Necessary Nakedness

Thanksgiving Day taxed my cousin Craig's capacities. This two-year-old underwent the indignity of well-meaning relatives who pinched his cheeks, tickled his tummy and cooed over how much he had grown. He was forced to sit still, eat with utensils and converse without interrupting, contradicting or yelling at other people--more than many adults, let alone young children could handle.

By the end of the night he was spent. The poor boy was sitting at the kitchen counter, his lower lip drooped down to his chin. Not even the tempting odor of macaroni and cheese could arouse Craig from the coma induced by his sustained mental exertion. I resorted to extreme tactics and flicked water onto my near-catatonic cousin. At first he crinkled his nose and mouth and drew back. But when he saw my smile a devilish gleam entered his eyes. He broke into a sunny smile, grabbed a fistful of cheesy macaroni and launched it towards my frozen grin.

In the sticky aftermath, I spent hours removing dairy products from the floor, the kitchen cabinet and my aunt's aloe plant. But I did not regret introducing my cousin to the concept of the food fight, despite his mother's insistence that I had undone years of careful training. I acknowledge the obvious value of cleanliness, but everyone needs to let loose once in a while. Despite 20 years of "civilized living," I can understand the bright gleam in Craig's eyes that precipitated the macaroni explosion--I ran in Primal Scream.

Like my over-tired toddler, the student body is spent. Our eyes are strained from scrutinizing textbooks, and our backs ache from remaining hunched over our computers. Our papers and tests weigh heavily on our minds, and the chilling weather (the lead story of practically every local news broadcast) oppresses us even further, forcing us to remain indoors. The efforts expended during reading period do not compare to the workload of the average investment banker, but we are certainly expending more mental energy than we do on a normal basis. University Health Services attempts to assuage student discontent with seminars on stress management and healthy caffeine consumption. The dining halls take the opposite tack and try to pacify us with high-sugar junk food. Like the macaroni and cheese I tried to serve my cousin, neither proves effective.

The only sure-fire way to combat this school-wide lethargy is to break multiple social taboos. Primal Scream is imperative to student body sanity. A tradition that first began as simply a campus-wide scream that students participated in from inside their dorms, it has evolved over the past seven years into a mass-orgy where hundreds of naked students take a decidedly un-Crimson Key-like tour of the old Yard. Clearly, the amount of stress college students place upon themselves has increased to the point where mere vocalization is no longer sufficient.

For some, the notion of Primal Scream encourages malicious instincts. Especially troubling are reports that the unusually icy first corner of the route was caused intentionally by other undergraduates. By literally throwing cold water on the parade, these delinquents attempted to spoil their fellow students' merriment. Unwilling or afraid to join in, they decided, albeit unsuccessfully, to ruin the experience for everyone. The next time these people appear in the news it will probably be because they have sabotaged an elderly man's dentures or embezzled money from a paraplegic. Fortunately, these types are not the norm.

Moreover, despite the rampant nudity, Primal Scream is not about sex. Disappointed students from other Boston-area schools realized that a girl posing for Playboy bears little resemblance to a girl running around in only her hiking boots. Those who trekked out of their way on a cold winter night just to exploit their peers--certain observers brought cameras--have their own personal issues to deal with.

Contrary to another popular belief, the pre-exam period ritual is not about exhibitionism. The participants were not indulging a secret fantasy where their peers gawk at, photograph or film their bodies. There are easier (read: warmer) ways to expose oneself. For example, certain residents of Leverett House were so enamored of their nudity that they proceeded to run naked through various rooms of McKlintock Hall after Primal Scream was over.

The majority of Primal Scream runners, however, tend to keep their clothes on when in the presence of others. Their brief stint with nudity is motivated by a stress-induced need to break the rules. As students we inhabit a space that is clearly defined by administrators, parents and professors. We compete for grades--arbitrary symbols of our intellectual achievement. And the fact that we were admitted implies that we are fairly adept at playing by the rules. But even (or especially?) the most strait-laced member of the debate club can benefit from stripping off (quite literally) their inhibitions. We all could use a vacation from conformity.

But then again, Primal Scream contains a distinct Harvard element as well. At other schools, more students might choose to run during the spring, when chafing and other symptoms of over-exposure are less likely. At this college, however, the larger crowd generally appears in the winter. Running naked during warm weather is too easy. This particular student body always needs a challenge.

Christina S. Lewis '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House.