I recently attended a reunion of the class of 1961 of Bennett High School in Buffalo, NY. As part of the weekend events we were given a tour of our high school to see what had changed and what remained the same. When we went to the pool our tour guide said, “you men will probably remember the barbaric practice of having to swim nude.” I protested, “it wasn’t barbaric, it was a good tradition.” A couple of the guys in our group, with whom I probably had swimming classes, seemed to nod in agreement. The guide asserted, “Well, I think it was barbaric. I don’t know what the rationale was for such a practice.”
I didn’t press the issue, although I thought as a retired teacher he probably should have found out what the rationale was for the practice of swimming naked if he was going to comment on it. But here’s the answer…or at least an answer.
[Note: I have updated this article several times on the basis of comments that helpfully offered further details on the practice of naked swimming, especially in the public schools.]
People who didn’t experience boys swimming naked in the YMCA and in many physical education programs in the public schools in the US find it hard to believe that this was done. Yet this was the practice. Boys swam naked in the YMCAs and in school physical education classes from the time pools were first installed in these institutions in the late 19th century until the 1970s. Many men over 50 testify that they swam naked in high school and college. Many people under 50 don’t believe them. But it was the practice and there are some pictures to prove it.
Figure 1. This photo of a swimming class at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois appeared in Life magazine October 16, 1950.
The following photo of a swimming class with naked boys appears on the internet with the claim that it was featured in Life magazine in 1951. Further research indicates that it is actually a photo taken by a Life photographer for a story about University of Michigan swim coach Matthew Mann. The story appeared in Life on March 7, 1938 but the photo wasn’t used; it appears in the Life photo archive website. But it reminds me of what I experienced at Bennett High School in Buffalo during my freshman year (1957-58).
Among other changes, our tour guide at Bennett pointed out that the diving boards had been removed from the pool because of a fatal diving accident. It was undoubtedly traumatic that such a thing happened. But thousands of boys had learned to dive off those boards, including me. I was never a good diver because I was nearsighted and was always worried about where I would land. But I at least had the experience of trying it under supervision.
These boys are younger than 9th grade, but the diving board looks similar to the one I remember in our high school pool.
When we got to the gym our guide pointed out that the climbing poles and ropes had been removed and climbing was no longer a part of the school gym curriculum. Apparently there had been some accidents. I was sad to hear that the ropes and poles were gone because I had actually done well in climbing in the 7th and 8th grades and did it in the boys gymnastic show in P.S. 61. So a physical activity that I was actually good at has been removed.
We were often shirtless in elementary school gym class, which was a situation in which adolescent boys were often insecure because our bodies were developing at wildly different rates. Ironically, I felt less self-conscious being naked in 9th grade swimming class than being shirtless in 8th grade gymnastics. Maybe it was because in swimming we shed those school-issued shorts that accentuated skinny legs.
Reasons for this Blog Article
Why would I even be interested in responding to the issue of naked swimming in the schools in the old days with a blog article? For a number of reasons. First, here was a practice most men experienced as recently as fifty years ago, and is a living memory for many of us, and people don’t know about it. Some even deny it happened because it doesn’t fit our current cultural mores. Men don’t talk about it even if they were comfortable with the practice because the reactions are usually negative. So this article is an exercise in social history to discuss what was standard practice in America until the 1970s. Boys swam naked in the YMCA and American high schools and sometimes teachers or coaches were naked too (although my swimming teacher always wore a swim suit). I set this in the broader context of naked swimming in America.
Second, it is surely a matter of interest in U.S. social history that a practice that millions of men experienced as boys has been suppressed in our collective memory. This reflects a radical change in social mores today that reflects different attitudes toward nudity, privacy, and the body than were common in earlier times in America. We tend to reject the attitudes and views of previous generations because they contradict our own (more enlightened?) attitudes and views, as if our attitudes and views can’t withstand the challenge of different standards. But perhaps some of our current attitudes and views need to be challenged, including our attitudes toward and views about nudity today which are almost exclusively associated with sexuality.
