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#We don't have to take our clothes off... - John C. Kirk

Feb. 15th, 2008

12:53 am - #We don't have to take our clothes off...

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Tonight I watched Dawn Gets Naked on BBC3. This was a documentary about female body image: the presenter (Dawn Porter) is concerned that the "ideal" body presented by the media is impossible to attain, so she tries to get comfortable with her body the way it is. If you saw the Dove evolution advert a couple of years ago (using Photoshop), this is along similar lines. I think it's a reasonable goal, but the execution was a bit lacking.

Firstly, I'm guessing that some people will be wondering "did she actually get naked?" Well, yes and no: she did, but not on camera, so don't bother watching if that's what you're waiting for. (A few other people did strip off, though.)

The basic premise of the program was that women have to compare their bodies to unrealistic photos on magazine covers, and they don't know what normal bodies are supposed to look like, so that makes them feel ashamed of their own bodies. This in turn means that they spend lots of money on cosmetics and surgery (apparently £2,000 per woman, per year on average) so that they can get the right "beach body".

I'm not a woman, so I don't know how true this is, but it seems a bit odd to me. As I've mentioned before, I spent seven years at boarding school, where our dormitories resembled aircraft hangers and the changing rooms/showers were all open; people didn't go around staring at each other, but I think we all had a fairly good idea of what the average body looked like. Maybe it's different for women? Then again, presumably someone buys all the penis enlargement pills that get advertised in spam emails, so I guess that there are men who have odd ideas too.

Porter did approach a few women in a changing room (with the TV camera pointing at their feet), asking whether she could talk to them while they were naked, but most declined. Presumably this was supposed to illustrate their lack of confidence, but I'm not convinced. There's a Kleenex advert out at the moment where some guy has a sofa in the middle of a pedestrian area and asks people passing by whether they'd like to stop for a minute to chat to him; those who do wind up bursting into tears, so they can "let it all out" into a tissue. My reaction would be to give him a wide berth, since he's a complete stranger, and I've lived in London long enough to be suspicious of behaviour like that; if someone approached me in the changing room at my gym and said that he wanted to chat to me (with a camera) while we were both naked, I'd have the same reaction. On the other hand, if someone asked me a specific question (e.g. "do you know what time the gym closes tonight?"), I'd be happy to answer immediately rather than waiting until I got dressed.

As a related issue, the presenter goes along for a spray tan and some waxing, both of which involve her being naked in front of other women, but doesn't seem to have any trouble chatting to them about beauty topics in general. She then considers appearing in front of a wider audience: she uses binoculars to look at the naturist section of Brighton beach, visits a naturist garden (while she's fully clothed), gets a burlesque (stripping) lesson, and models nude for a life drawing class, although it takes her a while to get the confidence for these.

The burlesque teacher was keen to emphasise the distinction between what she did and lap-dancing, and she didn't resemble a page 3 model (which was kind of the point of the program). She mentioned that she had a daughter, and wanted her to learn that whatever she looked like, it was good. I think this is veering a bit close to the line from The Incredibles: "If everyone is special then nobody is". This was echoed later on, when another woman said "I'll never be tall, thin, and blonde". I think it makes sense to be realistic about what's physically possible and what's not (particularly in the context of digital photo manipulation), but I also think it's reasonable for someone to prefer one body type over another and recognise where there's scope for improvement. In my case, I'm currently 6'2" tall with a 38" waist; I'll never be 6'3" (barring major surgery), but I could certainly get back to 34".

Porter then went along for a professional photo shoot, where they used various techniques to produce a photo which looked significantly different to her normal appearance; in isolation, the new photo looked plausible, but it was quite striking to see the differences when they put it side by side with the original (half a face from each version). Having said that, I don't think that the original photo entirely counts as "natural" given that she'd covered herself in fake tan beforehand; is that really so different to the make-up they used?

Anyway, this all led to the big idea: she'd organise an event where loads of women would be naked, so that they could all see what normal bodies are supposed to look like. As I say, I'm surprised that they wouldn't already know, but it sounds as if it has the potential to be useful. I'm also not sure whether it's as radical a concept as she seemed to think; people have been doing "naked calendars" for decades to raise money for charity, and I think Trinny and Susannah did a similar stunt recently (for their "get women into the right bra size" campaign"), but never mind. Porter used MySpace for this, describing it as Ultimate Flash Mob, and it took place last July (2007).

Since she needed to get lots of people turning up, she tried to publicise the event by handing out "get naked with me" flyers on the Strand, but most people just walked past. Again, I don't think this necessarily reflects on her campaign, it's just normal behaviour in London, since there are loads of people trying to foist things on you (e.g. free newspapers). I think she was also revealing her media bias: would the average person know what a "flash mob" is, or even be registered on MySpace? In this context, it may be an unfortunate pun, suggesting "a mob of flashers".

Anyway, the end result was that she hired a tour bus to drive around London, picking up women at various stops who would then ride on the open-air top deck. Some chose to reveal more than others, and Porter herself wore a bikini of fig leaves. This seemed like a bit of a con on one level, especially since she was trying to take the "truth in advertising" moral high ground. On the other hand, it reminded me of the Timmy Mallett song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini"; watching the video, I wouldn't say that the bikini in question is that small/revealing, but I'd be quite surprised to see any of my female friends wearing anything similar. In other words, it's all relative, and the presenter was exposing herself to much more public scrutiny than she normally would.

Towards the end of the bus route, they stopped outside the Vogue offices, and Porter went inside to see whether she could get any of the women working there to come and join the bus. The idea was that they represented the enemy, by putting unrealistic pictures in their magazine, so Porter hoped that some of the employees might prefer to be around "real women" for a change. (Does this imply that their colleagues aren't real?) Anyway, I think there were a few problems with this approach. Firstly, it's a workplace, and people have jobs to do, so you can't reasonably expect them to drop everything and come out to play with you. Secondly, it took her a long time to get confident about being naked in front of other people, so even if people agreed with her cause then they might be shy about jumping straight in. Thirdly, she was being disruptive by standing in their lobby and shouting, rather than taking "no" for an answer. I'm glad that she felt more comfortable about her own body, and it's fine to encourage other people to follow suit, but I don't think it's fair to pressurise them.

All in all, I'm not intending to watch any of Porter's other documentaries (or any other BBC3 programs in general), but this passed the time while I was cooking/eating dinner and it made some interesting points.

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Comments:

[User Picture]
From:shuripentu
Date:February 16th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
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I suspect your experiences at boarding school were unusual. Most people don't get to see large numbers of real, unPhotoshopped bodies, and even if they do (e.g. at the gym), they still see far more unreal, Photoshopped bodies in the media. I've been in school changing rooms and spent 2 years at boarding school, and I only know what real female bodies look like because I have friends who feel the need to send me photos of themselves with no clothes on. :p

I remember when one of my friends was upset about the size and shape of her breasts, I pointed her at an online gallery of real breast photos, and her reaction was "OMG, my breasts are normal!"
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