by Dante Zappala

On the beaches of the East Sea, the sun literally shines everywhere. It makes perfect sense. The winters this far north are long, desolate and cold. It’s reason enough to want to take your clothes off during the few weeks of peak summer when it barely breaks 80 on the hottest of days. And that’s exactly what the folks here do. They take off their clothes. All of them.

Freie Koerper Kultur (Free Body Culture), or FKK as it’s commonly referred to, emerged alongside a nascent democracy in post-World War I Germany. FKK fared much better than the political system of its day and is still practiced widely here, mostly at the beach.

Although I had had heard of FKK previously, I never encountered it. But then, as we crested the dunes outside of Zingst, my youngest declared, “Hey, Dad, I can see that guy’s butt.” Sure enough, there was a man bearing a full moon on the brightest of days.

It still didn’t register as we set up our spot. The beach was crowded with tents, umbrellas and wind shields. The Germans put even the Wildwooders to shame in terms of the sheer amount of stuff they’ll haul to the beach. But as we settled in, I noticed naked person after naked person strolling by, either en route to the water or simply walking the sands to and fro, a favorite pastime everywhere.

Oddly, it’s something I got used to very quickly. Sure, I made off-color jokes to my sister-in-law. Humor is the most juvenile reaction to an unfamiliar environment. But once that passed, I found it pretty normal, actually. All kinds of people doing all kinds of beach activities, half of them wearing what we commonly accept as lingerie and underwear, the other half nothing at all.

The next day, I found myself running alone in the empty woods. The trails are packed dirt and underneath a bed of dry pine needles. My feet and everything connected to them were in heaven. Despite the relative mid-morning heat, I’d been conscious about running with a singlet on. Under the same conditions down in the Valley, I’d certainly be shirtless. The Nike Dri-Fit and Adidas Climachill fabrics can’t come close to the efficient cooling of sweat on skin with a self-made breeze.

But I didn’t have much sense of how the locals might react to seeing a guy wearing nothing but the shortest of short shorts emerging from the woods into their sleepy town searching for a new path to somewhere. I’m a little slow on the draw, every woman who has ever known me can attest to this. I’m in the heart of FKK country and I’m worried about taking off my shirt?

After my ‘aha’ moment, I wrapped my singlet around my waste and took off racing deer and hurdling downed branches. Eventually, I found myself closer to civilization. Indeed, I did get curious stares from the locals. I’m convinced that had nothing to do with what I didn’t wear but instead it was grounded in wonder as to why I hadn’t chosen a bike as my mode of transport. “Er ist nicht so praktisch,” they might be mumbling.

At the heart of FKK is the idea that you fully accept yourself; perfections, flaws and everything in between. It recognizes that we spend a lot of time trying to become something else. We want to get a promotion. We want to lose weight or otherwise alter our body. We want to run further and faster. These are all fine pursuits. But without diminishing the value of goals, we must also embrace where and who we are today.

As runners, this is incredibly important. If you desire, for example, to run a Boston Qualifier in the marathon but you physically haven’t achieved that level of fitness, you are on a crash course with injury and despair. Reality is what you run today and what is possible for tomorrow. The rest is dangerous delusion. While you certainly can reach the plateaus of your imagination, there are no miracles in this sport. Patience and hard work have their rewards. But you must endure those things also.

I’ve been inspired by the men and women here who are unafraid and unencumbered by notions about what they should be. Every body type you can imagine is on full display. No one is flaunting or exhibiting. They are just enjoying the breeze.

My kids rightfully still find all of this a bit weird. Beyond being observant, my little guy is a prankster. At an opportune moment on the beach, he yanked at my swimming trunks, trying to pants me. He hasn’t yet fully developed his sense of off-color humor to deal with awkward situations, but this is a good start. Without hesitation, I took it as a cue to go Full Monty and run into the ocean.

I have no idea how he reacted because I never looked back.