Fig. 6. Cover of Collier’s magazine August 20, 1949
Third, this topic fits in with my ongoing “return to the body” project that is evident in many Frank Answer articles. Nakedness is a powerful religious and spiritual symbol. (I actually first broached this topic of swimming naked at the YMCA in my “Frank Answer About Being Naked Before God.” It was written before I went to my class reunion, so the issue was probably on my mind when our class reunion guide brought it up.) Philosophically, I don’t think that the body is just something that we have, as if the real me is something other than the body (like the mind or the soul). Rather, I was created as a body—a body with a mind and a soul.
Boys are always concerned about how their bodies are developing in comparison with the bodies of other boys. This is a fourth reason for writing this article.
Our society today tends to have crazy attitudes toward the body. The body is glamorized in the media (using impossible models for the rest of us) and this in turn leads to issues of body shame (sometimes producing eating disorders). Let’s not think that body shame is only a women’s issue. Men also feel that they are physically inadequate when they compare their bodies to media-glamorized images of the male body. Even when I was a youth there were muscle magazines encouraging boys to bulk up so they wouldn’t be the skinny kid having sand kicked in his face on the beach—in front of his girl friend, who then walks off with the muscle guy! Today youth use steroids and consume protein shakes to bulk up in order to compare more favorably with ideal models. But many remain dissatisfied with their bodies because the results are never quite as perfect as they desired.
A fifth reason for writing this article is that religions have played a role in inculcating negative attitudes toward the body, for example, by their emphasis on modesty in dress. Whether intended or not, people picked up from this the idea that there’s something not quite good about the human body. But God said that what he created was “very good.” That includes our bodies. In fact, we were created in the image of God. It was Adam and Eve who concluded that they had cause to be ashamed because they were naked and wanted to cover themselves. God asked them, “Who told you you were naked?” Being ashamed of our bodies is not what God intended. It’s caused by situations of our own making. But Christianity affirms that the body is God’s good creation and as such it needs to be honored and respected. (For my theological affirmation of the body see “Frank Answers About the Body—God’s and Ours.”) As a pastor of the Church I want to affirm that God’s creation is good, and that includes our bodies. If we are ashamed of our bodies, it’s not because that’s what God told us; it’s because that’s what we told ourselves, or because of what someone else told us and we believed them.
Fig. 9. “Adam og Eva” (1893) by Danish painter Julius Paulsen
Perhaps a final reason for writing this article is because a challenge was issued that I responded to in the moment. But that challenge deserves a fuller answer.
Reasons for Swimming Naked in Pools
What our alumni tour guide apparently didn’t know is that there was actually a common sense answer for swimming naked in pools. Lint and threads from the cotton and woolen bathing suits worn at the turn of the 20th century clogged up the filters of the early modern indoor swimming pools. It’s been claimed that chlorine also degraded the swim wear and sometimes burned skin. More importantly, there was concern that bacteria could cling to woolen bathing suits and spread disease. The American Public Health Association recommended in 1926 that the best prevention of the transmission of disease in the pools was to shower with soap and swim naked. School boards, the YMCA, the Boys’ Club and other health clubs with pools followed these recommendations and mandated that men and boys swim naked, which they were used to doing. Women and girls were allowed to wear swimming suits in deference to the view that female modesty should be respected but specified that the suits should not be dyed. Yet the guidelines said about “pools used exclusively by women,” “Suits when used…” This suggested that women and girls might swim naked, just as the boys “should”.
Everyone, boys and girls, had to shower naked with soap before entering the pool in the interests of hygiene and public health.
The above photo appeared in a 1941 issue of Life magazine—a family magazine— in an article dealing with democracy in the public schools. (What’s more democratic than every body naked?) The photographer for Life apparently saw no problem with walking into a boys shower and taking a picture of naked boys for an article that would appear in a popular national magazine.
