As a heat wave hit Prague this spring, clothes came off faster than the record breaking temperatures rose. Strolling through Prague’s parks, I encountered locals sunning themselves and even saw a few toddlers in the buff testing out the city’s newly activated fountains. While I managed to keep my own and my kids’ clothes on (though I lost the battle over shoes), I noticed many Czechs of both genders stripped down to their underwear in the public parks.
While I would consider sunning in my bra and panties in the park risqué, Czechs find it quite natural. In America, if I saw an elderly man sitting on a park bench in his underwear with his pants neatly folded beside him, I would do a double take and wonder if he was mentally stable. But here the scene occurs with such frequency and normalcy that the only thing awkward is my own gaping mouth.
To give myself credit, over the years of living in the Czech Republic and being married to a Czech, I’ve gotten used to the Czech’s laissez-faire attitude toward nudity. My head doesn’t spin as fast as it used to when I see a body part (or even the hint of a body part) that I think I shouldn’t.
After several springs of driving through Czech villages watching men working in their gardens in nothing but boxer shorts and catching a few women in their bras, I finally realized that it wasn’t so much the lack of clothing that caught my eye, as it was the fact that in my mind I categorized under garments as something to be worn “under” regular clothing. If I’d seen the same people wearing bathing suits, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice. But what would be the point of wasting a perfectly good bathing suit to dirty garden work?
Even once my eyes got used to the sight of underwear being exposed, my American sensibilities were reinforced when my mother visited this spring. After watching our neighbor working in his garden wearing just boxers, she commented, “Now he needs to put some clothes on.” When Anna Lee (4) asked her grandmother if she could be naked for awhile to sun herself in the front yard, I was surprised when my mom agreed and said, “Ok, but leave on your panties.” Stripping down to her panties delighted Anna and she paraded through the yard, conveniently stepping out of them as soon as our attention had focused elsewhere.
Underwear, again, became a hot topic during my mom’s visit when Anna Lee was getting ready for bed. Although her Czech babička insists it isn’t healthy to sleep in panties because the body needs a chance to air out (I personally agree), Anna’s American grandmother insisted on wearing panties, relenting only to say, “Oh, just pick a loose pair.”
As a kid, I grew up wearing panties to bed, except for the nights I spent with my German grandmother when the European custom of “airing out” took precedence. From talking to both my Czech and non-Czech friends here, it seems that the American moms are the only ones stuck on wearing underwear to bed. Even my Australian and British friends have mentioned the necessity of giving the body a break from tight underclothes and encourage their kids to sleep without underwear.
As time goes on, the Czech culture continues to rub off on me, but there are still occasions when my American sensibilities come to the forefront. Although I’ve adapted to the fact that it is socially acceptable for Czech children (both sexes up to age six or so) to pee out in the open in public places (usually near a tree or a patch of grass although any open grate suffices), I am always taken aback when I pass a grown man in the middle of a public pee. I am instantly embarrassed for the peeing guy, even though it’s clear he couldn’t care less if anyone’s watching him.
The most obvious case of peeing in public I’ve witnessed happened in the middle of a traffic jam near Prague’s Letná Park. While I waited in a line of stopped traffic, I watched an elderly gentleman in a suit put his car into park, set his brake and run across oncoming traffic for a roadside pee. Although traffic started moving while he was doing his business, no one honked and no one shouted at him to hurry up. Having walked through Prague many a day with a painfully full bladder I was envious, but still a little deterred by the openness of the scene.
Coming from a culture where even breastfeeding in public garners criticism as being overtly “sexy” or “promiscuous,” I am often struck by the dichotomy between the Czechs’ ambivalence about nudity and their staunch support for breastfeeding as compared to their taste as a culture for explicitly sexy advertising.
The Czech’s stance on breastfeeding in public as a mother’s (and child’s) natural right even prompted the renowned Czech photographer Sara Saudková to photograph Czech mothers as part of the December 2008 protest against Facebook for removing breastfeeding photos from users’ personal accounts.
While sunbathing topless in Prague’s pools or breastfeeding an 18-month-old at the park doesn’t raise an eyebrow, in contrast using the image of a toned, tanned topless or nude woman is a culturally accepted way of using sex appeal to advertise anything from a gym membership to a new clothing line. According to cultural mores, being sexy goes hand in hand with being a Czech female and as such it is okay to suggest that by working out at the gym you can have the sexy body of a porn star. It’s not likely a Czech would complain about the ads being promiscuous because advertising sex in mainstream ads is a matter of course.
I remember once getting into an argument with Radek after he, unsolicited, commented that our (young, unmarried, female) banker, who happened to be wearing a see-through shirt with a lacy bra underneath, had on a nice looking outfit that day. When I questioned him further, he claimed that it was perfectly tasteful for the banker to be sexy. I didn’t disagree, but I knew that you’d never see an American banker on the job wearing a similarly revealing outfit.
I’ve come to realize that the average Czech has a different radar for sex/sexy appeal than I do. Already, I’m shocked by the clothes that my mother-in-law picks out for Anna Lee. While my mother tends to buy Anna a preppy skirt with matching tee-shirt and sweater, Radek’s mother is all about the glitz and the glitter, buying tee-shirts with graphics showing scantily clad rockstars in high heels and miniskirts. Of course, Anna uses this to her advantage.
Without being overtly coached on how to be “sexy,” Anna’s natural instinct is to pick clothes with glitter and glitz. She likes running naked because it’s hassle-free, but when it comes to choosing outfits, she invariably picks the hot, flashy skirt with the matching glittery shirt that Nada bought over the more little-girl, buttoned-up style, in line with what my mom and I prefer. Keeping in mind that Anna is still forming her own impressions, I try to keep her dressed age-appropriate as long as she’s with me. When she’s visiting either grandmother, I leave them to work it out for themselves.
Getting dressed and undressed is ultimately a personal matter.
However, living in the Czech Republic continues to open my eyes to the vastly different ways that nudity, breastfeeding and sex in advertising come to us through cultural filters. Who knows, before too long you may find me relaxing on a bench in Riegrovy sady in my white bra and panties. If so, please take a picture for my mother.
This has been reprinted from the Prague Daily Monitor with permission.