Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

In hidden corners of campus, next to frat pregames and close to Eating Clubs, Princeton bodies convene, undress, and then converse. Last spring I opened my inbox to find an email entitled “NP.” Its contents read: “What: Naked Party. Why: For peace, love, and beauty. To be free. To explore.”

Lily Offit recently wrote an article for the Nassau Weekly entitled “Each Body,” in which she recounted a friend’s experience attending one of these sartorially-liberated soirees, reflecting on the nature of clothing and nudity. But I was curious to hear the rationale of the party organizers, the ones who unite bare bodies behind closed doors. I managed to convince one of the three organizers of this particular circuit of naked parties to speak with me, and sat down for lunch with Melanie—who requested anonymity in light of some of the broad misconceptions about naked parties.

As a sophomore, Melanie found herself in Terrace talking to a senior. The conversation led to an invite to her first naked party. She had no idea that naked parties existed at Princeton, the “conservative” Ivy. Aware of such parties at Brown and Yale, she didn’t imagine that the same campus that regularly showcases salmon shorts and Sperrys would ever also house naked parties, as if preppiness and nakedness were mutually exclusive.

Melanie decided to muster the courage to attend her first party, even though the only person she knew was the host, and ended up having an incredible time. After she had attended a few more, the Terrace senior who first invited her graduated and she gained responsibility for continuing the naked Princeton tradition. Now Melanie is a senior, and firmly believes that “the parties are really a great environment for experimentation…When else are you asked to be naked in front of strangers in a non-sexual way?”

Never audacious enough to attend a naked party myself, I asked Melanie to walk me through the experience. “You will knock on the door of the naked party. You will be answered by one of the hosts, who is completely naked. That’s your first shock, your first hurdle, what makes you realize that you are indeed attending a naked party.”

These naked parties are significantly more elaborate than the average Princeton pregame; there is a level of ceremony involved that transcends the typical routine. If the party is taking place in a common room, Melanie told me, there is normally a sheet or room divider that ensures the naked remain private. The host then walks you to a bathroom or bedroom that has been designated as a changing area, and gives you a few minutes to change in a space where no one else can barge in.

I was curious why Melanie found it necessary to segregate the already-naked from the undressing, considering that all are in the same state once jeans, dresses, and undergarments slip off. She believes that there is something uniquely arousing and sexual about the act of undressing—one that undermines the strictly platonic tone she wants the parties to foster. “Undressing draws attention to the aspect of removal,” she said. “The act of taking on and off your clothes entails a layer of awkwardness. However, based on my experience and the experiences that friends have had, the act of just being naked surrounded by other naked people does not necessarily have to be sexual.”

Melanie stresses that one of the biggest misconceptions about naked parties is that they are huge gatherings of promiscuous students having sex. In actuality, she and her fellow party organizers work hard to create a non-sexual atmosphere, where activities consist mainly of meeting new people, chatting, and casual drinking games like “Kings.”

Melanie points out that many people at Princeton have had underwear party experiences, which are a ritual as part of some eating club initiations. But many have found that “underwear parties feel more sexual than naked parties, because underwear is something quite coy, in that it is intentionally covering you in some areas and not others.” Complete nudity leaves nothing more to be seen, often preventing a loose imagination from losing focus on the meaningful conversations that Melanie and her fellow organizers encourage.

Melanie also believes that the time alone in the changing room provides party-goers a way to mentally transition from clothed to naked; to prepare themselves for a night of innocent nudity. The first time she went to a naked party, Melanie spent a good three minutes in a changing closet after having undressed, breathing deeply, preparing to emerge au naturel among people she had never met before. She and the other party organizers do not want to pressure attendees to rush into any situation they do not want to be in. They aim to construct the most welcoming and non-threatening atmosphere they can, especially if someone does not know most of the other attendees.

“We definitely tell people to enter the party when they’re ready. Nobody is going to come and drag you into the party. That would breach the aspect of choice we are trying to cultivate…If at any point someone feels uncomfortable, we want that person to know that we understand these parties are not for everyone—don’t feel like you need to stay to impress anyone.” Melanie stresses that the parties are first and foremost for the experimentation and personal growth of the participants, not to show off toned bodies or find romantic partners.

To make the naked parties a safe space, if anyone is worried about encountering someone they do not want to see, Melanie is willing to disclose the list of attendees to those who ask. But if you attend the party, you are expected to conform to its tenets of nudity. “If you are the one dressed person in a naked context, you are made to feel like an ‘other.’ The party [is meant to be] a unifying space where everyone is naked in uniformity.”

I asked Melanie if it is easy to feel self-conscious at her parties, especially when some people may be more comfortable with their appearance than others. I wondered whether she feels that these parties are only for select breeds of people with certain body types. Melanie finds that her parties attract people who are “very comfortable with their bodies, whether they be athletic or not.” This isn’t a place to show off your body, she says, or at least that’s not the point: “This is a place to get to know your own body in the context of a different set of norms.” She also points out that some of those who attend are not necessarily the most confident people in their daily lives. She has invited friends who had never considered coming—including one girl who “tends to be really self-conscious.” She came and, surprised by how comfortable Melanie and the organizers had made the space, ended up having “an amazing time.”

