I'm reading
What nudity reveals
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What nudity reveals
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What nudity reveals
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
12 July 2017

What nudity reveals

“For all the tattoos and disparities of gender, race, age, weight and height, we are immediately much more alike than we could ever be different.”

Written by Sarah Darmody

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

For context, no one has ever described me as a free-spirit. I’m not a peace-fingers-emoji kind of girl. Despite writing and campaigning about female body-confidence and the cultural shaming and repression of the naked human form, it’s a wholly intellectual response. I like my clothes on. I like your clothes on, too. I’m as culturally polluted as they come and while I’m always excited for the chance to talk about nipples on prime-time television, I’ll do it in a bra and blouse, thanks.

There aren’t many places to be naked outside the home so I never have to put my body where my mouth is. Body-bravery, for me, is deciding not to shave for the gynaecologist, or to soldier on through a presentation when I’ve discovered that I have a visible panty-line and dry knee-skin.

Tonight I went all the way. Naked in public. Naked with strangers. Naked with an admired colleague who I don’t know very well, just to add to the naked-nightmare meme. I was offered a ticket to the final night of the Sydney Dance Company’s performance at the Art Gallery of New South Wales—a response to the artworks in the “Nude” exhibition. The dancers would be performing nude, and tonight the audience of the final show was also required to be nude, something I’d agreed to using my mouth and not my brain. I badly wanted to see the sold-out show, and so I wanted to be OK with it. The dancers prefer the nude audience, I was told. They find the shift in the power dynamic freeing. This seems like a good thing, right? Exploration versus titillation. The dancers are artist-athletes after all; their bodies at work in the same way as Lucien Freud’s canvases or Henri Matisse’s bronzed bits. The dancers would be naked in the service of art, and my own naked body would support them in this. Sure. Yep.

But standing in the enormous forecourt of the gallery in my easy-to-remove shift dress with no underwear on, I feel a variety of not-great things, starting with distaste. I see two giggling women in Camilla kaftans and an older man who is already starting to remove his cufflinks. I don’t feel artistic solidarity at all. I feel silly. Before I can think too much more, there’s a white paper bag with a pencil to write our names on it, and then an instruction for the entire audience to put everything we are wearing into our bag. My dress comes off easily. That was a mistake. I am too quick; fully naked while all around me men are still dealing with ties and shirt-buttons and women are hopping on one leg removing skinny jeans. It’s like losing at strip-poker. I find the colleague who gave me the ticket and maintain militant eye-contact with her while she unhooks her bra. Art feels stupid.

Together we become part of a massive column of naked people wandering into the gallery space, and with each step along the grand hallway in our bare, quiet feet, the outside world begins to become irrelevant to me. The group makes one animal, so quickly. En masse, we are a single force in a way that wasn’t at all apparent clothed. I stop feeling silly and start feeling sincere. Our group-nudity becomes precious and remarkable, like the sudden sighting of a whale. What follows next is difficult to capture accurately without sounding like I’ve emerged, lightly concussed, from a long yoga-retreat. My emotions become as raw, basic and earthy as organic cacao, and it happens in an instant. If I thought I’d be intrigued, amused, or maybe embarrassed and mildly disgusted by our differences, looking around at every body, all I can think is how surprisingly similar we are. Until they start performing, I even struggle to tell the dancers from the civilians, and when the dancers periodically stop and move away, I lose them easily in the lovely ripple of us. For all the tattoos and disparities of gender, race, age, weight and height, we are immediately much more alike than we could ever be different.

I also expected us to be ugly. We’re ugly, right? We must be. We have so many embarrassing things to hide. We know this because we dress for this. Whenever loose flesh strays out of clothing in a particularly egregious, public way—spillages of belly, bum-crack and bush—there’s a collective squirm of recognition that goes, “Ugh, I can’t unsee that.” There’s a certain horror of self, mixed with shame for the ugliness in us all. Layers of shame, phylum and sub-phylum of shame even—such as the shame we feel for those who haven’t even noticed that they’re ugly and have so embarrassed themselves. The Germans call it fremdschämen. Shame for others.

