Why are Americans so modest? Or maybe the better question is, why do Europeans love nudity so much? When I assert that Americans are modest, you might think I’m nuts. One only needs to tune into MTV’s shows like Jersey Shore or The Real World to think American “kids today” have no shame at all. Perhaps times are changing in that regard, but regarding nudity and as a Gen X-er, I remain conservative, prudish, and painfully modest -- especially relative to my European cousins.
Europeans have a reputation for being more liberated in this regard, and it really turns out to be true. For instance, here in Austria you can go to any (any!) one of the many spas in the area and find not only saunas where co-eds mingle together in the buff, but naked swimming hours. And don’t think you can get away with being special, because swim suits in the sauna are actually verboten (forbidden). I asked my friends here about this phenomenon, immediately mentally leaping to interesting scenarios where friends go to the spa together (because they do). “How does that work?” I ask. “Don’t you feel weird if your best friend’s checking out your girlfriend’s junk?” What happens if you run into someone you know?” “You went with your colleague from work…and his wife???” Inevitably, they laugh at me. A lot. My wife got the same reaction when she asked whether you get a modesty gown at the gynecologist. She explained how at regular appointments in the U.S., she gets a garment that lets them uncover only one part of her body at a time. But here apparently, she’s told that the doctor comes in, she strips down, jumps up on the table, and he goes for it. Lots of medical practices have migrated from the U.S. to Europe, but sadly for her, the modesty gown is not one of them.
Other superfluous nudity: In our furnished apartment, there’s a small folksy painting hanging in our bathroom showing a man sitting on the toilet with his wanker in his hands. Translated, the caption reads, ‘please, I’m pissing.’ I don’t know why, but it makes me uncomfortable, this naked cartoon man. Then, weekly we get junk mail fliers from local stores that casually feature topless women. Mind you, these are not underwear ads, these are ads for very non-sexual things, like end tables and kitchen furnishings. Why the nudity? I don’t know, but I refer you to my assertion – Europeans just love nudity. (As a side note, I also tell you that these weekly circulars, which any 3-year-old could pick up off the family dinner table, include ads for sex toys, S&M accessories, and ben-wah balls. There is no surreptitious packaging or special naughty mailing list – it’s just the weekly specials at the Love Factory, naturally.)
Our friends in Europe find much hilarity with our being so scandalized about their comfort with nudity. We’re told, “You don’t stare at the spa, that’s not polite.” “Doctors are trained professionals. Get over it.” “Sex is natural and so is the human body.” And we’re asked, “Why are Americans so repressed?” A stock answer is that it’s because the Europeans shipped all the Puritans to America, so why would we be exhibitionists? There’s probably a real good explanation for these differences that an anthropologist could offer, and much as I wish I could be more liberated, I really don’t think I’ll ‘get over it’ anytime soon. All I know is that when I’m naked, I feel more than naked. For unexplained reasons, I feel like my soul is showing.