When I was in elementary school there were “shower periods” in which children were called out of classes to take showers in the separate boys and girls locker rooms in the interest of promoting public health, if their parents signed a permission form. A slogan we heard repeatedly in the 1950s was “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Hygiene was treated as a moral issue. The agenda for promoting better hygiene included improvements in sanitation, provision of clean water, and the creation of a public bath movement that provided the poor with facilities for cleaning and attempted to convince them of the necessity of being clean. (They were derogatorily called “the great unwashed.”) Today taking showers is no longer required by schools for a number of reasons, including student sensitivities, and most students don’t. They wouldn’t be caught dead being naked in front of their peers.
Fig. 12. Boys showering in a CCC camp in the 1930s
As showers began to be installed in private homes the practice of school shower periods abated. But with the installation of home showers, and more than one bathroom in the home, boys and girls became more used to privacy when bathing. Mothers especially began to question the practice of boys swimming naked in schools. It was pointed out that swim suits were being made of synthetic material. Chlorination in the water in the pools was better regulated. Filters were improved. The following story from the Appleton Post in 1961 reports on the emerging controversy and the decision of the school district to maintain the tradition of boys swimming naked.
(Left click on the image to be able to read the article.)
The American Public Health Association removed its recommendation of nude swimming in 1962. But the weight of tradition kept the practice going in many places for a decade or more longer, as many men testify. When all is said, the reason boys swam naked was because of Tradition. It was traditional for boys to swim naked. They swam naked before pools were built. They swam naked before health concerns about bacteria on swim suits were raised. And no one saw any reason to break with the tradition once APHA guidelines were removed. But the practice began to be questioned when cultural mores changed radically during the 1960s.
The Recent History of Naked Swimming
Where did this tradition come from? Quite simply, it had been the custom for men and boys and often women and girls to swim naked outdoors and even in indoor pools in ancient times. If you think about it, why would you intentionally wear clothing to go in the water? The cloth will drag you down. Bathing suits weren’t even invented before the mid-19th century.
Swimming as a form of exercise and recreation developed in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin was interested in the science of swimming and swam naked in the Thames while stationed in London in the 1750s. Two U.S. presidents—John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt—were known to swim naked in the Potomac River. Adams, president 1825-1829, stripped down to his birthday suit for laps in the Potomac at 5:00 am every morning. (A female reporter once sat on his clothes until he answered some questions.) Teddy Roosevelt, president 1901-1909, wrote in his Autobiography that he sometimes went swimming with his “tennis cabinet,” and noted “If we swam the Potomac, we usually took off our clothes.”
Some towns erected platforms from which boys could dive or jump into the water of lakes or rivers.
Boys swimming naked was so taken for granted that the opening scene in Walt Disney’s 1960 film, Pollyanna, has boys swimming naked off a railroad bridge to give a sense of youth activities in the small town where the story took place.
Men and boys swam naked into the early 20th century, but not on public beaches. By the late 19th century public bathing beaches had developed and if men swam at the same beaches as women they were required to cover up. The issue was that in the matter of protecting the modesty of women they should not even see men naked in public.
“Bathing costumes” at first covered the body from the neck to the knees.
Fig. 16. This photo from Atlantic City in the early 1900s shows some fashionable beach attire for men and women.
By the early 20th century men’s fashions reduced the top part to tank tops and the shorts became shorter. But in some places there were laws prohibiting the display of men’s nipples. Not until the 1930s could men swim shirtless on public beaches. Men did continue to bathe naked in less public places, as the following photo indicates.
On the other hand, there are a number of newspaper articles about boys (and girls on some occasions) being chased or even arrested for skinny dipping in rivers, lakes, city park ponds, and closed (private) pools. This occurred at the same time that boys in the schools and YMCAs were naked when being taught to swim. (See the newspaper clippings appended at the end of this article.) If this wasn’t confusing enough for the boys, standards varied from place to place.
A common experience shared by many men who were drafted during World War II was being naked together in the military for medical exams, showers, and even swimming. The experience most men had of swimming naked in school and the YMCA eased the transition to naked interaction in the military as millions were drafted or volunteered for service during the war.
