‘WE CANNOT MOVE FORWARD UNLESS WE SEE THE PAST!’ THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN ENTIRELY RE PUBLISHED WITH THE KIND PERMISSION OF ITS AUTHOR MICHAEL CURRY WHO HAD THOROUGHLY RESEARCHED THE SUBJECT, CONCISED IT AND ADDED VALID ARGUMENTS. MICHAEL IS A MEMBER OF THE LAKE EDUN (NUDE SPELLED BACKWARDS) FOUNDATION (http://www.lakeedun.com/) WHO ARE BASED IN TOPEKA, KANSAS, USA. THIS FOUNDATION IS DOING AN EXCELLENT JOB IN PROMOTING THE NATURIST LIFESTYLE. THEIR NEWSLETTER ‘BARE FACTS’ (http://www.lakeedun.com/news-letter/) CONTAINS A WEALTH OF INFORMATION ON THE SUBJECT.
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF NATURISM by Michael Curry, first published, December, 2007 – PART ONE
I’ve always been interested in history. To understand what we are today, we have to understand where we came from. Perhaps most of you will recall the powerful TV mini-series “Roots.” It was the tracing by author Alex Haley of his family history from Africa to slavery in America, and then on to himself. Likewise, naturism also has roots.
Many are familiar with the origins of naturism in early 20th century Germany. Others have no clue about the beginnings of naturism, and don’t really care. It is enough to spend a pleasant afternoon with friends soaking up sunshine between dips in the cool Lake Edun water. Fortunately, naturism is broad enough to accommodate both levels of interest.
For those that enjoy discovering how things work and why things are the way they are, spend a little time and read on. The one disclaimer is that this is by no means a complete or definitive history of nudism/naturism. What will be presented is an overview of three academic studies looking at nudism from different perspectives, plus some additional historical material found on the internet.
As probably most naturists know, social nudity was first promoted in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An interesting question posed by one writer is, “So why Germany? What was happening there…that caused a phenomenon like this to erupt so big?”
It is important to gain some insight into the historical context in which German naturism developed, the situation in life so to speak. For this, it is necessary to take into account the pre-Christian past of the German peoples. These are the tribal peoples who battled, but were not conquered by Julius Caesar around 51 B.C.
The religious beliefs and practices of these people were animistic in nature. That is, all of nature was believed to be indwelt with personalized spirits. Germanic peoples lost their paganism at a relatively late date, roughly 500 to 1100 A.D. thanks to a military victory over the Romans in 9 A.D. This prevented the advance of Latin culture and subsequently, Christianization for centuries. Some have asserted that the German pagan heritage has never been fully erased. In fact, this pagan heritage has been appealed to by German thinkers for the past 200 years. More about this later.
In 1796, far ahead of his time, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland published a study of aging in which he coined the term “macrobiotic,” and included exercise and fresh air, sunbathing, cleanliness, regular scheduling, temperate diet, stimulating travel and meditation as a means to prolong life.
Goethe, (1749-1832) the poet of Nature religiosity erased the boundary between man and nature altogether, proclaiming, “God can be worshiped in no more beautiful way than by the spontaneous welling up from one’s breast of mutual converse with Nature.” Goethe also decried man’s misguided impact on the natural world that powerfully interfered with nature.
In the mid 1860’s Eduard Baltzer organized some vegetarians and founded a Free Religious Community, advocating a “natural life style.” Others were influence by his writings, including Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1851-1913) who formed several life reform communities. He spent the last portion of his life at his retreat on the isle of Capri.
While this strand of back to nature vision of leading a simplified life was spreading, Germany was experiencing a dramatic upheaval. In 1870 Germany was 2/3 rural, but by 1900 it had become 2/3 urban. These reformers saw the emerging middle class as becoming superficial, course, complacent, gluttonous, materialistic, industrialized, technocratic and pathetic. Among the responses came many natural healing modalities and numerous youth movements were organized.
