I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but in 2018 I would really like to take my clothes off in front of a room full of strangers.
Slowly, in moments snatched between feeds, nappy changes, and coaching my four-year-old through her powerful emotions, I’ve been compiling a bucket list. Things I want to do for me, when there is a me again. As I’ve assembled the list, I’ve noticed a theme. They all involve exposing myself in public.
Public exposure is not an unfamiliar sensation for me. This year I published a short memoir. Its title was The Whole Intimate Mess, taken from this quote by New Zealand painter Jacqueline Fahey: “Oh, stuff it, I’m sick of this, let’s take all my clothes off, put it all out there in a whirlwind, the whole intimate mess, so there is nothing left…If I am honest about what’s going on in my life then it’s got to be relevant to other people’s lives.”
When she said this, Fahey was describing her painting Final Domestic Expose – I paint Myself (1981-1982), a self-portrait in which the artist appears, nude, surrounded by the detritus of her life – pill packets, gin bottles, clothing, food, children, in all it’s glorious messiness. I loved it.
After years cultivating a professional, palatable public persona that was utterly removed from my private experience, I was moved by Fahey’s quote and painting. I too, felt compelled to bring the public and private parts of my life back together.
I wrote about my marriage, the birth of my first daughter, leaving my job, my mental health, self-harm, fears and insecurities with as much honesty as I could. When I worried that I might be sharing too much, I repeated one of my favourite writing maxims: “The most personal is the most universal.” I figured the closer I could get to my bones, the more someone else might feel my writing in theirs.
The reward came when the book came out and readers contacted me to tell me they recognised themselves. Their messages of gratitude and relief compensated for the discomfort of exposure.
I re-read the book for the first time in six months recently, looking for a passage to share at a reading. There was already a lot I would do over now if I could. I’m okay with that. It was my first book. I’m learning. But I was proud of the most honest moments. Not only were they the touchstones of the story, they were the best writing too. There’s a lesson in that.
In the first episode of one of my favourite podcasts, The Guilty Feminist, host Deborah Frances-White set herself a challenge to pose nude for a life-drawing class. She felt extremely uncomfortable, but was determined to do it. When she got into the room, she experimented with two different poses, one closed and defensive, one bold and open. The difference, she said, was extraordinary. In the first pose she felt self-conscious, awkward, ashamed. In the second, she felt powerful and strong. She shared one of the drawings made by a member of the class of her in this pose. It was beautiful. I thought, “I’m going to do that.”
I have plenty of writing goals for 2018. They too, are mostly about getting closer to the truth, turning out the contents of my handbag, sifting through to see what’s there and what it means. But alongside the writing, to inform and complement it, I find myself wanting to experiment with other forms of public exposure. Maybe I’m hooked.
My resolution for 2018 is to take all my clothes off, put it out there in a whirlwind, pose nude.