Saturday 25 May 2019

Let's all get naked -- in the name of true beauty

'Naked, we're all the same': volunteers taking part in a photographic session with US artist Spencer Tunick in Blarney, Co Cork this week
'Naked, we're all the same': volunteers taking part in a photographic session with US artist Spencer Tunick in Blarney, Co Cork this week
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I HAVE never met him, but I want to get naked for Spencer Tunick.

He's the artist who specialises in gathering strangers together and having them shed their clothes, before photographing and filming them in their thousands against urban and rural backdrops.

I'm swept away by the compulsion to join one of his stylised and strangely uplifting configurations, which parlay acres of flesh in public spaces into art.

It's not latent exhibitionism coming to the fore. It's not even a desire to be commemorated as a piece of art. I just find the notion liberating, perhaps because of the sheer volume of people willing to set aside their inhibitions and take a leap of faith -- together.

In common with most women, I'm not too keen on my body. Apart from wobbly bits in the wrong places, it bears the tracks of scars -- not very noticeable, granted, but I know where to find them.

As a body, it does the job adequately, but doesn't measure up to the oppressive image of perfection -- other people's perfection -- impressed on me every time I flick through a magazine.

Yes, I know those photographs are often digitally enhanced, but that's never stopped me feeling substandard. Nor am I alone. Most women draw unfavourable comparisons, although men seem significantly more resilient.

So I was riveted to hear a female participant in Tunick's Blarney Castle installation being interviewed on the news. She said something so axiomatic and yet so profound I'd have registered for Saturday's Dublin Docklands event on the spot. Naked, she remarked, we are all the same.

How rare that condition is: in life we're virtually never all the same. We continually judge each other by what we do, what we drive, where we live and what we wear -- the designer label tyranny.

Stripped of our clothes, we're stripped of our wallets, at least temporarily, eliminating an integral source of division between us. We stop being lawyers, taxi drivers, teachers and start being human beings.

The installations also function as an antidote to the advertising industry, which has hijacked the human body to flog everything from cars to shower gel. There is something inherently appealing about flesh employed as imagery without the context of the hard sell. Flesh for art's sake.

Tunick's art holds up a mirror to society. Can anyone imagine it happening here 20 years ago? Impossible to invite us to get naked en masse in public without denunciations from the pulpit.

The artist would have been labelled a pornographer. There would have been rallies, pressure groups and banners on O'Connell Street. A mock protest was staged by 'Father Ted' fans -- 'Down With That Sort Of Thing', urged their placards -- but the skit underlines how most people really have no issue with it.

On the contrary, tens of thousands have been willing to do it, while even those who prefer to stay buttoned up shrug their shoulders in a 'live and let live' reaction. Nudge-nudge prudery has been remarkably sparse. To me, this conveys more about the evolution of modern Ireland than any quantity of divorce petitions or luxury cars parked in driveways.

Once we'd have dismissed it as smutty -- now we're prepared to view it as art. Or at least give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt.

I'd like to take part to free myself from the nagging suspicion, shared by far too many women, that we need to fix ourselves physically. And if we do, we'll achieve nirvana.

It's disturbing how rapidly cosmetic surgery has made inroads, how normal it is perceived to be when it's anything but normal. Botox injections are so uneventful you can buy DIY kits in chemists.

A surgeon spoke on Pat Kenny's radio show a few days ago about doing repair jobs on patients after faulty cosmetic surgery at home and abroad. The industry is not regulated in Ireland, but it doesn't stop hordes of us submitting to the scalpel.

The style industry has adopted a tone of bulldozing us to improve our appearances: it's an obligation, not a choice.

What's the most spiteful comment you can make about a woman today? She's let herself go. And the most approving? She looks 10 years younger.

Too many glossy magazines confuse cosmetic surgery with a spa visit or a manicure. They have blurred the boundaries to present it in deceptively casual terms as simply another way to make the best of ourselves. But going under the knife should never be undertaken lightly.

All surgery carries risks, it's usually a last-ditch option. Yet we're being persuaded that it's acceptable to nip in for tummy tucks and breast enhancements as a treat for working hard, or to look good for a special event. 'Because you're worth it,' as that paean to self-absorption insists.

A Wicklow mother died last year after an operation to fit a gastric band for weight loss. The surgeon called off the operation when he discovered a stomach tumour, but Bernadette Reid died 10 hours later.

The medic told an inquest last week that risk-free surgery did not exist, and afterwards her family highlighted the lack of controls in this multi-million euro industry.

As a society, we come under constant pressure to spend whatever it takes in pursuit of youth and beauty.

We are not allowed to grow old, be flabby, have flat chests, be plain. It's twaddle, but dangerous twaddle.

Spencer Tunick is an antidote with his message that, cumulatively, we are beautiful. Without bells and whistles, without designer clothes and cosmetic surgery. Just as we are.

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