My Little Soapbox

Public group nudity

On Saturday, May 26, 2001 I spent about an hour on the corner of Ste. Catherine and Jeanne-Mance lying on the wet pavement stark naked. This probably isn't the first time such a feat has been accomplished, but the difference here was that I was in a group of about 2,250 people all doing exactly the same thing. I'll explain...

There's a photographer from New York named Spencer Tunick whose shtick is taking pictures of groups of naked people in urban settings. He gets "normal" people - not models - to volunteer to pose nude in places like Times Square (a stunt that got him arrested by the overly zealous municipal legislators in NYC...) This past Saturday, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal organized just such an Event in Montreal. At about 4:00 in the morning people were filing into the lobby of the museum to grab a cup of free coffee (Thanks, A.L. van Houtte!) and sign a release form. At about 5:00, 15 minutes before sunrise, we were all sent outside to sit on the steps of the esplanade in front of Place des Arts in a light chilly drizzle and receive our instructions.

After a half hour or so of Spencer and a translator explaining over megaphones what was about to happen, we were told to drop our clothes and walk up the street. In about 10 seconds, a crowd of 2,250 people went from looking like a large audience at the Jazz Festival to a sea of skin and hair. We cheered for a bit, a combination of releasing nervousness and the sudden freedom and community, then walked West on Ste. Catherine street and lay on the wet pavement for 10 minutes. There were two more shots taken - one looking north on Jeanne-Mance, the other looking across the esplanade towards the water fountains.

There were three shots taken - I bought this one as a poster at the
exhibtion of the photos at the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum.
Note the prudish dog in the foreground who, unlike the rest of us,
refused to take off his coat.

So, what the hell was I doing there? Well, I've been a fan of Tunick for a year or so. The images that he comes up with are astonishing - and I promised myself that if he ever came to Montreal, I'd be there. It seemed I wasn't the only one - he was expecting 300 or so people - not 2,250... I debated about it - it's not really a normal thing for me to take all my clothes off in the middle of a city intersection, but I realized that, if I didn't do it, I'd regret it later. Better a couple of minutes of embarrassment than a couple of years of disappointment that I had chickened out.

How was it? Without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far. I came to a number of realizations in that hour and the time since... here's a couple.

Proof that I was indeed there. This is a frame from the trailer on
the HBO website advertising a documentary they did on Tunick.
I think that long-haired guy is me...

I expected to be uncomfortable. I wasn't. As I was taking off my clothes, I was trying not to look around - busying myself with piling my shirt on top of my jeans on top of my shoes so that they wouldn't get too wet. When I stood up, I looked around and very quickly realized that everyone there looked exactly the same. When we were sitting around in our clothes getting instructions, it was very easy to tell people's differences. Social status, economic background, political ideologies and sexual preference were easy to determine - just like they are in day to day life. When everyone was nude, all of our differences disappeared. Not only was it suddenly difficult to tell where people were from and whether they bought their clothes from L.L. Bean or not, even the differences between male and female were (almost) eliminated. We were all people, and little else. For example, it had never occured to me before that a person's gender is made more, not less, obvious by clothing. Look at the photo below: point to a man - then point to a woman. It wasn't much more obvious when you were lying there in the middle of everyone...

Another good example of the lack of differences was made immediately clear in the case of a woman in a wheelchair. Once she was helped out of her clothes and her wheelchair onto the ground and the chair was rolled away, she was just another person on the ground, equally vunerable as the rest of us - she was no longer the woman in the wheelchair.

The mood in the crowd changed immediately when we were naked. While we were still clothed, we were cliquish - you didn't talk to people you didn't know. As soon as the clothes dropped and we stood up, it became very easy to talk to the person standing next to you. There was an immediate sense of community with everyone there.

Photo Robert Skinner, La Presse

The most incredible part of the whole experience happened when we were simply walking in a crowd of naked people. You were trying to walk down the street in a large crowd, making sure that you didn't touch anyone - but all the time you were completely aware of the people around you by their radiating body heat. It was the first time in my life that I could "feel" people next to me without actually touching them. You didn't need to be very close in order to sense this heat. This instinctive awareness of others was astonishing.

