nudity, swimming, YMCA, youth

Frank Answers About Swimming Naked in the YMCA

Why did males swim naked in the YMCA before the 1960s?

I would think this question has been answered in two previous blog articles about swimming naked. However, someone asked the question and I thought that perhaps the YMCA’s story should be told more fully.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded as an explicitly Christian organization by 22-year old George Williams in London in 1844. It provided Christian fellowship for young men drawn to the city by jobs that had been created by the industrial revolution. This Christian fellowship offered activities other than frequenting taverns and brothels. The need was obviously great because the YMCA grew quickly as an organization and spread to other countries in Europe and throughout the British Empire and to the U.S. within a half dozen years.

Responding to unhealthy living conditions as well as the lure of morally questionable activities in the cities, the YMCA aimed to put Christian principles into practice by developing in young men a healthy “body, mind, and spirit”. It embraced the ideals of the physical culture movement that was spreading across northern Europe during the 19th century. From a Bible study group for young men it soon became a major youth organization dedicated to physical, mental, and spiritual fitness.

It should be noted that the “muscular Christianity” movement began in England at the same time as the YMCA. “Muscular Christianity” was a reaction to the feminization of the Churches and the emphasis on the soul at the expense of the body. This emphasis extends back to the late Middle Ages but seemed to have come to a head in the Victorian Era.  Muscular Christianity sought to suppress what was effeminate in men and reinforce manliness through physical fitness, athleticism, the teamwork of sports, discipline, and self-sacrifice.  It was popularized by Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days as well as by writer Charles Kingsley. This movement spread to other countries during the second half of the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. In America Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a household that practiced muscular Christianity and he promoted it in his personal life, politics, and pursuit of progressive causes.  Many churches built gyms in their facilities and supported sports teams.  But the YMCA provided the means to support all of these fitness activities with its gyms, exercise rooms, swimming pools, sports teams, and competitions.

The first YMCA building constructed with a gymnasium opened in 1869 and others soon followed. Boston YMCA staffer Robert J. Roberts is credited with coining the term “bodybuilding” in 1881. He developed exercise classes that anticipated today’s fitness workouts making use of heavy equipment for muscular development.

The YMCA also opened summer camps to give urban youth outdoor experiences. The Y invented volley ball as an outdoor game and basketball as an indoor game. Swimming was available at summer camps, usually in lakes and ponds. Following custom, outdoor swimming was naked (although this was  not enforced if a boy wanted to wear a bathing suit).

YMCA camp 1910

YMCA camp at Greensboro

The first YMCA recreational indoor pool was built in Brooklyn in 1885. The Y included swimming lessons in its program because so many urban boys were drowning. Pools and swimming lessons became standard parts of most YMCA programs.

As a male organization there was no question that men and boys would swim naked in YMCA pools. In fact, it was required from the beginning. Men and boys had swum naked if they were doing recreational swimming, so there was nothing unusual about it. Only with the establishment of public beaches for both men and women did men begin wearing swimming suits. Preserving female modesty included not only what women wore but also that they shouldn’t be exposed to naked men. Indoors, this was not necessary since the sexes swam separately. In the case of the YMCA, it was men and boys only. It was also considered manly for men to be naked with each other. Men and boys had nothing to be ashamed of. Besides which, the wool bathing suits were a drag on swimming and produced much lint that clogged the primitive filters.

With the growing awareness of the role of bacteria in spreading disease, the American Public Health Association (APHA) in 1926 issued guidelines for swimming pools that included nude showering with soap before entering the pool and nude swimming. An exception was made for women to wear undyed and unadorned swimming suits out of respect for female issues (e.g. monthly periods).

When the APHA ceased issuing its nude swimming recommendation for pools in 1962 because of improved water clorination and better filters, local Ys could decide how they would respond. Many simply continued the tradition of swimming naked because it was manly and to inculcate a sense of pride in one’s body. Other Ys began to allow boys to wear swimming suits as an option, especially at family nights when mothers and sisters might be present to watch swimming demonstrations (although many boys still preferred to swim naked).

