Discover more from Letters by Deepa
No. 24 | Lessons from a naturist campsite
Six days in the south of France. Naked.
Clad in nothing but Nivea Protect & Bronze SPF 50, I lay in a patch of sun in front of a neat little powder-blue mobile home, bare feet damp with fresh dew, morning pages spread open on a Turkish towel draped over a plastic deck chair.
Around me, the trees were full of cicadas, breeze and birdsong. On the ground beside me, a lone snail extended its delicate translucent body from its striped shell, easing across each blade of grass one millimeter at a time. I decided to let this wise creature—gentle, unhurried, deliberate—set the tone and pace for a trip of many firsts.
That’s it, I thought. Out of your shell. Let the soft bits show. Easy does it, nice and slow.
It had been less than 48 hours since I arrived at Le Serignan Plage Nature, a naturist campsite by the seaside in Occitanie, in the south of France. I had been invited by France4Naturisme, an association of naturist campsites, to immerse myself in a six-day naturist holiday in France and share it on Instagram.
Throw me a novel experience, and I will leap up to catch it. If it is pleasure-giving, mind-altering or boundary-pushing in some way, I will charge ahead to meet it. Add sunshine, travel, good food, and the beach? You’ll have to peel me away by force.
What is naturism anyway?
More than just nudism (being naked), the naturist philosophy is about living in harmony with nature, by being naked together. The core values of naturism—respect for myself and my body, respect for others, and respect for the environment—appealed to me.
Having lived with limiting beliefs about my body since childhood (and despite having done considerable work to unlearn them), I was curious to see how naturism could help me challenge them even further.
On the train from Amsterdam to Paris, then to Montpellier, I mulled over my relationship with nudity. In the Netherlands, nudity is required at spas, except for one or two days a week. Dutch people go to the spa naked; I don’t. Never have.
In fact, I only get naked for a shower, bath, or sex. I wondered: I am extremely comfortable with sex, so why not with being naked? Why am I only okay with nudity in a sexual context—but so uncomfortable with it otherwise?
I had the whole week to discover why.
The moment of truth
Upon our arrival, my travel buddy Marco (De Cultuurvlogger) and I received a welcome packet with information about the region, full board and massage vouchers, a map of the campsite, and codes for the gate leading to the textile (clothed) campsite next door. At Le Serignan Plage, naturists have access to textile restaurants, pools and sports facilities; textiles (as they are called) have access to the naturist spa and restaurants. The idea is to enjoy the privacy of a small, family-owned naturist campsite and the facilities of a larger textile campsite.
We also received press cards—printed with my official job title in French: Instagrameuse—to help us navigate sensitivities around privacy, to show guests who might question our use of phones and cameras. Naturists do not like being photographed naked, for obvious reasons.
Finally, the etiquette briefing: clothing required at restaurants, clothing optional for sports, nudity obligatory for everything else.
Then it was time. The first hurdle was the hardest: the moment I had to step out of my clothes, leave the mobile home, and walk to the pool stark naked.
“Do we have to do this now?” I squeaked to Marco. Being Dutch, he frequently goes to naked days at the spa, and had no qualms about being naked. He was already stripped down and halfway off the porch. “Yes, now!”
A fit of nervous giggles as my clothes hit the wooden floor. Then the unnerving sensation that all eyes were on me as I strolled to the pool, found a lounger, laid down my towel, and reclined. It took me about 15 minutes to become aware of how tightly I was holding my body, unable to sink in, relax, and fully arrive.
I was tense, tight, primed for fight or flight.
Without my clothes, I felt… vulnerable.
Expecting harm, my body flinched from it involuntarily.
At first, I thought it might be Manila.
I spent the first 17 years of my life in a Catholic girls’ school, where skirt hems were religiously measured and white blouses worn with undershirts despite the tropical heat, to shield my body and preserve my virtue (and value). I was teased for being fat (what I now know as normal, or early to develop) by skinny, mean girls, and I spent my teenage years hiding my body from ridicule.
