From Life Stripped Bare to Naked Attraction: why is there so much nudity on television?

Can stripping off on TV make you truly happy? Channel 4 thinks it can.

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Nudity has become a staple of television in 2016. From the highbrow (fleeting shots of a penis in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace) to the, er, not so highbrow (controversy-causing sex scenes in this year’s Love Island, or Italian naked dating show Undressed), naked bodies are everywhere after the watershed.

Channel 4 has been the biggest culprit of them all. As well as several nudity-heavy programmes airing in the last year, from Secrets of the Sauna to the online-only body painting programme Naked and Invisible (featuring episode titles from the tasteful “Nude in Newington Green” to the more down-to-earth “Bare-arsed in Bloomsbury”). There’s even a nudity-themed section on the Channel 4 homepage.

I have no issue with nudity on television: it can be a striking, beautiful way to explore some of our society’s greatest fears and desires – and what could be a higher goal for TV producers? So, to what extent is this latest wave of programming doing just that?

Two Channel 4 programmes in particular in the past two months involve nakedness as a basic premise: Life Stripped Bare, which asked participants to attempt to live a normal life with no belongings, including no clothes, and Naked Attraction, which is basically full-frontal Take Me Out. Both have generated their fair share of intrigue and outrage. Of Life Stripped Bare, the Daily Mail asked, “Did they really need to be buck naked?”, while the Guardian and the Telegraph branded it “humiliating” (the latter describing the show as “the world's saddest game of Twister”. Naked Attraction garnered 45 complaints to Ofcom, and a whole lot more online.

But both these shows claim to use naked bodies as a way to show ordinary people “stripped of the things that usually define us” – be it phones and possessions or just clothing. A poignant exploration of human vulnerability, if you will. Can meeting someone balls-first and bullshit-free serve as an intimate introduction, leading to a deeper connection? Can living life in the nuddy increase your awareness of materialism? Can stripping off on TV make you truly happy? Channel 4 ventures it can.

So how far do these shows actually go to demonstrate that their use of nudity goes beyond sensationalism and provocation? Let’s start with Life Stripped Bare. It presents itself as an exploration of generational materialism: claiming that millennials have too much stuff. As a challenge, it asks three young households to give up all their belongings for three weeks, with one item per person being returned each day.

The nuts and bolts of this show are set up to embarrass the participants. Producers lock up all of the their things – including furniture, kitchenware and every item of clothing they own, and shove them in a storage container 1,000 metres or so from their home. On day one, every participant is forced to literally run past members of the general public whilst totally nude in order to get to their container. Despite the fact that that most participants dressed themselves on the morning of day one, the programme lingered on this early, naked part of the challenge for half an hour of the hour-long programme.

There were some vague nods towards the philosophical. Laura, who works for a high street sports retailer, pondered, “We live in a very consumer-led society, there’s so many adverts rammed down our throats. It’s made me realise just how many things I have.” Another participant, Heidi, said that the first day of the challenge was one of the best of her life, and mused, “When you don’t have anything, what you do have becomes everything.” But beyond the novelty of a day of streaking with friends, few seemed to consider the boredom and misery of a life truly lived with only the bare essentials. After the first thirty minutes of risk, it turns out that “finding out what really matters” here means asking whether you would pick your duvet over your shoes, rather than any more abstract, intangible answers.   

Naked Attraction makes less of an attempt to conceal its sheer enjoyment of nudity, and comes off better as a result – but shares the rhetoric of stripping away the inessential and obfuscating. “I think when guys are fully clothed,” contestant Ina says, “they have sort of different styles, that I think they can hide behind. I’m interested to see them in their birthday suit, as they are. You’re not hiding anything here!”

This is strikingly literal: in 48 minutes the show flashed a total of 282 shots of male genitalia and 96 female. And there are no vulnerable conversations here – in most cases, we find out nothing about any of the potential dates other than their names and occasionally their occupations. But we see every single one of their body parts, utterly disconnected from any sense we might have of them as people with thoughts and feelings. Each date is revealed from the bottom half up – we see penises and vaginas first, then torsos, then heads, and, finally, a chosen few are given the opportunity to speak a few words.

Naked Attraction sells itself as about body positivity and acceptance of different forms, but dates are selected on the basis of how far their bodies fit societal norms, while presenter Anna Richardson reels off statistics reinforcing every viewer’s potential insecurities. “82 per cent of women prefer girth over length”, she quips cheerily as the camera lingers on a long but skinny penis. “The bells hanging lower than the rope is never a good thing,” she insists later. Contestants praise “tidy vaginas” and “perky breasts”, cringe at any excess body hair, and parrot oppressive beauty standards masquerading as matters of personal taste: “I prefer skinny/slender”; “I wouldn’t normally go for that… squidgy style.”

This programme even goes as far as to present people who use only flattering pictures of themselves on online dating sites as deceitful: “I’ve had bad experiences where someone on Tinder lied about their nose,” says contestant Mal. “It was all front profiles and then when I saw him – massive.” “So [you were] totally cheated by the Tinder picture!” Anna exclaims in horror.

How is it that this is framed as somehow liberating? One contestant claims to be freed by the revelation: “I’m not the clothes I wear, or the jokes I make.” Naked Attraction insists that you might be able to escape your sartorial choices, and even, God willing, your personality – but you will never escape the terror of your body, and you can rest assured that others will judge you based on it.

So why is nudity making such a big appearance on TV, if these are the kinds of conclusions being drawn from it? It seems the answer is simple: it gets people talking, and, more importantly, watching. I’d advise staying away from these shows if you’re searching for the answers to life, the universe and everything. But if you’re just a regular viewer who wants the simple pleasure of seeing 378 explicit shots of average human genitalia in less than an hour, this, my friend, is the programming for you.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.