One non-exhibiting Brit gets a crash course in naturism – a most French of practices
Words: Alexandra Jones
Photography: Sarah Brimley
It is 7am on a sunny June day at a seaside resort in the south of France. The scene is much the same as one you might find at any other beachy idyll: runners pace along in the surf, zipping past a group of women descending into sun salutations. Beside me, a man and woman sit serenely in deck chairs, tanned and lithe, sipping coffee from dainty cups. The three of us watch as a middle-aged dog-walker traipses listlessly after an overexcited St Bernard. The difference, however, at this particular beachy idyll is that everyone, apart from me, is almost completely naked.
A closer look at the runners, a man and a woman, reveals that they are both wearing trainers and ankle socks. The woman is bottomless but sensibly wears a sports bra (DayGlo pink). The yoga enthusiasts – all mahogany brown and contorting in unison like human pretzels – are nude and (I chafe just thinking about it) stretching on the bare sand.
They move into downward-facing dog, backs arched, arses to the sky, utterly unfazed. “Act cool,” I whisper to myself. I cast a sidelong glance (call it morbid curiosity – it’s not every day that four naked women practise yoga in my vicinity), which I quickly regret. No one needs an anatomy lesson before le petit déjeuner.
I am visiting Cap d’Agde’s famed Village Naturiste, a self-contained nudist town which each year plays host to some 3 million naked visitors (a third are French, the rest from all over the world). As well as being the birthplace of the bikini and topless sunbathing, since the Sixties, France has also been known as the world’s foremost destination for naturism. Around that time, pictures of an impossibly chic Brigitte Bardot sunbathing topless on the French Riviera cemented the country’s reputation as a haven for freedom of (bodily) expression.
So, in the name of acquiring more liberté, I’m taking what is essentially a two-day crash course in naturism. Heralded by the French Naturist Federation as the ultimate liberation of the human body, could it be the dawn of a new, naked me?
Of course, ‘crash course’ makes it all sound so quick-fire. But I’ve already been dithering for half an hour, trying to pluck up the courage to get my kit off. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude but neither am I that woman who’s at ease strolling around completely starkers in front of strangers. Even in the women’s changing rooms I’m more of a ‘shimmy into my pants while holding a towel up with my chin’ type gal. To my English sensibility, letting it all hang out for no good reason (good reasons include bathing and some sexual acts) seems to be an unnecessary level of exhibitionism.
The longer I stand here, the more disapproving looks I draw. In typical Brit-abroad style, I am committing a cardinal faux pas. Wearing a slightly see-through kaftan (a threadbare relic from Topshop circa 2009) with nothing underneath, I am the most clothed person in sight. And as the welcome brochure in my hotel explains, staying in the Village Naturiste means abiding by a certain set of rules, the first of which, “practice total nudity in the company of other naturists,” I am blithely flouting.
The big reveal
I take a steadying breath, unclip my bum-bag and flip my kaftan off. I’m not sure exactly what I expected but the whole process of getting naked is blissfully anti-climactic. I clip my bum-bag back in place, and stop. I had only ever thought this far. See, being naked while standing still is one thing (we all do it in the mirror – stomach in, back straight, etc) but naked walking? It all starts to seem a little too much. I am hyper-aware of my body – of the way my thighs look and the way my arms hang, of what my hands are doing. I stand for a moment before putting my head down, my hands by my side and taking a tentative step towards town.
Built in the Seventies, Cap d’Agde’s Village Naturiste is now the world’s largest naturist town, with its own (nude) bank, bakery, supermarket, hairdresser and, bizarrely, a whole host of clothes shops. Holidaymakers pay €8 to enter and can stay for a day or a month – as well as a campsite, there are apartments and hotels in the Village. And once you’ve passed through the barrier gate (into a bleak car park, where the day before I had spotted my first nude – a middle-aged man, standing at the open boot of a car, fiddling with himself) you don’t have to put on clothes at any point.