Finally, when the YMCAs began admitting women and girls into membership during the 1960s, boys would have to wear swimming suits for swimming instructions if girls were included in the classes. Female membership was a natural outgrowth of the involvement of women in the Y almost since its beginning. Women had served as staff assistants, taught classes (including swimming), served as lifeguards, and raised funds in ladies’ auxiliaries.

The admission of women in the Ys may also be seen against the background of urban Ys with hotels which had become sites of cruising by single men and homosexual liaisons. The Y had sought to foster intimate male bonding and many of the Y’s directors (called secretaries) were lifelong bachelors. Homoerotic presence in the Ys diminished in the 1970s after women were admitted and with the emergence of other safe venues for gay meetups. This story is told by John David Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Strangers by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA, Chicago Series on Sexuality, History and Society (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

It should be noted that this search for male companionship has no relationship to sexual abuse of children by instructors or staff persons. Programs with boys and youth continued as usual. While there have been reported instances of child molesting, the Ys have taken steps to prevent it.

There are many vintage photos of nude swimming in YMCAs. Before the 1960s if photos were taken of boys in swim suits, it was probably for the sake of having photos that could be publicly displayed. One of our commentators on the “Frank Answers About Swimming Naked” article relates that at the YMCA summer camp in his youth the boys swam naked. But for parents’ day at camp swim suits were issued. They were collected when the parents left. The same arrangement could have been made in indoor Y pools.

The YMCA is unlikely to return to male naked swimming. In some Ys men and boys aren’t even allowed to be shirtless in the workout rooms or gyms even when playing basketball or doing yoga, because (as I was told by a female program director) “we are a family organization”. Well, the Y was a family organization when boys swam naked. But the young staffers have no memory of that. And today’s young men are too modest to be seen naked even in the showers or locker rooms.

So the irony is that the YMCA, which began as an organization to provide young men with wholesome male companionship, and gave boys a kind of initiation into manhood by swimming naked with each other under the tutelage of adult male guides, has now become feminized—and just at a time when many boys and young men need formation into a healthy masculine identity.

In Frank Answers About Swimming Naked I suggested that junior high or high school freshman naked swimming was a kind of initiation of boys. We are a society that has lost the ability to form boys into responsible men through male-guided initiation. Rites and ordeals of initiation in traditional societies usually included nakedness. (See Frank Answers About Initiation.)  The difference between the YMCA and the schools in this regard is that in the Ys naked swimming was somewhat voluntary. One did not have to participate in YMCA programs, whereas in the schools it was required. See the reported experiences of swimming naked at YMCA indoor pools or summer camps among the comments on Frank Answers About Swimming Naked and Frank Answers About Swimming Naked—Commentary Part I: Discerning the Truth.

As usual, I would be happy to receive comments on this article, especially testimonies from those who experienced swimming naked at the YMCA.

Pastor Frank Senn

26 Comments

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    Jeff

    At that time excessive modesty was considered a liability for boys. We were all potentially little soldiers who would have to shower and barrack together. I suppose nude swimming was suppose to help us get over the embarrassment and frankly it did feel good not to have to wear a wet clingy suit. But I don’t think it will ever return. Times are different now.

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      Tim

      I am not scholarly in the ways of rites of initiation. However, I did read Robert Bly’s Iron John when it came out. So while I agree swimming naked could have been used to create camaraderie, I would believe other ways can be found to achieve the same goal. While swimming naked in the face of it should be innocuous, I feel even young people’s knowledge of ‘gay culture’ would color any attempt to do so in a negative light.

      • Frank Senn

        I scoured online news sources to find instances of child sex abuse in the YMCA. Only a few popped up. One was of an older teen molesting little girls in Australia. Not quite like the numbers of Catholic priests or Chicago Public Schools employees or Boy Scout leaders accused of sexually abusing boys (and girls in the case of Chicago). The Y undertook a massive child sex abuse educational effort in 2010 aimed at parents and put strict guidelines into place for adult-child interaction. The homoerotic culture that once flourished in the YMCAs no longer does, and one doesn’t hear of men who as boys swam naked at the Y in that earlier era coming forward with stories of abuse. If someone knows differently, I’d like to know about it. If a “gay culture” continues to exist at YMCAs, I’d like to know about that too. I certainly didn’t sense it at the Y I attended for years as an adult. Quite frankly, I think gay men were interested in one another, not in little boys.

