Baring it All
In one part of campus, students sit in the worn armchairs of quaint Sanborn Library, reading about Voltaire’s ideologies, composing essays that debate the merits of capitalism or solving mathematical equations that would mystify even the most accomplished of engineers. Dignified in dress and sophisticated in speech, they illustrate a quintessential scene of Ivy League academia.
In another part of campus, a completely naked and slightly inebriated student charges headfirst into the Connecticut River, screaming wildly as he feels the water’s icy temperature. His friend — also naked — is visible a short distance away, soaking wet and sprinting across the Ledyard Bridge, having just swum across the border between New Hampshire and Vermont.
Such contrasting scenes are not unusual to Dartmouth students. After all, the Ledyard Challenge is just one of the College’s numerous nudity-focused traditions, along with streaking finals, the Dartmouth Seven and the blue light challenge. Although we consider these practices normal and acceptable, a closer examination may provide a different perspective — why do so many of our traditions require participants to be naked? Are we obsessed with nudity?
As it turns out, many of our Ivy League peers have similar naked customs — some even, arguably, more bizarre than our own.
At Brown University there exist two main traditions involving nudity — the so-called Naked Donut Run, which began in the mid-1980s, and Nudity in the Upspace, which begun three or four years ago.
The Naked Donut Run occurs during the university’s reading period and involves naked students running through popular libraries and study spaces delivering donuts to students.
Anthony Cherry, a member of Brown’s Class of 2018, said the intention of the tradition is to reduce students’ stress and that it’s generally a very popular and well-liked activity.
“People love it if they’re in the libraries when it happens and are upset if they miss it,” Cherry said. “It seems to be a pretty amusing spectacle.”
Nudity in the Upspace is a week-long program that features different nude events every day, which take place in a small blackbox theater called the Upspace. These events range from naked yoga to naked open-mic, Cherry said.
Kenneth Cruz, also a sophomore at Brown, said that reception to NITUS has been largely positive.
“Most people are a little skeptical, but it draws a very big crowd regardless and people are excited to do it,” Cruz said.
Cherry likewise said it is a very well-received event and that people speak very highly of its long-lasting effects.
“People who participated have said it was the single most body-positive event they’ve ever participated in,” Cherry said.
Cherry and Cruz both said that such traditions and practices don’t seem strange to them due to the school’s very accepting reputation and nature.
“Brown is Brown, so nudity isn’t controversial at all — in fact, it’s quite embraced,” Cruz said.
An event similar to the Naked Donut Run takes place at Yale University, called the Naked Run. It too occurs during students’ reading period, and entails naked students running through Bass Library — often very crowded during this time — and sometimes handing out candy.
George Huynh, a sophomore at Yale, said the event is intended to provide comic relief and alleviate students’ stress before finals. Huynh said that when he first came to Yale he found the tradition a bit shocking, but later came to see that its somewhat odd nature wasn’t too unusual.
“In general, I’m not surprised — Yalies can be quirky and strange,” Huynh explained.
Huynh also described Yale’s famous naked parties, which function much like a typical party except that people take off all their clothes at the door.
Huynh said he received a “strange invitation” to a naked party last year, but since he didn’t know what it was he did not attend. He said he imagines they would be a bit awkward, as people would feel much more insecure and reluctant to dance. He added, however, for both the naked parties and the naked run, people fall on a wide spectrum of interest.
“I think there are a few people who are wildly enthusiastic about the whole ordeal, but many who are reluctant about doing it only because it’s a tradition they want to have participated in by the time they graduate,” Huynh explained.
Huynh explained that many people are eventually persuaded to participate in such traditions, even if they’re hesitant, because they feel that they ought to do so by the time they graduate from college.
At Columbia University, naked parties used to be prevalent but are no longer in existence, sources said. Columbia students also used to participate in naked runs, but sources said that too is now obsolete.
At Harvard University, a naked run referred to as “primal scream” takes place during the end of every semester at midnight on the last day of students’ reading period. The tradition, held in the university’s central quad, called Harvard Yard, entails students taking one lap around the vicinity while completely naked.
Nick Abbott, a sophomore at Harvard, estimated that between five and six hundred students participate in the event. The university’s marching band plays in front of the historic John Harvard statue while students run, Abbot said, adding to the night’s air of festivity.
Abbott also noted that tourists — a frequent fixture on the campus — play a bizarre role in the tradition, but do not detract from the overall experience.
“There are several tourists who will take pictures of you, which is concerning, but overall it’s a good time,” Abbott said.
