nakedness, nudity, social history, swimming, youth

Frank Answers About Swimming Naked

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.” Shocked to hear him say this so matter-of-factly I blurted out, “it wasn’t barbaric, it was a good tradition.” I looked at a couple of the guys in our group, with whom I probably had swimming classes, and they seemed equally surprised. 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.

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 can be found 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).

boys swimming class 1950s

Fig. 2

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.

Fig. 3

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.

Fig. 4

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, but 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. And it’s not something we thought about for the last fifty years, any more than I thought about our school requirement that boys who were on the stage in school assemblies (including sports teams) had to wear a jacket and tie (which I also think was a good tradition). 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.

Fig. 5

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 suggests 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.

Fig. 7

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 boys use weight machines, consume protein shakes, and sometimes use steroids 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 desire.

Fig. 8

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. 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”.

Fig. 10

Everyone, boys and girls, had to shower naked with soap before entering the pool in the interests of hygiene and public health.

boys-shower-life-magazine-1941

Fig. 11

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.

appleton-post-1961-menasha-board-rule-boys-must-swim-nude

Fig. 13

(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 and especially in the 1970s.

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 when public bathing beaches were established for urban populations.

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 that “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-and-men-swimming-naked-early-20th-c

Fig. 14

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.

pollyanna-naked-boys

Fig. 15

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.

boys nude girls clothed at the beach

Fig. 17

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 for boys and men in school indoor pools.  It was considered manly and prepared young men for experiences of nude medical exams and showering in the military.

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.

men-swimming-naked-outdoors-1884

Fig. 19

Addison Thomas Millar (1860-1913) painted this picture of naked boys swimming at a lake in the late 19th century.

Fig. 20

Below is “The Bathers (1922)” by English painter Henry Scott Tuke, who was a prolific painter of boys and sailing ships.

Bathers Henry Scott Tuke 1922

Fig. 21

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 mid-19th century.

Fig. 22

Skinny Dipping

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.

Fig. 23

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.

Naked swimming Saturday Evening Post 19 Aug 1911

Fig. 24

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.

Fig. 25

One of my fond memories from my youth is from the summer of 1958 when I was 15 years old and 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. We were used to being naked with one another. 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.

Fig. 27.

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. In a somewhat secluded area there would not be a question about this. It’s what boys did.

Fig. 28

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 the 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.

naked swimming

Fig. 30

Also in the 1980s many backyard swimming pools were installed in suburban America. These provided opportunities for skinny dipping, especially by teenage boys just at the time when nude swimming in the schools and the YMCA had ceased and swim suits were now being required.

Fig. 31

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.

Young Spartans Edgar Deqa 1861

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. By this time bathing on public beaches developed as a form of recreation and  bathing attire was fashioned for both men and women. Boys continued to swim naked 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.

Fig. 34

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 naked 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.

Fig. 37

The YMCA

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, classes, 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.

Fig. 38

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.)

Fig. 39

Brochures and posters advertising swimming lessons or summer camp showed boys swimming naked, at least from the backside.

Fig. 40

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.

Fig. 43

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.

Swimming nude at YMCA

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.

Fig. 45

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.

Fig. 46

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?

swimming nude at swim meets 2

Fig. 47

Nevertheless it is likely that co-ed swimming took place in some colleges in which 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.

Fig. 48

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.

Fig. 49

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.

nude-swimming-janesville-newspaper-article

Fig. 50

(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.

Fig. 51

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 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.” I found this speech reassuring. 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 the other.

boys-wrestling-naked-in-showerM

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.

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

Social Norms

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 what 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 have 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. Some think that showering nude with other men is a “gay thing.” But some boys and young men are afraid of being naked in showers with other boys and men because an erection might expose them as gay (having  same sex attraction), whether they are gay or not. We are not as sexually liberated as we like to think.

.boy-in-towel-in-locker

Fig. 54.

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.

Frank Senn

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.

Fig. 55

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).

Fig. 56

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).

Fig. 57

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.

Fig. 58

A letter writer to Star-Journal defends the tradition of nude swimming in the junior high school in Sandusky, Ohio.