There is a swingers community who frequent the Village. On that same first afternoon, Stylist’s photographer, Sarah, and I accidently wandered into a pool party/orgy. We considered staying for a drink, but realised of the 70 or so attendees – all uniformly naked, tanned, toned, blonde and hairless, and doing everything from chatting amiably at the bar to having sex in the pool – we were the only single girls, so decided to scarper.
The naked truth
Otherwise, I actually encounter very few nefarious situations. Lewd behaviour in the Village carries a €15,000 fine. After all, according to the International Naturist Federation, naturism is about “encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment”. It’s not about pool-side blow jobs.
As I walk into town at 7am, despite the early hour there are plenty of people around. Most of the holidaymakers who come to the Village are couples, in their late 30s or older. And this morning, most seem to be wearing one incongruous item of clothing – a T-shirt with no bottoms; a pair of socks with their flip-flops (yes, naturists do wear shoes) or a cardigan and nothing else. I’m disproportionately aware of the scant breeze which whips around areas of my body that don’t usually feel so breezy. Being naked around hordes of other people, even if they are naked feels, quite frankly, weird. “I first tried naturism when I was 33,” explains 46-year-old Vilma, from the Netherlands. “I was really nervous about it. The first two hours were strange, because I thought people were staring at me, but then I got totally used to it. I love how free I feel.”
It’s the same story I hear time and again when I speak to other Villagers – almost all of them enthuse about the sense of ‘freedom’, ‘relief’ or ‘liberation’ that social nudity engenders. Freedom from what, I find myself wondering. “The pressures of urban living,” explains Margueritte, 50, from Paris. “You could be a CEO or a cleaner, it doesn’t matter. Everyone here is naked and equal.”
As I stroll through town, past an apartment complex where couples drink coffee on their balconies, past closed-up fast food outlets, past the supermarket where a woman bends to scrutinise the selection of sun tan lotion, I realise that I’m yet to ascend to this level of nudist nirvana. Instead, I feel very on-edge. I’m walking strangely because all of my muscles are tensed. My heart beats furiously and adrenaline courses through my veins. In fact, the longer I spend naked, the more I descend into jittery, fight-or-flight hysteria. Rationally, I know I’m under no threat. But being naked does feel incredibly vulnerable. I have to consciously stop myself from folding my arms across my chest.
In town, partially or fully undressed couples sit outside the boulangerie, eating fresh croissants. I queue for a coffee and think back to my mum’s reply when I told her I’d be coming to the Village: “Just don’t sit down anywhere”. It’s to be expected; my mum, a staunch advocate of the hovering technique, hasn’t sat on a public toilet since 1984. I do sit. Sarah, who has gamely decided to go naked too, and I take a quiet table next to the counter. Following the lead of the other nudists – it’s something I notice in restaurants, too – we each put a towel down on our chairs.
I turn in my seat and come face to, err, face with a queue of men all wearing T-shirts and no bottoms (this seems to be the dominant look among the men in the Village). I stifle a giggle. While I’d love to say that, at 27, I’m above giggles, this being my first proper day as a nudist, I’m yet to develop a sufficiently laissez-faire attitude to seeing so many penises. Sarah agrees and every so often one of us will subtly point out any particularly interesting ones. This, I find out, is not at all the done thing within the community. As Sofie, 43 (an IT consultant and repeat visitor to Cap d’Agde) from Toulouse explains, “naturism is all about accepting that your body doesn’t need to be covered. Most naturists know the rules about how to conduct themselves.”
These unwritten rules, it turns out, account for all the emphatic eye-contact that nudists make when I’m speaking to them (you’re not meant to stare at someone’s bits, so most make it extra obvious that they’re looking me in the eye). I make a mental note to stop pointing.
Like all of the people who work in the Village, the woman at the bakery is fully dressed. When I ask how she keeps a poker face she gives me a ‘seen it all before’ shrug and assures me that the naked body is far from funny. “It’s just normal, natural!” She gestures around. “Natural!”
Well, yeah, I think, but not all natural. The whole time that I’m here, I only see one man with pubic hair, though most of the women do sport some form of groomed bush. Sara, 39, from Germany (wearing a sarong, around her midriff, which doesn’t cover anything other than her stomach) explains that “for women, pubic hair has been making a comeback. But men shave it off because it makes them look bigger.”