It has been claimed that Germany had always made a virtue of their late submission to Latin civilization and had glorified the natural man and woman with all their vices and virtues. There may be some truth to this as paganism was deliberately revived in the German-speaking world during the late 19th and early 20th century. Those advancing the virtues of paganism claimed that Christianity is a repressive religion, but that paganism was inherently freer and more joyous. These beliefs found their way into literature and art; a highly influential example being Richard Wagner’s operas.
This movement insisted that Germans must get in touch with suppressed pagan values to regenerate their souls. Influential philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844-1900) claimed that when Europe became Christian it became decadent and lost its creativity. He taught that the irrational factor must neither be eliminated nor thoroughly tamed by order seeking reason, but somehow integrated into our lives.
The rapid social changes in Germany in its path to becoming a modern urbanized, industrial nation in the late 19th century led to many stresses. Masses of people were moving into overcrowded and unsanitary cities where there was sharpening social conflict, increased alcoholism, disease, crime and suicide. Lower middle-class Germans experienced increasing discomfort over their economic and professional future. These alarming developments gave rise to intense concerns about Germany’s collective health and national fitness.
At the turn of the 20th century the forces of modernity, rapid industrialization, and overwhelming bureaucracy filled people with a sense of powerlessness. All three seemed to attack men’s and women’s health and body, causing it to degenerate and decline in a very direct way. Seen as contributors to this decline were processed foods, increasingly sedentary lives, and office or factory work that inspired a sense of drudgery, forcing human bodies to perform in unnatural ways to the extent that obesity, ugliness, and early decay was increasingly becoming the norm.
In this context a series of movements arose, among them nudism, vegetarianism, and appeals to live a back-to-nature lifestyle arose that condemned the alleged degenerative effects of modern life and the urban milieu. Their call was for a healthier, more “natural” lifestyle. These movements centered on reunification of humankind with nature.
The rise of naturism in Germany in the late 1800’s was part of the neo-Romantic movement known as “Life-Reform.”
Life-reform advocated a back -to- nature lifestyle with the establishment of independent rural communes, the use of herbal medicines, and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. These ideas, however, were not altogether new, but rather were revived from the 18th and early 19th century.
The earlier Romantic Movement also had a sympathetic interest in primitive nature. The prominent French philosopher and social theorist, Jean Jacques Rousseau, (1712-1778) epitomized this idealized view of nature and “natural man.” Rousseau glowingly and eloquently wrote of ‘’The Noble Savage.” This was his fanciful view of primitive man, both one with nature and his fellow man, free of the vices and repressive institutions and mores found in Europe.
Many of these life reformers also rejected the authority of scientific medicine, promoting instead alternative methods of healing. In this regard, their rejection of science casts them as a kind of anti-modern backlash against contemporary trends.
The life reformers gained a ready hearing among the lower middle class who felt themselves caught up in a life and system over which they held little or no control. The reformers offered a variety of programs which centered around healthful food intake and physical exercise designed to restore man’s original fitness, and thus, withstand the onslaught of modern life.
Those feeling powerless in many aspects of their lives could at least maintain control over their own bodies, improve their physical selves, and gain additional self-respect. Indeed, despite being stuck in boring or dead end jobs, people could improve their own lives and physical attractiveness even more than those in the idle higher social classes. Life reform resonated with largely middle-class sensibilities by offering the possibility of control and a guarantee of success through rational management of the body. Health was associated with beauty, and illness with ugliness.
It should be clear from what has been presented thus far that discerning the origins of naturism is not a simple and straightforward task. There were numerous influences at work in a particular country at a particular time in history that gave rise to what we now call naturism. This will be explored further in next month’s Bare Facts. To be continued. [Ed.]
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF NATURISM – PART TWO
Note: This is the second in a more in-depth look at the historical roots of modern day nudism/naturism. As noted last month, the late 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of naturism in Germany. Probably most of you have read lists of names and dates of significant people and events in naturism. That is useful, but it is bare bones, and pretty dry ones at that. To really understand the development of naturism it is essential to understand the context within which naturism arose. It is time to put some flesh on those bones, even if inadequately, to better appreciate the origins of naturism.
