BERLIN, July 20 (Reuters Life!) - The naked sunbathers who once crowded Germany's Baltic beaches and city parks are becoming an endangered species due to shifting demographics, the fall of the Berlin Wall, growing prosperity and widening girths.
Much to the chagrin of Free Body Culture (FKK) enthusiasts who have been stripping off their clothing on beaches and parks since the early 1900s, a cold wind has been blowing across Germany for nudists and their numbers are steadily dwindling.
"German society is changing and it's not easy to be a naturist anymore," said Kurt Fischer, president of the German FKK association (DFK). There are some 500,000 registered nudists and a total of seven million Germans sunbathe naked regularly.
"But the numbers are unfortunately falling by about two percent each year," Fischer told a group of reporters in the Foreign Press Association (VAP) while sitting, fully clothed, at a beach bar in Berlin's government quarter. "Times are tough."
The main problem is the shrinking population, Fischer said.
The number of Germans fell by more than 3.2 million over the last three decades even though the country's total population has managed to remain more or less steady at about 82 million thanks to immigration -- often from countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as Turkey and Arabic countries.
"Our problems are demographic changes and the fact that immigrants aren't interested in social nudity," said Fischer, 70, whose association has such honoured standing in Germany that it is even part of the Olympic Sport Federation (DOSB).
"Germany is relying more and more on immigrants to keep the population steady. But many come from countries with strong religious beliefs. They just aren't into FKK." Immigrants who arrive from cultures where headscarves are common will not usually be interested in becoming naturists in Germany, he said.
VIRTUES OF SOCIAL NUDITY
With one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Germany's native population is projected to fall from about 75 million to 50 million by 2050, population researchers say.
The dwindling number of Germans has caused a myriad of problems -- affecting everything from beer and schnitzel sales to the numbers of schoolchildren. The country's proud nudity traditions are not immune. Fischer said the trend is inexorable.
"It's better that we shrink in a controlled fashion and keep a diverse age-group structure with all age-groups than to try to stay bloated with mostly seniors and few young people," he said.
Fischer added they were using "special trial offers", direct recruitment and other gimmicks to attract young people.
Nude sunbathing has a long tradition in Germany. The Free Body Culture (FKK) movement was founded in the early 20th century and succeeded in taking much of the smut and embarrassment out of nudity.
Even Germany's top model Heidi Klum was quoted in the German media recently extolling the virtues of topless sunbathing and describing difficulties she has pursuing it in places such as the United States and Italy where it's frowned upon or illegal.
"I love to get a sun tan and I don't like white stripes," said Klum. "I don't worry about what other people think." Her parents often ran around in the nude and still do, she said.
In Germany, public nudity on beaches and lakes is by and large tolerated and practitioners face no legal consequences, although some courts have fined some caught hiking nude on public trails or riding bikes or horses while naked.
For decades nudity was a popular way for those living in Communist East Germany to express themselves -- and was a small piece of freedom for those behind the Iron Curtain. East German beaches on the Baltic were always filled with nude bathers.
But that began to gradually fall out of fashion in many areas in the east after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and then tensions sometimes flared when some western German tourists unaccustomed to the widespread nudity complained.
"When we moved from western Germany to a town in the east, we noticed there was less of a taboo about nudity," said one American surprised by the ubiquitous nudity in the east. "It really struck me at a nearby lake when people were just naked in the water or getting a tan in the sun and nobody was bothered."
That, however, has also begun to change.
"WE'VE GOT A LOT CHUBBIER"
Increasing wealth and fashion-consciousness in Germany and especially the east has hurt the movement as well.
"We're all equal in the nude," said Fischer, a westerner who admitted it felt like "torture" for him to sit in his clothes on a bright sunny summer afternoon while talking to journalists.
"When people are naked you can't tell the difference between the man with the doctorate and the man who collects trash. There used to be more of an egalitarian attitude. People now want to distinguish themselves and one way to show off is with fancy swimsuits. It's not easy for the nudist in a society like this."
There are other reasons contributing to decline of the unique German cultural tradition. As a 70-year-old eastern woman named Brigitte pointed out, growing prosperity has led to growing waist sizes.
"In East Germany, there were a lot more people with attractive physiques," said Brigitte, a retired dental assistant and avid naturist who asked that her full name not be used.
"But with the rise in prosperity a lot of people have come apart at the seams and they can't show their bodies in public anymore. We've become a lot chubbier with all this prosperity. It's not really very aesthetic anymore."
Brigitte said she misses the East German era when entire beaches and camping areas were packed with nudists even though parts of West Germany, such as Munich's English Garten park and West Berlin's Tiergarten, have proud FKK traditions.
"I miss those places more and more," she said, admitting that she often feels inhibited about being nude and now wraps a towel around herself until she gets to the water. "You definitely see fewer people in then nude. But I don't think the movement will die out. It's too much fun."
(Additional reporting by Kalina Oroschakoff and Scot Stevenson; editing by Paul Casciato)