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    Ken Ely

    Frank,
    My sons are nearing 40. Their ‘modesty’ with one another and with me makes me blush. I grew up in a time when we boys swam together naked, showered naked, and sometimes just played naked. We won’t return to that, not in my lifetime, anyway; but I feel sad for my sons. They are missing part of manhood.

    • Avatar

      ABC

      Amen Ken Ely. I am almost 40, but have learned from posts like yours that nudity with other males is nothing to be afraid of. I wish we could have the camaraderie and friendship your older generation used to have.

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    Thomas

    The disappearance of nude male swimming at YMCA’s and high schools coincides with the increased visibility of male homosexuals. Period. Homophobia killed it.

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    Mike

    My father told me that he swam naked at the YMCA and when they had swim meets, the families were invited to attend. This included mothers, sister, aunts and cousins and since other boys were there, often many girls who were their classmates were there too watching the boys they sat next to in class swim while the males were totally naked. Personally I would not have any problem with that happening today and I would let my sons swim naked even with girls allowed to watch them and I would not mind naked males swimming with girls including my daughters as long as all the girls wore modest one piece suits. Girls do need more modesty . BTW that is how my father met my mother, she was fully dressed in the stands while he was standing naked in front of her and her mom and 2 sisters. They all knew what she was getting long before he ever saw her. It took about 4 years before he saw her without cloths and by that time she must have seen him naked several dozen times.

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      Matt

      My Dad also swam nude at the YMCA, sadly my brother and I never got to experience it. I think that it was good that males had to swim nude and were treated differently from girls. Girls have periods and therefore will need to wear swimwear. I wouldn’t have had a problem being seen naked by girls, mothers and aunts. It was a great time for a lad to grow up and be able to be proud of their bodies and be comfortable to be seen naked.

  5. Avatar

    Your articles on a bygone era inspired me to write my recollections of havin’ to disrobe in front of strangers at the tender age of nine. In 1961 we’d go boating on the Mississippi, since drownings weren’t uncommon my folks thought it’d be a wise precaution, for my brother & I, to take swim lessons at the City pool. Though it was an outdoor pool with co-gender lessons, the municipal bathhouse was segregated, of course. Disrobing in front of my brother, on bath night, was one thing; doin’ it in front of a lot of rowdy boys from working-class households was intimidating for a sensitive under-sized 9 year old. The municipal bathhouse was built in 1938 as a W.P.A. project. Not only did the changing area lack booths it was open to the sky.

    Years later the local college put up a student-union near it. I believe anyone on the upper floor of that had a good view of the bathhouse!

    As Rev. Senn mentioned in this article, public health regulations then mandated that people taking swim lessons at YMCAs, high schools & public pools shower before entering the pool. As if it wasn’t enough of an indignity to disrobe in front of those rowdy boys, I had to pre-shower in the open group shower.

    Though Rev. Senn writes of the “Muscular Christian movement”, I don’t believe it gained a foot-hold in the Catholic church. While 19th Century Protestantism began to espouse the notion that “cleanliness is next to Godliness”, the Catholic hierarchy’s attitude of modesty (aka Adam & Eve’s fall from grace) was also a throwback to the Medieval notion that un-cleanliness was next to Godliness! Back in those early centuries the Christian churches discouraged not only swimming naked but even bathing regularly! These were looked upon by the clergy as unChristian since the pagan culture of Imperial Rome did encourage them. They took the opposite stance, as advocated by Saint Jerome, that “BO” was god-given, therefore early Christians ought to embrace or at least endure it!

