Last month, most of Princeton’s eating clubs eliminated nudity from their initiations festivities. The club graduate boards, composed largely of aging men, probably dressed in long robes, decided that nudity is not in fact an unalienable right, but rather a nuisance and a liability. The last institutional strongholds of bare bodies on campus officially asked everyone to please keep their shirts on. There was little to no fuss; a few grumbles, possibly a few retaliatory flashes, but most people quietly zipped up their pants.
Perhaps we are sated by the constant stream of Internet porn. Perhaps we know that the body sitting at the library table next to us may not live up to the standards supplied by Sports Illustrated or even pop-up ads. Or, most likely, we do not want to offend others or create controversy. Still, is this apathy towards the naked figure a consequence of our time? What did Princeton graduates of previous generations think about enjoying the breeze between their knees? I asked the only alumni whom I knew I could coerce into providing answers: my parents.
In 1980, when my father and my mother moved onto the same hall in Princeton Inn College (modern day Forbes), there was a fair amount of unregulated opportunities to be nude. Both my parents vividly recall the fanfare of the annual Nude Olympics. On the day of the first snow, those brave enough would shed their fleeces and barrel up the steps of Blair Arch, congregating in the courtyard of Holder. The athletes would promptly take up whichever sport they felt highlighted their assets, engaging in pickup games of soccer and more risqué endeavors like wrestling. My father contends that fifty to sixty people participated each year, and that there were a fair number of girls among them. But my mother disagrees. She calls it a “male-oriented event conducted in a thick haze of inebriation.”
My father and my mother reported that up to three hundred people would gather in the cold to watch both friends and strangers flex and chug and run and flex again. My father admitted that several of his close friends engaged in the festivities and that he would come along and cheer on his peers as they competed. My mother said the closest she ever got was the inside of a Holder dorm room, her friends peeling back the shades and searching for flashes of goose-bumped skin among the sea of coats.
My mother thought of the event as an inherently gendered occasion. Women were relegated to the edges, expected to accept “bacchanalian things boys liked to do to bond with each other.” In contrast, my father characterized it as a rather freeing and transcendent event. “The people who participated felt they were in a community where they could let go and have fun. Some people found that liberating,” he told me. “The next day no one talked about it. No one would mock you for being naked.” According to my father, the Nude Olympics emerged out of a feeling of community, of feeling like you belonged, pants or no pants. One naked man could toss a ball with the de-bloused woman from his History of the Civil War precept in peace. And when they returned to their studies, they would perhaps wink across the table before poring over maps of General Sherman’s warpath, overcome with a thirst for knowledge. But my mother called this image into question, saying that perhaps they were thirsty for other things. In her opinion, the Nude Olympics were symptomatic of a male-dominated drinking culture.
The University agreed. In 1999, following several naked arrests and dozens of hospitalizations, the University ended the tradition forever. Exposed naked jumping jacks came at the cost of a one-year suspension. Everyone decided to keep his or her trench coats tightly tied.
Of course, there were other ways to show off what your mother gave you. Both my parents mentioned Zulu and jock runs, in which members of various sports teams ran naked through Firestone Library and visited the patrons of the town’s fanciest restaurants. These kinds of things elicited cheers from onlookers and were generally considered a welcome surprise. In contrast, earlier this year, when members of a fraternity streaked through an economics lecture, a student called the police. Disturbances of the nude variety are no longer accepted, even within the confines of campus.
Club initiations were generally considered the most exciting clothing-optional event of the year. My dad described his initiation into the Tiger Inn with fondness. I could not see his face, because we spoke over the phone, but I could almost hear a thin film of nostalgia clouding his eyes. He described leaping over the balcony, dressed in “expendable clothes.” When his feet touched ground, his clothes had been stripped and a tie strung around his neck—a true apotheosis. He recalled that a “real man” would stride out the front door and walk all the way back to his dorm room to collect clothes before returning. The more reserved members would hide new clothes in bushes. Overall, my father associated the ritual stripping with a sense of belonging and of pride.
My mother does not wax as poetic. Cap and Gown was the only club that admitted both men and women, and so its seems that the majority of women, who had no initiations of their own to attend, watched male bicker club initiations as sorts of “fans.” My mother remembers watching the men strut about in their ties, and thinking, “Could everyone just put on some clothes so we could turn on some Springsteen and dance?” What was a rite of passage for my father was just an annoying distraction for my mother.
Unsurprisingly, these repeated instances of nudity raised issues of gender. While my father did not see “dropping trou” as a misogynist action, he did see it as an expression of his individuality and freedom (as a male). My mother saw nude proceedings instead as events that solidified gender roles and emphasized difference. But my parents could agree that these events were thoroughly unsexy. Nude rituals were more about spectacle than physical connection. Of course, its possible my parents spared me of any sexual subplots, but, in my own experience, I would say nudity does bring people together, but it binds them in feelings of embarrassment, drunkenness and frivolity. While my mother did have issues with some aspects of the nude activities, she did not protest them, and she values the memories of engaging with the larger community. In fact, both my parents say there was almost no protest of such activities. Those who did not support them simply did not show up. However, my parents also agree that these sorts of nude activities should probably stop in the digital age.
The University Administration has long recommended the abolition of nude activities, citing such events as the products of binge drinking and hazing. In the past year, the University, in collaboration with SHARE, successfully encouraged campus groups like eating clubs to end the practice, in order to prevent possible incidents of sexual assault. These issues and concerns are not new. People drank excessively and hazed and assaulted others in the 1980s, but now the University (and our culture writ large) is more conscious of these kinds of offences and increasingly wary of negative publicity. Simply put, public nudity (keep in mind that our conception of “the public” has expanded to include anyone with internet access) is associated with a host of issues, and most people seem to agree it does more harm than good.
However, I cannot help but wonder about future generations. Will forthcoming Princetonians know what its like run outside with friends, wearing only a thin blanket of shame? I suppose students will continue to undress amongst friends, but it will behind closed doors at the alleged ongoing “naked parties.” The crucial element missing from these gatherings is the presence of an audience and a community. If students aren’t allowed to strip among others will they be able form an authentic sense of comfort in their community? The answer is obviously yes, but the community building may be a little less fun and a little more buttoned-up (pardon the pun).