Fig. 59

A student letter to the editor defends nude swimming at a Kenosha, Wisconsin high school.

Fig. 60

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. 61

Fig. 62. 1930s/40s photo print on canvas

About the Comments

For previous comments before the ones posted below go to “Frank Answers About Naked Swimming — Commentary Part I: Discerning the Truth,” which is a curated anthology of comments illustrated with images and photos.  The first pingback at the end of these comments will take you directly to the second commentary article, “Frank Answers About Naked Swimming — Commentary Part II: Experiencing Nudity”, which is also illustrated with images and photos that I added because of the number of continuing comments. The second pingback at the end of the comments takes you to a blog article about swimming naked especially outdoors. The author argues that most boys want experiences of social nudity with other boys and that a major reason why the practice of naked swimming ceased in the 1970s was because of homophobia.

Frank Senn

38 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Vincent

    Back home in England, nude was the way to go, and it’s inherit in boys, whether it feels like something you’re doing wrong and getting away with, or in our case, simply what seemed natural.

    It is sad that this country sells everything with sex and then nudity becomes a forbidden thing.

  2. Avatar

    John W Wirtanen

    I remember it well in the 1960s and no matter what the article says about supposed benefits, I HATED it. And, making boys feel less ashamed of their body? Maybe for those well endowed, but the ones I knew who weren’t definitely did not like it nor feel less ashamed. Glad that this stupid practice was ended. If someone wants to do it with friends, that’s a different story. But, to have it forced upon you with no options is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    • Frank Senn

      My naked swimming in high school was in the late 1950s. I never heard any fellow students complain about it, not even kids like me who were small and not “well endowed.” But John’s experience was in the 1960s. That was the decade when we see newspaper articles questioning the practice (like the clippings I included in the article), and by the end of the 60s many schools and Ys had ceased the practice. One has to look for social factors that made the difference in attitude. I think one factor was the advent of showers in the home, multiple bathrooms in suburban homes, with increased privatization of family bathing. I grew up in a house in the city that had one bathroom with a bath tub that everyone had to use and if we were seen by family members trotting around naked (at least until the full onset of puberty) that was no big deal. Perhaps in the 50s we were more likely to go along with social conventions than in the more rebellious 60s. Ironic to think that from today’s perspective one social convention people rebelled against was naked swimming.

      • Avatar

        Old Swimmer

        Frank,

        In addition to what you say I think the prevalence of phone-cameras and spy cameras has played a role in the cultural shift about male nudity, especially in locker rooms, showers and pools. It is surprising, though, that the rebellious and “open” 60’s may have led to rebellion against naked swimming.

  3. Avatar

    Robert D Berger

    When I first attended the University of Wisconsin in 1975, physical education was required. Men’s swimming was held at the Armory and naked swimming was required. I believe that was the last year for that practice. In 1978, I took a co-ed class taught by a wonderful female instructor and I learned how to swim.

  4. Avatar

    chris

    I’m only 30 but I was raised by my grandparents and grew up somewhat “old school”. When reading “The Sugar Creek Gang” series I noticed that they always swam naked. I think part of the reason why it was ok for males to be naked, even where females may be present or could happen by, is because women are typically the caregivers. Mothers and older sisters would be expected to change diapers and wash/mend clothes regardless of the sex of the child. Also women tend to be less eager to see men naked therefore male nudity wasn’t considered sexual. In fact this still occurs to some degree today as I remember there being a squabble a few years ago about a janitor or someone preventing a female sports reporter from going into the male locker room after the game until they checked to see if it was ok. Had it been a male reporter walking into a female locker room you can bet the fuss would have been directed at the reporter.

    I’ve often wondered about the oxymoron of a “bathing suit”, especially when today’s suits for women leave little to the imagination. Even relatively modest suits are form fitting, then again so are most regular clothes. On the other hand men’s bathing suits and clothes hide much more. Perhaps that’s partly why female nudity is now more acceptable than male nudity. Some may claim this is due to the “objectification of women” but I think it has more to do with the “demonization of men”, i.e. that if a man is naked he is a threat but if a woman is naked she is vulnerable. In addition the conflagration of nudity and sexuality means that it’s more acceptable for a group of women to be naked around each other than it would be for men, just like two women kissing is more considered acceptable than two men kissing. I think that in today’s climate, with the lack of common sense and good judgement, it would be very difficult to legally deconflate nudity and lewdness in such a way that nudity would be acceptable while prohibiting lewdness.