There appear to be six roots to naturism which were embraced by both the right and left wing politics in Germany: The Beauty Movement; the Youth Movement; the Natural Healing Movement; Physical Culture; Rhythmical Gymnastics and Dance, and nudism. All were separate parts of the general Life Reform movement.
The umbrella term, Life Reform, denotes the general cultural movement within Germany which was the impetus for many leaders and their thousands of followers during the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century. The goal was the reunification of humankind with nature. This included a back-to-nature lifestyle with the establishment of independent rural communes, the use of herbal medicines, and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. The themes of health and beauty were a critical component of this movement.
Thus, a cult of health and beauty swept across Germany at the turn of the century and continued through the 1920′s. People turned to the body as both a reflection of their own social problems and a utopian answer in their search for control, or perfection in the ideal world they sought. It needs to be added that Greek antiquity was an influential source of inspiration with its ideal of the “harmonious cultivation of body, mind and soul.” As one writer observed, “…the persistent appeal of classicism helps to explain the striking strength of German body culture.”
Life Reform was not one cohesive philosophy under whose banner everyone in Germany organized. At least six distinct groups in Life Reform can be identified, but more about that later. The various reforms advocated by one or more of these groups included vegetarianism, nudism, natural medicine, abstinence from alcohol, clothing reform, settlement movements, garden towns, soil reform, sexual reform, health food and economic reform, liberation for women, children, and animals, communitarianism, cultural and religious reform.
On the national and international scene, Europe was in constant turmoil with numerous wars breaking out throughout the 19th century. Germany as the nation we know it today didn’t exist until 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War, (1870-71). This was an era of empire building and seeking to have foreign colonies. Empire building leaders such as Bismarck sought to make Germany the dominant power on the continent. All of this demanded increased manpower, but Germany was experiencing a dramatic decline in population in the latter part of the century.
One significant contributor blamed for population decline was syphilis. In some areas fifty percent of the population was supposed to have the disease. It was held responsible for the high infant mortality, the lowered life expectancy, and the low recruitment possibilities for the army. It was a threat to the very core of German imperialism. Surprising as it may be, these seemingly unrelated facts of history do have a direct bearing on the acceptance of naturism.
Turning again to the organized roots of naturism, it is important to stress that social nudity was advocated by both the right and left wing of the political spectrum. This is to say that the use of social nudity was a part their individual practice of life reform, but the right and left did not share a common political ideology or agenda.
To clarify, on the political right, and Volkish in tone, was Heinrich Pudor who in 1893 wrote Naked People and the Future of Mankind, and in 1900, The Cult of the Nude. In 1905 Richard Ungewitter wrote Nakedness. They both advocated nudist practices as the means to restore health to the body, and to make Germany and the German Volk strong. ‘Volk,’ means the people or folk. This was a term which represented an intense nationalistic emphasis on the totality of the Aryan peoples, land, language, and world view. They as well as many other leaders within Germany had an emphasis on ‘racial hygiene.’
Racial hygiene was supposed to improve the stock of a population by encouraging people with “positive” genes to procreate extensively and hinder those with “negative” genes from procreating at all. Here is where the connection with syphilis intersects, but also with the concern by many that Germans were intermarrying with racially less desirable non-Germans from elsewhere in Europe. Both factors led to a supposed “degeneration” of the race. The German brand of Social Darwinism termed racial hygiene is believed by some to be a common thread through all the various roots of naturism. However, this may be an overstatement.
On the left wing was Adolf Koch, a primary school teacher who sought to use social nudity to free the people from ‘authority fixated conditioning which held proletarians in deference of their masters, i.e., parental authority, paternalism of the church, the mass media and organs of law and order. Koch was eventually able to build up schools dedicated to his methods having some 3,000 pupils. The nudists went on to become a huge element in the left wing politics of Germany. The Proletarian Naturist Movement numbered at least 60,000 members, a larger number than those in the right wing naturist associations.
