The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers.
It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool.
Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality.
It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.
My own grandmother, upon hearing that I was now living in Copenhagen, said to me “You didn’t tell me you were moving to a sex town!”
No doubt one of her cohorts at the nursing home had shared titillating memories of a 1970s-era trip through the Istegade red light district.
Nudity is totally legal
Anyway, it isn’t surprising that some newcomers seem to think that if it weren’t for the chilly weather, everyone in Denmark would be nude at all times.
Seeing online video of a “naked run” at Aarhus University or Roskilde Festival only reinforces this belief.
Being butt-naked is, after all, totally legal in Denmark.
There are no laws prohibiting nudity in Danish parks and open spaces, and anyone bothering a naked sunbather can be charged with disturbing the peace.
Generational divide on nudity
But there’s somewhat of a generational divide when it comes to nudity in Denmark.
Old people are much more excited about being nude than young people. Even the Danske Naturister website – the national association of nudists – features a selection of cheerful over-60s who would fit quite nicely on the Danske Folkeparti website if they had clothes on.
Younger Danes tend to be less enthusiastic about nudity.
You can even see this in the women’s changing room of my swimming hall, where the girls wiggle and struggle to get dressed beneath towels while the ruddy, robust older women stroll about in their birthday suits without a care in the world.
These beautiful young women have grown up in a world of camera phones and revenge porn. They never know who’s going to take a picture and what they might do with it.
But it’s more than that. Modesty is trendy, maybe an inevitable swing of the pendulum after two decades of online pornography.
“Modest fashion” was a big hit at Copenhagen Fashion week this summer; modest clothes sell well to everyone from businesswomen to hijabis to pop stars like Billie Eilish.
And some intellectuals have started to see nudity as offensive from a feminist viewpoint. The New Yorker recently ran a negative review of a show of nudes by the French impressionist painter Renoir, calling him a “sexist male artist.”
Nudes in my neighborhood
I think about this a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood in Copenhagen Nordvest, which has a surprisingly large number of nude statues and wall friezes.
Many of them were put up the 1930s, as part of the “body beautiful” movement saw that saw artistic nudes as a way to elevate the tastes of the working class.
On a walking tour of Bispebjerg you’ll still see bare-breasted women carved into stone over the doorways of some AAB buildings. They probably wouldn’t make it past the Facebook content filter today.
Copenhagen parks also feature a fair number of classical nude sculptures.
It’s always a bit jarring to see fully-covered Muslim women from the neighbourhood picnicking next to Greek warriors with their bronzed family jewels on display.
Future of nudity?
So does nudity have no future in Denmark?
I think it does, and it all links back to the water. Vinterbadning, or winter swimming, is more popular than ever.
People of all ages still seem eager to get entirely nude, or mostly nude, on the coldest days of the year and take a dip into the icy Danish harbors.
Before jumping in, you take a quick shot of Gammel Dansk, a strong and fiery liquor. This is a morning shot. Winter swimming takes place as soon as the sun comes up.
It’s hardly necessary – the shock of the cold water against your skin makes your body release adrenalin, serotonin, cortisol and dopamine.
It’s an old Viking tradition, and it will probably outlive all of our present-day opinions about nudity, whatever they are.
This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on September 25, 2019.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023