Rites of spring

A colleague of mine recently gave a talk at my undergraduate college.  While we caught up over a cup of coffee, he asked about my experiences there, as he’s interested in sending his daughter to a college or university like that.  As I told him stories about the safety and liberty I felt there–and have felt nowhere else before Freshman convocation or since graduation–it occured to me that a surprising number of my fondest memories involved semi-public nudity.  Most of the naked memories were streaking up and down Senior Row or skinny-dipping in a fountain after dark when few people were around to witness us, and it was always a group endeavor–sometimes all-women, sometimes a coed group.

Is it just me, or do some of you have similar stories and memories?  What do you think is behind the compulsion of students to experience a college campus in Eve’s Livery?

My memories of the liberty I felt to walk around naked or nearly nude really underscores just how safe and how much a part of that world I felt at the time.  What a privilege, especially for adult women, to be publicly naked on our terms & not have our bodies or our images used in someone else’s spectacle!  It was certainly also an exercise of class privilege, too–somehow, SLACy campuses grant dispensation from the usual sanctions against public nudity, at least if you’re still a student.  (Faculty nudity?  Eeewww:  criminal charges territory, for sure.)  At least, I sure wouldn’t have felt safe walking around naked at a big public university or even a large, co-ed university.

Although, I must confess:  at my fifteenth reunion I engaged in some very cold skinny dipping, and at my twentieth, some children in our party jumped in a fountain, and when scolded not to get their clothing wet, they stripped and went about their swim.  (I was touched by how natural and sensible their response was.)  Why?

17 thoughts on “Rites of spring

  1. It might be useful or at least interesting to start by historicizing this. Did this practice of skinny- dipping begin when the women in the picture were undergraduates there, whenever that might have been?. (I realize I’ve already courted a deposit on a Whigg of Illusory Origins award with the very notion that things “start” in historical time) 🙂 Or was there a legendary nineteen sixty-something May when all that propriety got laid aside next to the garments? The kids at your 20th, I imagine, had stumbled into one of those rare cosmic convergences when what your parents appear to enjoin (since the scolding was presumably not coming from school officials) coincides with what sounds like great fun. What more natural and sensible thing would there be to do than comply? Tell the same kids to be in by midnight a dozen years hence and see what happens.

    Not much of this stuff happened in my time as a student, to my knowledge, but I’m recalling the legendary “Naked Guy” from UC Berkeley of when was it, the mid-1990s? White Male Skin Privilege writ large I’d have to assume. Anyone trying that and falling outside of those parameters would probably be hauled off, expelled, or worse.


  2. When I was a grad student, I took a technical summer course at a world-famous scientific laboratory in a beautiful cloistered seaside setting. Skinny dipping of all the grad students late at night was de rigeur after the beer drinking. One thing I vividly remember is that a few times the surf was filled with bioluminescent ctenophores, and you could see each swimmers trajectory outlined in bright light. Talk about streaking!


  3. I never had any inclination toward public nudity in college. I did, however, feel an inclination toward reckless sledding down steep, icy streets. These activities do not mix well but beyond that, women’s worth was pretty clearly understood–in the usual way–where I went to school. It was not an environment that recommended public nudity.

    I feel fine without clothes in settings were nudity is expected/accepted. In such a setting, nudity signifies membership in the group. That is not the usual interpretation of adult female nudity.


  4. In Berlin, back in the day, I had one or two experiences of scholars stripping off to swim in one of the city’s thousands of lakes, without suits (the main building of the research institute I belonged to was on a lake, and it had its own dock). Happily, no students were around, no charges were filed.

    Not something I’d try at home, however. Students regard our campus as private territory, to the extent that they sometimes come to class or office hours in pajamas. But nudity was traditionally reserved for the yearly Nude Olympics, a bacchanal that took place on the night of the first snowfall, and which was suppressed after it became increasingly drunken and wild.

    I myself never saw the sophomore class running naked. But a graduate student friend who taught beginning Spanish used to go with her very large dog. She would yell greetings to her students as they passed (“Hi Joe, looking good!”) while the dog pulled on its leash and lunged at them. That must have been a spectacle.


  5. I think there were streaking traditions at my private SLAC, but I never partook and the liberty/safety you describe in public nakedness doesn’t ring a bell for me. The closest was the sort of old-school New England communal showers (same-sex only) (and I think bathrooms are way too nice for that now).

    On the one hand, my friends and I never felt uncomfortable traipsing around campus in groups at night (frequently drunk). But on the other, and I (women) friends of mine kinda worried about walking home from the library by ourselves on Friday or Saturday nights when parties were raging. (And were once accused of having “rape fantasies” for this. Thanks, entitled white artsy college dude.)


