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 created by the industrial revolution and activities other than frequenting taverns and brothels. The need was obviously great because it grew quickly as an organization and spread to other countries in Europe and throughout the British Empire and 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. From a Bible study group for young men it soon became a major youth organization dedicated to physical fitness.
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 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.
As a male organization there was no question that men and boys would swim naked in YMCA pools. In fact, it was required. First of all, men and boys had swum naked if they were doing recreational swimming. 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. It was also considered manly to be naked with each other. Men and boys had nothing to be ashamed of. Besides which, the wool bathing suits were a drag 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).
The YMCA flourished against the background of the muscular Christianity movement that began in England in the mid-19th century, spread to other countries, and continued well into the 20th century. This movement 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. In America Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a household that practiced muscular Christianity and he promoted it his personal life, politics, and pursuit of progressive causes. Many churches built gyms in their facilities and supported sports teams. The YMCA provided the means to support all of these fitness activities with its gyms, exercise rooms, swimming pools, sports teams, and competitions.
The YMCA provided not only gyms and pools in its activity centers, but also maintained summer camps with outdoor activities. In fact, the Y invented basketball as an indoor game and volleyball as an outdoor game. As there was swimming in indoor pools, so there was swimming in outdoor pools or lakes. In the old days boys also swam naked at summer camps.
Photo from YMCA camp 1910
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 becoming 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 venues for gay meetups. This story is told by John David Gustav-Wrathall, Take the 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 freshman or junior high 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 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.
As usual, I would be happy to receive comments on this article.
Pastor Frank Senn