The quest for liberation
I wake on the second day with the quest for liberation and self-acceptance on my mind. I had gone to bed feeling exhausted. Sarah and I had needed regular ‘emotional breaks’ from the nudity (hour-long stints in the buff were about all that our nerves could handle). Clothes are a sort of armour, a physical – and I now realise, emotional – barrier against the world. Without them I became infinitely jumpier.
I decide to spend a morning on the beach. In the naturist’s heartland, surrounded by mahogany bodies (one man, who’s constructing an elaborate sandcastle, is so tanned he’s practically maroon), my tan-lines mark me out as a newbie.
The question is: are you born a naturist or is it a predilection you develop? For Elise, 51, from Rennes in Brittany, being naked is a statement of self-acceptance. “Naturism made me fall in love with my body again after breast cancer.” She didn’t practice social nudity until she was in her late 40s and explains that her teenage children still don’t know where she and her husband spend their yearly summer holiday. “They would not understand.”
Given that on the beach I generally feel lumpen and self-conscious, I’m surprised that, while naked, those worries seem to slide away. Perhaps it’s because I have bigger things to think about (sand in the vagina?) or perhaps it’s the fact that, surrounded by so many exposed bodies, each of which bobs and jigs and undulates in its own unique way, it’s easier to keep in mind that I’m not so different from anyone else.
Elise found it easier to love her body when it was unclothed. Maybe she’s onto something?
That afternoon, Sarah and I head for the supermarket. I have almost stopped noticing my own nudity, though every time we encounter a clothed person – like a shop assistant, or a construction worker – I’m plunged into a self-conscious panic which makes me desperate to throw on a T-shirt. For their part, the (clothed) men stacking shelves in the supermarket don’t even look up as we nakedly haggle over which bottle of wine to have with dinner that night.
Back in the apartment, Sarah and I toast to our own bravery, agreeing that while the experience was memorable, neither of us are converts. It’s all much too taxing on the nerves – spending time on the nudist beach is one thing; it’s a setting in which most people are almost naked anyway. But walking through a town, engaging in everyday activities – ones which usually require you, by law, to be clothed – takes a more robust sense of self-confidence than my own. It has, however, given me a new-found respect for queen of the naked-selfie Kim Kardashian (admittedly, words I’d never thought I’d be writing) because while the experience doesn’t prompt any big epiphanies, I do begin to see the value in having enough of that self-confidence to own your body, to be proud of it, au naturel.
I know, it’s not quite naked yoga, but it’s a start.
Could you embrace naturism? Stylist exposes the UK’s best places to bare all
Eat in the buff
For salmon with a side of starkers, cast aside your clothes and visit London’s first naked restaurant, which opened last month. The Bunyadi in Elephant and Castle, with a waiting list of 40,000, promotes an au naturel dining experience. Flattering lighting and robes are provided – not that you’ll need one. thebunyadi.com
Visit a naked village
Strolling into your local pub naked might be a head-turner where you live, but it’s not for the residents of Spielplatz – Britain’s secret naked village. Tucked away near St Albans, Spielplatz (which means playground in German) is home to the UK’s oldest naturist colony. With a range of chalets, caravans and camping facilities, join up, strip off and relax. spielplatz.club
Try nude archery
Tent, sleeping bag and wellies – they’re all you’ll need for Nudefest 2016. Organised by British Naturism – the representative body for Naturists in the UK – the annual July event, taking place in Somerset, will include music, archery, arts and crafts, yoga, massage, and a barn dance. Packing has never been easier. bn.org.uk
Smell the roses
Dubbed ‘the Garden of Eden’, Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire offers five ‘clothes optional days’ from May to September, where guests are encouraged to bare all and enjoy the roses (mind the thorns). abbeyhousegardens.co.uk
Streak through London Zoo in nothing but a tiger mask. To raise money for tiger conservation projects, ZSL London Zoo is hosting a 350m naked streak through its grounds on 11 August. Registration costs £20 and foil wraps will be provided at the end. zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/whats-on/streak-for-tigers
Additional words: Lucy Devine