In Defense of Nudity
The street below my temporary apartment was overflowing with laughter, bicycles and nudity. Seventeen floors up, I could just make out rampant swathes of body paint, scattered boas, and lots and lots and lots of doughy, pasty flesh. As the last bits of sunlight were ushered away by the warm Lake Michigan breeze, I regretted not purchasing a telephoto lens. What was going on?
At the Blues Festival earlier that day, the sauce-splattered man had muttered something about the “Naked Bike Ride” whilst ogling my female companion, but we’d both written it off as a clumsy attempt at hipster seduction. “Naked bike ride,” I said out loud, snapping a few blurry pictures, tasting that triple word combination. I lowered the camera and shook my head, stomach dropping as I realized what I was about to do. “Shit,” I said, and pulled out my phone.
Dominic lived in the next building over and owned three bikes. I could hear the confusion through the British brogue as I explained that I needed to borrow a bike quickly or the parade was going to leave me behind. He met me downstairs and unlocked the cheapest of the bikes. The NBR was firmly in motion, and well-over half the shouting nudists had already passed us by. There were tandem bikes and drooping breasts, sidecars with stereos and dangling genitals. It was a Republican nightmare. I was wearing boxers, knee-high white socks (which contained my iPhone, keys and a credit card), and running shoes. “Turn around,” I said.
He shook his head, but obliged. “You’re about to ride naked with hundreds of strangers and you’re worried about me?” His accent made this sound funnier than it probably was.
“I know you,” I said. “Turn around.” I stripped off my boxers, hid them under a nearby bush, and climbed on the bicycle. It was a little too tall for me, and situating my business proved difficult while pedaling. There was copious squishing and jostling as I increased my speed, trying to get away from anyone who might recognize me. I was only in Chicago for a few months, and was in one of those “say yes to everything” spurts. When else would I have the chance to ride naked with strangers with little-to-no fear of seeing a familiar face? Within two minutes, I was at the first bottleneck – the Kinzie street bridge – and I was forced to dismount and walk alongside the too-tall bicycle. Riding a bike at high-speeds while naked = terrifying but possible. Walking alongside a borrowed bike while naked = mortifyingly awkward. I stared straight ahead, cheeks burning, wondering why I hadn’t stuffed my boxers into my socks. Without realizing it, I’d committed to finishing the bike ride. Here, at least I was surrounded by other nudists. If I turned around, I was a single naked rider, which seemed… impossible. Illegal. No more than seven minutes had passed since I’d first seen the motley arrangement of nipples and bodypaint and here I was, walking – walking slowly – alongside them. No one really said much, which meant we could hear the catcalls and shutters snapping as the cameras flashed. There were a lot of people lining the streets, which had been shut down for this… what was it? What was going on? I glanced to my left, where a slim woman was walking alongside a basketed pink bike. She had an intricate ladybug painted across her breasts and some words spray painted in black across her shoulder blades. She was young, pretty, and I suddenly wondered if nerves had constricted my business, but felt it was bad form to look down or manually adjust. I cleared my throat. “Hey, what is this for?” She stared straight ahead, walking a little faster, pulling her bike between a hairy man with a bear mask and an older, leather-clad gentleman. “The bike ride, I mean,” I said to her waggling buttocks. The cameras clicked and I risked a downward glance. Eh.
I took a deep breath and pushed forward, doing my best to feign genital confidence as I subtly made my way toward the middle of the pack. Strange odors and scattered hoots filled the air as we crossed the bottlenecked bridge in groups of threes and fours. I remounted my bike, wobbling into a long-haired guy wearing a thong. An asymmetrical, Cubist version of the globe was painted on his hairless chest. “Sorry,” I murmured as I got my stride and pedaled slowly down the street. We turned onto LaSalle and headed for the Loop – a pale assortment of flailing limbs, quivering testicles and spinning wheels.