    • Frank Senn

      The YMCA was founded as an evangelical Protestant organization and it’s true that the Catholic Church officially told its members not to join it in 1920. Today anyone can be a member. “Muscular Christianity” was a movement not “owned” by any denomination. The YMCA embraced muscular Christianity and did much to promote it, but the movement itself transcended the Y. In the early 20th century many Catholic parishes had gymnasiums, sponsored athletic leagues, and promoted martial sports like boxing and wrestling, just as many Protestant churches did. So it gained more than a foothold in Catholic church life.

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    What struck me about all those boys is none of ’em looked overweight! ‘Course those photos had to ‘ve been taken before TVs, & TV dinners, were common in most households. Back then there were more open spaces to hike & bike. Of course, processed foods were still uncommon. Last, but not least, there were no PCs or Internet.

  7. Avatar

    I don’t want to rain on anyone’s swing down nostalgia lane; but the polio virus was the “summer terror” until Dr. Jonas Salk & his team developed the vaccine that made it safe to go back in public pools.

    This is a chapter in 20th Century America that’s all but forgotten. Though Public health guidelines required males to forego any swim attire, partially for hygienic reasons, that rule didn’t prevent the spread of this potentially deadly/paralyzing virus. The summer polio epidemics caused many local health officials to shut down public pools in an era when air-conditioning wasn’t common.

    My definition of nostalgia: looking back on your past through rose-colored glasses.

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    Glenn Kennedy

    I am a gay man and back when there was swimming and working out nude at the YMCA, it was completely wild for me. Most young teenagers over 15 or 16 have problems trying not to get an erection, so imagine swimming, working out, showering constantly around every guy that is nude? It was the same in high school if not worse. I was on the swim team and there were times you almost got an erection but gladly in the end didn’t because it could ruin the race. But I will say this, I wasn’t the only one that popped a boner at times and contrary to today with all these online hookup sites, I found it very easy to meet like minded guys and enjoy time together with them. It was all so innocent and easy. I was always thin and muscular and to be really honest and direct, I don’t remember having one friend or any of the guys in the pool or workout areas being overweight or fat. That really says a lot today! One of the things I remember were the questions about anatomy all the guys were always throwing out. I am pretty endowed and I am uncut, and for some reason at the Y, it was always a topic of discussion or some guy would grab me and pull my foreskin back. And again, this is all innocent. Today you could never do something like that because of offending someone or their religion or its just not politically correct. I am not gonna lie, I do miss those days, it was innocent, hot, just an everyday way of living that’s gone away.

    • Frank Senn

      Glenn, you mention working out nude as well as swimming nude in the YMCA. There’s not a lot of information about exercising naked at the Y, although there are a few vintage photos that purport to portray it. What do you mean by “workout?” I remember doing jumping jacks (naked, of course) on the pool deck to warm up for high school swim class. Any authentic personal descriptions of a “nude workout” would be appreciated.

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        Daniel

        The Painesville, OH YMCA had a men’s fitness club membership where free weights and some basic machines were available for use in the MFC locker room. This was in place and use at least until 1982. Many (all?) of the greater Cleveland YMCAs had similar Men’s Fitness Clubs up through at least 1999. Nude exercise by men was allowed in these locker room located exercise facilities.

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        David Feltman

        Here in Charlotte, NC, the main Y downtown had until about ten years ago, exercise equipment and stretching/napping mats in the huge locker room. Men exercised naked and did floor exercises and napped. Also, as a boy, I was dropped off at the downtown Atlanta Y during the summer, like a summer camp. All swimming was nude, grown men and boys.

  9. Avatar

    How often did you and your classmates get erect nude together? Did anyone act embarrassed and try to hide it? Females ever present? My high school did not have a pool and nude swimming was over by that time. ..i wish i had experienced it..

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      DENNIS RAUCH

      I swam nude at the YMCA from age 8 to 18. Being nude with other guys wasn’t a sexual thing for us and erections were few and far between. We also swam nude once a month with our fathers on a father/son night. Our swim meets had moms and sisters in attendance but, again, the nudity wasn’t looked on as sexual.
      I went on to being a social nudist and have spent many weekends and holidays at resorts with like minded families. We have a non-landed club that meets once a month during the winter in a local YMCA.
      I feel sorry for the past few generations that can’t feel at ease being nude around each other.