Fig. 18. Photo of U.S. Marines on Guadacanal in 1943 bathing and having fun with a makeshift water slide.
Perhaps experiences of naked swimming in the military during the war gave a boost to naked swimming in indoor pools and (secluded) outdoor bodies of water in the period after the war.
Nude Male Swimming in Art
The practice of boys and men swimming naked was captured by artists. A number of late 19th/early 20th century impressionist artists painted scenes of boys and men swimming nude. Above this article is “The Swimming Hole” (1884-85) by American painter Thomas Eakins. He took several photographs of young men swimming in a swimming hole in 1884 that served as studies for the painting. This is one of them.
Addison Thomas Millar (1860-1913) painted this picture of naked boys swimming at a lake in the late 19th century.
Below is “The Bathers (1922)” by English painter Henry Scott Tuke, who was a prolific painter of boys and sailing ships.
Also in 1922, English painter Charles Shannon rendered this impressionistic painting of “The Pursuit — Nude Swimmers.” There had also been a tradition of both men and women swimming nude in England in rivers, ponds, and at the sea before the nid-19th century.
Skinny dipping became a term for nude swimming once it was the exception to the rule of wearing swimming attire. The photograph distributing firm of Underwood & Underwood purchased and distributed thousands of copies of this photo taken early in the 20th century. It shows two boys with their father “Down at the Old Swimming Hole,” the name of the photo.
The above photo reminds me of the poem, “The Old Swimming Hole,” by Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, perhaps written about the same time. The first stanza:
Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc’t ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin’ out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it’s hard to part ferever with the old swimmin’-hole.
There was a famous cover of the Saturday Evening Post (August 1911) showing boys skinny dipping, also at about the same time. Perhaps with industrialization and urbanization there was nostalgia for simpler, freer times.
Of course, the practice of skinny dipping has never completely died out. My first experience of skinny dipping occurred one summer day when I was twelve or thirteen. My family was visiting a family that lived in the country and that family’s 15-year old son invited me to go swimming in the nearby creek. I had no bathing suit but he said we didn’t need one if the girls didn’t come. He told me that if only boys went to the swimming hole they swam naked. It was 1955 and scenes like this at the old swimming hole still played in rural America.
One of my fond memories from my youth is from the summer of my 15th year (1958) when I spent a week camping with three other Scouting friends (including my friend Gary) in a wilderness area known as Zoar Valley south of Buffalo, NY. (Yes, our parents let us do this!). We spent the week exploring the South Branch Cattaraugus Creek and came upon a beautiful swimming hole just below an area of rapids.
Fig. 26. South Branch Cattaraugus Creek – our actual swimming hole
On this warm summer day we didn’t think twice about taking off all our clothes and jumping in. We had spent the school year swimming naked together in high school swimming class and had participated in Scout swim nights at the YMCA or Turner’s. We then laid on rocks worn smooth by spring torrents to dry off in the warm sun and connecting with nature in this very natural way.
A few years later when I was twenty (1963) and visiting a friend in Virginia during my college days, he invited me to go swimming in the river on a warm summer night, and of course we took off our clothes and swam naked.
A real breakthrough in skinny dipping for both sexes came with the Woodstock Music Festival in the Catskills in August 1969. With half a million people gathered on this farm land for three days facilities were limited. Many festival attendees used a nearby lake for bathing and recreation. It was all recorded by photographers. The public nude bathing at Woodstock became a milestone in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s/early 1970s, along with the Festival itself.
Fig. 29. Swimming naked in lake at Woodstock 1969
Skinny dipping received new life in the post-Woodstock era with both men and women, especially college students, shedding clothes and experiencing nature in the same state as they came into it. In fact, I understand that Zoar Valley became a hang out for nudists in the 1970s, probably because it was fairly secluded and unpoliced. (I wonder if we boys in 1958 had started something!) In the post-Woodstock era women joined men in swimming naked in lakes and streams.
Also in the 1970s and 1980s many backyard swimming pools were installed in suburban America. This provided opportunities for skinny dipping, especially by teenage boys just as nude swimming in schools and the YMCA was no longer required.
