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 naked.” 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, nodded 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. But here’s the answer…or at least an answer: Tradition. It was traditional for boys to swim naked and no one saw any reason to break with the tradition until cultural mores changed radically after the 1960s.
People who didn’t experience this find it hard to believe. 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. The following photo of a swimming class with naked teen age boys was even featured in Life magazine in 1951. 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 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.
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.
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 two 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. So this article is an exercise in social history to discuss what was standard practice in America until around 1970. Boys swam naked in 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 fits in with my ongoing “return to the body” project that is evident in many Frank Answer articles and in my book, Embodied Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016). (I actually first broached this topic of swimming naked at the YMCA in my “Frank Answer About Being Naked Before God.”)
I began paying attention to my own body after a bout with colon cancer ten years ago (2006). But as I did so I began reading about the body in biology, philosophy, theology, the arts, and modern culture. I have read how in our society the body that is created in the image of God has become a source of shame and abuse.
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. This begins already in youth. In connection with workouts some young men use drugs, steroids, protein shakes, etc. to bulk up in order to compare more favorably with the ideal models. This, too, often begins already in youth. But many remain dissatisfied with their bodies because the results are never quite as perfect as they desired.
Religions have also played a role in inculcating negative attitudes toward the body, for example, by their emphases 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. While Christianity may have contributed to this attitude, it has also emphasized the healthy body in its medical missions, caring for bodily needs in hunger ministries, and even promoting fitness and wellness. Christianity affirms the body as God’s good creation that needs to be honored and respected. We have nothing to be ashamed of, and we also have a responsibility to take care of our bodies by regular exercise and a healthy diet. (For my theological affirmation of the body see “Frank Answers About the Body—God’s and Ours.”)
Our public presentation of our bodies is formed by cultural expectations. Boys and men today are shy about their bodies, which is noticeable in gym locker rooms as they try to hide their “private parts” from other males while dressing or undressing—a concern that was not present in my youth when we showered together and swam naked in the YMCA’s pool as well as in high school swimming class. Those who were shy got over it pretty quickly. In my observation as I look back on the experience of swimming naked I think it generated a healthier attitude toward the body and a greater degree of self-acceptance than we see today.
The Physical Culture Movement
While male naked swimming was a practice of long standing, it had been especially reinforced in the physical culture movement that began in northern Europe (especially Germany and Scandinavia) in the early 19th century. This movement also gave us calisthenics, gymnastics, and physical education. Germans especially considered it healthy to be outside naked soaking up sunshine and getting vitamin D, which today we don’t get enough of.
This 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.
“Young Spartans” (1861) by Edgar Degas
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), promoted the physical culture movement. When it began installing swimming pools in the late 1880s to teach urban boys to swim, the practice of boys and men swimming naked was simply transferred to indoor pools where it lasted long after public male naked swimming ceased to be a general practice. It was later reinforced by the health concerns, which I will discuss below.
The YMCA advertised its swimming classes and ads usually informed parents that boys should bring a towel but not a swimming suit. Ads also showed naked swimming, such as the following photo that was used on a poster.
The YMCA was also an early promoter of exercise using equipment such as monkey bars and weights. In fact, the term “body building” was coined by the Y. Gyms with equipment might be located next to the pools and in the early days men could go from the pool or showers to the weight room for a workout. Warm-up exercises such as jumping jacks on the pool deck in swimming classes at the Y or in high school swim classes were normal—done naked, of course.
Boys and men swimming naked remained the YMCA’s required practice until the late 1960s/early 1970s, sometimes several years after women and girls were invited into membership and the Y became co-ed. There were separate times for men’s and women’s swimming at first. But eventually co-ed swimming classes were instituted at the Y and the boys and men had to put on swim wear.
These boys were wearing swim suits when the new pool opened in the Walla Walla YMCA in 1960.
Reasons for Swimming Naked
When pools were installed in schools, including public schools in the U.S., the practice of boys swimming naked was observed.
