Gordon: Intensely naked

I saw my first naked man with my dad. It was 2002, and we were on a father-daughter excursion to the Tate Modern. In the section “Nude/Action/Body,” we stumbled upon a triple life-size projection of a naked, slender middle-aged man jumping on a trampoline in slow motion.

The other visitors watched the man’s loose bouncing chest skin, reflected on the human condition and walked away. My 12-year-old eyes, however, were fixed on the flaccid penis slapping ever so slowly and ever so repeatedly against his thigh. My father and I stood in front of that video for 180 seconds.

He found it less awkward to stare at the screen than to interact with his pre-pubescent daughter. I was also paralyzed, but by the hypnotic and slightly horrifying image of an adult male nude/action/body.

I am now desensitized to the naked male. After witnessing the Finals Fairies’ flesh parade my first reading week at Yale, I have found it difficult to avoid mass nudity on campus. Yalies love getting naked. And not in that normal collegiate way of the drunk girl at the party who takes off her shirt. Yalies love getting naked for rebellious, irreverent purposes. Mostly.

A 1975 Crimson article by James Gleick, Harvard ’76, observed this unique Yale phenomenon. “Yale has a special, feverish intensity that sets it apart from its brethren,” he writes, “and Yale’s intensity, some say, shades over into sickness and depravity.” Gleick describes the Yale practice of sloaning: “attracting public attention to ones genitals.”

Gleick is now a successful author, who studies the cultural implications of science. He coined the term “Butterfly Effect,” which is interesting because the innocent sloaning of the ’70s has spawned a culture at Yale of both spontaneous and highly organized communal undress.

Beyond the biannual library streaking, naked parties and weekends with the Society of Orpheus and Baccus, Yalies will seize most opportunities to disrobe. My freshman year, the FOOT house held naked Friday dinners and the Progressive Party spent evenings embracing the state of nature. During hell week, fraternities do a lot of things.

While group nudity for most college students involves boxer-briefs and lacy lingerie, Yale nudity is emphatically nude nudity: no underwear, no bras — tampon strings are tastefully tucked.

A group of girls in Instant Hourglass Corset Demi-Bras is sexy. A group of girls totally naked, every roll and stretch mark exposed, is not sexy, at least in a traditional way — a rare reminder of the un-Photoshopped female form.

In these settings, the lost tingle of the libido is replaced by the thrill of subversion. The world thinks what you’re doing is morally reprehensible. The world is way less comfortable with its body. Taking part in a naked activity lets you feel superior to your roommate who is too scared to take part and everyone in Middle America who thinks you’re going to hell.

Isn’t it a goal of all Yalies to transcend their earthly flesh anyway? In a bid for immortality, you can go into finance, make a bunch of money and name a Fellowship after yourself for sophomores in Calhoun who love East Asia. But you could also stand in a room full of naked people. Your body then becomes just something you drag around all day, wrapped up in cotton-blends. Bodies are weird, but aren’t clothes weirder? Twenty minutes at a naked party and these are your thoughts.

Perhaps Gleick had it right. Yale is an especially frenetic place. After a day of contributing to campus life in resume-beautifying ways, people want a release. When work is done, Yalies push themselves into the realm of the strange and special: elaborate initiations, cultish retreats, society rituals and in Gleick’s time, mescaline.

Group nudity falls into this category. It takes your nighttime self far from your noontime self. Nakedness can alter your eye contact, posture and conversation. After awhile though, everything is pretty much the same.

The mass nude experience will definitely change you in one way, however. Afterwards, if ever presented with an adult male nude/action/body, you won’t focus exclusively on the swing of his penis. You can reflect, instead, on the human condition: lumps of flesh just trying to have a good time.

Claire Gordon is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • Sloane Coffin

    This is a strange and beautiful pice of writing. I just wonder what the Chaplain in 1976 (my era) would think of sloaning. (I had never heard of it until this article) I believe he had just succeeded William Sloane Coffin who had moved to Riverside Church.

    PK

    PK

  • Yale 08

    I hate the smell of Gnosticism in the morning.

  • James T. Madison

    I have been told by many people that before women came to Yale, Payne Whitney Gymnasium was kept heated to a rather high temperature and many students walked almost everywhere naked. (“Gymnasium” means “naked house” in Greek, of course.) If students are now traisping about in the altogether whenever they can, perhaps the time has come for the University to embrace social progress, restore the old customs, bring back nudity (or is it “nakedness?”) to the Gym, and prohibit most suits in the Payne Whiteny pools. I realize that this institutionalization of what has become a student custom would undermine the practice of “getting naked for rebellious, irreverent purposes,” but perhaps the students could practice something rebellious and irreverent at the Gym?

