Life Stripped Bare - John C. Kirk
Dec. 29th, 2016
11:32 pm - Life Stripped Bare
A few months ago, I watched a Channel 4 documentary: Life Stripped Bare. It's still available via 4OD, although you have to log in first (which is free of charge). The basic premise was extreme decluttering: three households were completely emptied, with everything put into a storage unit about 1 km away. This included furniture, curtains, lampshades, and all clothing. Every day for 3 weeks, they were allowed to retrieve 1 item, but they had to go and fetch it from the storage unit. That meant that on day 1, they had to go outside completely naked:
I like that clip: it has jaunty music, and there's a sense of fun. The same thing applies to the program as a whole; I generally avoid reality TV (e.g. "Big Brother") because I have no interest in watching people bicker with each other, but that wasn't an issue here at all. There was zero conflict between the people involved: they were cooperating, and rising to a challenge.
Personally, I've had an ongoing challenge to declutter my flat. I haven't quite gone to the lengths in this program yet, but I can see the appeal of doing something similar, and I recommend watching it. Having said that, I think there are some things that could have been handled better.
The social experiment starts when a bunch of movers turn up to empty each household. In the past, I've hired removal firms to help me move house, but I still packed everything into boxes beforehand: they just did the lifting and shifting to load up the van and unload it at the other end. In this case, the movers took care of everything, e.g. they disassembled wardrobes/beds and wrapped up plates in paper before packing them into boxes. That's very useful, and it would help to overcome inertia. If I could trust people not to damage or steal anything, it would actually be quite nice to leave for work in the morning, then come home in the evening to a completely empty flat. After the movers had gone, they left one final box behind; the residents then stripped off the clothes they were wearing (along with anything in their pockets), filled up the box, and shoved it outside the front door for someone to collect.
I'm no expert on media studies, so I don't want to misuse terminology, but I am aware that the producers probably had a particular "narrative" in mind (i.e. a story that they wanted to tell). This would then influence their editing choices. Obviously they had to be selective: 21 days x 24 hours/day x 3 households = 1512 hours, and they reduced it to 1 hour, so a lot of stuff must have been chopped out. Although the program cuts back and forth between the different households in parallel (implying that they're all doing this simultaneously), I suspect that there was a single film crew who followed each household sequentially.
It makes sense that Heidi (who lived alone) would be bolder than the others, i.e. she wouldn't need to cover herself up when she's walking around the house because there's nobody there to see her. For instance, about 14 minutes into the program, she says: "If I think about people seeing me like this, I'd feel ridiculous. But I feel fine, if it's just me." However, there must be someone else in the room with her to actually hold the camera. So, there's a certain amount of pretence there. I wouldn't say that it's actually deceptive, but at the same time we shouldn't take everything at face value.
Personally, the nudity wouldn't bother me at all. However, being in a completely empty flat would present another challenge: how would I entertain myself? I think that the multiple-occupancy households had an advantage here, because the people could talk to each other. Living alone, with no books to read and no pen/paper to write or draw on, I'd be bouncing off the walls with boredom. (When I was stuck in hospital last year and ran out of reading material, it was similarly frustrating.) TheTab interviewed Georgia (the nurse from Cardiff), where she talks a bit more about the logistical details. Quoting from that: "Night one of zero sleep on a cold hard floor was definitely a challenge. Tom and I sang our way through the whole Disney back catalogue to distract ourselves from what we'd signed up for."
I also wondered about the logistics of hygiene. The program established that they had to specifically choose to reclaim shower gel, toothpaste, etc. However, how would they handle going to the toilet? Would they have to use the shower as a substitute bidet? And were they allowed a towel afterwards or did they have to drip-dry? (Presumably they wouldn't be allowed to use the hypothetical toilet paper or towel as clothing.) WalesOnline did an interview with Tom and Andrew (also from Cardiff), where they clarified the first point: "The only thing we were allowed was hot water and toilet paper, but they were rationed also." Hopefully the women were given a supply of sanitary towels too, although nobody's mentioned that. Also, TalkRadio did an interview with Heidi (from London), where she said that she had to go to work with wet hair (implying that they'd have to choose to retrieve a towel). I think that these are interesting points, and I would have liked to see them covered in the actual TV program.
I noticed that each household came from a city with a naked bike ride (London, Manchester, and Cardiff). So, I wonder whether any of the people from this program will participate in future rides, now that they've had a taste of public nudity. After the naked dash, one of them said: "That was fun. I kind of want to do it again!" Admittedly, her flatmate replied "You're on your own with that one", so he's presumably less keen.
