Most people have heard of the news article that kicked off Wesleyan’s naked dorm rumor, but very few current students have actually been able to read it. This is partially because the full text is no longer available for free on NYtimes.com, and since I’m a cheap bitch who’s not about to pay $5 for her blogging audience, I was just going to let bygones be bygones. Luckily, I remembered Lexis Nexis from my policy debate days just in time before my 7 am bedtime.
Naked Dorm? That Wasn’t In The Brochure
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
March 18, 2000, Saturday, Late Edition
Finding herself assigned to what is often dubbed The Naked Dorm came as a shock to Martha Reicher, but now she would rather not live anywhere else. It took a while, though.
“The first week of school I would have said I live in The Naked Dorm, but now it would not be the first thing I say,” Miss Reicher, a Wesleyan University freshman, said recently. “Still, it is definitely the part that gets the most attention.”
This story, about how one well-choreographed rite of passage from high school to college life went unexpectedly awry, actually started last year. Miss Reicher, along with myriad high school seniors across the country, was eagerly awaiting a college acceptance letter. She dreamed of attending a strong liberal arts college in the East.
Naturally, she was ecstatic when Wesleyan accepted her, and doubly thrilled when she was assigned to her first choice of a residence hall, a place called West College. She had been particularly drawn to West College because it advertised itself as a diverse, multicultural, politically active dormitory for men and women.
Miss Reicher thought Westco (as it is known at Wesleyan) would be a welcome change from her hometown, Piedmont, Calif., an upscale community in the Oakland hills. Just how different was quickly evident.
“On the first night we had a dorm meeting, and the resident advisers said that it is a tradition of Westco that it is clothing optional,” she said. “Most of the people were yelling things like, ‘That is awesome!’ ”
But Miss Reicher doesn’t recall yelling anything. Instead, she began considering everything she had read and heard about the dorm. “I was shocked, thinking ‘Is this really what diverse means?’ ” she said.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Westco consists of four buildings housing about 175 students, most of whom stay clothed a lot. It’s not as though residents shed their garments as they walk in the door.
Westco requires freshmen and sophomores to compete for spots in the dorm by writing essays about their interests.
Last year, the statement that students were supposed to work from said, in part: “In the past, residents have organized musical and artistic events, planned mid-semester festivals and been committed to artistic expression, political and social activism and community responsibility. West College strives to improve upon its tradition by giving residents the opportunity and resources to express themselves and create new group initiatives.” It mentioned nothing about clothing, optional or otherwise.
When she found out, Miss Reicher, 18, called her parents. Her dad laughed. Her mother called the school and suggested that her daughter be allowed to move if she wanted. (Her cousin, somewhat later, called a reporter.)
The students soon learned that aside from residents who developed a habit of leaving the stall doors open while they showered in the mostly coed bathrooms, not that many people wanted to go naked. But they can if so inspired.
“I just sometimes feel the need to be nude; I have body piercings to show off,” said Jacob Z. B. Goldsmith, a 19-year-old who neither volunteered, nor was asked, where the body piercings might be, but did strip off his pants as he talked. “There’s an exhibitionist part of me. If I feel the need to take off my pants, I take my pants off. It’s kind of cool that there is a place you can do that.”
That is the point of Westco. It encourages students to expose all their interests in the theory that everyone will be enriched. If a time traveler wanted to find a place where the ethos of the 1960’s still flowered, Westco would be a holistic choice.
Take the concept of time. Nothing officially starts on the hour — or even the half-hour or quarter-hour — in Westco. The regular wine-and-cheese social hours that rotate among the various hallways are supposed to start at 9:13 p.m. “Guidance,” the name for weekly Monday night meetings, sort of open town halls where decisions about running the dorm are made, begins at 10:07 p.m. The odd times are intended to jog the memory.
Not a lot of students show up at Guidance, but its deliberations are considered worthy of tracking for posterity. The freestyle minutes are kept in a series of journals called “The Book of Love,” kept in the head resident’s room.