Another thing that happened was that it changed a lot of my attitudes about beauty. When I'm walking along the street on a normal day, I notice women I think are attractive. Looking around at 1000 naked women made me lose a lot of distinctions about that too. One of the most beautiful bodies I saw there was a woman who was probably about 8 months pregnant. A close second were the women who were holding on to their babies. The relation of body types to dictates of beauty in magazines and advertisements became completely irrelevant. In talking to people about the experience, the standard thought that I've heard is that people wouldn't have been able to do it because they'd feel too self-conscious about their bodies. Somehow there's a thing in the brain that says, of the 2000 people there, you'll be the one with the most unattractive physique and you'll necessarily stand out in the crowd. Ironically, however, the result was the opposite. The human form itself was the thing of beauty - and the individual shapes were completely blurred. It was almost as though no one in the crowd was short or tall or fat or thin - we were all simply variations on a single theme.

My reward for posing for the photos. There were three shots taken - this one is hanging on my wall.

2004 08 03 Post-script

Since I wrote all this stuff above, I've spent a lot more time time being naked in public. You see, in Denmark, where I live now, there are no laws regarding public nudity, only for lewd behaviour. Consequently, with two small exceptions, every beach in Denmark (which basically means the entire coast of the country) is a nude beach, legally speaking. In practice, there are specific areas where it is more common to see naked people, but it's not unusual to see people getting into or out of their swimming clothes either when they arrive at the beach, or just in the parking lot. So, when I go to the beach, the only things I bother wearing are my sunglasses and sunscreen.

What I now realize about my revelations about nudity were the product of what is considered "normal" regarding concepts of beauty which is, in turn, a product of our reference for comparison. Every day, we see the faces of beautiful people in advertisements, television shows and movies. However we also see normal-looking faces in the people that we meet every day. As a result, we have a sane concept of facial beauty because our reference includes everyone. We know that the people on television are exceptionally beautiful, and most of the world doesn't look like that, therefore we consider ourselves to be normal, and we are relatively unahamed about showing our faces in public.

However, the only naked bodies that we see are the exceptionally beautiful ones - fashion magazines, television and movies tell us that all people have amazing bodies when they take their clothes off. What we rarely see are the normal-looking bodies of the people around us, therefore the only reference in the comparison of ourselves to the rest of the world is the people who are paid to have beautiful bodies. Therefore, we think that we have the worst-looking body in the world - too fat, too thin, too flabby, too anything, but not beautiful. Of course we're too fat/thin/flabby... we're not all supermodels - we're normal. We just don't know that everyone else is normal too. If the only faces I saw other than my own were the faces of male models in GQ magazine and movies, I'd wear a bag over my head every day to conceal my ugliness. In my day-to-day life, the only naked male bodies I see are in Calvin Klein cologne advertisements. My body doesn't look like that, so I cover it up to hide what must therefore be my own personal nightmarish disfigurement... (Note that I'm exaggerating for effect here... In reality, none of the magazines I read have ad's for CK cologne...)

Turns out, that if you go hang out with 2200 naked people in Montreal, or just go to a nude beach, you'll find out that everyone else has a normal body, just like you.

The other interesting thing that I've noticed is the difference between behavioural expectations and reality on a nude beach. Since nudity is optional in Denmark, it's pretty normal to be lying on a "nude" area of the beach and fully-clothed people will walk by. The expectation is that, since you're lying there with no clothes on, people will look at you - that's why we're hesitant to take off our clothes in the first place - you think "But someone might see me!" However, what happens in reality is that the clothed people will look away rather than look at - exactly the opposite of what you think will happen.


Many of these are broken now, particularly the ones on newpaper websites. They're just too old...

CBC iCulture
CBC Montreal
SRC - Le Point (Watch the Video - this is the best one I've seen)
La Presse
La Presse
Montreal Gazette
Wasington Post
National Post
Salt Lake Tribune
SF Gate News
Globe and Mail
Global TV Calgary

Spencer Tunick's website
Nerve Magazine's Spencer Tunick Gallery
I-20 Gallery
An Interview with Tunick