The naked appeal of our human imperfection
Appearing naked in public places is not something I normally do. In fact, apart from at the swimming pool (when it is sometimes necessary to walk across the changing room wearing only a towel on my head), being naked in public places doesn't appeal to me.
I wear a swimsuit when I sunbathe and even in the sauna. And I assumed that this level of modesty was perfectly normal, and not something to try to improve on, until I was approached by a portrait painter who was doing a series of nudes and who was very keen for me to be one of them.
At the age that I am currently at, I am keenly aware that my body is not quite as gorgeous as it has been in the past. There was a time when I would have worn a lot less clothing than I currently do, and indeed, there were times when I was all too willing to show off what I had achieved with my two hours a day in the gym.
These days, I am much too busy saving the planet to work out every day. Which is why I turned down the nude portrait opportunity. And I felt that I had made a wise decision. But then I began to wonder, should one be ashamed to reveal a less than perfect body? Or should one be prepared to laugh at one's floppy parts? Just as I was losing sleep over this conundrum, I found myself at a naked stand-up comedy show, at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.
I had surveyed the brochure and chosen this particular show, as I had never seen a naked comedian before. As we waited for the show to begin, I took a sandwich out of my handbag (not having dined) and was about to take a bite when a short, plump, ginger-haired (all over) naked
chap bounded onto the stage and stood right in front of me. I lost my appetite and put the sandwich away. This was not a pretty sight, not at all.
I tried very hard to concentrate on the comedian's personality, but my eyes never left his penis, which was the smallest penis I had ever seen, smaller than the ones babies have. Quite literally, it was the size of a mushroom.
"Naked bodies that you see in advertising or in movies are always perfectly fit," the man said. "They make you want to buy something. Bet you don't look at me and want to buy anything!"
The audience giggled.
"I have a huge cock," he went on. "But I'm hiding most of it, as you can see."
As he went on about how, if he lost weight, he would have to rewrite his routine and how great it is to have a fun-size penis, the audience roared, possibly with relief as much as amusement. But even though he was funny, it was really quite shocking to find oneself laughing at a human body just because it wasn't a model's body. When the women came out, also naked, it was equally shocking to see wobbly bellies and thighs, stretch marks, saggy tits and the complete absence of fake tan being so shamelessly displayed.
By the time the show ended, I felt surprisingly relieved. But no sooner did I get home that, I found myself once again watching a person strip for amusement and not for advertising. Anne Gildea is a comedienne who became famous as part of a troupe called the Nualas, and is now performing a solo show called Anne Gildea Goes All The Way.
Naturally, I was not expecting her to mean this literally. But sure enough, as part of the act she had some boys hold up a sheet, and she stripped off. Like the ginger chap, she did not attempt to disguise her flaws, but instead drew attention to them.
Every single woman in the audience breathed a sigh of relief, as she joked about how hard it is, when you get to your late thirties and you really have to work at it, just to stay normal looking. Because so few women can resist pretending they don't have to diet/dye their hair/have botox, it is a rare thing to hear a woman admit the truth and laugh about it.
Naturally, I was in awe of these comedians, and wanted to know more about them. Maybe they could teach me something.
I met Anne Gildea for coffee and asked her how she came to be the kind of person who could expose herself like that, without air-brushing. She appeared to be a perfectly normal woman, when we met. But, as I explained to her, she possesses something that most women would kill for. After all, if we could learn to laugh at the ravages of time, it would be a lot cheaper than surgery.
But what she revealed was that people who can laugh at their looks generally have learned to do so from an early age. Unlike me, who always took my appearance terribly seriously, and studied the magazines for beauty and diet tips, and spent my first wage packet on cellulite cream.
"I just don't care, I really don't," she said. "But when I was a kid, I was really, really fat. I was called fatty, at school. I have never had a perfectly slim body, and in the blink of an eye I can explode! I did start to get thin when I was 12, but then I got terrible spots instead!"
The acne didn't go away until she was 25, she remembers. "I could never go to school without being absolutely slathered in foundation," she said.
"But when you've been through a lot, you get older and you realise that life is such a joke. I am so lucky to be involved in comedy, because you always get to see the funny side of the awful things in life. We struggle and struggle and struggle, don't we? But ultimately we are all going to die!" And worse still, I point out, we will probably all get wrinkly.
"There is a huge liberation in being able to laugh at all of it," Anne says. "And even though I am 41 now, inside, to tell the truth, I feel more attractive than I have ever been. So I am going to marry myself!"
Given a choice between spending time with a woman (or man) who is physically flawless, and therefore intimidating, or with a person who has a sense of humour about themselves, I know which one I would pick. It has been an enormous relief and an inspiration to meet the naked comics who can laugh at how unfair life is. But even though I am inspired, I am not sure I'm ready for my naked close up yet, not without extensive work-outs. I'm not that good humoured.