The third strand of nudism was also middle class in constituency, but not so much from those that were laborers. These participants in nudism were not so much political in orientation, but participated within the various movements listed earlier that practiced nudism as part of their activities.
In order to appreciate the importance of each of the six roots of naturism, the following brief overview of each of them is provided.
The Beauty Movement has already been touched upon in the December issue of Bare Facts. As was noted, classical ideals of beauty were the standard by which all were judged. The aesthetics of this neo-classicism movement included the viewing of nudes in the arts. Recommendations were made as to how to treat nudity in the classroom, where as a byproduct, “an impression of the beauty of the human body will be achieved which is valuable for the physical, aesthetic, and moral lives of the cultured man in his clothes.”
The beauty movement spoke out against the double standard of morals and in favor of coed education. It was argued that it is not nudity which is indecent, but the lack of understanding of it. Proponents claimed that, “When the beauty of nudeness is again purely sensed (as in ancient Greece) then nobody will be capable of soiling it with their impure thoughts.” With the publication of photographs of beautiful female and male nudes however, there was increased pressure to do something for one’s own body, as it was readily compared to others.
Out of the 19th century arose one of the more significant Youth Movements of the time, the “Wandervogel,” or wandering bird. Founded in 1895 by Hermann Hoffman and Karl Fischer near Berlin, they began taking high school students on nature walks. Later these became three to four weeks journeys. Eventually 50,000 organized into autonomous bands. They sought communion with nature and the ancient folk-spirit as embodied in the traditional peasant culture. They also sought to throw off their parent’s politics and old social ways. They, too, rejected the sexual double standard and sought a sense of comradeship between the sexes. These ideas encouraged both sexes to swim and walk about naked.
The Natural Healing Movement was an alternative to scientific medicine. In the mid 19th century Swiss physicist Arnold Rikli started a sun and air bath clinic. His sanatorium is credited as being the foundation of sun and light culture. Heliotherapy was soon propagated for tuberculosis and many skin diseases. Toward the end of the century, leading natural healer Adolph Just, along with others, advocated nude air baths and sun bathing as the treatment for disease. So popular did the natural healing and air bathing sanatoria become that by 1913 there were 885 clubs with 148,000 members in Germany.
The natural healing movement had the important distinction of making nudity for health reasons acceptable with both sexes and enjoyed a large popular following. Just taught that, “Going naked is in accordance with nature, and consequently right.” He added, “Today man lives, clothed as he is, with the greater part of his body in the dark. Let him, for once, throw off his clothes, especially in the open air, in the woods, and he will directly feel how new vigor and life reanimates the body.” This happily coincided with the preoccupation of imperial Germany with health, as it also spread medical information liberally.
The healthy body was not only promoted by natural healing procedures, but also by physical exercise. The Physical Culture Movement can be differentiated between physical culture in which nudity is only secondary and free physical culture in which nudity was the primary emphasis. The former was popularized by J. P. Muller from 1904 onward through the books he wrote. While Muller was a nudist, he didn’t want to convert this sideline into the center of his system.
The most widely read physical culturist in Germany was Hans Suren, an army officer from 1903 to 1925. He advocated a full range of exercises using various relatively light weights. In addition, he recommended spending as much time as possible in the nude. Suren wrote, “Nature has created us naked. Why can’t we look at each other in the nude with clean thoughts? Isn’t the nude body – once it is somewhat looked after and led by a moral spirit – the best means to educate and ennoble men and women?
[This concludes the second installment investigating the underpinnings of naturism as it arose in Germany. Ed.]
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF NATURISM – PART THREE
Note: This is the third in a more in-depth look at the historical roots of modern day nudism/naturism. Last month a review of the six movements that were the roots of naturism was begun to give a sense of the diversity of thought and practice that enabled nudism per se to gain such a large following in Germany at the turn of the 20th century.
