It’s a Thursday night. I’m sitting at my desk, staring at a tormenting problem set, when I hear my door swing open. An eager head pokes in through the doorway. “Yo, Lils,” the head says. “Want to come to a naked party later?”
It is my rather athletically built neighbor, Mark. My immediate reaction was to completely dismiss him.
“Nope, I’m good,” I say, without looking up.
He continues. “No really, it’s with people from my team. It’s just, everyone shows up naked and it’s really cool. Peter’s coming too.”
I look up from my work and find myself staring at a shirtless Mark, holding a towel around his waist. It seems he was on his way to the shower. “Are you serious, Mark?”
Mark nods with a straight face.
“No,” I respond.
“Alright well if you’re not interested, that’s fine.” And with that, he leaves my room and I don’t see him for the next several hours.
When he walked out, I knew that I had made the right decision. I figured that this party was just an innovation of some extremely well sculpted, immodest individual who wanted to see other people naked. Besides, Mark was the last person that would ever be able to talk me into going to a naked party. This is because firstly, he—and presumably all of his teammates—have zero body fat, secondly, he has exhibitionist tendencies, and thirdly, I can’t think of one good reason to have an exposed ass in a casual social setting.
A few days later, Mark, Peter and I sat down for dinner, and without missing a beat, I asked about their experience at this party. I was expecting their story to fit the classic Thursday-night-out narrative formula (i.e. “Beer,” “urine,” “women,” “I don’t remember any of it”). But their account proved me very wrong. Their responses were grounded in social analysis and deep personal reflection.
“How was the nude party?” I asked in a snarky manner.
“Naked party,” Mark corrected me.
“How was the naked party?”
They told me that the party took place in a dorm room. They entered the dorm and found themselves face-to-face with a white sheet blocking the entrance to the common room. They were then led to one of the bedrooms, and told to take off their clothes there. They were then led through the sheets, into common room, which had five boys and two girls, each naked.
“It was pretty male-heavy,” Mark lamented, “but other than that, it just carried on as a regular party.”
Mark and Peter both had different accounts of this experience. Peter told me that upon entering the party, he became hyper-aware of where his eyes were looking; he made sure to overemphasize eye contact. He said he was afraid that he’d “accidently raise the flag” and that that he was never able to get past his initial discomfort.
Mark, on the other hand, claimed that after an initial shock, he eventually forgot that everyone else was naked. He said that when surrounded by other naked bodies, he gradually became desensitized to the nudity. The exposure made him pay less attention to the shapes of other people’s bodies, and even detracted from the usual sexual tension. Mark explained that the presence of some clothing is more evocative than a complete lack of clothing, because there is no “mystery” when someone is naked. (He knew this because just a few weeks earlier, he attended an “underwear party” in the same dorm and had encountered “flagpole” problems).
At first, my instincts told me that removing clothes in a room full of people would just lead to a horrifying bout of vulnerability and insecurity. While Mark had just the opposite experience, his logic seemed counterintuitive and absurd. How could being fully exposed possibly make you feel more comfortable? However, I began to consider if maybe there was some truth in his realization.
From an overly objective, biological perspective, clothing is meant to protect us from harsh climates, scrapes, burns, bites, etc. This is why even the most culturally primitive forms of human beings, cavemen, wore clumps of leather and animal fur over themselves. However, as is the case with most items originally intended for utility (such as food and shelter), clothing has become an integral component of individuality and culture. It’s not only used to display our wealth and identity, but it’s also used to combat our insecurities. We use clothes to cover up our awkward patches of hair, and anything that would make us appear “old” or “fat.” We use fabrics to hide our perceived imperfections. We wear jeans that accentuate the areas that should be accentuated; we wear dresses cut to mute the wrong curves, and to illuminate the correct ones.
However, our psyches evolved to be able to withstand near nudity, without profound discomfort (in the case of cavemen, for example). Aversion to nudity is recent enough in the development of human behavior that it is unlikely that it is due to a genetic adaption. Rather, the aversion is solely a cultural construct.
The strength of this construct is what made it so difficult for Peter to desensitize himself to the bare skin around him. This is because public nudity is associated with anxiety (and is even the subject of stress dreams.) However, if we were to examine the origin of this cultural construction, we’d find that the construct is just a shared vestige of our ancestry. For example, Puritans found it unacceptable to expose knees and arms.
However, if we look at the historical trajectory of nudity through art forms and fashion, we’d notice that as time progresses, we see more skin and less fabric. While the first nude paintings that were ever made were harshly rejected by society, we now consider these paintings to be the highest forms of art. To this day, there is still controversy about the distinction between “pornography” and “art”—between “naked” and “nude.”
Fashion trends have gone through a similar transition. Instead of being forced to cover our shoulders and ankles, we are free to expose great deals of skin. (For example, take a look at Beyonce’s latest sequined costume from her Mrs. Carter Tour, which is anatomically correct). This trend towards nudity is concurrent with the social liberation of women. However, critics have argued that bare skin has done just the opposite for women, and has allowed them to become objectified and sexualized. While we are moving towards the acceptance of bare skin, our cultural foundation still has an influence on our clothing choices.
Though clothing is tool that allows us to accept our bodies more, it is also just a harmful coping mechanism. Though we aim to use clothing as a form of expression of individuality, when it often has the opposite effect. A walk through Frist is evidence enough that our fashion sensibilities are incredibly contagious, and homogenizing. Clothing dulls individuality by enabling us to conform to particular body shapes.
Nudity finds itself in very curious places on the Princeton campus, and is often a byproduct of rowdiness and inebriation. For example, at eating club initiations and student group hazing rituals,.. There even used to be an extremely popular event on the Princeton campus called the “Nude Olympics,” in which students would streak through Holder Courtyard during the first snowfall. The event was banned in 1999 because of violence and serious injuries.
While naked parties may be an extreme, impracticable way to embrace social nudity, the responses it elicited from Peter and Mark are nonetheless thought-provoking. We are now approaching that time of year when the fabric-to-skin ratio is rapidly decreasing. I’ve even encountered people who are preparing for this transition by taking on a “liquid cleanse.“ I’m starting to wonder if much of our frivolous anxiety and insecurity about our appearance are related to the clothing-liberating temptations of the diurnal cycle of the seasons. I guess until then we’ll just have to bare with it.