Performing naked can be a 'radical' act for men, says writer

Adam Smith, a writer and podcaster, decided to perform naked, not once but twice. He said he wanted to test his comfort level with his body, and so partook in a regular event called Naked Boys Reading.

Warning: The audio in this story includes descriptions of male nudity

Smith performed twice at Naked Boys Reading. The first time was a duo act with a close friend, but he wanted to give telling a story alone a shot. (Manu Valcarce/Naked Boys Reading )

When Adam Smith performed naked the second time, he was more concerned about his presentation than his nudity … but his nudity was still on his mind. 

He was reading from the novel The Man Who Folded Himself in front of a packed hotel basement in East London. 

"I was thinking … 'How do I look? Can they see this part of me? Can they see that part of me?'" he said.

And he wasn't the only one that night in a vulnerable position. Smith was taking part in a live show called Naked Boys Reading, where (mostly) men do readings of essays and stories, in their birthday suits.

On stage, stark naked, Smith suddenly found himself more concerned with doing justice to his chosen text. 

I think it's important to display bodies on stage. And we have to keep doing that because there are forces at work in society that don't think that's appropriate.- Adam Smith

"I was mainly concentrating on delivering that particular text to the audience because I thought [The Man Who Folded Himself] was such a great piece," Smith said. 

Performing naked for a crowd

Smith is the audience engagement editor at The Economist, and wrote an article in its sister publication 1843 titled, "Why performing naked is good for the soul." 

Prior to the night described in the article, he'd performed naked once before, with a friend. 

Smith is slender, although he said he has a noticeable paunch. He described his longtime pal as heavier, the kind of body people don't see a lot in media, especially naked. 

When men appear in the nude in popular media, said Smith, it's usually to showcase their musculature. Plus, they usually keep their underpants on.

One of the reasons that Naked Boys Reading intrigued Smith was because of its ability to showcase various body types.

Adam Smith performs at the Naked Boys Reading event in London, reading from the short story, The Man Who Folded Himself. (Manu Valcarce/Naked Boys Reading)

"I think it's important to display bodies on stage. And we have to keep doing that because there are forces at work in society that don't think that's appropriate," he said. "It's just humans. It's just humans with their bits."

The challenge of male body image

In 2017, Attitude magazine, a periodical targeted at gay men, surveyed 5,000 readers about how they felt about their body. More than half of those surveyed said they were unhappy, while less than a quarter were happy. 

"I think that gay men, we open up a dating app like Grindr and it can be a grid of torsos, many of which are definitely more conventional or more acceptable," said Smith. 

"It's no surprise that gay men are more dissatisfied with their bodies than heterosexual men."

Smith had a love hate relationship with his body growing up. Though never fat, he found himself wanting a flat stomach with rippling ads — the kind of you see on billboards or on TV. 

Now in his 30s, he's become more comfortable with his belly. He said he knows that it would take a lot of exercise and dieting to gain the media-friendly ripped male physique.

So part of his acceptance is "a calculation." He could spend that time dieting and lifting weights — or he could do the things he actually wants to do like reading, writing or going on hikes.

"Now I'm just like the idea of the work that I would have to do in order to get that [body] is just...  I just really really don't care," said Smith. 

For all those looking to take part in a reading on this side of the Atlantic, Naked Boys Reading has an Ottawa chapter.


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