Grey Matters: The Big Cover-up
Seattle wrestles with public nudity, but it’s not much of a turn-on
Seattle is hardly a “naked city.” It’s cool and rainy, often uptight. We are more often seen bundled in fleece than sunbathing in bikinis. Even our Native American inhabitants of yore wore heavy cloaks, not loincloths. Check out the downtown statue of our namesake—Chief Sealth clutches his robe not just for modesty but for his health.
But we’ve often flirted with public nudity, with examples that go back a century. Public exposure in these parts used to be restricted to nature activities, like the discreet, informal nude beach tucked out of view. In a new book, Norwegian Seattle by Kristine Leander, there’s a picture of a bare-breasted group of Norse nymphs skinny-dipping during an outing to Mount Rainier in 1915. Going naked was rare, but when you went au naturel, it was acceptable if it was in the woods.
Failure to be cautious could be tragic. In 1911, a few women at the anarchist-friendly alternative community called Home (in Pierce County) were arrested for swimming naked in Puget Sound. They had been doing it for years, but sprawl had brought them unappreciative neighbors. Their arrest and trial became a cause célèbre over the rights of individuals—including the right to swim in the buff, no matter how chilly the waters. That fight was worthy, but the publicity helped ruin their utopian colony by bringing unwanted public scrutiny. It also set a precedent for the idea that nudity in the Pacific Northwest could be a political statement rather than a simple, sensual pleasure.
The politics of nudity continue today. In San Francisco, there used to be a strip club called “Naked Lady Wrestlers,” but Seattle is still wrestling with nakedness itself, private or public. The struggle in Seattle contrasts with Portland—a more freewheeling town, as southern cities often are (Miami, New Orleans, Rio). Down in Portland, they had a mayor who once famously posed as a flasher on a poster. In the sexier Rose City, strip clubs are sprinkled throughout town rather than restricted to sleazy districts. In contrast, Seattle has tried to ban, limit and corral them. Last fall, the Seattle Mariners objected to a plan to locate a Déjà Vu Showgirls strip club in SoDo. It would taint the family atmosphere of Safeco Field, they claimed. But is what goes on in a Déjà Vu really less wholesome than overcharging patrons to see the most wretched franchise in baseball?
Beyond stripper wars, Seattle’s most recent nudity issue was whether or not to permit nude cyclists to ride through city parks. The parks advisory board was set to consider a nudity ban until they were confronted by a clothed crowd “asserting the right to be naked” gathered outside the meeting. The board decided not to crack down.
So strip clubs are non grata, but nude cyclists are tolerated. More than that, they’ve become an institution at Fremont’s annual gloriously pagan Summer Solstice parade, which features nearly naked bikers in imaginative costumes (not all are technically nude, but plenty of private parts are revealed). Such activities are not welcomed everywhere in the region, however. In Vancouver, British Columbia, police arrested a father and his 3-year-old son for riding naked in a nude bike event, in violation of local nudity laws.
The man-boy element might have raised eyebrows in B.C., but on this subject Seattle seems more open-minded than our Canadian cousins. The Olympic Sculpture Park features a fountain with a naked boy and man facing one another. While conservative radio talk show host John Carlson called it “a thinly veiled homage to pedophilia,” public opinion seems to be unconvinced of the sculpture’s malevolence.