The discussion of the Physical Culture Movement in last month’s issue of Bare Facts differentiated two divergent emphases in this movement. On the one hand, J. P. Muller stressed muscular development and the demonstration of strength. Hans Suren on the other hand, stressed the beauty of the whole body and all around fitness rather than muscular contraction of particular parts.
The first woman to publish a book in Germany about physical culture was a Dutch-American Bess M. Mensendieck in 1906. She sought to emancipate women through the rationalization of everyday motions. Her book included 78 nude photos of herself demonstrating static exercises. Her emphasis was on figure and posture control. Women were to strive for physical perfection and self -determination. While not a naturist per se, nudity was seen mainly as a means of self-control. Her aim was to teach unaffected grace in everyday movement in addition to improvement of health through conscious living.
Rhythmical Gymnastics and Dance is a fourth root of naturism. In this, women were overwhelmingly represented, (roughly 94 percent of participants) and overall numbers suggest that approximately a half million Germans became rhythm enthusiasts. This interesting gender division is perhaps explained by the statement of one writer that, “The beauty of strength belongs to men, the beauty of expression to women.”
The origins of rhythm are found with Francois Delsarte’s belief that every experience of the soul had a corresponding body movement, with the added goal of immediately translating those experiences to the body. The influence the various schools of rhythm had on the naturist movement is by teaching complete perfection which can be better supervised in the nude. On the whole, however, Delsartes’s followers did wear clothes. Dance, however is another story.
The naturist approach to dancing was first introduced to Germany by Elizabeth Duncan, sister of the famous dancer Isidora. Indeed, modern dance in Germany developed in uniquely close relationship to a “body culture” that reached levels of intensity and mass involvement unparalleled in any other national context.
According to historian Karl Toepfer, dance and body culture converged on the pursuit of ecstasy, defined as a joyful release from the constraints of modern society and bourgeois convention. Modern dance powerfully united artistic experimentation with attempts to create new modes of personal identity and communal life. Indeed, advocates of the body culture hoped to create a unified ecstatic movement that would break the iron cage of modernity. Instead it splintered into competing theories and school of dance and body movement.
The explanation that Toepfer offers for this splintering is the instabilities inherent in the appeal to the naked body itself as the crucial signifier of modernity. For instance, was the naked body ‘modern’ because it exposes primitive and instinctual forces that shatter convention or because nakedness is itself the condition of modernity? Some sought to accentuate the materialism of the body, its visceral reality, while others explored the body’s potential for abstract form. For some the ecstatic body could be the sign of the irrational, connecting the person to blood, libido, and self-transcendence in community, for others ecstasy could be gained through rational movement.
In dance, the naked body also evoked a tension between innocence and experience within modernity. This tension ultimately revolved around eroticism. Again, the body proved an unstable signifier. Some at the time insisted that nudity always carries an erotic charge. Others such as the already mentioned Hans Suren sought to neutralize sexuality in favor of therapeutic or communitarian agendas. Still others such as Richard Ungewitter linked nudism to a reactionary racial ideal.
As a final word on rhythm and dance, the reference to ecstasy as the goal of this movement has to be connected with the philosopher Nietzsche and the pervasive influence he exercised upon the avant-garde. Further, German philhellenism, of which Nietzsche was also a devotee, is critical to understanding the intellectual underpinnings of these ideas. Indeed, the persistent appeal of classicism helps to explain the striking strength of German body culture.
The final root of naturism is the Nudist Movement. The main difference with the other roots is that for the nudists being in the nude was the most important issue. As one writer of the time put the matter, “It makes a big difference whether you are doing physical culture in the nude in nature or whether you place your body into nature.” For him, nudism was serious business saying that simply hanging around being nude had, “… nothing to do with healthy, serious, even harsh physical culture.” While for the other naturists some of the other causes for which they were fighting were of greater importance to them. However, they readily included being in the nude for the benefit of their other causes.
