Nakedness and the Finnish Sauna

Many upscale resorts, hotels, and health clubs in North America feature saunas. Ever tried one? Most likely it was not fully authentic to the sauna tradition of Finland - because nudity was probably forbidden.

Finns - and many other Europeans - often consider this breach of the tradition simply barbaric. Not all Finns sauna nude exclusively, particularly in mixed groups or with strangers - but their attitudes towards nudity in a context like the sauna are far more accepting than in North America.

Sauna is thought to be beneficial physically for many reasons, such as increased blood circulation, flushing of impurities by sweating, raised pulse and metabolic rate. But it is also considered to have a number of emotional benefits as well, partly because of its ritual social aspect, of which nudity is (in the authentic case) a key element.

Although the physiological factors surely contribute to the sense of well-being and heightened sensory awareness, nudity definitely makes a contribution to the stress-reducing relaxation of sauna. Even more certainly it facilitates a kind of social well-being. This social aspect is why sauna is a common part of the conduct of business and political affairs in Finland, as well as a nearly universal family ritual.

Perhaps our own family and business/professional life would be richer and more satisfying if we adopted the full Finnish sauna tradition, including the nudity.

About Our Finnish Sauna Culture

Editor's note: This article was posted to rec.nude. It goes into some detail about nudity in the Finnish sauna and in Finnish culture in general. Used here with the author's permission.

I'd like to give you a little glimpse of our culture which traditionally is quite "pro-nude" yet not being "nudism" in certain sense... It's a little difficult to explain in brief so if you have the time, be welcomed to read this article as it is a little long...

With us in Finland, us having the strong sauna culture, nudity is the common standard in certain cases. The sauna of course is one of them. We Finns love the sauna (ask any Finn of this) and there is one in almost every house. Even new flats have commonly their own saunas. And of course we go to sauna naked. Wearing a swimsuit or something would be silly and more importantly very unhygienic. That is why in public saunas, swimming pools and spas it is always compulsory to at least have a shower naked and wet your hair or wear a swimming cap. (In all such establishments you will see a familiar sign showing a black swimsuit with a red cross on it and a text "Don't sauna(shower) with a suit" and also "Shower before entering pool" (for those ethnically interested they are commonly "Saunaan ilman uimapukua" and "Suihkuun ennen uimista" in Finnish)) And of course it is forbidden to have a swimsuit in sauna, even if it is common for males and females (you usually have at least one such sauna in a spa). To further fight the bacteria disposable towelettes (plastic with soft paper coating) are available and used for sitting on in public saunas. People with a handicap or some other aestethic reason can apply for a special "cloth-sticker" (I don't know the English word for it) that shows something like a blue flower or such (it has several intersecting blue circles) that can be sewn in their swimsuit. It has the meaning which is said in public notices: "People having this mark in their swimsuits need not remove their swimsuit". These marks and customs are the same in every establishment in Finland.

In the pool areas, however, it is compulsory to wear a swimsuit (this goes for little children too) except in those few places (I know of only one, in Turku) where swimsuits are forbidden due to the pool's old tradition and there they have separate days for males and females (but I heard from a male friend who tried out the place that there was a cute female lifeguard there supervising that day) (I seem to like writing remarks today).

Having sauna-evenings is a common form of social gathering for most communities (like clubs, firms, unions, societies etc). In our university (the Tampere U of Tech.) the student union has a great sauna building where some instance has a sauna evening nearly every night. We go to sauna there, both sexes together, without a suit if it is not clear by now. We have common dressing rooms, common showers, common sauna, common terace. In our university we are generally very open-minded about nudity. Perhaps it is because we don't have so many girls here (about 20% of the students are girls) as common saunas are less common in normal universities (not those of tech).

The other thing we have a lot besides saunas are summer cottages. It is a traditional Finnish dream to own a summer cottage beside a lake (which we also have thousands of). There are some 200,000 summer cottages in the country, which is a lot, because there are only 5 million of us Finns here. So many families have their own cottages and you can also rent cottages. And in the peace of your own summer cottage you don't have to worry about clothes. You go to sauna in the nude, you dip into the lake for a swim in the nude and you greet the others having a barbecue in the nude while returning from the lake to the sauna. It is so strikingly commonplace that we would form a big thoughtbubble over our heads saying "What?" with a really weird expression on our faces if someone said that we were nudists. And if someone accused us of being perverts or something, that one would have to be foreign since no Finn would say that, and to the foreign we would try to explain about our customs, that they are nothing of a sexual nature or like that.