The Physical Culture Movement
It was one thing for boys and men to swim naked outdoors in secluded places, but another thing to bring naked swimming into indoor pools. I think this practice owes a lot to the physical culture movement that began in northern Europe (especially Germany and Scandinavia) in the early 19th century. An unprecedented enthusiasm for athletic disciplines based on scientific principles gave us calisthenics, gymnastics, swimming as a sport, and physical education. While developed primarily in Germany (with use of equipment) and Sweden (exercise through movement without equipment), this movement spread to Britain and America and became the basis of gymnastics-based gym classes.
The physical culture movement was partly inspired by the Romantic Greek Revival movement. The ancient Greeks idealized the nude body in drawings on urns and sculptures. The Spartans were basically bare and their victories in pan-Hellenic sports competitions enticed all neighboring Greeks to exercise naked, creating the word “gymnasium” (from the Greek gymnos = naked). They exercised and bathed naked and discussed philosophy while sitting naked in the pools.
Fig. 32. “Young Spartans” (1861) by Edgar Degas
The Romans added bathing to exercising. They erected baths (both public and private) throughout their empire in which the patrons exercised and bathed naked. The ritual of the bath included exercise (like playing ball) to work up a sweat, followed by anointing the body, massage, and bathing in pools of different temperature. There were baths for men, baths for women, and some baths for men and women. Mixed gender bathing was frowned on during the days of Republican Rome, tolerated and even promoted during the early years of the Empire, and then again frowned upon by reactionary emperors such as Hadrian. The famous Turkish baths in Istanbul are really the Roman baths built during the construction of Constantinople as the new Rome under Constantine the Great and his successors.
Fig. 33. Ancient Roman bath in Bath, UK
Naked public bathing was once common across much of Europe. Naked swimming in public came to be frowned upon in the 19th century. This was the time bathing on public beaches developed as a form of recreation and bathing attire developed for both men and women. Naked swimming for boys continued on public beaches and in secluded lakes and streams.
In Germany, the revival of naked swimming came in 1898 when the first naturalist association was founded in the city of Essen. Intertwined with the 20th century movements to promote public health, there was a concern to get people out of unhealthy, polluted cities into natural areas where they could breathe cleaner air, shed their heavy clothing, and let their bodies soak up sunshine. The naturalist movement coincided with the nationalist movement to create healthy and beautiful Germans.
One would think that nudity for this purpose would have been promoted by the Nazis, but nude bathing was banned by the Nazis in 1941.
After the war public nakedness resumed in Germany and across Europe. Nude bathing by men and women became acceptable along the Mediterranean coast, rivers in France, and along the Baltic coast.
Fig. 35. A photo from 1955 by the photographer Konrad Helbig entitled “The Three Graces” using unknown models.
In Germany in particular nude swimming for both sexes was allowed on beaches. It is said that in the former German Democratic Republic (Communist East Germany) nudity on beaches and in public parks was a form of freedom of expression in a society where freedom was generally suppressed. Germany has more nude swimming than any other country in the world. After 1968 the sexual revolution brought more open public nudity in the rest of Europe and the establishment of designated clothing option beaches along the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas .
Fig. 36. German boys swimming nude on a beach in the 1960s.
Finns and Swedes continued a custom of swimming nude when whole families emerged from their hot saunas and jumped into cool lakes and ponds. This practice is also found among the Russians and Estonians. I experienced the sauna ritual in 1973 on my first visit to Sweden. Families invite friends into their saunas. Friends or professional associates might also sit in the saunas together. There is a meditative quality to sitting together quietly in the saunas followed by the vigorous action of jumping into the water of a pond or lake or, in the winter, rolling in the snow.
The northern European physical culture movement is relevant to this story because the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), with its emphasis on healthy minds, bodies, and spirits as a trinity of Christian values (note the Y’s triangle logo), was a promoter of this movement. The YMCA originated in London in 1844 as a Christian mission to young men moving into the cities for work and employment. Ys spread quickly to cities in other countries. YMCAs provided housing, Bible studies, sex education, and promoted manly Christianity.
