If you go down to the woods today: adventures in nudist Paris
When I arrive at the yoga class, the naked teacher is quietly explaining how to move into triangle pose. It’s Sunday at noon in the nudist zone of a forest on the eastern edge of Paris, and this is the Paris naturist association’s weekly stretch. In the grassy fields nearby there are another 50 or so people, some spread out on towels, others strolling in the midday sun.
I’m here for my first experience of naturisme – a term the French prefer to “nudism” because of its connection to the outdoors. I knew, of course, that everyone would be naked. But I hadn’t expected almost all of them to be male. I’ve seen my share of penises, but never so many at once.
I’m slightly stunned. I have to remind myself that I’m here on a kind of self-help mission. Like many women, I’ve spent my adult life dressing to hide my bulges and cellulite, as if something terrible lurks beneath my clothes. Naturists famously claim to accept the human form in all its varieties. Might being among them help me to accept myself? Could the answer to the perpetual question of what to wear actually be nothing at all?
Paris, my adopted city, seems like a good place to probe these questions. It has both exacting standards for women’s looks and an active naturist subculture that includes this city-approved zone in the forest, weekly naked nights at a municipal pool and occasional clothes-free bike rides, museum visits and garage sales. Practitioners insist that naturism is non-sexual and family-friendly.
Despite the barrage of genitals, the mood in the nudist area is tranquil and unthreatening
Despite the barrage of genitals, the mood in the nudist area is tranquil and unthreatening. Still, I’m reluctant to disrobe. I’m put off both by the gender imbalance and the fact that a member of Paris’s naturist association, himself in the buff with a full-body tan, is filming the yoga class for the group’s website. I observe the class, fully clothed.
Afterwards I introduce myself to a group of naked people who’ve gathered for a picnic. (Like everyone else in France, nudists eat lunch at 1pm). They’re friendlier than most Parisians, instantly addressing me in the informal tu and offering me a glass of rosé. They make cheerfully intense eye contact, perhaps to reassure me that I needn’t glance at their crotches.
I ask why there aren’t more women present. Marie, a lithe 40-something and one of the only two women present, says that when she invites friends to join her at naturiste activities, “They say, ‘I haven’t gotten waxed’ or ‘I’m too fat.’” Her husband and two children don’t want to participate either. She is not “out” as a naturist at her office, she says, and asks me to use a pseudonym.
Marie says she struggles with her body image too, and finds that naturism helps to counter this. “Coming here is a way of saying that my body is acceptable,” she explains. You don’t see older bodies in the media, but among nudists; “ageing is normal. You see where you’re headed. It’s just life. C’est la vie.”
I was disappointed that I hadn’t summoned the courage to undress, so I agree to meet Marie at the next naked swimming night, for an “aquagym” class. She reminds me to bring a bonnet and towel, with no mention of a swimsuit.
A few days later, in the pool’s mixed changing room, I strip down to my swimming cap. Then I wrap myself in a towel as a man from the naturist association shows me the nude workout room and the separate area for people who wear clothes, known as textiles (pronounced “tex-teal”).
By the time I reach the open-air, Olympic-sized naturist pool, the class has already begun. About 20 people (including Marie and a few other women) are already in the water, facing me. Music thumps in the background as an instructor guides them through some basic exercises, standing at the edge of the pool in nothing but a waist-length black T-shirt.
I gird myself, drop my towel and dash into the pool, too nervous to notice whether anyone is watching. I’m relieved once I’m in water up to my shoulders. The class involves lots of kicks and jumps. Every few minutes, the teacher tugs on his penis, in a kind of nudist tic.
It’s a warm, clear evening. Like everyone else here, I’ve spent much of the past six months wearing a mask or isolating at home. Being outside, naked in a pool, should be liberating. Yet I feel trapped. I don’t enjoy the sensation of bouncing body parts or of serving as evidence for strangers of the varieties of the human proportion. And though their intentions are probably benevolent, it feels like all those exposed private parts are shouting at me.
Could the answer to the perpetual question of what to wear actually be nothing at all?
The naturist movement’s resolute non-sexuality bothers me too. Other people’s bodies suddenly seem demystified and banal. I can see how I’d gradually become indifferent to the form of someone’s backside, the way I stop paying attention to the shape of their nose. But must I? Why take the pleasant erotic charge out of a leisure experience like sunbathing or swimming?
After the class, I join the people swimming laps (I’ve never been more aware of the frog kicks required in breaststroke). Then Marie and some others – men and women – head to the showers, where they stand soaping, chatting and laughing. Marie calls out to offer me shampoo, but I decline and rush past them to my locker, where I quickly dress, despite being coated in chlorine and pool grime. I’m relieved once everyone else is wearing clothes again too.
I did learn something from the naturists. I’m less worried about what’s under my clothes. And having seen so many bodies, I can now easily picture anyone naked. But I mostly choose not to. I’ve come to accept something else about myself: I’m a textile, through and through.■
ILLUSTRATIONS: ALBANE SIMON
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/10/05/if-you-go-down-to-the-woods-today-adventures-in-nudist-paris
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