Claire Askew’s poem ‘Parisian Hotel’ describes the ‘unfamiliar and magnificent’ fact of someone else’s naked body:
In our anaglypta cheap Bukowski poem of a room
I watch you undress for the very first time…
The poem’s narrator wants to savour the alchemy of it all:
I want to slow down time
and hold this moment hard inside my fist:
the whisk and clink as you slip the belt from its loops,
your white feet scuffing the pool of peeled-off clothes…
I read with Claire for the first time in Edinburgh this weekend and my visit to the festival also included an emotional encounter with another piece of work about our bodies and how we relate to them, Maria Ferguson’s superb one-woman show ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’. It would be difficult to do the subtle humour and poignancy of Maria’s show justice in words (not least because some of the best parts rely on gesture, eye movements and stage presence) but the performance reduced me to tears at least twice. ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’ recounts one woman’s struggle with body image, her love of food (free cake included) and her passion for dance, focusing on the ways she tries to reconcile ambition with expectation. Opening with a matter-of-fact discussion of the practicalities of bulimia, it takes a witty, slant look at the pressurised world of dance, contrasting the joy of performance (Maria is also a really excellent dancer and there’s a very impressive tap routine in the show) with the anguish of ‘fitting in’ and keeping up. The word ‘control’ recurs again and again, chanted like an incantation.
I danced from the age of 5 until I was in my early twenties and smiled at the references to having your posture altered by a teacher, or leaving teenage parties to get to rehearsals on time. Other parts of the show held a mirror up to things that made me shudder with recognition.
As ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’ demonstrates so brilliantly, for many of us, trying to have a healthy relationship with our own bodies is a constant work-in-progress, work that preoccupies us so much more than it should, work that might seen narcissistic or self-indulgent or just plain bizarre to others. I’ve written about eating disorders and body dysmorphia in both my poetry collections, and even when I’m trying to send up the more ridiculous aspects of obsession (‘…on my diet, you can eat your own / past, very carefully, like nibbling the corner / of a photograph…’) I’m aware that articulating it isn’t exactly cathartic, even if I can laugh at some of it now.
It was interesting to leave Maria’s show and watch Channel 4’s slightly controversial new series ‘Naked Attraction’ for the first time. The show, hosted by Anna Richardson, sees single contestants faced with six potential suitors who are all naked and hidden behind panels. The contestants have to then whittle down the field from six to one, based on the body parts they are shown – first, a view from the waist down, then a view of the torso as well and finally, the whole body, including the face. As John Plunkett has noted in The Guardian, ‘Naked Attraction’ has (unsurprisingly) divided opinion – is it empowering or is it degrading? The show claims to ‘cut through’ the pretence and complication of modern dating by stripping people back to the essence of who they are and fans would argue that it promotes body confidence. Hitting back at critics, presenter Richardson said:
“People are getting hysterical about objectification and yet we all go through our daily lives looking at people and making judgments. It is ludicrous to assume we don’t sit in judgment on everyone else. We do it every day…. This idea that we are body-shaming or rejecting people due to the way they look – that is life, this is Tinder television. Our particular generation might not do it, but in terms of millennials, this is what they do.”
It’s difficult to pass judgement about the message ‘Naked Attraction’ sends out about body image. On the one hand, there’s an element of demystification, an openness and acceptance about the way contestants’ bodies are discussed. The programme aims to champion body diversity, and it’s interesting to hear people making positive comments about a range of different body types.
At the same time, there’s something dystopian, something Brave-New-World about the structure of the show’s process of reveal, the way contestants begin by looking at their future dates from the waist down, the way the face is kept until last (speaking comes even later – as a contestant on ‘Naked Attraction’, you don’t even hear your potential date’s voice until you’ve spent a long time analysing their genitals). There was also something stark about the focus in one episode on women removing their pubic hair. Aside from all this, it’s interesting to see just how unerotic the naked bodies on the show are made by the clinical way they’re analysed and presented. There’s nothing sexy about the staged nudity (which is perhaps part of the aim).
I had to switch it off in the end and return to the ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘magnificent’ evocations of the body in Claire Askew’s ‘This Changes Things’, to poems where the body has a context – ‘the Metro’s rackety passes’, ‘the distant inkspill of the Seine’. I don’t think standing naked and briefly anonymous behind a panel on television would do much for my body confidence, but connecting with poetry that evokes and celebrates our bodies always makes me feel slightly more happy in my own skin, just as the act of writing can make me feel more embodied.