CLOTHING OPTIONAL

by Alison Benney

Printed in Irish Eyes, summer 2006

On the French seaside, topless is ubiquitous, and there are over 400 official and unofficial nude beaches, but nude beach resorts - ah, now that's something to justify a bit of skinnydipping.

For many Parisians, an easy jaunt to the beach used to mean taking the two-hour train to Deauville. But why settle for the Atlantic when you can TGV it to the Mediterranean in just one hour more? Better yet, lighten the load, avoid those unsightly tan lines, and take the plunge into one of France's renowned nudist beach resorts. All you need is a towel, suntan lotion and an evening wrap, and you are ready to join the great unclothed.

Well, perhaps it's not quite that simple. Once you arrive at the barred gates of the naturist village, when exactly are you supposed to strip, before or after you check in? Are shoes allowed? Where do you look as you pass by fellow nudists? In fact, how friendly are the natives, and exactly how private are their privates?

Most clothing-optional resorts are just that - you are expected to shed textiles in general but if you feel like covering up, that's fine, too. In fact, at night, when it gets chilly, most people get dressed to go out to dinner - or at least wrapped. But the next morning, when you step out of the shower, you can step right out the front door au naturel, without having to dig through your suitcase for a wrinkled pair of shorts.

The International Naturist Federation, which represents millions of naturists around the world and 1.5 million habitués in France alone, defines naturism as "a way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity, with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment." Baring oneself to the neighbours is not only about stripping pride and leveling the playing field. It can also be both instructive and entertaining to observe the panoply of humankind parade by at the beach and in the shops, and to discover a fascinating variety of body types that would otherwise and other-where be fashionably disguised.

Yes, there are bodies to be seen, of all ages, shapes, sizes and colours, and that pretty well describes private bits as well. Yet despite what one might think, there are very few obnoxious voyeurs - after all, they would be too obvious if they stayed dressed, and undressed they become like everyone else. In any case, it's just no fun watching the show alone, especially surrounded by so many families and couples. Furthermore, as many men discover to their relief, overwhelmingly naked reality is so much less sexy than scantily clad. In fact, many naturists take to wearing ornamentation, like ankle bracelets, tattoos or piercings, to spice things up a bit.

There is a naturist etiquette: at resorts, for instance, everyone is expected to place a towel underneath their fanny when sitting at a café or restaurant. And, as in any other small village, erotic behaviour in public is generally frowned upon. Bathing suits are, in fact, allowed at the beach, but what's the point? The publication Oser vivre nu suggests that beginners make their debut as a couple, not with a group of friends, and choose a crowded resort or beach to avoid self-consciousness. So go ahead, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the invention of the bikini by taking it off, take it all off.

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Where to go? There are three well-known sites on the Mediterranean. Cap d'Agde, south of Montpellier, is the world capital of nudity, with accommodations for up to 60,000 people. Not far from Perpignan is Port Leucate, with two naturist villages, Aphrodite and Club Oasis. And Heliopolis, on the Ile du Levant, just off the coast of Toulon, is the first town in Europe that was created for nudists - 25,000 nature-loving tourists visit each summer.

For reference, read Oser vivre nu, or find information about resorts in English at www.le-guide.com/sunlovers/index.html. To find lodging, check Peng Travel, an English-language naturist tour operator, at www.vacances-naturistes.com.