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How Nudity Is Portrayed: A Comparison Between the U.S. and Finland

Ekke Hyvönen

Being an international student gives me an opportunity to look at my surroundings through a different set of eyes and carefully observe what the people around me are doing. It may seem a little weird, but I actually consider it healthy. This keen observation, as I like to call it, has led to me making connections between my Finnish background and the new culture that I am visiting. Minnesota has a lot of similarities with Finland in its culture, but I’m not going to talk about that. I want to bring a specific topic to your attention, which is the differences in the way our countries view nudity.

It has been a joyful experience for me introducing my American friends to the proper sauna culture. Saunas, as the Finnish people refer to them, are rooms made of wood, with a heater in it. The heater is not only used to produce heat, but also steam, by covering the top of the heater with rocks, and then throwing water on the rocks. After the desired heat has been reached, the water will turn into steam. This is the basic function of a Finnish sauna. I was lucky that most of my friends knew that the sauna really does originate from Finland. The thing is, Finns always go into the sauna naked. However, in the eyes of my close friends here in America, this is rather outrageous. Of course, I did explain that we separate females and males into different saunas, and that our saunas are not positioned right next to the pool. Instead, our public pools have saunas in the showering areas for both men and women separately.

Finns learn what it means to sauna quite early on. To be precise, most of us start going to the sauna immediately when the doctor gives the okay to our parents. This usually happens within the first few years of our lives, although we keep the temperature lower for young children. But the most important part about using the sauna, especially in public swimming pool areas, is that one goes to sauna either naked, or wearing a towel. In homes, this means men and women go to the sauna separately; in public pools saunas are provided for men and women separately in the showering areas. Sauna is a sort of sacred place for many Finns because their ancestors were most likely born in a sauna. This is because it was often times the cleanest place in households. We are never insecure of our bodies in the sauna, because it is a part of our culture that one goes in the sauna without clothing. Here in America, people have created something called dry saunas, which remind me a lot of sweat lodges, considering some people go in there fully clothed. Also, in the public pools, men and women go into the same sauna, wearing their swimsuits or even more clothing, and most people do not even shower prior to going into the sauna. Dry saunas are not known in Finland, but then again, neither are sweat lodges all that much.

Now that we have established the difference in the sauna culture, I am going to tell you about a conversation I had with my American friends in the sauna here at Concordia College. It was shocking for me to hear that it is a common habit for women in Minnesota to shower with their swimsuits on when there is a chance that other women will be showering in the same space with them. We discussed this with my American female friends, and they usually just rinse off the chlorine from the pool in the public showers, but then take a shower again at home. To me this is a bad struggle with self-image resulting from the “perfect-body” bombardment by mass media. It also results in a higher water-usage. If every woman does this, they will use almost twice as much water as the men do by taking two showers.
Although the fashion culture and the female body standards are similar, I have not heard of a similar issue with selfimage in Finland. This is not to say that women have higher selfesteem in Finland, but I think it is possible that women view their bodies in a more positive way in Finland, which could be related to the tradition of going to the sauna naked. Nakedness is not as uncommon in Finland as it is here in the States.

I have also noticed sex is much like a taboo in conversation in the United States. This is not to say that Finnish people openly talk about sex and similar topics with each other, but I would argue that it is a much more normal conversation there than it is here in Minnesota. An example of this is a moment I experienced in one of my classes here at Concordia. Upon talking about medieval traditions in religion, the professor wrote the word “horny” on the whiteboard. The whole classroom exploded into hysterical laughter leaving me alone shaking my head for this behavior. Horny is just a word to me, and I think the professor used it in an appropriate place. However, somehow this seems to be unusual for college “kids” to encounter.

I can see different levels of bodily comfort between these two wonderful countries. I cannot really blame American women for not being able to be naked around other women. After seeing the bombardment of expectations and beauty standards portrayed by the media coming from every direction one can turn their eye, I can only blame the people who supposedly are allowed to decide who is beautiful. Finland adores more of the natural beauty in a lot of ways, but sadly these modern so-called beauty standards are affecting the Nordic countries as well, Finland being one of them.

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