Where exactly does the tradition of fundraising by creating calendars of semi-nude, average-looking people come from? Now we're going to have a calendar of some Canadian authors – some well-known, others, to put it politely, less well-known – and proceeds from its sales are going to go to PEN Canada, an organization that does its best to free writers from jail in dictatorships. The calendar is called Bare It For Books and will be available in October. This is a worthy cause, and I wish them great success. I'm just wondering how this kind of photo set came to be a convention of middle-class life, like running half-marathons or writing recipe books. It is now a weathered cultural landmark, the giggling calendar of non-famous, middle-aged people hiding behind flowerpots. It connotes not so much sexual adventure as community spirit; it's about as risqué as a bake sale. What thrill is there to be had from the freckled shoulders of average citizens, and their watering cans and shovels?
In fact, the meme began as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek project of elderly ladies in the U.K. A group of Yorkshire women, members of a community volunteer group, raised money for leukemia research this way in 1999. The project attracted so much attention because it was basically a parody of mainstream nudie calendars – the kind that motorcycle companies used to put out for mechanics' walls. The joke or message was that these women did not have the bodies of lingerie models and so were doing something mildly shocking. No full-frontal nudity made it into that photo set, though, so the result was not overtly erotic in any way; indeed the determinedly non-sexual approach came to cement the characteristics of the genre as essentially prim, unthreatening and folksy. The Yorkshire "calendar girls" inspired a 2003 movie with Helen Mirren, a comedy about British modesty.
Since then, almost every charity group in the Western world has made non-nude calendars to sell. They sell these non-nude calendars by calling them nude calendars. Sports teams are particularly good at it, as their muscular bodies are interesting even when artfully shadowed. But the genre is, like romance novels, becoming increasingly explicit: A recent effort by a group of moms in Montserrat, Spain, for example, showed them in black lingerie and stockings. Their poses owed more to conventional soft-core pornography than to the usual author-photo aesthetics of the fundraising calendar. The fact that they are the mothers of small children – they were raising money to pay for a school bus – made the project at least eyebrow-raising.
I'm sure we won't have to worry about any such controversy here. Our non-nude literary calendar promises to be decent in every sense: The authors have been chosen as a careful mix of genders and regions and levels of success. It would pass every Canada Council, CBC, NFB and Department of Heritage standard of worthiness.
But I, for one, would like to see the people I know naked. I mean actually naked. No watering cans. Male and female. Wouldn't you? Am I weird?
Aren't you curious? Isn't the whole point to be able to see something they keep hidden? And aren't people usually more attractive with their clothes off? Can you imagine how many calendars you could sell of actually naked non-model people?
In fact, there is a trend on the Web toward collections of naked photos of this kind. A number of sites allow people to volunteer to have themselves photographed in non-sexual poses, just to show to the world what their bodies look like. Take the beautiful site The Nu Project (thenuproject.com), a collection of photos of women in North and South America by Minneapolis-based photographer Matt Blum. They are all completely naked and all volunteered. Their bodies are normal and flawed and of varying ages. The idea is to reclaim a pride in one's imperfect body, to combat unrealistic representations. The photos are often raw and intimate, and completely non-porny.
A similar project that includes men and women is the long-running German site Naked People (naked-people.de), which shows a variety of office workers standing stiffly to attention in their clothes. Run your mouse over the image, and their clothes disappear. The photographers say the goal is to "explore the difference in perception between a person dressed and undressed." It's a great place to see how many people have had C-sections.
That, of course, is not the point of our worthy Canadian venture. Our ambition is not ideological or even erotic, it is to be "tasteful," even while claiming mischievousness. I shouldn't be critical of this, really – it's sweet. Only a curmudgeon would call it twee.