Writing on the Body

Our skin is our largest body organ, and that explains a lot of the appeal of naturism. In uncovering our skin, we naturists feel the elements all over our bodies, which helps us perceive natural phenomena more holistically and appreciate the full range of our sensations. All of that exposed skin is like one huge canvas for the elements to leave their marks on. Naturally, a skin canvas that’s entirely exposed in that way leads to bodypainting, a form of human adornment that predates textiles. And, like bodypainting, there is bodywriting, or writing on the uninterrupted skin of the naked body as if it were one huge parchment.

There are a couple of films I’ve seen that explore writing on the body as a major theme. The Pillow Book (1996), directed by Peter Greenaway, features a calligrapher who sets out on a mad quest for revenge against the publisher who had extorted her dear father, a writer who taught her the art of Chinese calligraphy. In a progressively bizarre series of human “books” that she sends to the publisher, her texts must be read in ways that complement the contours of our bodies, sometimes quite surprisingly. The film has some violent scenes, but its portrayal of the range of possibilities for writing on the body is certainly unique, captivating, and definitely true to the nude-friendly style of Greenaway. (Prospero’s Books (1991), is another film of Greenaway’s that foregrounds both nudity and writing).

Yutaka Honda as Hoki in The Pillow Book

Memento (2000), written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is a gritty mystery whose main character tries to remember what happened to him at a crime scene, at the same time that he suffers from long-term memory loss as a result of whatever it was that happened to him. Besides taking snapshots, his solution is to turn his body into a massive notepad, tattooing all over himself the key information that he discovers, such as names, license plates, phone numbers, even the essential facts of the case as he understands them. A prominent tattoo across his chest is printed so he can read it in the mirror. His memory lapses and blackouts keep the film highly suspenseful, with the viewer, like the main character, not knowing whom to trust until the very end.

Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby in Memento

Tattoos, the original writing on the body, have always been a way to commemorate a loved one or an important event by inscribing it, often permanently, onto our very being. Piercings and scarification are related practices that can also turn the skin into a kind of “book.” But even without these man-made markings, the bumps and scars and pigmentation, and muscle and hair and fat, and all the other aspects of our bodies, tell our stories like nothing else, in the most human and the most natural way possible.


4 thoughts on “Writing on the Body”

  1. I remember reading a science fiction novel where the hero knew he was about to die so he carved the letters onto his body so the scars would produce a permanent message to whoever found him. That is kind of extreme.

    YMMV, but my body is not a billboard. I feel that tattoos and jewelry and body painting and such are just ways of wearing clothing that don’t involve cloth. A way to send the social signals that clothing otherwise would while still being a “nudist”. *No judgment about it for anyone else* – but it isn’t my bag.

    1. Right. Yeah, I don’t have any tattoos but I have loved ones who do, and as you say, it’s a matter of individual preference.
      You’ve prompted me to recall, too, the opening scene in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in which the murder victim has laid himself out like the Vesuvian Man and written some clue, if I remember correctly, in his own blood.

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