Allowing Topless Women In Pools In Germany: It’s About Discrimination

The issue is simple: If men can swim in pools without covering their torso, why can’t women? Why must female bodies always be sexualized?

It’s a controversy that has plagued many German local governments, particularly after the city of Goettingen, in central Germany, last year allowed swimmers of all genders to enter public pools topless on weekends.

With that decision, “the city became a forerunner in the country concerning the debate on equal treatment between the sexes,” wrote L’Essentiel, “by permitting women to show their bare torso in aquatic leisure establishments such as swimming pools.”

Now it’s Berlin’s turn. After a couple of recent legal complaints by women who were barred from entering public pools “oben-ohne” (topless), the “City of Freedom’s” government decided that women, like men, should be allowed to swim and sunbathe topless at pools if they want to. The rule applies to indoor and outdoor pools, beaches and parks.

“As a result of a successful discrimination complaint, the Berlin bathing establishments will in future apply their house and bathing regulations in a gender-equitable manner,” Berlin’s state government declared.

That way, it establishes clearly that the new decision is not just about swimming topless but about justice, diversity and anti-discrimination.

Forbidden or not forbidden?

It’s not that swimming topless is expressly or legally forbidden in Berlin but, until now, it hasn’t been openly accepted, either.

As explained in The Local Germany, “despite some popular beliefs around Germany’s relaxed attitude to nudity, it can still lead to a confusing mess as to what rules governing nudity actually entail.”

For the Senate administration for justice,diveristy and anti-discrimination “the house and bathing regulations of the bathing establishments do not have gender-specific stipulations and only prescribe the wearing of “commercial swimwear.”

The rules on swimming pools in Berlin say that swimmers must wear ‘standard swimwear’ such as swimming trunks, swimming shorts, bikini, swimsuit and burkini.

The head of the ombudsman’s office of the State Office for Equal Treatment, Doris Liebscher, applauded the new regulation, adding that “the decision creates equal rights for all Berliners, whether male, female or non-binary and it also creates legal certainty for the staff in the bathing establishments.”

Free the nipple

“Female breasts, like body hair and Adam’s apples, are a secondary sex characteristic. Why not treat them equally?” asks CNN commentator Holly Thomas. “Yet, concerns and fears around what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ context in which people of all genders should be allowed to show their bare chests — and whether everyone should be afforded the same latitude to do so — continue to plague us. The problem, it seems, is how we approach nudity in the first place.”

And that concept is culturally, socially and politically approached differently by country and even by regions. For example, in a case known as “Free the Nipple” (@freethenipple), the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by three women fined by a city in New Hampshire for exposing their breasts in public.

They argued that banning female but not male toplessness violates the U.S. Constitution.

In her column, Thomas wonders: “But what if breasts aren’t the problem, and are not, therefore, the issue in need of a remedy? The solution, as the city of Berlin so neatly demonstrated, would be simple. In order for all bodies to be equal, we have to treat them so.”

Berlin’s decision, which as was the case in Goettingen, has received extensive national and international attention and should be framed in the context of Germany’s Freikörperkultur — “free body culture:” a tolerance of and, in some cases, a fondness for being ‘textile free.’

It also fits into the gender-equality discussion. “If men are allowed to do something and women aren’t, that’s not only unfair, that’s sexist,” Berlin resident Lotte Mies, who filed one of the complaints with the Berlin office for equal treatment that brought the new regulation, told the Berliner Zeitung. “After all, I don’t intend to go topless to restaurants or cinemas – but that’s not the case for men, either.”

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