swimming practice, b) they all change in the men's changing room.

Well, what about child molestation? I believe the frequency of such crimes is about the same in Sweden as in other Western countries, though the rate of discovery and police involvement is most likely way higher due to high awareness. The current issue of kids' magazine Kamratposten, of which my son is a subscriber, has a piece on molestation with matter-of-fact advice about what a kid's to do if they or someone they know becomes a target.

And those nude men in the changing room? Most of them were dads. If someone had approached a kid in a slimy way or taken out a camera, he would have been pinned in a corner before he could say "NAMBLA" and fifteen suburban cellphone users would have called the police on the spot. Getting nekkid is no big deal to a Swedish dad, but the well-being and integrity of kids sure is.

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I've found that North Americans are terribly uptight when it comes to nudity. Letting your toddler run around the yard without any clothes on is frowned upon in most neighbourhoods. And god forbid you get naked in front of your own children! I think we have a lot to learn from Scandinavians, and from many other countries in Europe. Why we consider it so shameful is beyond me (although I will admit, I'm not too comfy exposing my bits to the world...) Lots to think about. Good post as usual Martin!

Many thanks! A funny thing is that it would probably be more acceptable in the US for mothers to bring their little boys into the ladies' changing room. I guess the sight of a naked man is much scarier.

My kids somehow soaked up their attitudes about nudity from our US culture rather than from their family upbringing. We raised them in a household with a lot of nudity. But by the time both were a few years shy of puberty, they chose not to go naked and asked that my wife and I avoid nudity as well. The last time I was downstairs naked in front of my daughter, she said, "Dad, it's time to put your balls away." Both are in college now. Though they are comfortable with body and sex issues, their attitudes about nudity haven't changed.

Jon, when I was four and five I lived in Connecticut with my parents and went to Kindergarten. When we moved back to Sweden I was so prudish that I wore Speedos in the bathtub when my grandma was around. But it wore off.

Karen, if you find them intimidating, you can always turn off the light or put a paper bag over their head.

You've reminded me of another aspect of our prudishness: gym culture. From childhood through young adulthood, I never thought twice about walking around a locker room naked. We all did it. Now it seems that it's just me and the other old farts (I'm in my 50's) who let it hang out. The younger guys are always covered up. This is as true in YMCAs as it is in fancy health clubs.

That's funny, because people born in the 80s are supposed to be indiscriminately promiscuous, right? And still they won't flaunt their bits? Maybe their sexual culture is so volatile that if one of them flashed his salami the other ones would descend into a complete atavistic bonobo clusterfrock right then and there.

When I started taking our preschool-age daughter to swimming lessons this past summer, we went to an indoor pool. At the entrance to the changing rooms was a big sign: "All children 8 years and under MUST USE THE FAMILY ROOMS". The "family rooms" are individual toilet/shower/dressing rooms, as opposed to the group locker rooms. When I asked one of the desk clerks, she said it was for the sensibilities of the older patrons. Not the kids, their grandmas and grandpas. Many's the day we waited for almost half an hour for an available family room.

Nudity's not been a big deal in our house. We put clothes on when we have company or when it's winter (poor insulation in the house). Oh, yes, and when we're outside, as the houses are *very* close together. Other than that...

I wonder what those oldie sensibilites are about more specifically.

1. I hate for little kids to see me naked.
2. I hate to see little kids naked.
3. Nobody should be seen naked.
4. Naked naked NAKED NAKED

Actually, nakedness is also quite common in Japanese, Korean and Chinese societies. All these countries have bathhouses and hot spring where everyone is naked (male/females separated).

I've heard from my Japanese friend that traditionally they also have mixed bath where everyone is naked, but because of cultural influences from Westerners (I guess not Scandies) mostly portuguese and American, these became almost extinct. However, even now in Japan, families would bath together.

In China, way before the revolution, other than female brothels they also have male brothels. This tells us that the sexual attitudes of Chinese has been very much relax until either confusionism and Westernisation came in.

So don't be too surprised by "conservative" asians attitudes towards sex and nudity.

