Cultural Differences: Nudity Edition

There’s a music video shooting in my neighborhood today, which makes for hilarity as I, in my rap-video-appropriate hoodie but terribly matronly sneakers, try to nonchalantly poke my toes behind a convenient shrub before the camera pans past me. The subject of the music video is a group of seven Russian rappers. Their sound production is high-quality and their beats are fresh. They’re picking various scenes of our most interesting graffiti as background, so I was careful to warn Tobias about the filming before he unwittingly rounded a corner, fleeced-bundled baby cooing in the sling strapped to his chest, and disturbed the mood. It’s tough to look hard when you’re holding hands with a 2-year-old.

I ran into the video production a few times today, and during one scene a lone rapper was rapping while walking along the sidewalk, looking into a camera whose cameraman was scuttling backwards. The rapper was totally intent on the camera and the rapping, and seemed very natural walking along. I was amazed by this: I got a bit tight in the shoulders the minute I saw that there was a camera on the block, and I can only hope that the view of the back of my head that the camera captured as they went by didn’t show my furious blushing. The rapper wasn’t paying any attention to the other people on the street, didn’t seem chuffed by the attention or made nervous by the situation.

Tobias and I regularly take the kids to the local swimming multiplex, with its thermal baths and outdoor lap lanes and wave pool, etc. The changing sections are divided into women’s, men’s, and family. We go to the family section, where we change into our suits and change the kids into theirs. The family section is just a largish room lined with lockers, with a changing table and crib in the center of the room and, brilliantly, several free-standing plastic high chairs available as wet-child-restrainment units. Tobias is pretty fast generally, and, encumbered as I was with sweaters, baby carriers, and nursing bras, I didn’t notice him transition from street clothes to bathing suit the first time we were there. It was only as I peeled off the last of my layers that I realized that I was going to go through a brief period of public nudity before getting my bathing suit on. That seemed more depressing than weird, actually – I remember thinking that the designer of the changing area must have assumed that no one was going to get a thrill out of seeing naked mom bodies with their squishy bellies and tired boobs.

It was only later, when I realized that the dad bodies were nakedly changing in the family room, too, that I forgave the room’s designer. Not because I love looking at a whole new set of floppy, post-bath penises, but because it is so nice to have another parent around when you have one arm and one leg stuck in a wet bathing suit and your toddler decides that now’s the time to pull off her diaper and poop on the floor drain.

Let’s tie it all together, shall we? In Feminist Studies in college, we talked a lot about The Gaze, the cultural pressure put on people, women especially, to be aware of other people’s perception of them. My parents did a lot to protect me from The Gaze, to make sure that my idea of myself was more important to me than other people’s idea of me, and for this I am very thankful. One of the most striking things about living in Germany is the lack of self-consciousness most people have here. It’s not that they’re more self-absorbed than Americans, but that they don’t seem to feel The Gaze the same way. The rapper making his video wasn’t worried about it, Tobias isn’t worried about it, naked or not, my children certainly aren’t, and I’m getting more accustomed to forgetting about it, too.

If you’re American, think of it this way: when a German in their early twenties, dressed, say, for a night on the town, runs to catch a train and, upon bursting through the carriage door, out of breath, with all eyes upon them, finds that the train isn’t going to leave for another 3 minutes, they don’t feel that cringing, awkward, UNCOOL feeling at all. Incredible, no?

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