Monday Series: Constructing the (Naked) Social Body II


Before continuing with my examination of the ideology of Nacktkultur and its respective relationships with the social body, I will first briefly outline what constitutes as a history of the body. Scholarship based upon the works of Foucault has emphasized the role of the body as a vehicle of social inquiry. According to Foucault, the historical specificity of the body and its history can only be learned through the notion that individual bodies are not separate entities, but rather products of construction existing in relation to a conceptual system. For Foucault, these complicated conceptual (and political) systems resided within clinics, jails, and asylums. The birth of the clinic, for example, seized the body with a medial gaze that penetrated inquisitively into the body, turning it to a discrete object of medicine. Reduced to its medical and biological realms, the body was expelled from history; it could only be understood within the social systems that govern it.

Arguably, the body then can only be understood as a socially constructed object for discourse. Building upon Foucault, historians have examined the diverse cultural variations of the body’s manifestation and attributions: sleep, food, sexuality, disease, age, and death, have all become topics of discourse.[1]  Discussing the role of the social body for historical analysis, Catherine Burroughs and Jeffery Ehrenreich question the historical ramifications for the body becoming socially constructed: “For if a body can be reshaped to accommodate a particular society, it can also be partly wrestled from that society’s control by an individual who has achieved enough power to redesign it according to his own desires.”[2] The symbolic body, as an object of historical discourse, literally embodies the values, prejudices, beliefs, and ideologies of its societies; additionally, it shifts, transforms, and mutates in reflection to the social and cultural meanings of historical periods.[3] The cult of Nacktkultur exemplifies this statement; viewed as a means to reconstruct the weakened German bodies, its power as a life reform movement transformed during the 1920s.

The body is thus overburdened with meanings. As a “source of amazement and pride, a symbol of human strength, ability and endurance,”[4] it embodies the hopes, fears, and expectations of its society. In its natural state, it serves as an antidote to problems of urbanization and industrial modernity.[5] Despite the Judeo-Christian tradition of associating nakedness with shame, Nacktkultur placed nakedness as an effort to recreate an Edenic state within the thrust of modern civilization.[6] The naked German body of the 1920s was a social body, with intense political significances, carrying multiple dimensions of identity and construction. Nakedness was not viewed as a separate force from the civilization, some form of savageness or incivility, but rather as a means for recovering one’s humanity lost within the symptoms of decay and cultural pessimism of postwar Germany. To most nudist Germans, the naked body became subjugated as a metaphor for reform, although as Heikki Lempa explains, “[t]here is no universal history of the body, no codification of science and practices that were applied to and applicable to each and everyone equally. The body is that of an individual who is a member of a social class, and that body is the carrier of the signifiers of that class.”[7]

While Lempa’s statement is true in the sense that the Germans did not view a single, universal history of the body, nudists aimed to construct a universal history, one which would represent the struggles between individual and state. In doing so, they aimed to reform society by first removing signifiers of social distinctions and reforming their bodies and disillusioned minds.  Nudists argued stripping their layers of clothing would reveal the universal and naked humanity underneath, which would cultivate an attitude towards equality that was absent in a society marked with social distinctions of class and wealth. By erasing titles and other forms of social distinctions, Nacktkultur suspended class inequalities as both the educated middle class and members of the working class would realize that material possessions were important. Nudity would be seen as a “certificate of authenticity,” as Germans “would not be reminded anymore of their own poverty and would forget the sorrows of everyday life. Envy based on social distinctions would vanish, and the German people would be welded into a “brotherly whole.””[8] Even the health of the proletariat—whose only real capital was their bodies—could raise consciousness for need for social equality.[9] 

Additionally, Nacktkultur presented an alternative view of the history of the body, one which celebrated nakedness as the highest and purest manifestation of German culture and beauty.[10]  From the late eighteenth-century onwards, life reformers emphasized the importance of a form of health and beauty that rejected the luxuries and refinements of the wealthy classes and stressed a return to the aesthetics of nature. For these life reformers, this return meant an expression of aesthetic ideals based on bodily norms of Greek antiquity. The history of the German body in this sense is traced to the representations of the ideal Hercules and Venus that embodied masculine and feminine ideals of strength, beauty, and perfection of the race. As Hau explains, “through the control of their bodies, [the life reformers] hoped to regain the fitness that would enable them to succeed again in the perceived struggle for survival,”[11] counteracting against images of the fat and bloated “beer philistine” which represented the weak and decaying bodies of the German race. Any deviance from the “timeless aesthetic norms of Greek antiquity” exposed signs of degeneracy of bodies, which in turn threatened the survival of the German race and manifested itself in serious diseases. Since beauty was accepted as an organic expression of a healthy and harmonious relationship of body, spirit and mind, life reformers urged for a body-consciousness that implemented aestheticized concepts of health.[12] “Normalcy was the precondition for beauty,” Hau explains, “while ugliness was the most important signs of degeneracy, a warning sign by nature which conveyed the message: ‘Do not love this person, because united with her you will worsen the race.’”[13]

The history of Nacktkultur is then the history of the German (naked) body. Disillusioned with social and political uncertainty, and faced with a strong perception of crisis, turn-of-the-century nudists found themselves politically charged and anxious for social reform. The perceptions of Nacktkultur were shot with political ideologies, and as Williams outlines, the more controversial ideologies of Nacktkultur spilled over to the social body, sparking loud debates and moral panics.[14] In the next section, I will narrate the origins of Nacktkultur and its ideologies. I will then discuss how, as a symbol of society, the naked body was able to penetrate and transform the ideologies of the social body.


[1] U. LInke, German Bodies: Race and Representation After Hitler (New York: Routledge, 1999), 3.

[2] C. Burroughs and J.D. Ehrenreich, Reading the Social Body (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 4.

[3] C. Ross, Naked Germany: Health, Race, and the Nation (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005), 4.

[4] Ross, Naked Germany, 5.

[5] Williams, Turning to Nature, 3.

[6] A. Masquelier, Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 2.

[7] H. Lempa, Beyond the Gymnasium: Educating the Middle-Class Bodies in Classical Germany (London: Lexington Books, 2007), 6.

[8] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 196.

[9] Williams, Turning to Nature, 24. See also, G. Stollberg, “Health and Illness in German Workers’ Autobiographies from the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Social History of Medicine 6.2 (1993): 261-276.

[10] Ross, Building a Better Body, 13.

[11] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 15.

[12] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 33.

[13] M. Hau, “Gender and Aesthetic Norms in Popular Hygienic Culture in Germany from 1900 to 1914,” Social History of Medicine 12.2 (1999): 275.

[14] Williams, Turning to Nature, 2.


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