It took me five or so minutes to get bored of wearing a towel. The lake in question was populated by soccer-mom suburbanites toting an assortment of babies and pomeranians. I was 7 years old, and my modesty hinged on some stray sand and a bad sunburn as I streaked around the water’s edge. Nudity felt exhilarating, empowering and kind of funny as I watched a collection of gawking grandmothers and my own slightly perturbed parents.
I loved it. Being 7 and in the buff was fun and harmless — apart from worrying the baby-toting Pauls and Susans of the world about the futures of their own children.
This changes with age. Postadolescence, the “act” of nakedness can be understood as threatening, strange or just plain gross. People become more wary of anything that might seem remotely sexual.
Public nudity is tenuous. On one hand, it can violate the privacy of onlookers — some people might understand indecent exposure as undesirable or even threatening. Public disrobing might seem appealing as “freedom of expression,” but it also disregards people who have suffered cultural traumas such as sexual assault and domestic violence.
But it can also be interpreted as culturally progressive — in the right setting, nudity can “desexualize” the body and help people become comfortable with themselves. In a culture built on hypersexualized media, people often have unrealistic body images that real, unedited nudity can help cure.
This is an ongoing discussion at UC Berkeley, where student co-ops are often viewed as an extremely liberal portion of the student body that has traditionally been lax about this form of nudity — often organizing naked events as a form of community-building. To an extent, these values have been transferred to UC Berkeley as a whole, and the slogans of “free love” and political activism leftover from the 1960s have centralized the campus around an unexpected stereotype: naked people.
This reputation can partially be traced back to UC Berkeley’s “Naked Guy” — Andrew Martinez. In 1992, the sophomore decided to attend classes wearing nothing but sandals and a backpack, according to a piece by the New York Times and common lore.
This culminated in a 1992 campus “nude-in,” which Martinez organized to “prove that people define normalcy in their own terms.” For Martinez, nudity was all about freedom of speech — a way to reclaim agency in a society that uses clothing for class and gender differentiation. By walking around naked, Martinez saw himself as promoting open-mindedness through the same philosophy of “civil disobedience” posited by Thoreau.
Martinez’s refusal to wear clothing resulted in multiple arrests, his expulsion from the university, and the eventual passing of UC Berkeley’s “Policy Statement Concerning Public Nudity and Sexually Offensive Conduct,” passed Dec. 7, 1992. The policy, which remains today, prohibits indecent exposure and public nudity on campus. The city of Berkeley quickly joined the campus in banning nudity after Martinez appeared naked at a city council meeting in 1993.
While not completely effective, Martinez both cemented the tie between activism and nudity and launched a national dialogue on nudity’s place in the classroom and other public spheres. This dialogue continues today in Berkeley’s community. Students would be hard-pressed to find a fully naked person strutting through Sproul Plaza, but nakedness is still encouraged and practiced in more temperate forms. Generation Y has constructed a more nuanced view on nudity and its function: Public nudity can be positive, but only in a receptive environment.
This modern interpretation of nudity is seen in today’s co-op culture, where views on being naked in common spaces such as kitchens and study lounges are shifting to center on a growing campus dialogue that focuses on consent. Within the last decade, many nude-positive activities have come under fire for creating uncomfortable environments for some individuals, according to Mel Moser, the house manager at Hillegass-Parker. With these issues in mind, events such as “Naked Yoga” that once solely encouraged residents to get comfortable with their own bodies are now shifting to stress consent.
“Being nude in public isn’t really a thing anymore. In fact, it’s either banned or frowned upon in most houses,” Moser said.“As far as I know, they’ve done away with things like that because of the possibility that somebody might be exposed to the event without consent.”
Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, suggests that this is indicative of a larger cultural trend. She asserts that “everything is about context,” and that it’s important to evaluate a location’s cultural values when considering nudity in shared spaces.
“If you go to a nude beach, it’s explicitly not about sex,” Schwartz said. “Sociologists generally say the same act means different things under different conditions.”
The key, it seems, is a balance between respect and openness. Nudity can be a powerful statement that separates the body from sexualization, but only if the community agrees to it. Rather than walk around naked like Martinez did in the ’90s, Berkeley students exploring nakedness outside the privacy of their homes often do so in an expression of community.
Perhaps the chief example of this is UC Berkeley’s famed “Naked Run” — a celebration of life and procrastination in which dozens of students, many completely nude, run through Main Stacks before finals.
Jennifer Georgevich, a UC Berkeley senior who stripped down for the Naked Run last spring, said there is an important “no pressure” atmosphere surrounding the run. Participants are not required to adhere to any standard of nudity, and wearing underwear is not only acceptable but common. This “modified streaking” provides an important emotional release for stressed students while also considering the personal boundaries people set for themselves.
For Georgevich, the run champions both consent and positive body image, performing an extremely important function in the Berkeley community.
“It’s a valid right of exposition and letting loose during a really stressful time and just being happy with your body,” she said.
The question of “when to be naked,” for most UC Berkeley students today, is actually pretty simple: If people are OK with watching you prance about au natural, go for it.
Moral of the story: Being naked is great, but please ask first.