The YMCA also began installing indoor swimming pools in the late 1880s. The first one opened in Brooklyn, NY in 1885. The purpose of the pools was to teach urban boys to swim. This was considered a social service because many boys were drowning. The practice of boys and men swimming naked outdoors was simply transferred to indoor pools. Many boys first learned to swim in YMCA pools in indoor facilities and summer camps. Only later did schools begin installing pools. The practice of swimming naked was later reinforced by the health concerns which I discussed above.
The YMCA advertised its swimming classes and ads usually informed parents that boys should bring a towel but not a swimming suit. This ad in the Waterloo, Iowa Courier June 8, 1960 said about bathing suits: “We do not encourage the use of bathing suits, but if a boys wishes to wear one, he may.” (This was about the time when pressure began, especially from mothers, to end nude swimming by boys.)
Brochures and posters advertising swimming lessons or summer camp showed boys swimming naked, at least from the backside.
This photo purports to be from a YMCA advertisement. But there is online the same photo with the swimmer wearing a swim suit. Photo shopping (altering photos) is one of the problems of getting photos from internet images. Which one is authentic and which one is fake?
Fig. 41. Photo of swimming classes assembled in the old basement pool in the Walla Walla, Washington YMCA.
Fig. 42. Swimming class in the Walla Walla YMCA in which every body is naked.
In 1960 the Walla Walla YMCA pool was renovated with a modern filtering system and these boys were photographed on the deck wearing swim suits. But they might have put on suits just for the photo which advertised the renovated pool.
Each local YMCA could develop its own rules about activities. In many Ys the tradition of men and boys swimming naked continued throughout the 60s and into the 70s.
Fig. 44. Men and boys in a YMCA pool. Photo date unknown. Probably late 1950s or early 1960s judging by the man’s glasses.
Toward the end of the 1960s the YMCA began to admit women and girls into membership and nude swimming by men and boys began to be abolished so that both sexes could use the pool together.
It’s often asked whether girls were present when boys swam naked in the Ys and the schools. In the schools girls and boys had separate swimming classes. The YMCA did employ female swimming instructors and lifeguards. Generally there were male teachers for boys and female teachers for girls. But some men have reported that occasionally a female instructor served as a substitute swimming teacher for boys swimming naked in schools. Some vintage photos suggest that women PE teachers also helped to monitor boys’ swimming competitions.
At first, swimming competitions did not draw a lot of spectators. This allowed boys to compete naked just as they practiced swimming naked. But as swimming competitions became more popular there was concern that the boys should not swim naked in front of a mixed audience. Did women — mothers, sisters, even classmates — attend events at which boys competed naked? This is much debated. I found an article on internet sites that was purportedly clipped from the “Wisconsin Press” for November 11, 1952. It reports that females were beginning to attend the boys swim meets and the board of education made adjustments in the usual practice of nude swimming by allowing boys to wear suits (although not yet requiring them). However, further research suggests that this article is a fake. It is not found where it claims to be found—the Sheboygan Wisconsin Press November 11, 1952. I leave it in place here as a warning of the pitfalls of researching this topic on the internet. “Fake news” is not a new phenomenon.
There are some photos on the internet of naked boys and suited girls participating in swimming competitions. That would not have happened in high school meets. Young men swam naked in colleges and universities, just as they did in high schools, YMCAs, and health clubs, and for the same reasons. But were there official co-ed swimming competitions with men’s teams and women’s teams jointly participating, as this photo suggests? Probably not. So is this photo reliable?
Nevertheless it is likely that in co-ed swimming in some colleges the young women were naked as well as the young men. There were scenes of co-ed naked swimming lessons in the 1973 film The Harrod Experiment, based on the novel of that title by Robert H. Rimmer and starring Don Johnson and Victoria Thompson, in which a small liberal arts college experimented with young men and women living together, sharing dorm rooms, and having opportunities to be naked with each other in classes.
