Published in The New York Times on December 17, 2014
My mother had invited us on an all-expense-paid beach vacation at a resort in France. There was just one problem. As I told my sons in our living room, “It’s a nude resort.”
“I’m out,” the younger one, then 12, said.
“No way,” said his 15-year-old brother.
Always putting our children’s welfare first, my husband added, “No boy should have to see his grandmother naked.”
My parents, former groovy college professors, had gone to this resort for years. It wasn’t hard to understand that skinny-dipping in those quiet waters made them feel free and young. But my father had died two years before and my mother, now a slim, attractive 71-year-old widow, wanted to relive her best times, with children and grandchildren in tow. Any daughter with a shred of decency would do this for her mother.
So, easily handling the lightest travel bag I had ever packed, I found myself standing at the gate of a nudist colony at Leucate, France, on a blazing July day, sweating through a cotton shirt. Somewhere inside the gates, my mother, younger sisters and their four female children had already settled into the rental apartment. (Unlike me, my sisters weren’t fazed by this vacation. They both became college professors, too, and although they didn’t walk around their homes without clothing, I’m pretty sure I was the only one of us who had ever worn pantyhose.)
As I walked through the complex, looking for my relatives, I saw families enjoying the pool and the beach, sitting on benches — all naked except for sunglasses and chalky dabs of sunscreen. People stared at my clothing. A bare man on his balcony, apparently doing some home repair, put down his power drill and regarded me sourly. Finally, I heard my mother, walking briskly toward me, calling my name. I hugged her loosely, not daring to squeeze or look down.
Leucate is not the Riviera. Its nudist beaches are a destination for budget vacationers, mostly European families, who prefer to relax undressed. I learned that in this place, covered skin was forbidden outside the apartment. If you wanted to wear a burlap sack inside, go ahead. Outside, it was rude not to be nude. Nobody even thought of trying to go for a dip in the pool wearing a swimsuit.
I decided to wear clothes inside our beachside rental. One of my nieces wore her underwear in solidarity with me. In some ways, this was like our usual family reunions: I was the cook, in a shirt and apron. In other respects it was different: the complete absence of our husbands and sons, and having to get undressed to go outside.
On the beach each morning, I spread out a towel and lay on the sand, looking like a cod fillet in a fish market. A fillet with stretch marks and an odd pattern of moles across my middle. How I longed to wrap the towel around myself.
The resort operated an entire buff village, with stores, a laundry (not that there was much to wash) and even a restaurant. We never ate there, but it must have been upscale because at the tables, each chair had a thin round of tissue paper (presumably disposable) for the comfort of bare-bottomed diners.
When we ran out of fresh fruit, I went into the small grocery store. “Maybe I’m starting to adjust,” I thought, as I shopped haunch to haunch with the other customers. I bought a small watermelon, and found that my imperfect French embarrassed me more than the sight of my breasts as I forked over the euros.
But after I got back to the apartment and cut into the fruit — so perfect on the outside — I found it was rotten within. My thriftiness overwhelmed my modesty, and I removed my T-shirt, stripped off my briefs and marched back to the store. If it was hard to buy produce without clothing and with a poor command of the language, it was more difficult to return it. Perhaps the poignant sight of a flat-chested, middle-aged American woman seeking to buy a voluptuous French melon melted the icy heart of the clerk. She found me another watermelon.
As I made my way back to the apartment, I passed an outdoor shower, where beachgoers rinsed off before going inside. A man about my age, balanced on one leg, was carefully rinsing the sand off his other leg — a prosthetic that he held under the shower like a baby.
This was the moment when I should have accepted my public nudity. After all, if a one-legged man is O.K. with his body, then a dermatologically challenged woman should be O.K. too. I was not.
I could guess why my parents loved this place. This trip was my mother’s gift; a way to show me the beautiful people she and my dad had been when they were together.
But instead of being grateful, I was anxious, lumpy, not the least groovy. The sight of my mother’s bare body made me as dizzy as the sight of my own blood. It was too much truth.
Still, as a devoted daughter, I would do anything for my mother. Once.
The next summer, my husband and I took our boys on vacation to the Canadian Rockies. I stuffed my luggage with socks, thermal underwear and an enormous flannel nightgown. I wore every single garment. My skin never saw daylight.