Weeelll, it's not always that relaxed in Scandinavia either. I was (admittedly a few years ago) reading a Finnish weekly with an "Ask the solicitor" column. In this particular issue the question was "What legal action can I take against my neighbours on the other side of the lake who bathe naked?" The somewhat exasperated reply was that the asker just would have to learn to live with it.

It was probably just a typo. What they meant was "What sexual action can I take against my neighbours on the other side of the lake who bathe naked?".

The correct (if not strictly legal) reply is, of course, "burn down their sauna".


Americans are very immature about the human body, but the
one big exception to this was our required nude swimming in boys' physical education classes in high school.
I was scared and cold at first, but the nude swimming actually became fun and relaxing after a while.
In Chicago, boys at Roman Catholic high schools swam nude; in many state schools, boys swam nude while girls wore racing type one-piece suits. YMCA nude swimming ended in 1970. Boys were allowed to wear bikini racer suits or swim jocks, but only 1 or 2 did. Nudity was wonderful for stress
relief and mental balance.

By frank benson (not verified) on 19 Jul 2009 #permalink

The coolest parent-child interaction I saw while visiting Stockholm last spring had nothing to do with nudity, but everything to do with a parent-facilitated sense of adventure that one rarely sees in the U.S. We were walking by a square in Södermalm that had a small skateboard park -- and watched a little boy of around 7 or 8 being taught some cool skateboard tricks by his mom. He was wearing the usual protective gear, his mom seemed to be encouraging him to try new things, and the scene was one of utter calm.

As someone who grew up incredibly overprotected, I was really touched. Wish my mom and dad had done that kind of stuff with me!

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 18 Sep 2009 #permalink

Not only are countries different, but every family is different and - more to this point - every child is different.

Of our five children, two have become "modest" around age 10-11 and don't want to be naked or around naked parents. The others are not bothered and have not any problem to wander into the bathroom while a parent is showering or whatever. And when we are in those Eastern-European countries where public swimming pools are often naked, the "relaxed" kids usually insist on going for a naked swim with one or both parents, while the "modest" kids do something else. And all beaches at home in Denmark are clothing optional (apart from one or two special ones) so no-one is bothered whether other people have got clothes on or not.

It is alarming to read some views in the US and even the UK that would say that it is somehow evil ever to be without clothing. We are Christians and see not a problem with this (in English there is a good argument about it on

Maybe we are wrong. But for now we are happy to do what feels right and what the kids are comfortable about and what is normal where we are.

Definitely have to agree with your observation about Americans being uptight... But just look at the TV. Blood and murder are okay, but a woman nursing her baby is a scandal.
Things are changing, though. Some places offer co-ed restrooms. Some pools offer family shower rooms, so parents can take care of the little ones. It seems teen boys avoid them and go into the men's showers, though. Not really surprising, as most teen boys get an erection pretty easily.

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.

I'm 23 and my mom and I see each other nude at home on a regular basis.Whenever I take a shower,she always joins me and we shower together all the time.Simple nudity is normal and harmless.My mom has always strongly encouraged nudity in the home and believed that we should not to be so self conscious about our bodies.

I am an educated and relatively laid-back 22-y/o American girl and I can't imagine anything as horrifying as seeing my mom or dad naked. For us, (genital) nudity is sexual and therefore pretty strictly Adult And Private -- that's just the way it is! If it's really so morally neutral, I don't get why people are always kvetching about how Americans should change. The boundary is just different...

But I wouldn't be thrown off by a 3-year-old going around the house naked -- I always liked to wear underwear as a kid, but I've babysat for kids below the age of about 7-8 who went around buck-naked, and in their family home this was pretty much acceptable. It probably depends on the family.

The unspoken rule in Sweden seems to be that frontal nudity is only sexual between adults of opposite genders. My son is becoming an adult now, and him and my wife have begun covering up in front of each other.

"My son is becoming an adult now, and him and my wife have begun covering up in front of each other."

Such prudes! Tsk tsk.


Here's a comment from Germany. Yes, we too are astonished about the mainstream US-American's attitude towards nakedness. To be precise, it's more an exasperated amusement. Usually, one has to explain that a sauna has nothing to do with sex but everything with detoxication and health - which does not prevent a sauna from being very relaxing and fun. Therefore to allow the body to sweat freely one does not wear anything. And that in a mixed sauna one does not stare at others, especially not at their private parts! The same goes for a nudist beach.