The book and movie were not so far-fetched in terms of collegiate experiments in co-ed living during the 1970s. In some colleges men and women lived in the same dorms, shared bathrooms and showers, and had nude co-ed swims. Weekly nude co-ed swimming was practiced at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio as well as at Adams House at Harvard, which had a magnificent indoor pool. So in some college and university situations women’s liberation did not mean suiting the boys but unsuiting the girls.
However, swimming competitions on the Olympic level, both nationally and internationally, required suits on both men and women. This example of boys’ pre-speedo swimming briefs is just a notch above swimming in underwear.
The End of Boys Swimming Naked
But back to everyday reality. Boys were increasingly required to wear bathing suits for competitions. At first this was probably just to make things even between teams, if some teams didn’t compete naked. But as mothers and sisters and female school mates began to attend, the question was undoubtedly raised as to whether the boys should swim naked in front of them. Some men say that they swam naked in swimming meets even with females present. There’s no evidence for this in newspaper articles or photos. But the growing practice of wearing swim suits for public competitions may have helped to challenge the rule of boys swimming naked in school and YMCA pools. If we can wear suits in competitions, why can’t we wear them in swim classes and practices? (In my high school boys wore swim suits in competitions in the 1950s-70s even though they swam naked in physical education classes.)
In the YMCA in particular, once women and girls were admitted into membership they had to be given equal access to the pool in the times in which children and youth could be in the Y facilities (after school, weekends, summers). The easiest scheduling arrangement was to have co-ed swimming classes and open swims for all members. This put pressure on the Ys to require the boys and men to wear swim suits. There was less pressure on the schools because they had the students all day, and boys and girls could have separate swim classes just as they had separate gym classes. Boys could continue to swim naked behind locked doors. But toward the late 1960s the debate in various communities about the wisdom of requiring the boys to swim nude in public schools sharpened. This newspaper article from the Janesville, WI Gazette in 1967 is typical of discussions going on elsewhere.
(Left click on the image to be able to read the article.)
Interestingly, the issue was resolved in favor of continuing the tradition of nude swimming. In 1976 the superintendent was still defending the practice—but blamed it on the boys’ preference.
Boys swimming naked in schools slowly came to an end in one community after another during the 1970s. But we see testimony in articles published in newspapers and magazines, old photos on google images, and discussion on internet blogs and forums (to the extent that these sources of information are reliable), that before ca. 1970 it was both widely accepted and expected that boys would participate naked in PE swimming classes and sometimes even in competitions.
Benefits of Boys Swimming Naked
Did we derive any benefit from this practice of swimming naked in school? I can think of several benefits. I think the first and most important benefit was self-acceptance. I remember that our swimming teacher, Mr. Rudolf Heis, met with us at the beginning of the term and said, “You will be showering and swimming naked. You all have the same physical equipment and none of you has anything to be ashamed of.” Our bodies at that age (in the freshmen year we were between the ages of 13 and 15) were all at different stages of development. I think our naked swimming classes did a lot to compensate for whatever body shame some boys might have had inflicted on them by others. I think most boys accepted their own physical development without a lot of anxiety. But boys who had difficulty accepting their own bodily self-image may not have gotten over it by being required to swim naked. In fact, their sense of shame may have been aggravated.
The second benefit was socialization. Fourteen-year old freshmen boys were thrown into a year-long experience of being naked with other kids, most of whom were new to us in high school, and bonding naturally developed because we were going through a common experience. I think the practice actually had an initiatory quality. Swimming naked in freshman swimming class was like a rite of passage into high school, something every boy had to go through. We simply got used to being together naked and there was a lot of mutual acceptance. In fact, I think we became so used to being together this way that we didn’t even think about the fact that we were naked when we interacted physically, like playing water polo or just horsing around during free time. I remember wrestling in the water with my boyhood friend Gary (now deceased) in a game of trying to dunk each other.
