EX-PAT LIFE | REALITY
The reality of ex-pat life is that living in a foreign country is challenging on many levels. One of the hardest things about it is that it forces you to look at your home country’s customs, mores, and social issues from the perspective of other cultures.
Ex-pat reality also forces you to explain your home country’s social mores to people from other cultures. I am constantly asked to explain things about the USA to people. I remind them that the USA is the size of all of Europe. I can only answer for myself. I cannot answer on behalf of the other 329,064,916 million Americans who all come from different regions and backgrounds.
SHAMELESSNESS | THE HUMAN BODY
One big difference between the USA and Europe is obvious when it comes to attitudes about sex and the human body. In my opinion, Europeans are more open and accepting of the human body. Even in very Catholic Italy one will see advertisements with women’s bare breasts and men’s bums. Women openly breastfeed their babies in public without a blanket covering themselves and no one bats an eye. And in my short time in Sweden, it seems that the attitude is that the human body and its functions are natural and nothing to be ashamed of.
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.
One doesn’t need to go to the seaside to experience shamelessness though. One of the first things that we noticed upon moving here was the lack of curtains or blinds on windows. Swedes just generally don’t see a reason to have them. And, in our neighborhood, there is an elderly man who sunbathes and gardens in his backyard in the nude. His neighbors and their young daughters see him regularly (weather permitting) from their second story. He waves. No shame.
It is also de riguer for Swedish families to be naked in front of each other. Most homes have saunas where the entire family goes in together naked. Yup. Together. Even during the teen years.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES | LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX BABY
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. 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’ lessons 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.
EX-PAT CHANGES | EMBRACING YOUR NEW CULTURE
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 autoimmune 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 bathhouse on the beach, where I stripped down to my birthday suit and dove into this shameless thing both literally and figuratively.