Crucial to the turn of the century development of nudism were the writings of Heinrich Pudor and Richard Ungewitter as already mentioned. They along with Magnus Weideman were the founders of FKK or Freikorperkulture—Free Body Culture movement. For Pudor, the custom of wearing clothes was an ‘inadmissible’ withdrawal from nature. Not surprisingly, they found many willing nudist participants among the Wandervogel youth movement where the call to purify themselves through fresh air and exercise was in keeping with the ideology of nudism.
Ungewitter was instrumental in establishing a number of nudist clubs. However, the first nudist club, Freilichtpark, (Free light Park) was founded by Paul Zimmerman in 1903. Here, as with Ungewitter, a stern discipline required a regime of vegetarianism, compulsory gymnastic exercises, and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco.
The nudists desired to make their nudity natural. It therefore became more and more of a family affair where you take your wife and children to the club. Great effort was made to ensure an atmosphere of complete trust and comradeship. Ungerwitter addressed the moral and biological relationship between the sexes, calling it a question of trust saying: “A beautifully built body does not have to be afraid of nudity. To take off your clothes, particularly in front of persons of the other sex is a matter of trust. Girls and women with natural feelings will not be embarrassed to take off their clothes in front of men whom they know and whom they trust…as they have nothing to be ashamed of.”
It became customary in the nudist clubs to address everyone by their first names. Members were urged to not only know themselves from the outside, but also to know themselves from the inside and strive there as well for perfection. Within the movement, members were taught not to feel ashamed of the body.
The naturism of the first three decades of the 20th century was a deeply ideological, at times racist, eugenics-oriented, utopian belief in the power of nakedness to transform the body. In turn the power of the naked body would transform Germans and Germany, physically, spiritually, metaphorically and racially, into better individuals, a better race, and a better nation. The goal of naked culture was to become so widespread that even the many nudist clubs would eventually become superfluous and dissolve.
In nudism it was believed that by imitating the ancient Greeks, modern man and a new modern body were being reformulated. The “naturalness” of the body was not a simple given, but a lost ideal whose recovery in the modern world required effort and persistence. Nature and the natural body were seen as the lost origin as well as the ideal to strive for.
Man now had to form a new, conscious unity with nature. Freeing oneself from clothes meant leaving behind the past.
Associated with this was an emphasis on proper skin care. Nudists believed the “beneficial, invigorating and refreshing ultraviolet rays,” would restore the body’s energy supply. As the skin forms the boundary between the self and the world, it was believed that to neglect the skin by, “ruining it under layers of clothes, shielded from the sun,” was a sin. The skin required attention and had to be worked thoroughly.
Discussion of the skin played a pivotal role in the physiological and aesthetic discourse of German nudism. By pointing to the centrality of the skin in hygienic and aesthetic respects, nudists found several ways of legitimizing their interest in naked skin.
Nudity functioned in German naturism as a means of rendering the skin/body visible in a new way by relocating the skin within a tradition of judging character and mental qualities by observation of the body. This belief was reformulated according to racial-hygienic and eugenic beliefs of the times.
Bridging political differences, eugenics beliefs were shared both by right and left wing elements of the nudist movement. However, the left exemplified by Adolf Koch oppose racial prejudice, but did advocate eugenics and the belief in the need to physically regenerate the German people.
Body culture was an ideology believed to be capable of purifying the German race by strengthening the viable and slowly weeding out the weak and undesirable. This common thread resonated with the longing within Germany for national unity, racial homogeneity, political and social harmony, also championed by the Body Culture Movement. For nudists this harmony meant accepted, widespread social nudity, as well as social harmony.
[The origins of naturism are rich and complex. To be continued next month. Ed.]
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF NATURISM – PART FOUR
Note: This is the forth in a series of a more in-depth investigation of the historical roots of modern day nudism/ naturism. It is difficult to place ourselves in the mindset that existed over 100 years ago in Europe and in Germany in particular. The world has changed a great deal since the turn of the 20th century, but the legacy of naturism persists, having spread around the world. The question is what of this heritage remains, and what is there from the past to inspire us for the future?
