Why are Swedes so open to nudity in the sauna? Is there a lesson for other countries to be learned here? Lundagård investigated the Swedish sauna-mystery.
While in the UK, and many other European countries, the existence of a sauna (bastu) in the basement of a student corridor seems like a ludicrous luxury, in Sweden this is common, especially within older houses. A cultural tradition that remains completely intact, saunas can be found across Scandinavia, a regular routine for many since the fifth century.
One of the oldest saunas in Scandinavia is located just a thirty-minute train and bus ride away from Lund, the Malmö Ribersborg Kallbadhus is an oasis on the Øresund. An open-air bath home to five saunas situated at the end of a pier. The sauna is open all year round and requires its visitors to participate in the sauna experience in true Nordic style – naked.
Although nudity may not appear shocking or embarrassing for Scandinavians, elsewhere in the world this tradition will be met with fear. When asking Grace Kennedy, an exchange student in Lund from the UK, her first experiences of the Malmö Kallbadhus she described an equalising feeling amongst the other women in the sauna.
“It was definitely a really liberating experience, I thought I would be hyper aware or embarrassed of being naked but the longer I stayed in there I just forgot”
Rosie Holt, also from the UK, agreed, “It felt completely normal and very therapeutic so quickly”.
Growing up in the UK there is a deep shame attached to nudity.
The short-term health benefits of going to the sauna regularly are undeniable, reducing stress, improving sleep, and helping cardiovascular function. A study from 2018 found that death from heart disease was reduced by 58% when sauna bathing from four to seven times per week. While these benefits are reason enough to attend your local sauna at least once a week, the unceremonious nature of nudity which exists in the bathhouse may be just as powerful.
“Growing up in the UK there is a deep shame attached to nudity” explains Grace, “I think it is engrained into our society that nudity equates only to sexuality”.
A study into this prudish British nature revealed that 40% of Brits are “uncomfortable” when seeing “women in skimpy underwear” on the beach. Perhaps it will be a while longer before the naked Nordic sauna tradition takes off in the UK, however the relaxed attitude to nudity which exists in Scandinavia is undeniably linked to a more liberal approach to sexuality.
In 1955 Sweden became the first country to implement mandatory sex education across schools, removing embarrassment surrounding the discussion of sexual relationships and as a result giving power and liberation to its population through education.
Jens Rydström, a professor of Gender Studies at Lund university and weekly attendant of the Malmö Kallbadhus, argues that the early implementation of sex education in Sweden was “made possible by the body cultural movement which insisted that nudity is not sexual or pornographic”. Therefore, Rydström explains how the act of nudity in this way, “is meant to desexualise the body and make people feel more comfortable being naked in general”.
The separation between the naked body and sexuality is therefore mimicked in a Swedish sauna as Rydström emphasises that, “the tone of most saunas in Scandinavia are to cleanse the body, not sexualise it”.
The welcome experience of nudity and lack of shame felt by both Rosie and Grace once in the Malmö Ribersborg Kallbadhus, is therefore the perfect microcosm of the wider liberal attitudes of Scandinavia. The UK especially would probably benefit from an unashamed naked dip into the Øresund.