The free spirit has been a trademark of the Danes for some time. Danes treasure their ‘frisind’ or their liberalism – even libertarianism – that lets each chose for themselves what suits them, without regard for convention or dusty norms from a bygone era. But this is probably a paradox of self deception, just as the Australian identity as pioneers in the bush, in a country where the vast majority of people live on the seaboard. The Danes are at once anti-authoritarian (protesting vigorously against the nanny state and laws that rule their lives) and authoritarian (have you ever waited, slightly wondering, at the red pedestrian light with Danes when there are no cars in sight?). They abhor big government, yet live in one of the most celebrated welfare states in the world.
At its most extreme the Danish ‘frisind’ (free spirit) is credited with the legalisation of porn and abortion by choice because sex was freed from its bourgeois chains – gender and sexuality were separated in the name of equality (note I consider porn a particular nasty from of oppression of women, so very potently expressed by Oscar Wilde: Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power). In the everyday, this ‘frisind’ manifests in ways that are much less outrageous and much more mundane than that. Little children play naked on the beach and under the sprinkler in the garden. Sunseeking Danes fill Copenhagen’s parks as soon as the sun’s rays warm up the place. You know they are Danes for the girls lie topless to avoid bikini lines (though note the code: you don’t see topless women walk around in the city. Topless is for lying down, sunbaking, not for interaction; and they are not to be looked at, so hide your eyes or risk social outcasting as a pervert).
In 1990, when I first arrived in Australia, I took up swimming at the University pool. In the change room, young women struggled holding their towels around them to undress and put on their bathing suits in complete modesty (looking a tad like Mr Bean at the beach), while I freely stripped naked in front of them. It took me a little while to notice this different attitude to the body – that my culture was different. I first thought it might have something to do with British prudishness á la Mr Bean, but it seemed much more widespread across the Australian cultures. From my Danish childhood visits to the public pool, I was used to communal change rooms and showers with a guard in a white smock and clogs, making sure everyone – young and old – showered naked, cleaned armpits, groin and feet with soapy sponges and rinsed thoroughly before putting back on the swimsuits and going out into the pools, through the hyperchlorinated footbath. While this was for hygiene reasons, it also meant there was no room for modesty or being shy about one’s body – we were all the same when we went swimming in the public pools and it was normal to be naked in front of other people of the same sex.
Similarly, following our regular sport and gymnastics lessons at school, the teacher would make sure we stripped off our sports gear and showered before redressing in our normal clothes. I think this practice must have reduced the smell that accompanies so many school children here in Queensland where showering after school sport is entirely unheard of.
A few days ago I recieved a lovely video message with my young Danish nephew doing a dance to Pink Panther music – stark naked. It was cute and I smiled. It saddens me that I had avoided taking photos or videos of my own – now adult – children in their birthday suit. In Australia, we have been scared off documenting our children in their most natural state so as to avoid being accused of child pornography or pedoephilia. Breast feeding my children in public was accompanied by awkwardness. People thought I was crazy – and rather revolting – exposing myself like that. The most natural thing a woman can do to sustain her offspring is to breast feed. There is nothing better for baby; it requires no equipment, no sterilisation, no chemicals or de- and rehydration processes – everything baby needs is there just as nature intended. But the same body fright I experienced in the change room somehow makes this natural act become perverse. Showing any nakedness is somehow shameful.
I recall my puzzlement when our New Zealand friend from London who visited us every xmas in my childhood would ask if I was ‘decent’ before entering. I associated decency with good – and therefore lack of it with bad. Whether I was naked or not was somehow a question of bad or good in his culture.
I read that the Danish liberal attitude to the body may be changing – with children actively avoiding showering together and young people covering up more. An annual debate rages about whether it is ok to sunbake topless in one of the graveyards in the centre of Copenhagen, which is also one of the popular green spaces of the city. I don’t really have a view on that one, but I do think our Australian cultures would do well to take a more relaxed attitude to the outfit we were born in – and embrace nakedness as natural, not something to be avoided at all cost. Perhaps then we could have people familiar with, not ashamed of, their body? Perhaps we could avoid the rape excuse that ‘the way she dressed, she asked for it’? Perhaps we could get a more realistic attitude to body shape – how do we know what a normal body is when we never see one?