I’ve never been especially comfortable with my body, which made this decision particularly rash. I’ve skinny dipped, but not, y’know, confidently. I’ve streaked, but not, y’know, while it was light outside. I took another deep breath and risked a few looks around. The streets were jam-packed with onlookers, shouting encouragements or derisions or flirtations. Cameras flashed and iPhones recorded. One guy was crouched behind a heavy-duty tripod and a Superbowl-level telephoto lens, one black cloth away from a nineteenth-century daguerreotyper. There were more than a few riders with underwear on, and this struck me as especially offensive. After all, I didn’t even know what this whole thing was about and I’d gone Full Monty. I turned to one such man (safer that way) and repeated my earlier question. He looked at me, eyes red and smile wide, and said “The Earth, man. The fucking Earth.” He hooted and raised one fist in the air, and a few of the surrounding bikers followed suit. I gave a half-hearted whoop, but I doubt anyone believed it.
We pedaled through the Loop, two left turns taking us back toward River North… and then we kept heading north. Away from my apartment. Away from my boxers. Away from my repository of carefully-collected dignity. “Hey,” I tried again, more confidently this time, deeper-voiced. “How long is this thing?” The guy smiled at me, but didn’t answer. “This bike ride. How long is it?”
“Dunno!” he said. “Maybe ten miles? Twelve?” He leaned to his right and asked someone else. They shrugged. He leaned back to me, pedaling lazily. “Ten or twelve miles. Something like that. Maybe more. Fifteen?” He whooped again, indefatigable.
I slowed, letting him pedal away. My mouth was dry and my stomach rumbled and my scrotum ached. The bicycle seat was sweaty and sticky and I wasn’t sure how much to relax my buttocks. I didn’t know where we were going and I couldn’t ride back by myself. Regret smelled suspiciously like a mix of body odor and patchouli. For the next thirty minutes or so, I rode slowly through the streets of Chicago or walked alongside Dominic’s bicycle, looking casually away from the ubiquitous camera hordes and always wishing this whole thing could just… go… a… little…faster. An hour passed and the streets became unfamiliar. We were still getting further away from my apartment, and there was no sense of flagging enthusiasm around me. I began to recognize teams of nudists, some with matching wigs, others with complimentary slogans splashed across their chests, still others loosely chained to one other in a vague tip of the hat to bondage biker culture. A pale dreadlocked biker pedaled one of those sit-down tricycles, an enormous pair of speakers resting on the rear platform. It blasted music I didn’t recognize, but it was trancey and appropriate and it kept my mind off the absurd lack of conversation. I wasn’t clear on precisely how to meet people while nude. Social protocols were all askew, even in the middle of Operation: Extreme Openness. There wasn’t much talking, but there was plenty of hooting, a good amount of hollering and a shit ton of smiling. I pedaled on.
Over the next half hour or so, I found myself in a consistent clump and was able to more fully examine the bodies around me. I’d positioned myself behind a Lady Godiva-type, brown hair flowing to the upper regions of a perfectly-proportioned posterior. A smattering of moles dotted her upper and lower back, and I spent a solid five minutes discovering new constellations as she glided gently from side to side. To my left was a lanky bespectacled man with a messenger bag slung across his bare chest. The red and green smears of paint could have begun the night as a poem, a portrait, or a Yuletide greeting, but had become modernism at its finest beneath the constant rubbing of the solitary strap. Beyond him, a black man with a beard dyed blond carried a boombox on his shoulder and occasionally closed his eyes in J5-driven ecstasy. A beautiful couple pedaled at my two o’clock, tanned, muscled, chiseled, and CLOTHED. Sports bra and Lycra bottoms for the lady, biking shorts for the man. They definitely made more sense on a beach than the center of downtown Chicago, but not here at the NBR. This, I learned, was a fairly reliable (and annoying) observation – anyone with a body constructed for nudity was rarely, if ever, nude. At first, it was an interesting conundrum – what could possibly be a safer place to expose all that hard work? Even a four looked like a solid seven out here, amidst the sixty-year-old pendulous breasts, braid-able ass hair, and vein-laden thighs. But I realized—bodies mattered to these people. Bodies were things to be studied, sculpted, cherished, and as a result, nudity was a gift reserved only for significant others or, possibly, for money. I looked down at myself, realized my spontaneous nudity had inadvertently put me in the correct group, and sat up a bit straighter. I suddenly wanted to belong to the nudists, I wanted this skin to matter less. I smiled at the woman directly to my right, an enormous girl in her early twenties with an incredible array of tattoos half-hidden under an impossible number of skin folds. Her Betty Page hair and thick-framed glasses made clothes unnecessary to convey who she was. She grinned back, as if we’d just been told the same dirty joke. Behind us was a motley group – skinny hipsters and hairy hippies and goth girls, all naked, yet still completely defined. Two rows back, a chubby girl with a purple wig and angel wings strapped to her naked back looked around, her smile as wide as her eyes. “You guys!” she said, as if she were noticing a rainbow or discovering the beauty of the Mandelbrot set for the first time. “We’re all so beautiful!” A few people in our riding clump nodded. Someone whooped. The gorgeous couple didn’t seem to notice, which filled me with a progressive kind of schadenfreude. At that moment, I didn’t care how many cameras were pointing in our direction. At that moment, the girl was right. Oh, I thought, I get it.
