At 0230 on Saturday morning, in Hull, I handed in a signed form, consenting to be photographed naked by US photographer Spencer Tunick . This was not the result of beer fueled late night bravado, but an experiment.
As a writer, I’ve long been interested in how we see ourselves and each other. My work around the mental health world has taught me that anxiety about our image, and particularly how we think others see us, can be a real problem. My own time in therapy has helped me see the futility of trying to be the person I think others expect me to be.
I was not alone in Hull that morning. As the first hint of dawn lightened the sky, 3,200 people had gathered in Queen’s Gardens. We were each handed a tub of body paint, in one of four shades of blue and told how to apply it. Then we waited and when dawn was close, we were told to strip and paint ourselves.
Now I was here with my friend Richard. Together we’d been chatting to those around us. We’d struck up a rapport with both ladies and gents. It was the cue for embarrassment.
But embarrassment never came. We stripped off and helped each other achieve the desired coverage of body paint. Now I’ve never really liked being touched, except by my closest family, but I thought nothing of the strangers’ hands now applying paint to my lower back. It seemed natural to reciprocate and so I did, without a thought about gender, age or background. We were all people, naked, vulnerable and most of all human.
For the next two hours my clothes lay in the park and I strolled around the city centre, in the good company of those 3,000 other naked people. A lady who has had a mastectomy catches my eye. We smile, and I realise that for some, this early morning marks a milestone. It's OK to be different, to bear the scars of life's challenges and to simply be happy in your own skin, however wrinkled or damaged it is.
The Facebook activity before the day was as revealing as the event itself. People posted honestly about their wish to take part in something iconic. For some, nudity was to be the challenge, for others it was to expose their vulnerability.
Later in the day, one participant, Simon, posted on Facebook what he called the ‘three great things I learned today.’ He summed up the mood of the crowd perfectly. I hope he doesn’t mind me reproducing his words here:
1) ‘Under the right circumstances, all the arbitrary social nonsense we have to navigate every day can fall apart in delicious joy and giggles within minutes;
2) Yes, the British will follow your instructions, but if they aren't clear we'll rebel with hoots, raspberries, and general silly nonsense until you can sort yourself out and tell us what you want. Even then we'll be tittering and nudging each other;
3) Everyone, literally everyone, is beautiful’.
Simon’s first point is exactly right. Freed of inhibition, everyone becomes wonderfully human. His second, is a comment in the exasperated instructions Tunick bellowed to his assistant Steve. Poor Steve was doing a great job, but the banter his exchanges with Tunick prompted was a delight. And of course lastly, Simon makes the very point I want to echo. We are all beautiful, whatever others may say or we may think.