On the torturous daily commute to college, I dressed modestly to shield myself from the gaze and intentions of strangers. I had been taught to clutch my neckline demurely to my chest when bending down to exit a jeepney or tricycle, because as a woman, it was my responsibility to prevent men from being driven to frenzy or rape by an accidental peek down the top of my blouse.
Then I realized: no, it’s not Manila. It was older than that.
At that moment, I understood the first impulse that might have driven the earliest humans to cover their bodies.
This will protect me.
This will protect me, not only from the elements, but from other humans who wish to harm me.
Giving up the protection of clothing only took a moment, but it felt longer than that as I fought to understand my body’s instinctive response. Inside my head, I told myself: you’re safe.
Everyone around me was naked: sunning, sleeping, swimming. No one had paid any special attention to me, or taken more time to look at me, than any other new arrival at the pool. No one was scrutinizing my body, whispering, giggling or laughing.
It took another 15 minutes, maybe 20, until it sank in: the threat was only in my mind.
Getting naked at a six-day naturist holiday in France taught me this: in any new experience where you feel resistance or confrontation, give yourself time to hear the stories and thoughts that come up.
Put them into words and find their origin: echoes of past experiences, critical voices, subconscious messages absorbed from society and culture. Acknowledge them.
Give yourself time to recognize that the conditions that were once so threatening—whatever they might be—no longer exist around you, nor have the power to harm you.
Then, let them go.
When I did, the peace was so complete, I nearly fell asleep in the sun.
After I woke, I was fully present to the delicious pleasure, at age 40, of the first naked swim of my life. Water, warm and silky, flowed around places that had never felt it swirl that way before.
Satisfied and sun-kissed, I returned to my mobile home a few shades darker and a few hues different than when I first arrived. I felt exhilarated from conquering the unknown and finding ease in the unfamiliar, but also simply slower, looser, and more free in my body.
From shy to shameless in 48 hours
12 hours later, I couldn’t wait to get naked after breakfast.
It’s the heat, I thought.
Already at 28 degrees Celsius by 10 a.m., the dry heat of early summer in the south of France was practically forcing me out of my clothes.
In a way, it was—I wouldn’t get naked for less than 25 degrees. But in more ways, it wasn’t.
My skin, my body’s largest sensing organ, had come alive with new information. I felt everything in places I wasn’t used to feeling things. The rush of stimuli fed me a thousand new sensations to notice, pick apart and puzzle over. Sunshine falling in hot circles on the back of my hip. Sunscreen slicked onto a freshly shaved mound. Side boob sweat, cooled by the breeze instead of absorbed by a bra. Wild!
24 hours later, putting on clothes to explore the nearby town of Serignan felt strange. My clothes felt foreign, scratchy—not unpleasant, but as though I could feel every hem, stitch and thread.
36 hours later, the shock of seeing so many naked bodies had faded (is it not an act of intimacy to choose whom we want to see naked?). I no longer saw naked people around me; I just saw people.
48 hours later, it hit me: I’m enjoying this. I really like it. I get it now.
By day two, I was the only one who showed up to beach yoga completely naked. Even the instructor had a bottom on! I’m not so flexible that I would be confronted with my own naked genitalia when doing the downward dog, so it was actually quite alright.
By day three, I was on the phone to my husband discussing how we might try tacking on a few days at a naturist campsite or resort to our next summer holiday.
By this time, doing ordinary things—grocery shopping at the mini-market, writing my morning pages—in the buff felt easy, even normal.
I mean, why would I need to put on clothes to write in my notebook?
Why would I ever need to put on clothes again?
Will Deepa’s nipples and nether bits stay safe from sunburn? Will fish swim up into places where the sun don’t shine? Will she ever return to life with clothes?
A grand merci to France4Naturisme for inviting me on this trip; Martine at USP Marketing PR for arranging the details; Nick and Lin from Naked Wanderings for briefing us on what to expect; the rockstar crew at Le Serignan Plage Nature, who are so warm, friendly and relaxed, it’s almost unreal.
Finally, to my travel buddy, the effervescent Marco Dreijer, who drove us everywhere and took 3,249 pictures of me without a shred of complaint (or clothing).