When you have a conversation with Stéphane Deschênes you notice a lot of things about his appearance.
You notice his warm smile puts everyone around him at ease, how his eyes twinkle from behind his black-rimmed eyeglasses when he's describing his life's work, and of course there's that unforgettably fantastic and hard-to-miss, white handlebar moustache.
What becomes unremarkable over the course of the conversation is that Deschênes is not wearing a stitch of clothing.
And that, he said, is exactly the point.
Deschênes is a long-time naturist. He has been the owner of Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park in East Gwillimbury since 2006 and was recently elected the first ever Canadian president of the International Naturist Federation — the 68-year-old international body joining federations from 40 countries.
In his teens Deschênes would go skinny dipping in the evening when camping or at cottages. Because he was always "the instigator," he said, one friend jokingly referred to him as "the nudist."
He thought to himself: "I don't know, maybe I am, maybe I should look into that."
When he did, he discovered the many benefits of naturism.
Naturists are not exhibitionists. They don't believe in disrobing for shock value. It's a "mindset," a way of life that teaches acceptance and respect for one's self and others, body positivity and appreciation for the environment, said Deschênes.
Clothes are just a type of costume and when one strips away the pretences one is left feeling more comfortable with who they are, according to Deschênes.
"Who do I want to look like today? Who do I want to be? Only when you take it all off do you finally have to accept you as who you are. Only then do you realize that people like you for who you are and not because of who you are pretending to be."
"The objective is not the nudity. Nudity is the tool that brings you to that self-acceptance and respect for others and tolerance," he said.
It's for this reason, and seeing "the the incredible diversity of the human body," that naturists tend to have a higher level of self-acceptance and a more body-positive attitude — particularly among women and girls — than non naturists.
Being without clothing allows individuals to see that the perceived 'perfect body' just doesn't exist, he said.
"Every body is unique. There is no ideal. There is no two that are alike. You're not wrong or bad in your body shape, you're just you."
A 2017 academic study led by Dr. Keon West in the UK concluded that naturism leads to an overall better body image and higher satisfaction with life. Being around non-idealized bodies reduces the pressure to achieve unrealistic ideals and promotes "a more realistic standard of physical attractiveness."
Deschênes has long believed in this theory and it's one of the reasons he and his wife decided to raise their children in naturism.
"Women are particularly hard-hit by society in terms of a beauty myth," he said, and though they went on to have sons, it was equally important to teach them to have confidence in themselves and to instill in them that there is no right or wrong with regard to bodies.
"We wanted them to have a sense of what bodies are truly like before they get hit with all that porn that's so ubiquitous these days."
As a result of having been raised as naturists, his now-adult sons (one of whom left the lifestyle but has since returned) have developed a better sense of self and a keen eye for recognizing who in their lives is authentic, said Deschênes.
He understands that naturism is not for everyone. He is always respectful of the lifestyle of others and accepts that as naturists "it always comes down on us to adapt," but it doesn't prevent Deschênes from having a sense of humour about it.
Deschênes recalled an instance when he and his family were invited to swim in a friend's pool. Swimming without suits never occurred to the family but the friend said "'we'd prefer if you wore a bathing suit in our pool.' I took that and went with it and said 'OK, so if you come to our place you won't wear any clothes to respect us?'"
"Unfortunately we have to adapt in both situations because that's a default in society, it's a huge discomfort for people," he said.
Being top-free in public has been legal in Ontario for three decades but female naturists don't tend to take advantage of it.
Rather than being viewed as someone simply wanting to enjoy themselves outdoors, their motivation would be perceived as a desire to stand out or to make a point and that, said Deschênes, isn't the point at all.
"Despite three decades of having the right to do so it hasn't changed much. What controls (attitude) is in society far more than laws is societal expectations," he said.
Deschênes is not the type to force his views on others. He's passionate about the benefits of naturism but he understands that it can cause anxiety in some.
He isn't looking to embarrass anyone or make them uncomfortable but if after speaking to him you forget that he's not clothed, well then he's quietly made his point.