‘But I’m single.’ ‘No, I’m childless.’ ‘Actually I live alone.’ How do we utter these naked truths?
For me, the above three statements are true. All in my position will have had the experience of the courier on the phone who presses us disbelievingly, ‘But is there no one else at home who could take the parcel in?’ or the fellow wedding/christening/funeral guest swallowing an embarrassed, ‘Oh. So you mean you’re by yourself?’ Depending on our mental strength that day, we may give a telling retort or mutter something inadequate while dying a little inside.
Some of us may have a fund of killer responses: ‘I didn’t realise that a partner was compulsory.’ ‘Did you know that 29% of households in the UK consist of just one person?’ ‘What a shame that, at social occasions, the first thing we do is try to define each other not by ourselves but by our “significant others”.’ But in the heat of the offguard moment, these ripostes may not spring handily to our aid.
For a lot of us in today’s society, being single, childless, over a certain age, transgender or having some other alternative womanhood (or manhood, come to that) still, much of the time, colours our most everyday experiences with shame, stigma and a sense of vulnerability. The charismatic and inspiring psychologist and researcher Brene Brown is one of my favourite experts on all this: see her TED talks, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability; and http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.
She urges us to see our vulnerability as utterly essential. Vulnerability, she explains, is simply showing others who we are at our essence: if we don’t expose ourselves, render ourselves emotionally naked at times, we are not being utterly genuine and honest; and unless we risk self-confession and -revelation, others won’t feel encouraged and safe enough to do the same in return. The upshot: we will never, truly, connect.
At the root of our sense of exposure when confronted with those everyday faux-pas, which of course only reflect society’s deeply ingrained ‘isms’ (‘singlism’ – see Bella DePaulo’s work, quoted here before, at http://belladepaulo.com/; ‘childlessnessism’, and more), is the challenge to our convictions of self-worth. Brown lays the onus firmly on us as individuals to put this right: ‘The only difference between people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and those who don’t is that the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging [my italics].’ (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability) Owning up to our hurts in an honest way might gradually, gradually, help us to reclaim our sense of personal value. In which case, perhaps we should tell the courier on the phone or the tactless wedding guest, gently but firmly, ‘I’m sorry, but it really hurts me when you make those assumptions about me.’
This is a form of self-exposure that’s as uncomfortable and scary for most as nakedness.
Talking of nakedness, through history the act of getting undressed has been used to make stark statements about ourselves or press home a political point. Take Godiva, the wife of Leofric, 11th century Earl of Mercia. She petitioned him endlessly to reduce the city of Coventry’s heavy taxes until he promised to if she rode naked through the crowded marketplace. She did, and Leofric freed the town from all tolls except for those on horses. (Mind you, her long hair covered her nude form except her legs – still, those shapely limbs were an unheard-of body part to put on view.) Of course, the power of Godiva’s action stems from its opposition to societal attitudes to nudity dating back to the Bible story of Adam and Eve (the couple were punished by ‘shame’ at their own nakedness for breaking God’s commandment and eating the forbidden fruit). With her defiant ride, Godiva was overriding – excuse the pun – her own ‘shame’.
On 7 September 1968, some 400 feminists protested against the ‘ludicrous “beauty” standards we … are conditioned to take seriously’ of the Miss America pageant. Outside the Atlantic City Convention Center they marched around a ‘freedom trash can’ hurling in high heels, girdles and bras: to them, symbols of feminine oppression.
For over twenty years, the photographer-artist Spencer Tunick has been placing massed nude bodies in landscapes, or juxtaposed with architecture: for me at his most striking when their crowded figures spread prone far and wide on the Arctic ice eloquently highlight the dire future of the melting glaciers (http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/07/the-naked-world-of-spencer-tunick/100344/): humanity and nature equally exposed and under threat.
In April 2014, hordes of Venezuelan students posted naked self-portraits on Twitter. This was a tit-for-tat retaliation against government forces’ stripping of a masked loyalist during street protests. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2600275/Venezuelan-students-protest-police-brutality-posting-naked-pictures-Twitter.html)
To go bald – head nakedness alone, if you will – can also be to hammer a message home through personal self-exposure. In August 2013 in Zimbabwe, MDC-T Vice President Thokozani Khupe vowed to go bald until President Robert Mugabe gave up his title and the country held fresh, fair elections in place of his ‘electoral theft’ – a visual statement made more poignant because she’s a cancer survivor, so was once bald from hair loss during treatment (Was this even a back-metaphor, referencing the political ‘cancer’ of the country? Clever, if so.)(http://www.newsdzezimbabwe.co.uk/2013/09/khupe-in-bald-protest-over-mugabe.html). Female Chinese students in 2012 had their heads publicly shaved in opposition to what they regard as gender discrimination in Guangzhou province’s educational system (http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=964_1346578638).
Many might see nudity as the ultimate peacetime act of emotional bravery.
Now, while I’m not going to get naked soon, in terms of my emotional and psychological vulnerability I might just as well be planning to. On the evening of Wednesday 25 June, in central London, I’m launching the publication of my novel about a sassy London woman who gradually realises that she will remain single, childless and live alone – which isn’t ultimately depressing, I promise! (it can be preordered on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston). And my plan is to set out from Bar Titania at 75 Charing Cross Road, the venue, on a walkabout with any courageous women who care to accompany me. We’ll be carrying paper fans emblazoned with messages such as ‘Not reproducing does not mean failing,’ and ‘We’re here. We’re childless. We rock.’ We hope to stop women in the street and talk to them about their own experiences of singledom and childlessness, and in exchange give each of them a small gift, made by us with love and care. I’m absolutely terrified (Will anyone talk to us? Will they laugh at us? Will they reject us?) But, remembering Brene Brown, I’m going to do it.
Please come along to the upstairs room in the bar, any time from 7.00 pm onwards, if you’re a woman and you’d like to. Help me be brave. I’ll welcome you and thank you.