Abbott explained that although freshmen might initially feel skepticism or trepidation about participating, many are eventually motivated to do it by the strong encouragement of upperclassmen. He said that people’s confidence often increases, too, by drinking a bit beforehand.
“A lot of people drink alcohol beforehand to muster up the courage, so generally by the time it rolls around, people get pretty into it,” Abbott said.
At Dartmouth, the infamous Ledyard Challenge involves swimming across the Connecticut River while naked, starting on the New Hampshire bank and ending on the Vermont one. Once you escape the water, you have to scramble to the bridge above and sprint across back to New Hampshire, where your clothes (and hopefully not a Safety and Security officer) are waiting.
Like with Harvard’s primal scream, some participants drink a bit beforehand, although not enough that it would impede their motor skills and make the challenge dangerous.
A member of the Class of 2017 who asked to remain anonymous due to the illegal nature of the challenge said that people like to have something that “takes the edge off” but due to the serious threat of drowning, only do so minimally.
She said although she was initially skeptical of the challenge, it ended up being one of her most liberating and empowering experiences.
“There’s a kind of rush, or thrill, that you have when you’re completely naked and exposed publicly like that. You’re so self-conscious, on one hand, but on the other you’re so caught up in the moment that it doesn’t really matter,” she said.
The College also has the blue light challenge, a more elusive tradition, which seems to have few participants and entails a student, completely naked, running to every blue light on campus while simultaneously calling, but also avoiding, Safety and Security officers.
In addition to these traditions, nearly every student at the College has witnessed a streaked final before, oftentimes with amusement in equal measure to the professor’s chagrin.
According to multiple sources from each university, there are currently no prevalent traditions involving nudity at Cornell, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania, beyond occasional streaking of events.
Such traditions — which could be called primitive, or even animalistic, by the nature of nudity — stand in sharp contrast to the prestigious, sophisticated air of higher education, perhaps especially on Ivy League campuses. Why do such behaviors, then, hold such strong appeal to us?
Huynh conceded that such activities might seem out of place on a college campus, and something like streaking would be more typical at an athletic event.
“People probably consider streaking an act done by hooligans or crazy sports fans, so it would be weird on almost any campus, but especially strange for Ivy League schools,” Huynh said.
Huynh added, though, that such reckless behavior is to be expected of our age group.
Abbott expressed a similar sentiment about Harvard, explaining that there, like any other college campus, students sometimes act like “dumb college kids.”
Cherry noted the differences between nudity in Brown’s Naked Donut Run and Nudity in the Upspace, explaining that the former is more “primal” in nature, but the latter is much more deliberate and meaningful in its focus on body image.
“I do think it’s interesting that some nude events seem to be more about fun and revelry, like the Naked Donut Run, and others are more serious, like NITUS,” Cherry said. “It begs the question — what makes some nudity fun and some nudity serious?”
This juxtaposition, too, is apparent in comparing things like the Ledyard Challenge to Yale’s naked parties, which both involve nudity, but ostensibly serve very different purposes.
Cherry also spoke to the empowering and meaningful aspects of nudity and how it can be used in multi-faceted ways. He explained that it can do everything from humiliate someone to make a political statement, from sexualizing to desexualizing, and from creating body confidence to having fun.
The Dartmouth ’17 emphasized that she encourages underclassmen to participate in the Ledyard Challenge and streaking mostly for this purpose.
“Yes, it’s fun and enjoyable, but honestly you come out of it much more comfortable in your own skin, and I think that’s something everyone could benefit from,” she said.
Cherry also suggested that nudity’s stigma — whatever its origin — is perhaps what appeals to college students.
“Whatever context it’s in, [nudity] seems to carry a stigma, and maybe that’s why it’s so prominent in the Ivy League — we love to do controversial things and break down social constructs and stigmas,” Cherry said.
He said there’s also a mysterious allure to defying the cultural norm of being constantly clothed.
The anonymous source from the College spoke similarly, asserting that perhaps enticement lies in these traditions’ often wild and illegal nature.
“More or less, we have been following the rules for our whole lives,” she explained. “But everyone needs an outlet, and sometimes that’s done through things like this…when you think about it from that perspective, it actually makes a lot of sense that these traditions are so popular at such a high-achieving school.”
She added that colleges all over the country and world have their own traditions involving nudity, too, and it’s certainly not exclusive to the Ivy League.
Huynh said that, ultimately, such wild and carefree behavior is typical of our age group.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just 18- to 22-year-olds doing dumb things for shock value and tradition, but especially fun, so I don’t find it too out of place,” Huynh said.