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Berlin clarifies gender equality rules for topless bathing

Helen Whittle
March 28, 2023

Topless bathing was never officially banned in the German capital, but now the city's municipal pool operator has said all genders must be treated equally when it comes to appropriate attire.

A swimming costume on the edge of a swimming pool in Berlin.
Swimmers of all genders will now be able to go topless in Berlin poolsImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

When Lotte Mies went topless at an indoor swimming pool in the Berlin district of Kaulsdorf last December, she was asked to either cover her chest or leave the pool. The 33-year-old activist had already called ahead to check with staff that she could go topless and was told it would not be a problem. But when she refused to cover up, the police were called and Mies was forced to leave. 

"It was more than humiliating for me that day and it really wasn't nice to be treated like a second-class citizen on the basis of my gender and not to be able to decide for myself how to [present] my own body," Mies told DW. 

"I thought about it and I came to the conclusion that: 'No, I don't want to ashamed of my breasts anymore, it's actually not in order,'" Mies told DW. "This permanent sexualization that we are exposed to, and it's not just about breasts, I just don't want to accept it anymore."

A woman stands outside a window, wearing a scarf and a dark blue coat
Lotte Mies successfully forced Berlin's municipal pool operator to clarify its rulesImage: Gerald Matzka/dpa/picture alliance

Mies filed a complaint with the ombudsman's office responsible for compliance with Berlin's Anti-Discrimination Act, a law that was introduced in the state of Berlin in June 2020 and is the first of its kind in Germany. The General Equal Treatment Act, which covers the whole of Germany, forbids discrimination in labor and civil law contexts. Berlin's Anti-Discrimination Act extends this existing law to guard against discrimination in the public sector.

The Berliner Bäderbetriebe, the capital's municipal swimming pool operator, never had a gender-specific dress code, only a general rule mandating "customary bathing attire" for both men and women which left it down to staff at each pool to interpret what this actually meant. Now, in response to the public outcry over Mies' case, the pool operator has issued a clarification to ensure that women can go topless at public pools just the same as men. 

'Equal rights for all Berliners'

The clarification simply states that: "Swimming 'topless' is equally permissible for all persons" and only the "primary sexual organs" need to covered. The German government's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency classifies breasts, beards and body hair as "secondary sex characteristics." Primary sex characteristics are defined as those necessary for sexual reproduction, such as the penis, testicles and vagina.

Doris Liebscher, the head of the ombudsman's office responsible for compliance with the Anti-Discrimination Act in Berlin, welcomed the clarification to the rules in the capital, saying the decision "establishes equal rights for all Berliners, whether male, female or nonbinary."

This all comes after a similar case hit the headlines in the summer of 2021, when Gabrielle Lebreton went topless at a water park with her 5-year-old son in the Berlin district of Treptow-Köpenick. When Lebreton refused to cover her chest, the police were called and she was forced to leave the park.

Lebreton decided to sue, in one of the first cases to be launched off the back of Berlin's Anti-Discrimination Act. She lost her case, with the district court (Landesgericht) ruling that women's breasts are different to men's and can therefore by subject to different regulations. Lebreton is currently in the process of appealing the decision at the Berlin Appellate Court (Kammergericht).

"Unfortunately, this idea is exactly where the discrimination of the female chest starts," Leonie Thum, the lawyer representing Lebreton, told DW. "The assumption that the sexualization of the female chest is somehow rooted in biology and therefore somehow mandatory, which isn't true. It's simply to overcome a social assumption that the law doesn't define as an adequate justification for discrimination of genders."

Thum argued that the ruling essentially subverted what the anti-discrimination law is for, as if "part of the public has an issue with something, that is always enough reason to justify discrimination."

Campaigners call for desexualization of upper body

After Lebreton was ordered to leave the water park in 2021, activists in Berlin founded the intersectional feminist alliance Equal Breasts for All ("Gleiche Brust für Alle") which campaigns for the desexualization of the upper body in a similar vein to the Free the Nipple campaign in the US.

Under the motto "No nipple is free until all nipples are free," campaigners cycled topless through Berlin to protest the hypocrisy of denying women the right to go topless in a city covered with adverts depicting "half-naked, sexualized and unrealistic images of bodies." 

Demonstrators with the lettering 'My body my choice' painted on their back take part in a bicycle protest for the 'equality of all bodies, against discrimination of women's bodies in public space' in Berlin, on July 10, 2021.
Demonstrators cycled topless through Berlin in July 2021Image: PAUL ZINKEN/AFP/Getty Images

The Free the Nipple campaign went mainstream in 2013 after the release of the film of the same name. Using the hashtag #freethenipple, campaigners have argued that women should be allowed to appear topless in public in the same way as men, including on social media platforms, where images of women's breasts are regularly censored — from Renaissance paintings to photos of breastfeeding.

"Men don't have to hide their beards just because in puberty that signifies that they are ready to have sex, but for some reason with women's breasts that's the case," said Thum, adding that men have biological markers that signal puberty in the same way women do. The only difference, she said, is that they are not expected to hide them.

Another often overlooked aspect of the rules around topless bathing is the rights of transgender and nonbinary people, said Thum. "If you have a gender regulation based on two genders, that is binary, then you will always discriminate against trans and nonbinary people. There's no way around it and that's what happens all the time." 

In August 2021, a nonbinary topless swimmer was ordered to leave a public swimming pool in the German city of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. Following a campaign by Equal Breasts for All, the municipal authority last year introduced a pilot project to allow topless bathing for all genders on Saturdays and Sundays at four of its pools.

Dozens of nude sunbathers in a black and white photo taken in 1986
Nude bathing was especially popular in the former East GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Germany's nude bathing tradition

Germany is not known for having a prudish attitude toward nudity. Fully naked bathers can be seen on beaches and in parks soaking up the sun, even in the most conservative parts of the country. In fact, the country has a long tradition of nude public bathing as part of the "free body culture" ("Freikörperkultur," commonly referred to as FKK), a naturist movement that emerged in the late 19th century.

In an interview with Playboy in 2017, prominent Left Party politician Gregor Gysi, from the former East Germany, complained about the decline of "free body culture," which he blamed on the "pornographic gaze" of men from the West.

Since Berlin's municipal pool operator announced it would clarify its rules concerning topless bathing as a result of Lotte Mies' compliant, Mies has been subjected to a wave of misogynistic online abuse, ranging from derogatory comments about her appearance to rape threats. "Most of them are the classic victim-perpetrator role reversal, that I am somehow to blame if more [women] are raped now," Mies told DW.

Germany still lags behind other European countries when it comes to implementing anti-discrimination legislation long since enshrined in EU law, said Thum.

"I always thought it would be a straightforward process, that it would always develop to a more equal, free society and I think we are, but because of a lot of pushback it's much slower than you would think," she said.

Edited by Ben Knight

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