There was actually a common sense answer for swimming naked which our guide apparently didn’t know. 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. 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 an October 1941 issue of Life magazine—a family magazine— in an article dealing with physical education in the public schools. 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.” Today taking showers is no longer required by schools out of concern for child molesting and most students don’t.
As showers began to be installed in private homes the practice of school showers 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.
The History of Naked Male Swimming
Where did this tradition come from? Quite simply, it had been the custom for men and boys to swim naked outdoors. Benjamin Franklin was interested in the science of swimming and swam naked in the Thames while 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.”
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. “Bathing costumes” at first covered the body from the neck to the knees. 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 not until the 1930s could men swim shirtless on public beaches. Nevertheless, men did continue to bathe naked in less public places, as this photo indicates.
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. The following photo shows U.S. Marines on Guadacanal in 1943 bathing and having fun with a makeshift water slide.
Even as adult males were required to put on swim wear at public beaches back home, boys swimming naked was still 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.
Nude Male Swimming in Art
A number of late 19th/early 20th century impressionist artists captured 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.
Below is “The Bathers (1922)” by English painter Henry Scott Tuke, who was a prolific painter of boys and sailing ships.
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.
This 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. 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 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. 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. 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. I found a photo of our secluded swimming hole on the internet.
A few years later when I was 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 swam naked. Again, we didn’t even think about it because that’s the way boys swam, at least if no one was around.
There are photos of young men and women bathing naked at the three-day Woodstock Music Festival in 1968. 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. There were, of course, topless beaches in Europe along the Mediterranean coast and discrete nude swimming of both men and women was allowed along rivers in France. But reports from Europe and America indicate that girls, unlike boys, wore swim suits provided by the school for school swimming classes.
Boys and Girls Together?
It’s often asked whether girls were present when boys swam naked in the schools. Girls and boys had separate swimming classes. 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. Some vintage photos suggest that women PE teachers also helped to monitor boys’ swimming competitions.
There are some photos on the internet of naked boys and suited girls participating in swimming meets. If that happened it was probably in college meets, not high schools. Young men in colleges and universities, as in high schools, YMCAs, and health clubs, would have also swam naked. But were there co-ed swimming competitions with men’s teams and women’s teams jointly participating, as this photo suggests?
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, 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.
The End of Boys Swimming Naked
But back to everyday reality. As families and school mates began attending swimming competitions, a question arose about whether boys should swim naked at swim meets at which women, including mothers and sisters of the swimmers, might be present to cheer on their sons and brothers and brother’s friends. At my high school boys wore bathing suits for competitions. But I’ve heard some men say that they swam naked in swimming meets, so it must have happened.
Certainly swim meets and family nights held at YMCAs and Boys’ Clubs would have required swimming naked where bathing suits for boys and men were not allowed. If parents and families attended swim meets there were undoubtedly mothers and sisters in the bleachers. Of course, it may be that adolescent boys were not always happy about being naked in front of the women, at least out of the water. But these situations undoubtedly hastened the end of boys swimming naked in indoor pools.
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). The easiest scheduling arrangement was to have co-ed swimming classes and open swims. The pressure was on to require the boys and men to wear swim suits. There was less pressure on the high schools because they had the kids all day, and 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.)
Boys swimming naked in schools slowly came to an end in one community after another during the 1970s. But we see ample testimony from articles published in newspapers and magazines, old photos on google images, and discussion on internet blogs and forums, that before ca. 1970 it was both accepted and expected that boys would participate in PE swimming classes and sometimes even in competitions naked, sometimes even with members of the opposite sex present.
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 we accepted our own physical development without a lot of anxiety. Boys on swimming teams took it in stride, and even with a sense of pride, if they competed naked.
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 Hughes (now deceased) in a game of trying to dunk each other.
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.
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 the locker room and shower. I notice at the YMCA that young men 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.”
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 recognize that there are issues to deal with today that weren’t dealt with back in my day, like how to handle transgendered boys and girls.
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.
Men and boys in a YMCA pool. Photo date unknown. Probably late 1950s or early 1960s judging by the man’s glasses (the time during which I would have been naked in the pool with them).