Up ahead, police were corralling the NBR into a darkened park, and I dismounted, confused, worried that it was some sort of counter-culture sting. After all, we were breaking the law… right? One of the cops shooed me in. “Halfway point,” he muttered. “Thirty minutes, then back on the bikes.” I couldn’t tell if he was amused by his job, or was slowly confronting his worst nightmare. Music thumped in the near distance and I licked dry lips as I walked Dominic’s bike down a darkened path. As my eyes adjusted and I came to the central clearing, I found that the park was lit by splotches of white skin, sharp lines of neon… and a high-powered epilepsy-inducing strobe light. An enormous set of speakers blasted club music and about twenty NBRiders writhed and contorted and fist-pumped. Bodies filtered into the park, hundreds of naked men and women, ranging in age from eighteen (I hoped) to eighty. To my right, an elderly naked couple danced slowly, eyes locked together, the strobe lights illuminating the man’s hand as he brushed it softly against the small of the woman’s back. She closed her eyes and kissed him gently, her mouth curving into a smile against his. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, even when a man dressed as a pantless Tron threw a neon ring at my chest and grabbed his flaccid penis suggestively. Blow-up dolls and wigs, devil horns and body paint, straps of leather and sprigs of lace, the park was brimming with revolution.
I started laughing, first out of sheer sensory overload, but finally at the thought that there were people in the world who were missing this. We were beautiful, goddammit. Every rogue hair and asymmetrical mole and swath of stretch marks, every FUPA and muffin-top and too long/short/thick/thin penis, every deformity and every perfection – they had become irrelevant because no one was looking at them anymore. I’d stopped trolling for deficits, ceased gawking at forbidden areas. I was looking strangers in the eye and smiling, genuinely smiling, because I did find them beautiful and brave, and I could tell they felt the same about me. I was walking through a Chicago park at ten p.m., naked except for knee-high white socks and uncomfortably bright tennis shoes, smiling at strangers and dancing to terrible club music. Gradually, the clothed people had filtered out, or segregated themselves, or assimilated, because by the time we climbed back on our bicycles after a half-hour of Matrix-like trance dancing, we were all naked. And we were all talking to one another. And we were all grinning like idiots.
The second half of the NBR was a blur, mainly spent magnanimously greeting the hordes of people spilling out of the bars or the gawking, crawling oncoming traffic. I waved like the Queen of England and gave high-fives to men in suits, I hooted and I hollered, I stood up and pedaled through open streets, relishing the odd sensation of wind against parts that hadn’t seen the outdoors in years. Occasionally, I’d slow down to chat with a fellow NBRider, or dismount to walk through police-induced bottlenecks, but it now felt as comfortable as a music festival. We passed a guy standing atop a newspaper vending machine, snapping pictures as we coasted by. We cheered for him and shouted and he nodded as if he’d only been waiting for his cue, dropping his pants, removing his shirt, and raising both arms like a V. A few bystanders flashed us, smiling and waving. I saw a naked jogger, a naked unicyclist and more than a few naked roller skaters. The NBR had somehow mutated into a cohesive group, an event. There was a reason, I realized, that it was a four-hour ride. The reality is that I didn’t stop thinking about myself and my insecurities until hour three. I wasn’t able to see the people around me until I’d learned to stop seeing their bodies, and that wasn’t possible until I could stop thinking about mine. It was like mass therapy, a sudden, striking check on the constant stream of unrealistic media images. These were bodies. This was us. And we were fucking beautiful.