When I started thinking about comparing the sauna experience in Germany vs in the United States, it was mostly due to curiosity. First, I couldn’t imagine Americans visiting a sauna while naked. Then, I saw women in my gym using the sauna as a changing room and putting cream or oil on their bodies. All of this reminded me how disturbed I was when I first visited a sauna in Germany; there, nudity is expected, and most saunas are mixed-gender.
Catherine in a sauna in Germany
I moved to Germany in 1989 and lived around Frankfurt for 24 years. Still, it was only after I met my husband that I first visited the sauna in 2008. To protect my sense of decency, I wore a large bathrobe between the sauna rooms, showers, and outside pools. In an effort to ignore fellow visitors’ nudity, I removed my glasses, convincing myself that if I couldn’t see their genitals, they couldn’t see mine.
When was I growing up, France didn’t have a sauna culture. To me, saunas were reserved for Nordic countries, where people sweat in small wooden cabins before walking in the snow. In short, saunas seemed exotic and far away. I’d never heard of French saunas, and I’d never met French people who went to saunas before I moved to Germany.
My opinion didn’t change a lot once I relocated to Germany.
Of course, I had heard of the nudity and mixed-gender saunas in Germany before 2008, and this was exactly why I didn’t want to go. What if I met a friend, a neighbor, or a colleague?
Because of the French reputation for infidelity (which is a myth, by the way, as I explain in “Everything you always wanted to know about adultery in France“), some may think that we have no problem with nudity in public. This is absolutely not correct! Nudity is a very private matter, and in the words of another Catherine, a French journalist and friend of mine:
“Besides nudists, who have their own places to go, French people are very modest. I only once saw a girl showering naked by a swimming pool, and we were all shocked by her behavior. At the beach, you will see very, very few naked boobs.”
The taboo in a German sauna
If you do visit a German sauna, don’t try to wear bathing clothes. Patrons will immediately react and tell you vigorously that it’s completely wrong and unhygienic!
In one of my sauna visits in Germany, I experienced this firsthand. Two young women in swimsuits from the UK came into the cabin with towels around their bodies. A few minutes after they unwrapped the towels to sit on them, a sauna supervisor asked them to leave. I can only guess what he told them outside: get undressed or leave the area!
Being naked is not a big deal in Germany, so nobody cares about nudity in a German sauna. Germans believe that it’s unhealthy to sweat in a bikini or shorts because germs will accumulate on the cloth and may spread. Furthermore, there’s no sexual component to attending a German sauna. It’s not about voyeurism or flirting—just about relaxing while doing something good for your body.
If there’s one taboo in German saunas, it is staring at others’ genitals. Any kind of touching is also completely inappropriate. The German daily newspaper TAZ even dared to compare spending time in a sauna cabin to attending mass!
Why are Germans okay with nudity?
The real origin of Germans being comfortable with nudity comes from a social movement starting in the late 19th century.
According to Wikipedia, the Lebensreformkultur (culture of reformed life) encouraged a back-to-nature lifestyle, “emphasizing health food/raw food/organic food, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and religious reform,” as well as “abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines.”
Nudity in saunas is a visible remnant of this movement, as well as nudist beaches in former Eastern Germany. A few years ago, a picture of young German chancellor Angela Merkel, naked, caused a lot of excitement in the media and elsewhere. Mrs. Merkel never denied the photo was of her (if you want to see for yourself, please check this link).
Germany and other German-speaking countries have a longstanding sauna culture. To be honest, although I didn’t like aspects of visiting the sauna at all (and I still don’t) due to being seen naked by strangers, I started to enjoy my visits before we moved to the States.
Germany has beautiful sauna areas that have nothing in common with most American saunas. My husband and I used to visit a Wiesbaden’s day spa—a beautiful location in a natural atmosphere with different saunas, a steam bath, an outdoor pool, and relaxing, quiet rooms. The Thermalbad Aukam also offers massages and tanning beds. It was easy to spend an afternoon there, and that’s what we did on cold winter Sundays.
Over the weekend, I asked my friends in the German community about their sauna experience in America. To make it short, they all miss their German saunas. Curiously, I found out that there are also “naked” saunas in the States. Visitors of coed saunas will most likely wear towels or bathing clothes, while visitors of single-gender saunas can be either naked or dressed.
The Lake Superior area—specifically Minnesota, Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa—is home to a large population of Swedish and Finnish Americans who maintain a popular sauna culture. Maybe this is the place to try a real sauna experience?
For my part, I stopped using the sauna in my local gym a long time ago. Too many women used it to undress after training or to dry after showering. As you say here in the States, they share a little too much information about their body parts.
Foto credit: Fotograf Schlote