    There is a practical side to all this. Before women, most swimming in the Payne Whitney pools were naked, a practice that helped to keep the filters from clogging up. In fact, the third floor practice pool water was not drained from the time the Gym opened in the 1930′s until a few years after women were admitted. The filter was soon clogged up by women’s longer hair, the then-concurrent lenghtening of male hair (the “rebellious, irreverent” practice of the time, with swim caps imperfect protection), and more and bigger swim suits all around. The pool had to be drained for the very first time in the 1970′s. Draining was delayed a bit when an engineering professor appeared at more or less the last minute and warned the Gym staff that since the pool had not been drained since the 1930′s, nobody really knew if draining it might cause the third-floor Gym walls to cave in when the outpressing force of the practice pool water was removed. Faced with the prospect of an unplanned implosion of Payne Whitney, the Gym staff delayed the draining for a short period while the professor ran some calculations. Those calculations showed that the Gym would remain sound, and the draining and filter replacement continued.

  • unbelievable

    Like #1..I too have never heard of sloaning.

    This is what happens in an extreme liberal bubble, you create “frenetic” type behavior.

    In little time you become desensitized from all perversion and reject that which is moral and wholesome.

    All that is left is faith that one day we will return to the values and morals instilled by our families.

  • cod piece

    4:
    I’m not asserting it is any more immoral than wearing a cod piece in medieval times was immoral.

    Just a fashion of the era.

    I believe it is called a high-rise and a low-rise by tailors today.

    However, I am asserting that I never heard of it during my 9 years on the Yale campus (’76-’85)until reading this beautifully written article this morning.

    PK

  • Puzzled

    What’s the big deal about nakedness? Except for protection against the elements, covering one’s body certainly is not “natural”. I guess it has to do with some strange old myth about covering one’s nakedness and feeling embarrassed and all that, all because of a snake and and apple.. how weird can you get? What has that to do with “morals and values”?

  • modestman

    great writing

  • Birthday suits

    #3:

    Not only Payne-Whitney, which I dimly remember as a child, but the New Haven YMCA on Howe Street (and, I believe) the sister building, the YWCA, had nude swimming, although people used a towel when walking around the building.

    Such libertinism baffles me because the 1950′s were so Puritannical otherwise. Maybe it has to do with those Winslow Homer “Swimming Hole” idealizations. Or maybe post-war industry was so tenuous, that no one had time for extraneous frivolities like bathing suits when nature provided birthday suits for free.

    I suppose if one believes that “the only thing we have to fear is our secrets” then clothing the body–secreting it so to speak — makes no sense.

    On the other hand. we used to be covered with hair for protection from the elements –especially the sun—and for warmth.

    I opt for clothes.

    PK

  • AngryConservative

    Just try to walk around naked freak and you will get a misdemeanor class A charge faster than you can take your panties off !

  • @9

    Why are conservatives always angry?

  • Yale 08

    Okay Claire, we get it, you want an unconventional life. Enjoy,

  • James T. Madison

    One big problem with this nakedness custom is that it must contend with an iron mathematical law of social science:

    Statistically, the product of (A) the percentage of skin exposed to the public and (B) the desirability of seeing that skin, is a constant (the “universal social nudity constant”).

    Sad, that. But ineluctable. Social gravity. Like death and taxes.

  • saybrook997

    Getting naked (without sex) is childhood fun still. If you have that fun, know that college is the last time guys can run naked in public without arrest. Kids can’t drink legally, but they can be kids until evicted from Eden (Vonnegut’s description of graduation). Males let girls and children keep the privilege. “Lumps of flesh”? How about lumps of flesh and some sort of soul trying to “have a good time.”? That would require a rewrite.

    I’ve read before about naked swimming pools (Yale, middle schools, YMCA), and “clogged drains.” A different conclusion. After the 1940′s and before Yale women walked the campus, no suits swimming was just a holdover from the days of heavy full-body suits and cheap fabrics, even for men (you’ve seen beach photos from the 1920′s). After that, suits no longer clogged drains, but guys don’t know what to do with a wet suit (carry it back to dry) or put in in the gym locker (to mildrew). Also, especially before women walked the campus, guys need to showoff and undress for someone to glance at. And it’s sensual to swim nude. Boys have skinny-dipped forever (incl. Ben Franklin, a great swimmer before swimming was sport or social). Until the last century, few boys owned or packed a suit for the river, pond or harbor. No clorine pools or girls around then. Clogged drains weren’t the reason.

  • Belal

    @ Claire nice piece of writing.