Naturism is a doctrine advocating healthy, open-air living in a state of total nudity. A distinction should be made between naturism and nudism, which is the simple practice of collective nudity. Municipalities nevertheless encourage the confusion through orders authorising “naturism” on certain stretches of the beach, for example. It is only in recent decades that the definitions have blurred, largely because of the media’s focus on excesses linked to group nudity, such as in the “naturist district” of Cap d’Agde. Although contemporary naturism is largely associated with tourism in “naturist” centres, it is not limited to these places today and was even less so in the past.

The origins and development of naturism

Naturism emerged in the 18th century as a neo-Hippocratic philosophy, before developing in the 19th century into a therapy based on contact with natural elements (therapies based on fresh air, light and sunshine) and a hygienist practice, in response to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution (Villaret, 2001). In the first third of the 20th century, before 1914 in Germany and later in France, publications and various movements began advocating an alternative code of ethics and way of life that involved varying degrees of collective nudity. In Germany, the first naturist centre was founded on the Baltic Sea (1906), and the world’s first naturist federation, the FKK (Freikörperkultur), was founded at the end of 1918. While the Nazi regime celebrated a healthy body, it dismantled the naturist movement and closed its facilities.

In France, the main initiatives were those of Kienné de Mongeot (Vivre association and magazine) and the Durville brothers, two doctors who founded Héliopolis, the first naturist village in the world, on Île du Levant (1931). Héliopolis still exists, housing around a hundred permanent residents and receiving tourists in guest houses or hotels. From the 1930s, therefore, naturism gradually evolved into the communal practice of full nudity in specific places during leisure time or holidays (Barthe-Deloizy, 2003; Baubérot, 2004; Harp, 2014).

The post-war period saw the democratisation of the movement under the leadership of Albert Lecoq, founder of the Fédération Française de Naturisme (FFN) and the Montalivet holiday camp (Gironde): this was the popularisation of naturism, particularly associated with camping and located on the Nouvelle-Aquitaine coast. The ensuing decades saw the opening of several new centres, the construction of the urban “naturist” neighbourhoods of Cap d’Agde and Port-Leucate as part of the tourist development of the Languedoc coast (Mission Racine), as well as negotiations with municipalities to allow nudist practice on beaches or along the shores of lakes or streams (Jaurand, 2011).

This popular, holiday-based form of nudism is the latest incarnation of a movement that considers contact with natural elements to be beneficial for our mental and physical health, particularly through collective and mixed nudity, practised as often as possible. While the FFN defends the theoretical and historical heritage of the naturist movement, it is overwhelmed by practices that do not conform to its ethics, such as those at Cap d’Agde (swinging) or on certain nudist beaches that have become hot spots of sexual activity.

Naturist spaces

For legal reasons, naturism was first practised out of sight, in enclosed places with filtered and regulated access. In France, sexual exhibition imposed on others is an offence punishable by imprisonment up to 1 year under Article 222-32 of the Penal Code (1994). Public places where “naturism” is permitted (sections of beaches, areas of Cap d’Agde and Port-Leucate) and dedicated private premises are obviously excluded from the scope of the law. Access to a private naturist facility may require a licence from a naturist federation. Clubs can be found in cities and suburbs offering leisure activities in the evening or at weekends.

Naturist centres, on the other hand, are mainly frequented in the summer when people are on holiday, and are generally found in relatively isolated places in the countryside, in the mountains and especially on the coast, associated with beaches (Ill. 1). Surrounded by screens and vegetation, they vary in size (Euronat in Gironde is the largest in France with 335 hectares), capacity (from a few dozen to several thousand), activities offered, rates and accommodation type: while camping has long been predominant (hence the initial term “naturist camp”), bungalows, chalets of varying levels of luxury and guest rooms have largely replaced tents, satisfying the demands of less activist and more comfort-oriented customers.

Ill. 1. Map of a naturist area in Nouvelle-Aquitaine (E. Jaurand

As the range of naturist accommodation has expanded, sensitivity towards environmental issues and the promotion of sustainable tourism have also increased: many centres have therefore sought and received the European eco-label Clefs Vertes (“green keys”).

Worldwide, there are about thirty national naturist federations, mainly located in Western countries, in Europe as well as the United States, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, etc. France, followed by Germany, is the world leader for naturist tourism (Harp, 2014), with just under a hundred holiday centres, mainly located in the southern half of the country, welcoming about 1.5 million visitors per year, of which around half come from abroad. Croatia, Spain and Brazil are the main competing destinations.

Outside of countries of Judeo-Christian heritage, where life in a state of nudity can be evocative of earthly paradise (Barthe, 2001; Jaurand, 2008), naturism is unknown or unthinkable for cultural or religious reasons. Attempts to set up naturist centres in the Maghreb failed because of resistance from local communities.

Emmanuel JAURAND


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  • Barthe-Deloizy Francine, 2003, Géographie de la nudité. Paris, Bréal, coll. « D’autre part », 239 p.
  • Baubérot Arnaud, 2004, Histoire du naturisme. Le mythe du retour à la nature. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, coll. «Histoire», 348 p.
  • Harp Stephen L., 2014, Au Naturel : Naturism, Nudism, and Tourism in Twentieth-Century France. LSU Press, 328 p.
  • Jaurand Emmanuel, 2008, «Les plages nudistes, une exception occidentale?», Géographie et cultures. n°67, p. 47-64, en ligne.
  • Jaurand Emmanuel, 2011, «Pratiques nudistes et territoires touristiques sur le littoral français», dans Bleton-Ruget Annie, Commerçon Nicole et Lefort Isabelle (ed.), Tourismes et territoires. Mâcon, Institut de recherche du Val de Saône-Macônnais, p. 27-34.