The first 27 minutes of the program cover days 0 and 1, i.e. establishing the premise and paying quite a bit of attention to the nudity gimmick. Once everyone has collected their first item (3 out of 6 people went for a onesie) and covered up, the rest of the program has a faster pace. In particular, they did some rapid slideshows rather than itemising every choice and skipped several days at a time. Again, I would have liked to see this all listed somewhere, even if it just went on a supporting website rather than being in the documentary itself.
On day 2, a couple of people chose to get a mattress. That raises an interesting question: what actually counts as a single item? Apparently the mattress is separate from the bed frame, so "bed" isn't actually a complete item on its own. On the other hand, a sofa seems to count as a single item, including all the cushions. Similarly, a pair of shoes counts as a single item, but bra and pants (or the equivalent bikini) count as 2 items. If you get your phone, does that include the charging cable? At the opposite extreme, Heidi was really creative by taking a big roll of fabric as a single item, then using nails in her walls to tear it and make it into several items of clothing (including shoes).
Also, what about house keys? Did they leave the front door unlocked during their naked dash? I suppose that there was nothing inside to steal, but I suspect that the production company took care of that. They never mentioned anyone reclaiming keys on any subsequent day, so this must have been an implicit item.
This is another case where the multiple-occupancy households had an advantage, since they could share items. (According to the rules, they weren't allowed to borrow anything from other friends.) For instance, one person could reclaim the TV while another person gets the washing machine. However, the Manchester household discovered a flaw in this plan: they planned to share a mattress, but then he snored so much that she couldn't sleep!
The scenario started on a Saturday, so they all had to return to work on Monday. According to Georgia's interview, the TV company spoke to all their employers in advance, presumably to check that they'd be ok with people turning up in a state of (partial) undress. This posed a challenge for Tom (one of the Cardiff guys), since he had an 11 mile journey: he'd normally drive but he hadn't reclaimed his car keys, and he couldn't take the bus because he hadn't reclaimed his wallet. The program showed him trying to hitchhike, but didn't show how (or whether) he actually got there in the end. Heidi walked, but she had a different problem: without a phone, watch, or clock, she didn't know what time it was; she asked a stranger, and discovered that she was already late for work! The Manchester duo arranged to get a lift from a colleague, although it's not quite clear how they arranged that (without a phone); if they planned it out in advance, either they were bending the rules or Tom hadn't really thought things through. In my case, I wonder how this would influence my choice: would I reclaim my bike in preference to extra clothing? In theory I could cycle to work in my pants and then put on a uniform when I arrive, although this program was filmed in winter. Storing clothes at work might be bending the rules a bit, but since Georgia is a nurse I'm guessing that she did the same thing; they never showed her reclaiming a uniform.
One of the key items for people to retrieve was their phone: how long would they wait, i.e. how important was this compared to other items? This was closely related to how much time they would spend on social media, and how they'd occupy themselves without it. I remember talking to a friend in the late 90s (before internet access really went mainstream): I said that given the choice, I'd rather lose an eye than be permanently offline, on the basis that I have another eye to see things in front of me but there's no other way to access certain online content. On the other hand, when I go to LARP events it's quite nice to go "low tech" for the entire weekend: I'll turn off my phone when I arrive, and only turn it on again when I'm heading home. I used to catch up on Twitter afterwards, but after a few events I found that I'd spent several hours reading stuff but I didn't really feel that I'd gained anything from it. So, nowadays I treat Twitter like a radio station: I'll look at it every so often to see what's going on, but I won't try to clear my backlog. This fits in with the general goal of the experiment, i.e. taking things away to see how important they actually are.
After 3 weeks, the movers brought all their possessions back, and then each person had to decide what to keep and what to ditch. Most of them sent a lot of clothing off to charity shops, homeless shelters, etc. On the other hand, Laura decided to keep most of her items:
"I love every single thing that's on this shelf."
"My stuff really does make me happy."
Even then, I'd say that the experiment is still worthwhile, to confirm that you're doing things right and appreciate what you have.
I was amused by the Cardiff household commenting on underwear:
"You don't need pants to get by in life."
"Are you going to put some knickers on?" "Nope. I'm over pants. That's it."
A few weeks ago, I was playing a word association card game with friends, and I said: "I object to pants on principle!" It made sense in context, but people who overheard me out of context weren't particularly surprised.
According to the end credits, this documentary was inspired by the film My Stuff (by Petri Luukkainen). I haven't seen that, but according to the trailer his experiment ran for a year rather than just 3 weeks. Heidi mentioned the idea that it takes 21 days to break a habit, but The Guardian debunked that in 2009; according to them, it depends what the habit is. Still, this seemed to be long enough for the participants to get what they needed. I'd be interested to see a follow-up program, showing whether the people have stuck to a more minimalist lifestyle or rebuilt their collections.