Another key feature of the parties is that being naked makes you more acutely present, says Melanie. When you are nude for the first time in a large room of people, you are more aware of your surroundings, paying attention to the way others are looking at you, the way you are looking at others, working hard not to stare for too long or in a way that will make others uncomfortable. But this sense of awareness does not need to translate into paralyzing self-consciousness. Conversely, the idea is that this nudity and self-awareness can produce engaged conversations that occur seldom when we click away at our phones during dining hall meals; when we do not feel obligated to be present.

In part for this reason, Melanie does not want her events to include copious amounts of alcohol. But she also recognizes the profound sensitivity necessary to orchestrate her parties, and does not want people getting too drunk. “I am not into naked parties as fratty spaces. I think parties in general can be precarious in terms of people’s safety. I take people’s safety very seriously: people are allowed to BYOB, but if they get crazy, I ask them to leave.” Melanie strongly emphasizes that the point of the parties is not to get wasted. Rather, the point is to grow and move outside comfort zones.

Melanie believes that her parties often appeal to the types who like to challenge themselves. Going to a naked party is daring, an activity associated with initial discomfort. It is meant to be something that promotes self-exploration, rather than the easy, comfortable monotony of the Street. Perhaps there is an aspect of the classically ambitious Princeton mentality that propels some people to take the social challenge of stepping outside of their clothed skins and entering Melanie’s sphere.

I asked Melanie whether any attendees have ever transgressed the platonic, non-sexual atmosphere. She says that there have never been any instances of harassment or undue sexual attention, which she believes is due to the way in which the guest lists are created: “By running it, I have the power to decide who can come. Inclusivity is very important to me on these things, but that being said, I only invite people whom I think are mature enough to respect the environment.” Melanie asserts that her parties are not spaces for people to act foolish and break norms of personal space. She never wants to invite people “who are going to overstep boundaries when it comes to respecting physical space, consent, being overtly sexual in the way that makes people uncomfortable.” If people were to make out with each other, or if anyone were to touch someone in an inappropriate way, the party organizers would swiftly ask them to leave, according to Melanie.

The worst moment that Melanie has had was when a male student left the party to go use a public hallway bathroom without covering himself. “You are naked in the context of the room, but when you leave the room, you are supposed to leave clothed,” she said. While the naked student meandered to the bathroom, a female by-stander stumbled upon him. Shocked, she threatened to call Public Safety, and he scurried quickly back into the party. “We had to take this student aside and say ‘Hey, that was not okay because we are not looking to freak people out at all.’ The rules we construct in the context of the party do not transcend the room…It is about consenting to have nudity be part of your immediate surroundings.”

Melanie expands the reach of the parties by asking people who have already attended to invite one person, and so the list of people involved continues to grow. Each party typically has less than 20 attendees. Most who are invited are courteous and at least respond to the invitation; if they are not interested in coming, they normally provide a reason, which is frequently discomfort or fear of awkwardness. The scope of Melanie’s parties is not particularly large and she is okay with it; she wants to ensure the people she invites are committed to the same goals and will not disrespect other party-goers. With a chuckle, Melanie assured me, “Currently, we do not plan on advertising to any residential college listservs.”

She and her fellow organizers enjoy the Street on occasion, but often find it to be tiresome and repetitive, preferring to challenge themselves with naked parties. While in some ways her parties seem to fight against the tedium of going to the Street twice a week, every week, Melanie thinks that transforming Street culture is a lofty goal—and not exactly what she is trying to do. Instead, she just hopes to “give people options,” noting that at her parties, people often don’t want to leave to the Street. “Most people come and are so enthralled that they would rather stay. I would like to think this is a phenomenon that could exist in contexts besides naked parties.” Melanie also supports the mission of The Alternative, the student group that works to create appealing alternatives to Eating Clubs on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. But she has not coordinated with them formally and is unsure whether they would be directly supportive of her naked parties.

Melanie and her fellow organizers are all seniors, so they will soon look to underclassmen to pick up the torch of Princeton naked parties. Even though Melanie is unsure of exactly how long naked parties have occurred at Princeton before her, she does not want the tradition to die out and already has some underclassmen in mind. However, Melanie emphasizes that she does not own naked parties as an idea, that she is simply one person on campus with a sincere appreciation for the personal growth that nudity can inspire. She encourages other friend groups to adopt naked parties as their own tool to do something different, buck monotonous Street culture, and encourage self-growth and introspection.

Throughout this entire project, the most inspiring moment for Melanie came in the form of a few kind words from an attendee. “From time to time, you’ll get people who say ‘You look really good, man—to me or someone else.’ For a while I did not know how to feel about those compliments, because the party really is not about comparing ourselves to each other or making it about beauty or physical appearance. But one day, someone said to me, ‘You know, Melanie, you look really comfortable in your own skin.’” For her, this was a totally different sort of compliment. “I was really happy, because unlike pointing out beauty, which is kind of exclusive, saying you look really comfortable in your own skin invites other people to be really comfortable in their own skin. It really affirms the ethos of the party.”