  6. When I came to this country some Americans treated me as the guy getting off the jungle tree, i.e. primitive creature. We monkeys are always naked and having sex mucho. Back in the jungle we had out moments and they started in high school.

    My youngest went to summer camp on a cool lake. One night, he organized a coed rowing on the lake. Dad was ordered to pick him up promptly, but the kid knows his staff; he convinced them to change their mind.


  7. There were a few organized streaking-type events at my Ivy in the mid-1990s, and a couple other opportunities for joyful semi-nudity (think: bras/boxers) en plein air. Never partook of them, but they were definitely A Thing.

    (And then there were the occasion sexxxaay theme parties where people showed up in whipped cream & so forth, but I consider that the opposite of what you’re talking about!)


  8. There was the nude sundeck at the Hearst pool at Berkeley. People kept warning us that the guys from the business school, from their building, were looking with binoculars from their balcony, but my thought was, if they can actually see us, good luck to them.


  9. Streaking was a tradition at my SLAC, until the early 90s, when I was there. I never had the impulse to do it, but some friends of mine were actually charged with assault for running around the dorms naked. And the token “naked guy” on campus was told he had to start putting on clothes.

    A turn towards the prudish maybe?


  10. I attended the same institution that Dr. Grafton mentions, and did participate in the last nude olympics there. It DID get out of hand which is a shame because it used to be a very joyous and liberating experience.

    Ending the nude olympics did not stop naked events. As a rower there was at least one day a year where the men and women would row naked- to me it was a sign of acceptance of our bodies (it was communal showers anyway). And my roommate had to run around the street naked when she completed her first try (scoring in rugby). Of course, she had torn her ACL in the process so she did it on crutches.

    So there were pockets of acceptance and comfort. However, there were also spaces and times where nakedness could be dangerous. It was all about the group you were with.


  11. Thanks to MsMcD for that interesting supplement. This is one area where it’s clearly both true, and a good thing, that the faculty have no idea what goes on outside their little corners of campus.


  12. There was a naked run for charity down the main hall of my SLAC by men’s cross country every year. I’m pretty sure there was a fair amount of nakedness by the SF types playing live D and D in the woods but I did not participate in that. There was a certain amount of day to day nakedness in some of the dorms but not others (the ones with co-ed bathrooms seem to tolerate more nakedness). Most of my positive naked memories come from summer camp, which was all-male. The single sex aspect, wilderness setting, and communal showers led to skinny dipping and, in at least one summer, a “you must wear pants to dinner” rule. I remember in particular, doing a sweat by a stream, taking a quick dip, and then to dry off, playing ultimate in nothing but our hiking boots… because god forbid we should step on something and not be able to hike out. Good times, good times. Gave me a confidence about my body that I simply didn’t have prior to that.


  13. It seems like most of us have a secret naked history, or perhaps even a secret naked present.

    I’m sure that Big Boss Lady is right that nonwhite students probably think differently about nekkid campus rituals on historically white campuses, but I wonder about what goes on at HBCUs w/r/t nudity? We know that black and white fraternities and sororities alike engage in very similar hazing rituals on different campuses, for example. I wonder if there are parallel or similar naked rituals at HBCUs? (It would make sense, given the stories you all tell here about how nakedness/naked rituals, even when only engaged as observers, impart a sense of belonging or of a particular campus identity.)

    A fun nekkid story: there was a very strange, academically underachieving party boy on my college’s co-ed brother campus who gained fame one night for his naked bicycle ride across town from his campus to ours. I can’t remember if his ride came to the attention of the constabulary or not, but it seemed like our amazement at the time had something to do with his flouting of campus boundaries while naked. That is, we thought it was cool and safe to be naked in some contexts on either campus, but to be *between* campuses in public space while naked was a horse of a different color.

    Also: I think “naked bicycle ride” just sounds really uncomfortable for a man. (Also pretty funky for women too, I guess.) But any bare nekkid running is bound to be uncomfortable for both sexes (no jog bras for the ladies or jocks for the gentlemen.)


  14. Hmm…I have somewhat the opposite experience. None of my cherished college memories involve public nudity or semi-nudity and there was only once instance in which I was outside my dorm in anything but full clothing. While the SLAC I attended definitely had its share of public nudity (“picting” was certainly A THING one Saturday morning each spring, the guy in my dorm junior year who walked around in his boxers all the time and called it “business casual”), I generally found said nudity wildly inappropriate and tiresome. No, fellow classmates, you should not attend Hum lecture in the buff and please wipe the lecture hall seat with a sanitary wipe before you leave.


  15. Back In 1974 i was 10 years old at the me my brother were outside these teenage boys stopped to talk to us after a few minutes talking to they had been streaking 5 years later i woke up one morning go outside naked go out in the middle of the street take off running i go streaking it was fun i never been outside naked before i get out side look around i don’t see anyone i take off running i go streaking


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