The shower police in Iceland are a myth, but like many myths, has a kernel of truth in it

What is the nudity culture in Iceland like? When, where and why are people getting naked? Is it true that you have to wash publicly in the nude to enter the Blue Lagoon? Read on to discover all you need to know about the Icelandic trend of getting in the buff.

Attitudes towards nudity in Iceland are very relaxed. That is not to say that you can stroll down Laugavegur without your clothes if you feel like it, as you might upset some passersby with indecent exposure. It is however perfectly legal to be nude in public in Iceland, as long as you don't offend anyone. 

Nonetheless, there are other circumstances more suitable than Reykjavík's high streets where you can stand out and about in your birthday suit if you so wish. 

Even at the Blue Lagoon, you won't encounter anyone nude - in the pool, at least...Photo from Blue Lagoon Transportation From Keflavík Airport

The lack of scruples Icelanders have when it comes to being seen naked largely comes from a mix of the hot spring and pool culture, traditional folklore, a willingness to experiment with art, and the history of feminist protest. How each of these facets of the nation’s culture shaped this open-mindedness has a story of its own.

Whether you are an avid naturist looking for any place you can strip off, or a more demure character hoping you will not have to sacrifice your privacy to go swimming, knowing a bit about the culture of nudity in Iceland can help prepare you for your travels.

Photo at top from IcelandWeatherReport.

Nudity and the Swimming Pools

The Fontana Spa in LaugarvatnPhoto from The Golden Circle & Fontana Geothermal Baths

The more modest visitors face both a blessing and a curse when it comes to nudity and the swimming pools in Iceland. On the one hand, swimsuits are mandatory in all public pools (not including bikini tops), so you don’t need to worry about getting flashed while you’re trying to relax. On the other, you are obligated to shower naked beforehand.

The reason Icelanders are so adamant that you don’t enter their swimming facilities without a proper scrub-down is purely hygienic. Many of Iceland’s pools have minimal or no chlorine in them, so for everyone’s peace of mind, all who get into the water have to make sure their body isn’t polluting it.

In most of the larger pools, such as the Blue Lagoon, this need not be as cringeworthy as it could be; there are cubicles with curtains you can wash in. Even so, attendants will be on duty to make sure that those going in and out of them are not wearing their swimsuits.

Expect to see lots of signs like this

If you are travelling around Iceland, you will notice that there are pools even in the most remote of villages; in fact, in the tiniest of hamlets, often all you will find is a church, a gas station, and a swimming pool. These, however, tend to only have public showering facilities.

Even if it makes you uncomfortable, many of these, such as the Infinity Pool at Hofsós, are so beautiful and serene that I compel you to just bite the bullet and get on with it. After all, there is an unspoken rule in Iceland not to look at each other while changing, and it is a very body-positive country, so you really have nothing to be conscious about.

Although it is mandatory to wear swimsuits in swimming pools in Iceland, this only applies to the bottom half; women are not obligated to wear anything on top, so everyone has equal opportunity to get a little tan whenever the summer sun emerges.

Nudity and the Hot Springs

A hot pool in the highlands

Iceland is a geothermal wonderland, with bursting geysers, churning mud pools, and steaming hot springs. Many of these springs have a perfect temperature to bathe in, and some are remote enough that you can jump in naked without worrying about being seen.

Before going into the wonders of nude bathing in Iceland’s naturally heated waters, there are a few things to be aware of. Firstly, many springs are far too hot to bathe in; you should only enter ones that you have read from reputable sources are accessible.

After all, even if the water in some pools seems to be a perfect temperature, the earth around them may be unstable with scalding water just beneath the surface, or else they may be prone to heating up very quickly without warning. Grjótagjá, for example, a hot spring in a cave in the Mývatn area, is known to suddenly boil on occasion, so entry is banned.

Lake Mývatn in the HighlandsPicture from Lake Mývatn Sightseeing and Hot Springs Tour from Akureyri

Secondly, some hot springs have harmful bacteria in them, because they have no treatment systems like the swimming pools. Hot pots in the Westfjords and on the Reykjanes peninsula are particularly notorious for this.

Towards the end of the summer season, even the waters that are popular for bathing, such as those in the Highland areas of Landmannalaugar and Hveravellir, become contaminated to the extent that pregnant women, young children and those with vulnerable immune systems should avoid them.

Many hot springs, however, are perfectly safe to enter.

Reykjadalur is a little busy for bathingPhoto from Reykjadalur Hot Spring Hiking Tour

Those more far-flung in the nature are perfect for nude bathing. Some can often be found without anyone around. There is no judgement from Icelanders for this kind of skinny-dipping, even if you are caught; not only is naked bathing seen as a wonderful way to connect with nature, it’s a smart way to keep your clothes dry and lessen your laundry load.

Of course, if there are other clothed guests, you should perhaps ask if they mind before getting naked and joining them (people will react differently, and for some people this might fall into ‘indecent exposure’). A good way to avoid other bathers altogether is to travel around at night in summer, beneath the midnight sun, when there are far fewer crowds, or to rent a four-wheel-drive and travel out to the springs in winter when fewer people are likely to be doing the same.

Nudity in Icelandic Music and Art

Sigur Rós are most noted for their use of nudityFrom the Sigur Rós music video for Gobbledigook

Many who don’t know anything about the nudity culture regarding swimming pools and hot pools in Iceland still know about the nation’s open-mindedness towards the human body from the music videos produced here.

