Review by Rod Berry
Au Naturel – Naturism, Nudism, and Tourism in Twentieth-Century France, by Stephen L Harp.
For nudists with a love of travel, there is no destination more appealing than France. Boasting a beautiful temperate climate, a rich history and culture, glamour and chic, glorious natural scenery ranging from from rugged Alps and Pyrenees to the great Atlantic Ocean and the azure Mediterranean coast, a world famous gastronomie, together with its openness to freedom and “naturisme”, France has long been a nudist mecca for visitors from all over Europe and the rest of the world. In any year, more than 1.5 million people enjoy nudist holidays in France, a higher figure than any other country in the world. French society generally accepts nudism as a valid lifestyle, so much so that the French government actively promotes naturism as part of its array of potential holiday activities.
I had the joy of spending almost two weeks of naturist bliss at the French naturist resort of Belezy in Provence in 2011. Set in the foothills of the great Mont Ventoux (made famous for its Tour de France mountain duels) Belezy is typical of many nudist establishments in France. At the time of my visit, it had several restaurants, a supermarket, a centre dedicated to massage, sporting fields, tennis courts, gym equipment, vegetable gardens, an array of swimming pools, and daily activities ranging from music performances, to wine tasting and art festivals – all enjoyed au naturel.
With modern and comfortable facilities, Belezy has a dedicated base of devotees from all over Europe and feels like a melting pot of European nationalities, a veritable naked EU. One English couple whom I met at Belezy (and have remained good friends with ever since) has been going there every year for over 20 years. In high season, there will be upwards of 1,500 people at Belezy at any one time, representing all age groups from families with children, through to couples in their twenties and thirties, as well as a significant number of older couples and some singles. It truly functions like a major nudist village, set in Provençale nirvana.
Places like Belezy reinforce the massive cultural difference between naturism as it is understood and practiced in Australia, with some other places in the world. How can a country like France, so profoundly influenced by the conservatism of Catholicism, be so much more open to social nudity, compared with a place like Australia? Surely our irreverent convict roots should make us less stitched up, and more open to alternatives like nudism? Why are most of our country’s nudist facilities poorly frequented, relatively underdeveloped and so often run-down, whereas in France naturist venues are often mainstream, modern and hugely successful?
In his academic work Au Naturel: Naturism, Nudism, and Tourism in Twentieth-Century France, Stephen L Harp, lecturer in history and French at Akron University, tries to uncover the drivers behind the historical popularity and continuing success of nudism in France. We are never told if Harp is a naturist himself. He assumes an objective, independent voice, genuinely curious about this significant social phenomenon in France. Unlike a lot of sentimental naturist publications that can verge on becoming propagandist, Harp shows no sense of sentimentality or gloss. He is clearly struck by how significant naturism is in modern French history.
Harp traces modern nudism to its roots in Germany after the First World War. He identifies the spread of the naturist movement in France to 1927, when the Durvilles founded their association called, “Societe Naturiste”, and the journalist Kienne de Mongeot established the group, “Vivre”. The Durvilles, who were doctors, promoted hygiene, defined by them to include vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, and exercise in the open air and sunlight. They established naturiste venues on the outskirts of Paris (called “Physiopolis”), and on the Ile de Levant (called “Heliopolis”). Originally at these places visitors would still wear a slip to cover their genitals. This was partly a reflection that total abandonment to nakedness had not yet been fully embraced by all, but it also reflected the Durvilles’ astute awareness that to keep the authorities on side and to avoid any sense of scandal, maintaining some sense of visible decorum was necessary.
At the same time, Kienne de Mongeot established the “Sparta Club”, a name that was designed to conjure the respectability of nudity from antiquity. Full nudity was more acceptable in parts of the Sparta Club. In the words of Kienne de Mongeot, “The contemplation of Greek works elevates the soul to beauty. And beauty, even when it is represented by flesh, awakes in us an ideal of perfection that is not only physical but moral…love born of admiration in a pure heart is not impure and material but sublime.” Kienne de Mongeot argued that, “we should live nude whenever the climate, the place, the circumstances permit, because nudity is good for our bodies….the wearing of clothes is one of the causes, and not the least, of our degeneration.”
