If somebody had told me six months ago that I would be amongst 1000 volunteers walking around Manchester and Salford completely starkers, I would not only not have believed them, but my skin would crawl by the very thought of exposing my body in such an exhibitionistic way - it would have been incomprehendible. I, however, am never one to shy away from a challenge and I always try to follow my gut feelings, so when a couple of months back I heard that Spencer Tunick would be in my city reinterpreting the works of L.S.Lowry for an installation named 'Everyday People' and something in side of me felt a pang of excitement at the prospect, I signed up - like a lamb to the slaughter.
I am not a prude, but I have always found the concept of naturalism quite difficult to understand. I imagined that only those who were 100% comfortable with their bodies would ever be able to whip everything out and display it to the world. My boyfriend has a more lax attitude and spent his youth holidaying at a nudist camp in the South of France (I didn't believe him at first but now I have seen photographic evidence). We have toyed with the idea of reliving those old days on our own, but still my skin crawled at the thought of other people seeing me, all me, no hiding behind baggy shirts and thick-rimmed Ray Bans. I have often felt jealous of those people who do have the confidence to be as natural as is humanly possible, but I never, ever thought that I would join them.
3:45am and we finally got inside, grasping as much warmth as we could before an emergency toilet trip and being ushered onto one of a fleet of coaches and double decker buses. There were glimpses of lightness through the black sky but it was still difficult to see where we were going (all locations were top secret) as we headed off towards the ring road. The atmosphere was friendly, the kind of friendly you feel at a vegan supermarket or a small, intense gig with a band only a select few know and love - a joint understanding of something a little inexplicable that could be communicated just through a certain look or mannerism. I felt comforted that there was a nice blend of experienced and non-experienced 'I don't quite know why I'm here' nudists. The nerves that I had felt all evening dissipated and soon, I was running naked down a bank of grass and into a field - just as the first commuter train passed by.
Instructions were yelled out by Spencer over a megaphone. We did as we were told, obedient naked robots replicating movements and stances of Lowry's stick men (and women). From the second we started, I felt no sense of embarassment, shame, self-disgust or anything vaguely negative - it is strange how experience can give such a different perspective than pre-judgement, the opposite in fact. Surreal is the closest word I can get to describing how it felt to be one in five hundred bodies. I was not posing for the camera, but for the concept behind the installations, 'Everyday People' - that is what we were, just normal people but stripped down. No inhibitions. Magic.
By now it was light and we were led down a few backstreets, under some cobbles and past an old Ragged School, disturbing a homeless old man who, by the look on his face, thought that all his christmasses had come at once AND he had died and gone to heaven. Poor guy, I bet his friends won't believe him - is Special Brew a hallocinogenic? He gave us a song and dance and we tried our best to wipe the smirks off our faces whilst slowly walking around trying to look ahead without treading on either needles or glass. My feet hurt now, there has to be a foreign body of some sort in there. By now, nakedness felt normal. Only the cold was making me feel uncomfortable, but by the looks of certain nipples and willies, everyone was in the same freezing cold boat. You have never appreciated a sweated up, heated double decker bus as much as I did last night.
The last location - Salford University, students replaced by flesh, speckled with goosebumps and increasingly purple hands and feet. The press had caught on and The Lowry 'Twitterer' commented that there were more press than there were at the leaders' debate. It certainly felt like it. A part of me wanted to get angry and curse them for invading our artsy privacy, but in the course of a few hours, I learnt a new skill which I think may prove to be invaluable - that, "what the hell? I don't care!" attitude. I'm naked... so what? Shrug. This isn't me! I kept thinking to myself as I wandered around the park trying to stick to the sunny bits in a vain attempt to feel slightly warm. But it was, it is, and for perhaps the first time in my life, in amongst all the other naked bodies, regardless of the papps' dodgy zoom lenses, I felt comfortable in my own skin.
We all have our flaws. Nobody is perfect, there is no such thing. The most beautiful thing about the whole experience was the fact that we were all fully aware of that. It was a mass gesture against airbrushing and falsities and vanity, and it felt bloody brilliant. Now, I may be starting to sound like I'm going to be coverted to a life of naturism and spend my time meditating and going braless and becoming a fruitarian, plaiting my hair and wearing hippy skirts. That isn't me at all. This has not changed me on the outside, but it has certainly changed something. The way I feel about myself and about others. Who can judge?
'Everyday People' opens at The Lowry in Salford Sat June 12th - Sun 26th September