The Proper Gander Column from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The usual concept behind a ‘social experiment’ TV show is to throw people into situations outside their usual routines, such as plonking them somewhere remote and seeing how they cope (Castaway 2000, Eden) or dressing them up in period clothes to live as if they’re in a previous era (The 1900 House (2000) et al). However much light these programmes shed on how we adapt to different circumstances, there's often a whiff of them being the televisual equivalent of putting a load of cats and dogs in a cage and prodding them with sticks. The grand-daddy of this kind of show is Big Brother (2000 onwards), which rapidly degenerated from its almost-anthropological origins into a boring and degrading guessing-game over which of the housemates will shag and/or argue first. Fortunately, Life Stripped Bare (channel 4) is much less tawdry, despite being an excuse to film people getting their kit off.
Unlike the above shows, Life Stripped Bare doesn’t move its participants into a different place to live. Instead, it leaves them in their own homes, but without any of their furniture, appliances, phones, wallets, nick-nacks and, indeed, clothes. All their possessions are boxed up and locked in a storage container nearby, leaving them with just basic food rations. For the first few hours, there’s little the naked participants can do except sit awkwardly under similarly bare windows. On each of the following days they can choose just one item to get back from storage. During the experiment’s three weeks, they can’t buy or borrow anything apart from food and drink, and they must carry on with their daily lives. Afterwards, they’ll decide which of their belongings they really want back.
Among participant Heidi’s 861 possessions are 31 bikinis and 68 vinyl records. She feels that her ‘stuff’ defines her, so she’s interested to find out who she really is without her belongings. She’s concerned that people won’t like her without her jewellery and make-up, and she feels she’ll get left behind if she doesn’t check social media several times an hour. She says it’s ‘pretty sad’ that she’s defined her life by how many Instagram followers she has, aware that there’s something hollow about her own mindset. Another participant, John, recognises that he’s lost the art of conversation because of the amount of time he spends looking at a screen.
Understandably, the first items they choose to get back from storage are clothes, or used to make them. After reclaiming her first few items, Heidi says that the novelty of getting something else back wears off within minutes, whereas at the start she got a high with each reclaimed item: ‘The more stuff I get back, the less happy I am'. On day five, Andrew and Georgia choose their phones, while housemate Tom instead picks some socks, saying that having his phone isn’t in the spirit of the exercise. A week later he chooses his hitherto under-used piano, wanting to take the opportunity to learn to play it while he has fewer distractions.
After the 21 days, lorries return to the participants’ homes and they get their remaining belongings back. The final part of the experiment is to decide how many of them they want to keep. Together, the three households get rid of nearly a third of their possessions, and feel better for de-cluttering. Heidi says she used to feel that she needs belongings to make her who she is, and comes to believe she wasted her time validating her life through social media. She learns to worry less about needing other people’s approval, put things more into perspective, and make the most of what she’s got.
The point of Life Stripped Bare isn’t to find out how well we can survive with few possessions. It’s more about exploring how we relate to what we own. Which of our belongings are most important to us, why, and what do they say about how we feel about ourselves? The relative scarcity of possessions (and the threat of their scarcity) in capitalism underpins our attitudes to what we possess. Owning things represents some kind of security, and we’re encouraged to equate success with having lots of stuff. Which particular commodities we own, and the extent to which we define ourselves through them, often hinges on how well they have been marketed to us. What we own also affects how we relate to other people, whether we rely on how we’re dressed to win respect or if having phones with social media alienates us as well as brings us together. We've always attached meanings to our belongings, and always will. How we do this depends on the way society mediates between ourselves and what we can own. Capitalism both restricts us and pressurises us into owning stuff, so no wonder there’s often something troubling about how we relate to our possessions, as Heidi and the other participants in Life Stripped Bare found out. With all the questions the programme raises about our attachments to our belongings, it’s ironic that it’s sponsored, and by Samsung Home Appliances.