The cult of health and beauty swept across Germany at the turn of the 20th century and continued through the 1920’s. People turned to the body as both a reflection of their own social problems and a utopian answer in their search for personal control and perfection in the ideal world they sought. In this search, inspiration was derived from Greek antiquity with its ideal of the “harmonious cultivation of body, mind, and soul.” As one writer observed, “…the persistent appeal of classicism helps to explain the striking strength of German body culture.”
Life Reform as the overall term denoting the desire to create a new person and a new society was not one cohesive philosophy under whose banner everyone in Germany organized. Simply looking at the six roots of naturism makes this obvious. Further, it was largely centered in the northern German cities and was mainly from Protestant communities.
However, there was a good deal of overlap in the practices advocated. These include vegetarianism, nudism, natural medicine, abstinence from alcohol, clothing reform, settlement movements, garden towns, soil reform, sexual reform, health food and economic reform, liberation for women, children, and animals, communitarianism, cultural and religious reform. What was most important was the ability to lead and display a self disciplined and ethical lifestyle in which everything was subject to self-control.
Fueling the desire for Life Reform by those on the political right was discontent with materialism, and the excesses of capitalism, but they also rejected Marxism. Instead, they sought an elusive “third way” between these two, seeking social justice and personal freedom. Theirs was a search for solutions to problems such as the effects of capitalism, death of the natural world, social fragmentation, and loss of community. In general they tended to seek individual, aesthetic, or cultural answers to what were essentially social, economic, or political questions. In this the reformers reflected the enduring influence both of the Reformation and German idealism, with its notion of the perfectibility of the individual through self-cultivation.
Likewise, body culture as a subset of life reform was no unified movement. It is best understood as a grouping of similarly minded movements, often with considerable overlap among groups. These similarities included the belief that theirs was an age of degeneration that would only be ended or repaired by intense work on the body. Further, body culture practices were to lead from a reform of the Self to a social reform of living, resulting in a “New Person” standing in a “New World.” The other similarity was that all forms of body culture enjoyed increased popularity and acceptance from 1900 into the 1930’s.
One crucial question that must be explored is why was nudity believed by so many to be so central to the renewal of the individual and then society? What power did nudity offer as a means for renewal? That is, what meaning does nudity possess or hold? This is no small question to answer.
One historian answers this by saying, “The nudists were involved in a permanent development of themselves. Freeing oneself from clothes and old skin meant leaving behind the past. At the start of the 20th century this model of organic “emergence from the cocoon” paved the way for a very specific modern self: the New Man firmly associated with the eugenic idea of individual as well as national regeneration.”
In 1901 Karl Mann, publisher of the journal Kraft und Schonheit, was convinced of the health benefits of nakedness and stressed its moral value. It would, he said, combat hypocrisy and prudery, and reduce the need for pornography and prostitution.
For Adolf Koch, exercise in the nude was the symbol of a new beginning for a new society. He sought to use social nudity in a new political movement to free people from “authority fixated conditioning which held proletarians in deference to their masters: parental authority, the paternalism of school and church, the mass media, and the organs of law and order.” Nudism was an act of liberation.
Historian Maren Mohring states that nudity was the central means of winning back the naturalness of the body. The work of the naked culture was to normalize the body. Its concern was to standardize the ‘natural’ as beautiful and healthy by exposure and exercise, manufacturing the body again so that it should stand out against the ‘ugly’ and ‘unhealthy’ body normality of the dominant society. Adding to this, another historian, Michael Hau, noted that it was believed that nudism created a vision of equality that transcended social and political divisions, intending to create a community of happy people committed to similar hobbies and leisure activities.
