Thursday 23 May 2019

Getting naked to feel free

On holiday, our columnist discovers a nudist camp and embraces the birthday suit in all its sublime imperfection

Sarah Carey
Sarah Carey

Sarah Carey

A few weeks ago, we were staying at one of those brilliant French campsites. It had fantastic facilities, including a "balneo" - a kind of walled garden, laid out in classical Roman style. It was stone-tiled, with columns, hot tubs, cool pools and nice planting. It was for over-16s only and, until one o'clock each day, clothes were banned. As soon as I saw the sign, I knew it would be professionally remiss of me not to see what the nudists were up to. For the purposes of journalistic enquiry, I'd have to strip.

Needless to say, I was struck with anxiety about getting naked. No surgery or endless Pilates will disguise the damage done to my tummy which, on my tiny frame, has borne three eight-and-a-half-pound babies.

There was also the question of shrubbery. I have political issues with the fashion for excessive grooming of female herbaceous borders, but that's a policy one is never required to advertise publicly. My high-waisted, low-cut, M&S bikini bottoms hadn't necessitated any pre-holiday depilation and it was too late to perform any topiary now. I'd have to put my principles on show. Eeek.

I was nervous, but determined, when I entered the balneo and quickly stripped off. Noting I was almost alone in possessing pubic hair, which seemed at odds with the naturist philosophy, I carried my towel in a manner that provided some modesty, and found a sunbed in a quiet corner. Then I got down to some serious spying. It was fascinating. So fascinating that I went back the next day, and the next, and the next. I couldn't wait to get my kit off. In fairness, this may have had something to do with the absence of children, but I loved the politics.

The overwhelming majority of the naturists were pensioners. They'd clearly been at it a long time, as you could upholster furniture with their over-tanned skin. These bodies had lived well. The thighs were wide. The willies, every shape and size: and since there's nothing less erotic than a flaccid penis, nakedness was entirely desexualised. There were lumps and bumps and scars. Outside, we're worn out trying to cling to youth. Here, pensioners and imperfections ruled.

The biggest revelation were the female bottoms. Freed of ungainly clothes, pear-shaped behinds reigned supreme. There were some skinny examples on show, but they looked pathetic compared to the magnificence of a rotund rear end.

In the clothed world, we're crushed by the tyranny of a physical ideal that is unachievable and unhealthy. In here, perfection was freakish.

I watched one man - possibly around 40 - who was beautifully toned and handsome. But in this context, I didn't find him attractive. Instead, I immediately classified him as "vain". Which was entirely unfair and showed how we stigmatise anything non-conformist.

Sometimes, we look at big people and presume they are lazy, greedy or lacking self-control. I realised how easy it is to create a norm - in the case of body shape, entirely artificially - and make everyone who doesn't conform feel bad about themselves. If the advertising industry decided to recruit only redheads, within a short space of time, we'd all be dyeing our hair ginger and wondering why we were so unfortunate to be born brunette. 1960s hippy trends aside, I decided that this is why my generation were in the minority here. We've been crushed by bodily shame and anxiety.

Chatting about it later with my husband and a lovely Dutch couple, the man, who had dancing eyes and an engaging smile, said: "But I don't need to take my clothes off to feel free." That, I thought to myself, is because you already are free. I'm a woman, and for all my legal freedoms, I live in a prison, where every aspect of my life is controlled by men and judged by women. Using clothes to make the best of myself was just a form of self-loathing. Taking them off was the only way to liberate myself.

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