      • Avatar

        Phil

        Dennis I absolutely agree. BUT you may be overlooking something. FORCING boys to go naked in classes is quite another thing because it is about power of adults over children who may vary in their readiness for a number of reasons. For example my parents were ex-Catholics but passed on the guilt feelings. Moreover I had been molested when young. So for me at the Hollywood YMCA swimming class around 1950 at about age 10 it had the opposite effect from making me feel at ease. It was quite insensitive and damaging.

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    Jeff

    I don’t recall erections being a “big” problem. “It” doesn’t inflate instantly and there are ways to stop or hide an erection. When I felt myself becoming hard I would jump into the pool, or sit on a bench leaning forward as I crossed my forearms over my lap until things settled down. You could also find a bench to lie on face down or make a dash for the restroom. A number of times I noticed boys with partial “bones” but it was rare to see a kid fully erect. Not saying it never happened but it wasn’t at all common and when it happened nobody drew attention to it. You’d just pretend it wasn’t there.

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    PAUL Luther VINES

    Unfortunately, my brothers and I were raised in a strict religious church where it was impressed upon us that nudity or sex was sin. We were inhibited, shy and considered weird in junior high to refuse to take showers in the locker room with other boys in school. I even said one time that ‘it was against my religion’ to get out of showering nude. I really regret that now and remember it as a bad memory. Not until I was in high school did I experience the liberation and freedom of showering naked with my gym mates. My dad was quite shy himself, and I’m sure this caused a void in my ‘father and son’ relationship. However, in my 30s I became a licensed massage practitioner; giving massages and receiving massages – then discovering the beauty and health benefits of nudity and being inhibited no more.

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      John Birmingham

      I grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The local YMCA was a major part of my upbringing. There was never any hint of sexuality in those days. I learned to swim at the Y. We boys always swam naked, and there was no sense of shame or modesty about being nude with other males in the pool, the showers or the locker room. The Y’s program included Gra-Y and Hi-Y meetings for boys, supervised by dedicated male role models and always presenting Christian principles of behavior. Gra-Y was for grade-school boys, and Hi-Y was for high-school boys. I agree that the YMCA became feminized by the policy of admitting females to the Y’s membership. As the name still implies (Young MEN’s Christian Association), it’s essentially an all-male organization.

      • Frank Senn

        Actually, women are now included as full members of the YMCA, so it is not an all-male organization. The role of women in the Y is a complicated story that is told by John Donald Gustav-Wrathall in his book I referenced in the article.

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    Laurence

    I learned to swim at the Y in 1953 at age 10. Everyone was nude, men and boys, since it was required. Showers were also required and the place was sparkling clean. I would often take the bus downtown alone, and spend the summer afternoons swimming at the Y. I was never bothered by anyone. Any Y staff member who behaved “inappropriately” (that was the word) with a boy was instantly fired. In those days boys had good coaches to serve as role models, and there was male camaraderie and fellowship.
    How times have changed. Change is not always for the better, alas.

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    John Birmingham

    I cannot agree that the YMCA is not an essentially all-male organization, at least as far as its origins and founding philosophy are concerned. Of course there were (and still are) women who worked and work for the Y, but that fact doesn’t detract from the basic reality. Incidentally, the correct title (first part) of the book by John Donald Gustav-Wrathall that you mention is “Take The YOUNG Stranger [singular] By The Hand, ” not “Take The Strangers [plural] By The Hand.”

    • Frank Senn

      Oops on the book title. Thanks for noticing it. I now corrected the title in the article. I actually have it on my shelf, next to Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Harvard University Press, 2001), which also has a lot of details about the founding of the YMCA and its early years. (I’m writing an essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality,” which includes, but is not limited to, the physical culture movement, the YMCA, and muscular Christianity.) There’s no question that the Y was an all-male organization at its founding and up to ca. 1970 when it redefined itself as a “family organization.” I experienced it in my youth as all-male and in recent years as all-family. At its best it provided a spirituality of friendship for men through body-oriented intimacy (although officially homophobic). Interestingly, neither book has much on the custom of swimming naked.

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