It may be difficult for a modern mindset to imagine this, but naturists like the Durvilles, Kienne de Mongeot, and their many followers, saw naturisme as a movement to address the decay in modern society evidenced by the horrors of the First World War. France had borne the devastating effects of the Great War in the wholesale destruction of towns and villages. Humankind had lost its way, and the call to return to nature was profoundly appealing.
Harp goes on to trace the evolution of naturism in France over the 20th century in its many forms. In particular, he focuses his attention on the politics and events surrounding the development of nudist specific holiday destinations at the Ile de Levant, Montalivet and Cap d’Agde. Both Montalivet and Cap d’Agde were established with the active encouragement of the civic authorities as naturist destinations in coastal locations that had largely missed development and tourism opportunities previously. Naturism brought economic prosperity to these regions, and spawned other non-naturism tourist activity for the benefit of the whole community.
One example of this governmental support is the strident defence of the ideals of naturism given by Mayor Clotis, not himself a naturist, who was clearly concerned to protect the huge financial benefits of naturist tourism on the Ile de Levant to the local economy. Standing up to others in the community who claimed the island community to be debauched, he praised the island community for its strict order and good behaviour in contrast to indecencies that had been committed on textile beaches. Says Clotis, “Painters, sculptors and artists apply the rule that full nudity is not indecent…for anyone who is impartial, the naturiste gives the impression of having a sound mind in a sound body…My God, all you see on our beaches of the Riviera is more or less undressed people.”
According to Harp, one of the most significant figures of 20th century French naturism was Albert Lecocq. Harp spends significant amount of his research on Lecocq’s enormous contribution to post second world war naturism in France. Lecocq established the Federation Francaise de Naturisme (FFN), and through the popular naturist publication La Vie Au Soleil, spread the naturist word to millions across France and internationally. Lecocq was an articulate representative of naturism, and was a visionary who saw the wave of nudist holidaying opportunities to come. He was integral in the establishment of Montalivet on the Atlantic coastline, with thousands flocking to the site by the mid to late 1950s. By 1969, 15,000 people were visiting there each summer, with 7 kilometres of sealed roads and over 1,300 bungalows in addition to even more campsites for tents and trailers. On one day in 1969, 7,000 nudists shared the beach there together. Lecocq is a shining example of someone who was so convinced of the merits of naturism that he dedicated his life, his talents and importantly even his finances to his vision. If only Australia had someone like Lecocq to lead the charge here.
As he is not a defender of naturism, Harp confronts head on the issue of the connection between nudism and sexuality. He develops the thesis that the many rules of propriety that developed in French nudist venues (rather similar to what one might find in Australia) highlight that being socially naked is an inherently sexual thing. For Harp, we need to set rules forbidding touching and staring because the temptation is ever present. In some senses, because of these rules around correct behavior, he argues that naturists may find freedom in their nudity, but they put on other constraints that mainstream society does not require that make that freedom a limited freedom.
Harp marks the obvious contradiction between claims in the movement that it is completely non-sexual, with some activities within French naturism that are undoubtedly sexually charged. One example he cites is the Miss Beauty pageants where men ogle at nude teen beauties. Harp spends a whole section of his work examining the sexual excesses of Cap d’Agde, where traditional nudists share the beach with libertines and swingers, with control and politeness by day (except behind the dunes where virtually anything goes), and wild debaucheries at night at libertine night clubs, for those with an appetite for such adventure. Harp recognises that there are different movements, values, standards and ideals within the French nudist community, and that it would be a mistake to assume all nudists are the same.
Au Naturel is not a light read. Nor is it cheap. Written as an academic text for the study of French society at a tertiary level, this publication will be a struggle for many. Citing over 400 contemporaneous sources, and reproducing numerous black and white images from naturist publications from the periods it focuses on, this work is well researched and authoritative on its subject matter. Whether you choose to read this or not will depend on the extent to which you have an appetite for learning and history, and whether you have an interest in the practice of naturism in other parts of the world.
However, every practising nudist owes it to themself to make a pilgrimage to nudist France. It promises some of the happiest and lasting memories you will ever have of living au naturel.