Berlin’s authorities want to make it very clear: Women are free to swim topless in municipal pools, as are those who identify as nonbinary, if that’s what they want.
The city and its public pools operator will now ensure that men and women are treated equally when it comes to swimming topless, the Berlin state government said in a press release Thursday.
The statement noted that pools did not have “gender-specific rules” and instead simply specified that standard swimwear should be worn. While the rules do mention swimming shorts, bikinis, swimsuits and burkinis as acceptable attire, they do not specify who must wear what.
Germans “are generally quite relaxed about” nudity, Keon West, a professor of social psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has conducted studies into nakedness and body image, previously told The Washington Post. Nudity, also known as “free body culture,” is not seen as sexual.
The head of the city’s ombudsperson’s office for equality and anti-discrimination, Doris Liebscher, praised the decision by Berlin’s public pools operator to apply the rules equally. The move, she said in a statement, “establishes equal rights for all Berliners, whether male, female or nonbinary, and because it also creates legal certainty for [pool] staff.”
According to German news outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung, there have been two recent cases where topless women have been ordered to leave public swimming pools. In December, pool staff told a 33-year-old to cover her breasts and expelled her when she refused. A similar incident happened at a water park in Berlin in summer 2021: While the ombudsperson’s office found that the incident was discriminatory, a court ruled against financial compensation.
Some cities outside the capital have also allowed topless swimming for everyone. Last year, Göttingen in central Germany carried out a trial to allow all swimmers to enter municipal pools topless, before permanently adopting the new rules. The changes came after one facility banned a swimmer, who identified as nonbinary and had entered a pool topless, from entering the premises, according to German magazine Der Spiegel.
There are more than 130 naturist clubs in Germany, according to a German association promoting free body culture, and the prevalence of public nudity also came to global attention in 2020, when viral photos captured the moment that a naked sunbather in Berlin chased a wild boar that stole his laptop.
Attitudes to and rules regarding toplessness vary widely from country to country — or, in the case of the United States, even from state to state. In 2019, a Utah woman was prosecuted and told she may have to register as a sex offender after her stepchildren saw her topless in her home. Her lawyers, however, noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit had overturned a toplessness ban in Colorado the same year.
Meanwhile, in 2020, a federal judge ruled that the popular Maryland beach destination of Ocean City could continue to ban women from going topless in public, noting that “female, but not male, breasts” were “traditionally viewed as erogenous zones.”
Attitudes have also changed with time. In the 1930s, most states in the United States did not permit men to go shirtless anywhere, a ban that also sparked several protests at swimming pools and beaches.