We don’t even need fremdschämen though, when we know so intimately the ways in which our own bodies are ugly. In English-speaking cultures, there’s enough straight-up schämen to ensure that most of us contain well-thumbed owners’ manuals to our naked bodies with page after page of additions detailing all of the cosmetic damage, malfunctions, hasty repairs, cheap parts, stains, smells, leaks and decay accumulated since puberty.

Our expert knowledge of our own specific ugliness is a background skill, like a complex second-language that we might not dream in or use daily, but whose fluency remains, arriving easily in changing rooms and in the lists we present to new lovers in the dark: “Oh, about my legs, my hairline, my breasts, my hips, my height, my chest, my teeth, those veins, that scar” we say, as if we’re evolved enough not to take our extensive catalogue of ugliness too personally and simply feel fremdschämen for these naked parts, like tasteless pieces of furniture we’ve inherited and are planning to replace or upgrade as soon as possible. Don’t mind the bald bit. That stomach just arrived one day, I think it might be a mistake. Those are actually my mother’s ankles.

Earlier in the night, with clothes on, the invitation to sit on the floor of the gallery “if we wanted” had seemed like a particularly terrible idea—unduly exposing and awkward. But now I find myself settling easily next to strangers, our buttocks and thighs on cool tiles, our genitals on display as much as those of the 100-odd nudes on the walls around us, or those of the dancers, cart-wheeling and posing and stretching in front of us. There’s a palpable sense of being let in on a big secret: the secret of us. The shock of it is humbling. My complex ideas about the body and self have vanished into a wordless calm. I experience a deep sense of understanding that we are all far more beautiful—individually and collectively—than I ever imagined.

All of my cynicism and discomfort seems to be back there in the white bag with my name on it. In here, I am moved and fundamentally altered by something as simple as being alive in my own skin. I feel connected to history and to artists in a visceral way that I had not thought was possible. The artworks around me and the living, startling, hairless human forms (we are so hairless! Even the furriest of us is far more dolphin than ape) fill me with a certainty that every person who ever came before me had a body and wondered about it, and that all of these artists have tried to tell me a version of what I’m feeling now. And on and on it will go, these versions of the human form, the human animal, throughout time.

Some people are smile-crying. My colleague is too. We nod at each other. We didn’t know, and now we do. A line has been crossed and I know that I won’t be the same after this. Being naked next to Rodin’s huge naked figures in “The Kiss” while naked dancers interpreted the emotions of that piece blew all my fuses. I wished so hard that all the artists, alive and dead, could have seen us in there with their nudes.

The atheist in me wonders if this is what religious conversion feels like, a grand cellular sense of “Now I get it.” Unusual thoughts bubble up all the time, but they are not the vulgar or titillating ones I had anticipated. At one point, totally unbidden, I imagine Pauline Hanson at the performance and when I picture her face in the room with us my own face is soft, my shoulders relaxed, and my eyes are gentle and wet. I feel a kind of radical empathy towards her—an immediate sense of her as vulnerable, radiant and fully alive, like me. I think of her as I think of all of us here—as family. A human family. It’s true, isn’t it? We are a family, it’s fact. Why has it never really felt that way before?

I think of that vintage piece of public-speaking advice: when nervous, imagine that your audience is naked. It’s a petty sort of trick. Imagining someone naked humiliates them, which allows you to feel more powerful. But now, if I’m feeling vulnerable or hostile before a group, I know I can simply picture them naked to remember that underneath, they are my family. They have the highest hopes for me, and we can never truly wish each other harm. I thought tonight would be filled with moments of “Ugh, I can’t unsee that” but instead I’m lit with the pure joy of “I can never unsee that.”

The music ends, to heart-felt applause, and we stand taller and move more slowly on the way out. Walking to the exit, whenever I see the occasional security guard fully-clothed, I find I don’t feel naked in front of them. I don’t feel awkward or ashamed. But I feel sorry for them. I feel fremdschämen. They look so foolish in their clothes. So diminished. Retrieving my dress from that white bag, I struggle to articulate the feeling of being part of this naked group, but the only word I return to is beautiful. We are so beautiful. I never knew. What a thing it is to be human. I haven’t liked us all that much lately, but I do tonight.

Sarah Darmody

Sarah Darmody is a Melbourne-based writer and the prize-winning author of Ticket to Ride: Lost and Found in America. She is also a faculty member of The School of Life.

Image: Pedro Greig for "Nude Life"

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