Take, for example, the band Sigur Rós, whose music has won international acclaim and has been used in franchises as large as Game of Thrones. Their album covers and music videos frequently contain nudity in a way that is far more tasteful than that of most artists from countries where nudity is more taboo.

Compare the video from below, for example, to Robert Thicke’s notorious ‘Blurred Lines’.

Sigur Rós are not alone; ÍRiiS, an up-and-coming electronic musician with a velvety, haunting voice, has also used nudity in her productions.

Nudity is often seen as human's natural state, not sexualised, but instead combined with nature and signifies something pure and timeless.

Nudity is also used by a wealth of performance artists, particularly in the Reykjavík Kabarett. Getting naked in this context is usually done as a form of entertainment, humour, political statement, or else as an expression of body positivity.

Curiously, while most nudity-averse cultures will make exceptions when it comes to displaying sculptures of the human form, Iceland’s tradition of sculpturing is so recent that this is not notable here. It only really began in the early 1900s with the works of Einar Jónsson; though they are dotted all over the city, his subjects are largely clothed.

Nudity in Icelandic Folklore

A blend of Christian and Old Norse traditions created Iceland's folklore"Elf Play" by August Malmström. Wikimedia, Creative Commons. 

Most of the folk stories of Iceland tell some important truths of what the country was like historically, particularly notable in the moral lessons that many of them contain. Due to powerful influence from the church, many of them have an extremely conservative bent; one story, for example, tells of Hidden People murdering multiple women for the crime of simply dancing.

You would think that this would have deterred people from nudity, but this is not entirely the case. Iceland’s Christian traditions are strong, but they are not pure; many pagan beliefs from the Old Norse religion the people once followed bled into the new faith and affected many of the customs.

Rolling around in the morning dew naked is tradition

Look, for example, to the Icelandic celebration of midsummer. Until the Reformation, Iceland was Catholic, and thus the people encouraged to celebrate the birthdate of Saint John the Baptist (or Jónmessa, in Icelandic) on June 24th.

However, this day already had a purpose in the Norse faith; it was considered to be the summer equinox, even though it was three days late. There was an existing tradition of rolling naked in the morning dew, to grant you luck for the year to come. This was practised throughout history (and still is today by some), unaffected by the Christian influence other than in its name.

Nudity in Icelandic Protest

Solidarity at the Slut Walk

Icelanders love a good protest. Whether it is against NATO (1949), gender inequality (1975), the banks (2008) or corruption in government (2016), they are passionate about direct democracy and unafraid to gather in front of the Alþingi (parliament) in the thousands to demand change.

Nudity has found its way into this ongoing fight for justice.

This largely began in 2015, when the American #FreeTheNipple campaign came to Iceland. Even if topless nudity has been allowed in pools, women were still finding themselves subject to judgement, objectification and critique for sunbathing without covering themselves and even for breastfeeding in public.

Furthermore, people were getting sick of the double-standard in the media; men’s nipples could be seen in children’s television, whereas the nipples of women were only shown in adult situations which were almost always sexual, and if not, most likely violent.

Why one has to be blurred is nonsense.

For this reason, the women of Iceland took to social media, posting pictures of intentional nip-slips to help show their friends and followers that they were hiding nothing frightening, dangerous or even that particularly interesting inside their bras.

They also took to the streets topless, brave not only for the taboo being broken but because they first did so on March 26th, when the weather usually dictates multiple layers. The protest was later repeated in more pleasant conditions in June.

Nudity has also featured in many other campaigns; such as the Slut Walk, which aims to shut down the shaming of women who are as sexually active as their male counterparts and challenges rape culture. Slut Walk often features toplessness, as does Reykjavík Pride.

Nudity in Museums

Best not to be looked at too closely...

No article on nudity in Iceland could be complete without a reference to the world’s only Phallological Museum, located on Laugavegur by the Hlemmur Square Bus Station.

This bizarre, titillating and still somewhat fascinating place has hundreds of specimens taken from the animal kingdom, and one particularly revolting display of a poorly preserved human member. It also, however, has rooms and cabinets displaying artwork and books dedicated to the penis, for all to see, cementing the fact that Icelanders really don’t take nudity or seeing genital organs as something to get sensitive about.

Limits on Nudity in Iceland

Women protesting at the Slut Walk

Although it seems Icelanders like to get naked for any reason, there is one thing they are not permitted to undress for: money. Since 2010, it has been the policy of the government that no person’s body is a commodity, and therefore, those who strip for a living in Iceland must leave a fair amount to the imagination of their patrons.

This was part of a wider crackdown on prostitution and the sex trade, in which those who purchased the services of an escort or else was a ‘pimp’ would face charges, not the escorts themselves. This, in turn, was part of a wider push to modernise Iceland’s gender dialogue, and face gendered issues that have come with an increasingly globalised world.

Though it has faced criticism for being sex-negative, the policy has also been praised for helping to limit exploited women being brought here to be a part of the sex trade and protect those who work as exotic dancers.

Not in Iceland

To conclude, Iceland is a paradise for naturists and a wonderful place for the body-conscious to get comfortable with the bits that God gave them. Even if you have read this piece with a growing feeling of horror at the thought of being watched showering, however, you can trust that the people here are respectful enough to give you your privacy.

While you are under no pressure to join them in their naked glory, using the opportunity to enjoy being in your birthday suit can add streaks of liberation and exhilaration to your travels here.