My boyfriend Steve and I stood, naked, hands on our hips and stared hopelessly at our hire car, its back wheels buried into about a foot-and-a-half of sand. No amount of angry revving or sweary reversing had succeeded in dislodging it. We were stuck. Luckily, at that moment, a naked French man appeared from around a corner and offered to help. The French man and Steve pushed, I put my foot down. A few minutes later we were free. We shook hands with our rescuer and he continued on his way, white bottom vanishing into the sunset. "I need a shower," said Steve. "Sand is everywhere."
We were at CHM Montalivet, the world’s oldest naturist resort, founded in 1953. Today, the resort is 175 hectares set in a pine forest and bordered by a huge section of white sand beach on the Atlantic coast. There are around 1000 private bungalows on site, some of them owned by families who live there permanently, others let out to tourists in the summer months. There is a corner shop, a boulangerie, a newsagent, a hardware store, a bicycle rental, several bars and restaurants, two swimming pools, a spa, an archery range, tennis courts, a cinema and a hairdresser. It’s a town, really. A naked town.
It’s worth pointing out that normally I’m the kind of woman who sunbathes in a one-piece swimsuit and would rather die than take part in naked yoga. I live in Shoreditch, where it’s fair to say appearances do count for something. I’d describe my body as almost exactly average. I’ve gained a bit of weight since quitting smoking and I care about this enough to occasionally order a salad, enough to join a gym. But nowhere near enough to do a juice cleanse, or hire a personal trainer. I don’t hate my body, but that doesn’t mean I want strangers to see it either. I am not a naturist, I suppose is what I’m saying. Or, at least, I wasn’t, until a couple of weeks ago. To be honest, after a four day stay at a naturist resort, I’m still not quite sure what the criteria are, really. For being a naturist, I mean.
Around the resort, friendly signs featuring a cartoon family romping naked through the woods ask visitors to “Respect our values”. But it wasn’t a case of 24/7 nudity. In the evening, you’d generally dress for dinner, an item of etiquette Steve learned the hard way on our first night, after walking through a crowded restaurant wearing a t-shirt but nothing else, meat-and-two-veg hanging free; roughly at eye level for the dozens of people seated, enjoying their wine and moules mariniere. This was, to be fair, the opposite (and therefore, I suppose, equal) faux pas to one I’d committed myself earlier that day. Carrying our towels and parasols down the walkway to the beach, a friendly resort rep had jogged after us. “Excuse me,” he said, gesturing at my shorts, “Please, is it possible?” He pointed to a very large sign that I’d somehow missed, in French it read; “Beach 100% naturist.” The shorts had to go.
You don’t check into a naturist resort without expecting to take your clothes off. At least, not unless you’re very stupid and/or exceptionally culturally insensitive. Although, as with most things in life, I’d taken a cross-each-bridge-as-I-come-to-it approach. As it turns out, when it comes to public nudity, cross one bridge and you’ve pretty well crossed them all. I took the shorts off and nobody looked, nobody pointed, nobody laughed. Obviously not. Everyone else was naked too. Within seconds the moment had passed and I was just one naked person on a beach with a lot of other naked people. It has nothing at all to do with what you look like. On a beach, being naked just makes good practical sense. No swimsuit for sand to get all caught up in, no tan lines to worry about. And once you’ve been naked on a beach, why not at a bar, or in a corner shop, or a swimming pool? We’re all just people. Various sizes and shapes and levels of hairiness and wrinkliness and tan, but, basically all the same.
The following day, with my boobs and bum slightly sunburnt, Steve and I were sitting at the beachside bar, drinking beer from plastic cups and talking to a lovely retired American couple, with syrupy Deep South accents. We all enthused about the flawless French weather, swapped tips on the best local places for dinner. We bitched about Brexit and Donald Trump. We spoke about our jobs back home, which felt very far away. The man had been a U.S. Army Colonel. By definition an intimidating character, but not here. They’d been coming to the resort, every year, for over 20 years. Being naked, I realised, doesn’t expose you at all – it makes you anonymous and equal. Flying home to headlines and TV reports filled with hatred and division, there’s something very comforting in having discovered a place where people are just people. Next summer, we’re going back.
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