And a few weeks ago an article by Helen Russell of The Telegraph* got me thinking about how the Scandinavians proactively create a culture of shamelessness from a very young age. What do I mean by shameless? Well, as an example there are many co-ed groups who regularly go down to the sea, take their clothes off and jump in. They will even stand about naked as the day they were born in mixed company. You see, from a young age they are taught to be comfortable in their own skins. They have no shame. After all, it is just a body.
Americans tend to be more conservative about nakedness than Europeans. Myself included. Thus, it was a bit of a shock to go on doctor visits here where I was asked to get undressed only to realize that there was no gown. On my first visit I assumed that it was just an oversight. I asked for a gown. They searched high and low. No gown. Instead I was given a confused shrug and a washcloth sized scrap of fabric. It became painfully clear that they expected me to walk out from behind the changing area curtain naked. Clearly I had a decision to make - which part of my naked self did I cover with the washcloth?? On subsequent doctor visits, I again asked for a gown. The staff laughed, then commented that Americans ALWAYS ask but that they simply do not have gowns. After all, you are seeing a medical professional. No shame.
It is also de riguer for Swedish families to be naked in front of each other and most houses have saunas where the entire family goes in together naked.
And sex, well that is another shameless topic. Sex is looked at as a natural and healthy activity for people of the legal age of consent. You will even find items for sexual pleasure sitting on the shelf at the pharmacy right next to the toothpaste and vitamins, because, like toothpaste and vitamins, sex is part of keeping yourself healthy.
As for sex education, Scandinavians start at a young age. They talk openly, and in terms that most Americans would consider graphically, about sex to their children. Sex is not a shame filled activity, but an adult activity that children must learn about as they grow up. In fact, there is a video here that is geared toward children between ages 3 and 6 and played during children's programming on television. A cartoon penis and an "elegant" vagina dance about to a happy little tune. The video is designed to introduce children to the differences between boys and girls physically and to help them understand the human body. You can view it here with subtitles if you are interested. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GN4WaQLejm8. What is most interesting to me, however, is that the limited outrage by some Swedish adults, was about the video not being as accurate as it could have been (girls pee out of their urethras not their vaginas) and because it did not discuss children born with genitals that they don't identify with. "[L]inking gender to genitals can come off as a fairly conservative message" was the complaint.** So different than the USA.
In another Scandinavian country, Denmark, Helen Russell noted that, "from the age of six, Danish children participate in a national curriculum sex week to learn how babies are made and by the age of 13, they’ve covered everything from masturbation to transgender rights in frank and open discussions." As you can see, there is a concerted effort to start the culture of shamelessness at a young age.
In comparison, in the USA, my son didn't start any sex education (besides asking the occasional question at home) until he was in the 5th grade. And much to my chagrin, there was a district wide policy that the boys and girls were to be taught about their bodies separately. This bothered me because separate lessons conveyed an atmosphere of secrecy and, perhaps without realizing it, the district was subtly communicating that there is something to be ashamed of. My son picked up on this message immediately and asked me why the girls' lesson were secret.
In contrast, my daughter also had sex education in 5th grade, but at a European school in Italy. I will tell you that I pride myself on being pretty open with my kids, but when I saw the report that she was working on, I stopped in my tracks, shocked and a little embarrassed. "Sweetie, are you sure that you are supposed to be that . . . um . . . detailed?" I asked her. She turned to me and with complete confidence and shamelessness said, "Yes Mommy. It is just science!" Point taken. And she was right. She wasn't embarrassed. I was.
When I had kids I made a conscious effort to teach my kids to love their bodies and to be comfortable in their own skins. As little children, my kids ran around naked in the backyard during the summer (and occasionally down the street as toddlers), they changed clothes in front of other kids and they asked questions about their bodies which I answered in an honest but age appropriate way. In the shame department, while I am not as shameless as the Scandinavians, overall, I think I have succeeded in raising confident, shameless children. They have always come to me with questions and I have always answered them honestly and respectfully. And I am happy to say that practice has continued as they move through the confusing times that are the teen years.
As for myself, however, I have some work to do in the shameless department. I am a 52 year old, overweight, American woman who has had two kids and has spent the majority of her life thinking that I am not pretty, thin, fit or young enough, therefore I should be ashamed. I mean that is the American way. You must always strive to be better.
I am so intrigued by the Scandinavian shameless culture. I want so much to embrace it. Indeed, if I was a fit 20 something I would embrace this nudity thing immediately. But the real test is whether I can embrace shamelessness now in all my aging glory. To date, I have accepted the no gown at the doctor policy (as uncomfortable as that makes me). Next I need to accept myself and be happy in my own skin. Since my auto immune disease has wreaked havoc on my physical body, this is a definite challenge for me. Hopefully, though, one of these days I will be writing about my trip to the bath house on the beach, where I stripped down to my birthday suit and dove into this shameless thing both literally and figuratively.