Of course if you invite friends to your cottage that you don't know so well that you could be sure about their own customs people usually in some implicit way ask them if they mind swimming or tanning naked (you always go naked to the sauna, no problem about that) like once last summer when we were spending a cottage weekend with some fellow students: after arriving to the cottage the host suggested we went swimming to the sea. One of my friends said with a slight questioning tone: "Perhaps I should get my swimming trunks then..." to what the host replied "Silly! We are in a summer cottage!" and the matter was taken care of. This was an example of the normal way to do it in Finland. We all went swimming, had a sauna, and went on always some of us in the sauna, others having a bbq at the beach sitting on their towels, some of us swimming, some tanning in between and none of us got their swimsuits wet (and I don't know if any of us even had a swimsuit with him, you really don't need them in summer cottages, after all: why would you want to wear something to the lake; the odds are that the fish won't mind. Public beaches are another thing; we always respect that if someone doesn't want to see nude people, in public they won't.)

If you come to Finland as a guest to some Finn, you will go to sauna if you don't actively refuse. Sauna is such a thing to us Finns that we are very proud of, that we keep almost sacred with no small amount of certain patriotism; if you think that sauna was a Swedish invention, don't mention that to a Finn if you want him to still be a friend of yours. Finns always like to take their guests to their cottages and it is a miracle if you survive through the trip to the cottage without having a sauna. For tourists however slightly different rules may apply: even if the whole family usually had a sauna together, tourists are not expected to have a sauna with members of the opposite sex (however you may be offered a chance to go to sauna together with your wife or girlfriend) and it may be that you are offered swimming trunks or something in which case the conversation usually goes: (tourist:)"I thought you didn't use these in the sauna?" (host:) "Well, yes, actually we don't but since you were from abroad you weren't used to..." and you can then proceed to sauna without the trunks but with some extra points of respect earned from your host.

A funny thing just came to my mind: some time ago there was an article of some kindergarten with a half page picture of naked kids (yes, both sexes together, isn't it horrible) having their traditional "end-term" sauna before the summer holiday season when the kindergarten is closed in one national newspaper, probably "Iltalehti", "The Evening Post". A friend of mine said with a big grin that we should scan that article with the picture, translate at least the part in which one of the girls that worked there replied "sure, we'll take these swimsuits off, but only after your photo- grapher has left" to some question, send the whole thing to Usenet and wait for the Americans to file and process complaints and sue the whole country. You must forgive us if we don't always understand what all this fuzzing with nudism seems to be in the US.

Sauna links

The Finnish Sauna
This page, by Mihael Cankar, is the best collection of sauna information on the Web. Here you will find sauna history, how to build and use one, information on the customs, and links to many other sites.
Letting Off Steam, The Finnish Way
An article by Tim Bird. "So the time comes, it's your turn and - well there's this delicate matter of taking your clothes off. Let's face it, modesty is a universal trait - or is it vanity, and the suspicion that we look rather better clothed than we do derobed? The first-time sauna bather from abroad often finds this casual intimacy in the company of new acquaintances, if not total strangers, a little daunting. The only way to deal with this is to simply take the plunge. The chances are you'll discover your beer gut or your birth mark are in good company, and any self-consciousness is soon dispelled by the camaraderie of the visit."
Finnish Sauna
A guide by Juha Kuosmanen, which includes a "virtual sauna". "During winter time some "crazy" Finns roll around naked in the snow in between steam baths."
Benefits of Sauna
"They say that after leaving the sauna, the mind is in a relaxed, lucid state, free of the worries of the everyday world. Also, when the body feels soothed and energized, the mind and emotions often follow suit."
The Original Finnish Sauna
Page by Niko Juntunen. "First of all you both take all your clothes off, because men and women always go to sauna naked, together or separately."
The Sauna as a National Symbol
"Sauna" is the only word of Finnish that has entered the world vocabulary. As such, what it represents is a point of considerable pride and national identity to Finns. This page is an article by Pekka Laaksonen. "As an identity symbol, the Finnish sauna is akin to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic."
The Sauna of Pinhas
Pinhas Baraq operates a publicly accessible sauna in Israel, where nudity is the norm. The site provides an overview of sauna usage and customs, and a virtual tour of his sauna.
Welcome to Lagerholm
Lagerholm is a manufacturer of saunas - based in Finland. The site, by a distributor in the UK, gives useful background information.
General site about sauna.
The Sauna Page
Contains some information about building your own sauna.
The Distributed Encyclopedia: Sauna
This encyclopedia-style article has a lot of the history of sauna, and information on the psychological and physiological effects.

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Last updated: August 25, 2004