Fig. 52. Naked boys horsing around in the shower
The third benefit was that nakedness was not identified with sexuality. I don’t recall any sexual overtones in swimming class. When you’re naked, what you see is what you get. Initial curiosity is quickly satisfied. (Nudity is how naked bodies are portrayed in films and magazines and works of art; nudity always leaves something for the imagination. That’s why I prefer the term “naked” to describe what we actually experienced.) Today nudity seems to be almost exclusively associated with sexuality because that’s the only experience of nakedness most of us have.
There was clearly a differentiation of the genders back in the days when boys swan naked. Modesty was required of the girls but not of the boys. But with pressure for co-ed swimming the boys became suited too—sometimes with school-issued speedos that, like the girls’ lycra suits, were turned in after each swimming class so they wouldn’t be left wet in lockers to mildew. Boys I’ve talked to in recent years say these speedos don’t leave much to the imagination after repeated use. But they admit that the use of the long swim trunks that boys prefer on the beach today aren’t good for learning how to swim. I wonder what they would think about what we wore in the high school pool fifty years ago.
Fig. 53. Swim team in speedos
Body changes during puberty and adolescence affect our self-image, which is based primarily on our body image. One’s identity is also shaped by cultural upbringing and sense of social propriety. From an early age we are taught was is proper bodily behavior, and in a clothed society strict boundaries are set for public nakedness. These factors dictate how we should feel when a naked body is exposed. When and where is nakedness or nudity accepted and when and where is it considered a breaking of social norms? There may not been any consistency in the norms.
For men of my vintage, nakedness was an acceptable social norm if boys were showering and swimming together in indoor pools, and it was OK to swim naked in secluded outdoors lakes and streams if girls weren’t around. By and large these venues for being naked with other males are closed off today. Lacking situations to counter the inculcated social norm that we should not be naked (i.e. show one’s “private parts”) in public, most boys today have acquired such a sense of modesty that they don’t even like to be naked in front of one another in locker rooms and showers. I notice in the YMCA locker room that young men and older youth do the “towel dance” to keep covered while changing clothes and leave their bathing suit on when they shower while the old guys walk around “butt naked.” These millennials had no experience of being naked in front of other men.
I’m sure the practice of men and boys swimming naked in public places is long gone. In my view, it was good while it lasted, for the reasons I’ve given. But I also recognize that there are issues to deal with today that weren’t dealt with back in my day, like concerns about sexual harassment, spy cameras in various places around the school (including the locker rooms), and now how to handle transgendered boys and girls.
Nevertheless, I’ve found that there is a lot of curiosity about this custom of boys and men swimming naked in schools and the YMCA fifty-plus years ago. Readers are welcome to post your own experiences of swimming naked in the comments section below. While this has been mostly a male-oriented post since it’s the boys who swam naked in school, female readers are invited to share their experiences and observations. The reactions of millennials and the younger generations to this social history are also welcome.
APPENDIX: Boys Will Swim Nude
Here’s a sampling of hundreds of newspaper clippings from throughout the U.S. and Canada about boys swimming naked—either in city parks, where it was illegal, or in schools, where the practice was being contested.
Boys shed their clothes and went swimming in a pond in Forest Park in St. Louis and were chased by police down Lindell Boulevard (Shelby County Herald June 26, 1907).
On the day school let out for summer vacation fifty boys shed their clothes and went swimming in a lake in New York City’s Central Park. Six were nabbed by police and arrested for delinquency (Reading Times, June 26, 1926).
While police in the U.S. and constables in Canada continued to harass boys swimming naked in urban areas, a Canadian magistrate in Ottawa threw out a police complaint of boys swimming naked in an abandoned quarry, with editorial approval in the Montreal Star.
A letter writer to Star-Journal defends the tradition of nude swimming in the junior high school in Sandusky, Ohio.
A student letter to the editor defends nude swimming at a Kenosha, Wisconsin high school.
The following headline is totally misleading. The story says that 10% of students chose to wear trunks when given an opportunity to decide. The real news is that 90% chose to continue swimming nude. So in actuality nude swimming continued in Cloquet High School.
Fig. 62. 1930s/40s photo print on canvas
About the Comments
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