Travel writer and public television personality Rick Steves lauded Europeans's "more relaxed" attitude about nudity in public and on television while labeling Americans "overly prudish" by comparison in a Tuesday column on CNN.com: "I like a continent where the human body is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly."
Steves's ode to European nudity began six paragraphs into the column, "European nudes and American prudes," after he gave a detailed sketch of his 1978 experience at a Turkish bath: "Any traveler to Europe who's visited a bath, perused a newsstand, hung out at a beach or park on a sunny day, or channel-surfed broadcast TV late at night has noticed that Europeans are more relaxed than Americans about nudity."
The writer, who, back in 2003, feared that the American flag was being "hijacked" as a "logo" for support of the war in Iraq, then spent several paragraphs describing how widespread this practice is on the European continent and how apparently great it is (including his "overly prudish" label about Americans):
In the south of France, sunbathing grandmothers have no tan lines. In Norway, young children play naked in fountains. On summer days, accountants in Munich head to the park on their lunch break to grin and bare it, trading corporate suits for birthday suits.
It's quite a shock to Americans (they're the ones riding their bikes into the river and trees).
In Belgium, huge billboards advertise soap by showing a woman's lathered-up breasts. A Copenhagen student tourist center welcomes visitors with a bowl of free condoms at their info desk.
I'm not comfortable with all of this, though I do think Americans tend to be overly prudish. But if you can leave your inhibitions at home, you can better appreciate some of the amazing experiences Europe has to offer. In Finland, a trip to a public sauna -- warmed by a wood-fired stove topped with rocks -- not only feels good, but is a living slice of this culture....
Croatia has some of the best beaches -- many of them without any dress code.
The trend dates back to royalty: In 1936, England's King Edward VIII visited the island of Rab on holiday. Wanting an all-over tan, he went through the proper channels to have one of Rab's beaches designated for nudists.
Inspired by his example, other travelers followed suit (er, dropped suit) ... and a phenomenon was born.
Steves leaves out that Edward VIII had to abdicate the British throne after his proposal to an American divorcee. Edward was also ahead of the curve in terms of another European phenomenon: a childless marriage.
Later, Steves complained about conservatism of Americans' attitudes toward nudity due to its effect on his occupations as an author and public television host:
...An early edition of my art-for-travelers guidebook featured a naked David on the cover. My publisher was concerned that bookstores in more conservative areas wouldn't stock it. A fig leaf would help sales.
I proposed, just for fun, that we put a peelable fig leaf on the cover so readers could customize the level of nudity. I even paid half the cost and had the fun experience of writing "for fig leafs" on a check.
Things get trickier when it comes to public television. Because of FCC regulations, we can't easily show spas, saunas, or beaches in Europe where nudity is the norm. And because I show paintings and sculptures of naked bodies, my programs are flagged by the network and, in some regions, aired only after 10 p.m., when things are less restrictive.
In recent years, programmers actually got a list of how many seconds that marble and canvas body parts appeared in each episode. They couldn't inflict a Titian painting or a Bernini statue on a conservative viewership without taking heat and risking having to pay enormous fines of $275,000.
You may not want to bring the more casual European approach to sex and the human body back home with you. And I'm not saying we should all run around naked. But I like a continent where the human body is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly.
Well, Steves might be able to rest easy now, since the Second Circuit Court ruled against the FCC's indecency regulations on Tuesday, finding them "unconstitutionally vague."
Earlier in the column, the author took a not-so-subtle shot at one European faction that he must have thought was too "overly prudish" - the Catholic Church:
Not everyone in Europe is comfortable with nudity.
At the Vatican Museum, fig leaves cover many statues. From 1550 to 1800, the Church decided that certain parts of the human anatomy were obscene. Perhaps Church leaders associated these full-frontal sculptures with the outbreak of Renaissance humanism that reduced their power in Europe.
Whatever the cause, they reacted by covering classical crotches with plaster fig leaves, the same kind of leaves that Adam and Eve used when the concept of "privates" was invented.