Amongst prodigious doodling, the books brim with notations of resolutions taken in recent years, like, “Make people aware of injustice on and off campus.” Another entry recorded a discussion weighing a collective hair-dyeing session just before parents’ weekend “just in case your parents thought you were normal.”
At least once last fall the weekly telephone messages summoning all students to Guidance trumpeted that particular meeting as clothing optional. (The dorm’s term of choice.) This tactic had mixed results, however, with some students avoiding the gathering and many present clad in just towels. (For those of you skimming this article looking for the naked bits, you are here.)
“People have realized that having a clothing-optional Guidance is not the best way to have a meeting,” said Christopher C. Connor, 22, a senior and the head resident for all of Westco. “A lot of people don’t want to participate, and a lot come just for the spectacle.”
Aside from Guidance, there are other random moments when nakedness is encouraged, like one corridor’s periodic “Naked Hour,” when anyone in the mood can show up.
Of course, if one resident objects, Mr. Connor asks the naked to dress. He said he never encounters flak.
The university, for its part, sort of denies.
“There is folklore that it is a clothing-optional unit, but that is not true,” said Freddye Hill, the dean of the college and the the administration’s senior representative for students. “We tell students that nudity is offensive to some people and we have to tell people not to engage in it.”
University officials said the written rules did not specifically ban nudity, out of concern that anything so specific would only encourage it. But they said anyone habitually walking around in the buff in public areas would risk being hauled in front of the Student Judiciary Board. No one could recall such a case.
Tamara Raimundi, a senior administration official for residential life, said one woman in Westco asked to be moved out this year, citing nudity as one reason. “Westco seems to be the place that people try to do that sort of thing because they hear the folklore and want to grab onto it,” Ms. Raimundi said.
Westco has a more assertive student government than the other dorms, so naturally the very idea of letting a reporter visit had to go before the student government for a general discussion and vote. Then someone alerted the college newspaper, The Argus, which wrote a front-page story about the visit. Its reporter asked questions like, “Is it true that you wanted to write an article about sex and drugs and nudity at Westco four months ago but the university president wouldn’t allow it?” (The only idea there that is vaguely accurate is that it took four months for the dorm consensus and the reporter’s schedule to coincide.)
Parties at the dorm, understandably, are among the most popular on campus. And some students living elsewhere either find a way to move in or just hang out. Katrina E. Nordine, 19, moved from nearby Clark Hall. “There is no life there other than beer,” she said. “It was not about being alive and creating things, it was about being drunk.”
When it is warm enough, some Westco students take their clothing-optional selves outdoors. (At least the guys. It is usually the guys.)
Ms. Reicher recalls an early fall visit by her boyfriend, “He walked in and said that he hadn’t seen anybody naked, and he didn’t know what I was talking about, and then he looked to his left and there were 10 guys playing Frisbee naked.”
The tradition, according to Adam D. Hurter, a sophomore and onetime resident, stems from the fact that in the late 1960’s the dorm was devised as communal housing for students and faculty where they could delve more intensely into issues of the day. That particular experiment ended in 1974, he said, but some of the wackier traditions prevail.
“People aren’t just generally wandering around naked just for the sake of being naked,” said Matthew D. Lerner, 18, one of the dorm’s five elected presidents. “It’s the idea of not judging anyone, of respecting one another’s beliefs. It does not have sexual undertones.”
That last idea takes some acclimatizing. But residents swear that the disrobed gradually become part of the background tapestry in a dorm teeming with musicians, painters and political organizers.
“It’s not all for attention, ooooooohhhhh, let’s get naked and have fun,” said Ms. Reicher, who has never joined in the dorm’s unclad life. “I guess it’s normal to me now. It is part of being not judged at all, I can be who I want to be. But I guess when I try to describe it to my parents or relatives, they can’t see how it can be an acceptable thing.”
There was apparently also a photo of two students stripping in the Westco Courtyard that accompanied the article, but as I can’t find it, here’s a picture of streakers during WesFest 2004.