Montaigne shocked everyone when he wrote about the size of his penis. To his mind, it was small.
Why, among the many thoughts I have encountered today, does this one stay with me?
There are other images in my head, too: diamonds from the 1800s that are attached to springs so that when the wearer moves, they tremble, shimmer and dazzle the eye, diamonds en tremblant.
I tried to have a conversation last night with one of my daughters about a trend that’s come to my attention whereby people post images of their so-called private bits to their lovers.
It’s not that new, my daughter tells me. It’s been around for ages.
Apparently, there is a new law that forbids the transmission of such images without a person’s consent.
Jennifer Wilson, on her wonderful blog, No place for sheep, refers to revenge porn, the business of people taking it out on others by circulating compromising images or photos of the person against whom they want revenge.
A while ago I heard about a young woman in the armed forces who had sex with her boyfriend and unbeknown to her he had organised that the proceedings be videoed and circulated to his friends.
What’s behind this, I ask myself. Why do it? And what is it like for the person so exposed?
To have a photo of your labia online so that the entire world can see, or a shot of your penis, why so shocking?
There’s the stuff of exhibitionism, the pleasure we get out of showing off our bodies and the sexual pleasure we get from being on display.
Then, there’s the opposite: the peeping Tom effect. The pleasure some might get out of looking, looking in preference to being involved, or being seen.
I used to think of this as a masculine activity, the Peeping Tom, the flasher, but women can get in on the act, too.
Women whose bodies have been put on display for centuries.
When I was a little girl and asked my mother why the bronze Atlas holding a globe of the world on his shoulders in the framed print on the wall of her bedroom was naked, she told me, ‘The human body is beautiful’.
I had trouble believing her then. In a strange way I still have trouble. Bodies can be beautiful but they’re also haunting and troubling and exciting and frightening and all these things rolled into one. Anything to do with body bits, internal and external seems loaded.
The other day I talked to one of my sisters about prolapses. In my mind’s eye the image that stays with me is the one that first popped in when I was little.
One day my mother told me about a cousin in Holland who had suffered a prolapse on the dance floor. This cannot be, I now know. You do not suddenly suffer a prolapse. I imagine they happen gradually, but when I was little I saw it happen on the dance floor.
My mother’s cousin’s insides slip out onto the polished wood floors like glistening red jewels en tremblant. And my aunt is mortified. She runs through the room to the toilets dragging her jewels behind her.
I have since heard that a prolapse as described by my mother, the one that happened to her cousin, was of her cervix.
This reminds me of other bodily malformations like hernias. I’ve not seen one of these either.
Again the idea that your insides slip out of their moorings and appear on the surface of your skin, like a burst bladder, reminds me of pregnancies, late term when it was easy to see the imprint of my baby’s foot on the surface of my skin, the round dome of her head.
I have dreams where my skin is translucent and I can see inside my body to the unborn baby squashed inside. And this can only take place when one is naked. Naked on the page.
There is a YouTube series doing the rounds where a woman is interviewed and during conversation the camera stays on her as she speaks. She perches on a stool, against a brick wall backdrop in a well lit room and as the interviewer proceeds through a series of questions about the woman and her life, her relationship to herself and her body, the interviewer asks her to take off items of clothing, one by one.
By the end of the interview the woman sits in her underwear. We do not see the interviewer.
There is something strangely non-sexual about this disrobing. Something that puts us in touch with the woman as a whole person, a woman with a body and mind, not just a sexualised body. At least that’s how I experience it.
A slow disrobing rather like entering into a meaningful essay where the writer gradually unfolds ideas, thoughts, images about himself/herself until in the end we are pared back to basics and somehow have much more than just a naked body, and not just any body.
In the YouTube clip so far I have only seen naked women, and not all of them with ideal bodies.
There are young bodies and old bodies and even physically disabled bodies. I’ve yet to see a dark skinned body or a fat body or a hairy body or an amputated body but I imagine there is scope for these and many more.
One essential ingredient is the capacity to be articulate in the English language in this instance and a preparedness to let it all show.
And finally, I came across this quote from Anne Patchett:
‘Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art ... I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. .... This grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.’