Also nakedness in a family is handled in a relaxed way. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and have seen my parents naked. Awareness of child molestation grew but little kids still run around naked in parks and public swimming pools. But as in Scandinavia - try anything sleezy and you will regret it.
A male friend of mine once remarked, that with todays near hystria of children's nakedness or sexuality in every context Pippi Longstockings would be banned from US TV. He said that in the film "Pippi Longstockings" when Pippi was sitting with open legs on the lawn it was the first time in his life he saw a girl's panties. He saw his sister stark naked before that.
But then the US version of Pippi Longstockings is a bit censored - the European Pippi is much naughtier.

By Martina M. (not verified) on 09 May 2011 #permalink

Yes, attitudes in Sweden are more sensible than in the States, but compared to Germany, Sweden is quite uptight. MIXED saunas are rare in Sweden (and the rest of Scandinavia, and even more so in Finland); they are the rule in Germany, and nudity is the rule and often required (not that anyone would be silly enough to wear a swimming costume in the sauna). (The mixed saunas in Sweden usually prohibit nudity.) So, in Sweden you have the choice of nude but single-sex, or mixed and clothed. Neither an option for a family who wishes to go to a public sauna together and do it properly. (It could be worse, and in other countries is: single-sex saunas where nudity is forbidden.) Many public indoor swimming pools in Germany have certain times (between once a month and twice a week) where nudity is allowed/required not only in the sauna area, but in the entire complex.

People who have not been to both countries often have the perception that Scandinavia has a more relaxed attitude to nudity than Germany. I don't think there was ever a time when this was the case, but if so, it was a long time ago.

kai writes:

In this particular issue the question was "What legal action can I take against my neighbours on the other side of the lake who bathe naked?" The somewhat exasperated reply was that the asker just would have to learn to live with it.

Interestingly, in Texas, the law against public nudity requires flagrant display, likely to offend others. So nudity is legal at traditionally nude beaches, and various secluded swimming holes. One local preacher tried to get the county sheriff to shut down a nude beach, only to have the judge explain that the law isn't violated because someone goes looking to be offended.

Having a pool, living in a beach community in So. Cal nudity has an organic attitude but as an adult dressing too provactive seems different mentally. I try to wear shorts year round and naturally don't bat an eye to change in public with and by the other sex too. How different it is when certain clothing is more provactive than the nudity. If traffic is very busy, we use a towel to advoid the unwanted attention,otherwise girls and guys are comfortable striping out of the wetsuits or whatever. I think the ocean plays a big part in my friends and family's nudity.

"The unspoken rule in Sweden seems to be that frontal nudity is only sexual between adults of opposite genders."

I would open it up even further and say that only applies between non-family members. I'm a Swedish male in my thirties, and wouldn't think twice about being naked around my parents, or vice versa. Not that we go around stark naked all the time just for the sake of it, but when changing for a shower or sauna or such, it's just not an issue. Similarly I have no issue with changing into my speedos behind a car door at the (non-nude) beach's parking lot, and I don't think I'm particularly extreme in that sense either.

I've also taken numerous naked saunas with non-family members of the opposite sex. It comes down to context whether you do it or not, to me. I'm not sure if there's a fixed "rule" in that sense.

I am in the UK married and have two University aged daughters. Our philosophy was no locked doors and to be naked around each other. So the girls would talk to me in the bath and likewise I would sometimes come in and talk to them. As they got older I always knocked before going in so that they could say no, but they never did.
The benefits: they are very relaxed about their bodies and very confident girls. No eating disorders, slimming problems or indeed over eating issues. I think that confidence with ones bvody is importamnt for a child.

My point is that in a safe family environment nudity should be encouraged.

I come from the USA but have spent most of my life living in Europe. A friend took me to a nude sauna and I must say I was scared and thrilled at the same time, coming from a conservative up bring it took some time to get us to the fact that I could be with people nude as before I always associated nudity with sex and the doctors physical was a even bigger experience