Early Swiss naturist, Werner Zimmerman stressed that social nudity was to eliminate body guilt, encourage openness and end what he saw as the cause of sexual deviations such as pedophilia. In his view these stemmed from repression of the human spirit which was at the root of sexual and relationship problems. Honest nakedness ends curiosity about bodies and encourages a healthier attitude to sex and bodily functions.
Chad Ross in his research of German nudism argues that nudism’s attempt to beautify the body and remove shame from it constituted the formation of a new national morality, one its supporters saw as more authentically German. The nudists saw the naked body as the tool to inculcate a more natural sexuality in Germans, and to make the German body stronger. This again goes back to the national obsession over racial hygiene.
The point of all this is that health, beauty, and the human body meant different things to different people, but always included a vision of utopianism in a world that seemed threatening, lonely and lacking in promise to people in many different strata of society. Thus there was ascribed both literal and metaphorical meaning to the idea of the physical self, so much so that one writer observed that body history can be seen as a canvas in which the term “body” assumes a meaning beyond its physical existence.
In fact the body became literally a projecting screen for different social groups and their various interpretations of what were in the end the same aesthetic aspirations and the same medical and hygienic teachings. Speaking to this point, a reviewer of Empire of Ecstasy, a study of dance in German body culture, concluded that the body proved an unstable signifier for all the ideas and meanings attached to it.
To the extent that the nude body was used as symbol also means that these ideas and meanings were not inherent to the body itself. Symbols may be powerful, but in the end they point to or represent something beyond themselves. This observation is not meant to say anything negative about the body as symbol. It is useful in a given context. When the context changes however, the value of the symbol in carrying a particular meaning may be lost. A current illustration is the loss of the meaning of innocence that once characterized the very common baby on the bearskin rug photos our grandparents so commonly displayed of their infant children.
However, the gains in the “normalization of the body in all its forms and functions” of the early 20th century seem lost. True, there is a lot of “public skin” to be seen, but always for commercial or sexual purposes. Ordinary Americans in particular have retreated to a repressive phobia about the body that is nearly Victorian in its intensity. The body is no longer cherished; instead it must be nervously hidden as something dangerous. The sexual potential of the body has become the leading signifier for far too many 21st century Americans. Naturists have to fight this disease with the body with passion and creativity, as this is possibly the leading inhibition to the progress of naturism in this country.
Today, looking back at the writings of the early advocates of social nudity and its purported benefits, we are left a bit perplexed by the hyperbolae of their claims. We may recognize echoes of the early justifications for social nudity in the writings of modern naturists, but not delivered with the same impassioned exuberance and grandness of vision. Indeed, the times have changed. Nowadays, naturists mainly read and hear about relaxation, recreation, freedom from stress, and body acceptance as justifications for naturism.
Other themes such as the educational value naturism provides about the body through the life span, its value as social equalizer, and its value as a counter to pornography are also mentioned at times. Unfortunately, these messages fall mainly on deaf ears and do not influence about half the population as did Life Reform and nudism in Germany.
Proponents of Life Reform and nudism in Germany tapped into the spirit of the times and responded to the anxieties and longings that many in that society experienced. Perhaps we can look back to those pioneers for creative inspiration to address the felt needs of our times. Indeed, there are deeply felt concerns in the 21st century that mirror the early 20th century. One immediately thinks of the growing environmental dangers we face; the widespread emphasis on fitness and exercise; the concerns for health and alternative health care practices; even vegetarianism is more widespread and fashionable than before; now more than ever before, the equality of the sexes is acknowledged. Linkages between naturism and modern life concerns have to be explicitly made.
Indeed, if you look at internet websites for naturist clubs, you will find a number that tout how “green” they are. Others offer programs on nutrition and weight loss; many clubs sponsor 5k runs to encourage fitness; skin screenings for cancer and massage workshops are offered by others. Yet, these remain individual club initiatives. This does not represent a “Naturist organizational agenda.” The question is why isn’t there a coherent naturist agenda that promotes Life Reform in keeping with 21st century sensibilities, giving naturism a weightier meaning than simple recreation?