    My first experience with mass nudity was in Marine Corps boot camp when it came time to shower, which we did “by the numbers” (the drill instructors telling us which part to wash and when). After getting to the fleet there was little full nudity but being in an all male infantry unit there were plenty of partially nude hijinks.

  5. Avatar

    Steve R

    Experienced the full range. Nude in my freshman year (68-69), wore suits in sophomore and junior years, then coed swimming my senior year. We were greeted by a chorus of wolf whistles from the girls as we came out of the locker room (about half of the girls skipped class and about half of the rest said they had their period).
    Those who passed the swimming test could choose to do PE in the gym instead. The guys were shirts and skins, and we had to memorize which girls were on our team.

  6. Avatar

    I’m late to this party, because I hesitated to respond. Accusations have been aired that could hurt potentially. As one who has been targeted by alt-right trolls for something else I wrote (academic, misunderstood, about a completely different subject), I don’t want to become a target again. It was just really annoying (and more than a little frightening). So I will not use my full name, but I am willing to verify all that follows with Frank should he ask me to.

    I am a part-time archivist; one of our professional commitments (Society of American Archivists, Code of Ethics, 2012) is “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” (https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics ) I truly hope that no archivist has ever destroyed photographs or other records of of nude swimming. (Archivists may decide responsibly about access and use, however.) Many archived collections and items can or would prove far more controversial, about any number of things, than any of those old images. (Hello, Richard Nixon’s archives.)

    I am the proprietor or curator of the blog that was mentioned,
    http://stillrowing7-swimming.tumblr.com

    Whether some of Frank’s (or any other) photographs have been photoshopped is unverifiable and cannot be settled short of publishing archive-verified originals (now legally risky), full revelation of many personal details (also risky), or confession of misdeeds (on the internet, also possibly false). My question is why: why would anyone bother to falsify those photographs and spend the amount of time necessary to do it well? (that’s really time-consuming). What exactly would that prove or demonstrate? That some people’s memories are not faulty, or are? Frank raises excellent and interesting questions about shame, body image, and social norms, and everyone recognizes that nude public or semi-public swimming will not come back. Does remembering it and writing about it somehow encourage pedophiles? That’s beyond credibility. Does it peddle an agenda of sexual licentiousness? Why would Frank or anyone else bother? Does it somehow shame the church? I truly believe not (as an Episcopalian of Scandinavian and come-over Yankee ancestry, I take the Incarnate Word very seriously, even though I’m not a very good Christian). Does this whole topic reveal an axe to grind; is it tendentious? I don’t find it so.

    Here’s the real anxiety that I believe pervades those who for some reason find this topic difficult: does it (or did it) encourage young men to become gay? Anyone who knows human sexuality also knows: it doesn’t work that way. If it did, hundreds of thousands of life-long old straight guys would have been living lies; that certainly strains credibility. I am gay, but believe me nude swimming did not cause my identity; I would have been gay had I never done it. I knew I was different from earliest childhood and quite apart from anything else, including swimming, whether nude or clothed. If any reader wants to take me to task for perversion: go ahead, I have heard all the hatred that no one should ever have to hear, and you will assure yourself you are “righteous” even if you call it “love.” (I believe that God will judge you and me on very different and far more weighty grounds of justice, mercy, hospitality, and serving others.)

    I know that younger men in particular seem to exhibit some kind of real anxiety about nudity around other men in clearly non-sexual situations, such as college pools, YMCA locker rooms, and even (according to my nephew) the Marines. I believe that the change in social and sexual mores since the 1960s have had positive and a few negative consequences beyond anyone’s control. Women, LGBTQ persons, racial and ethnic minorities, and physically disabled people in particular have seen positive changes that have made “normal” straight white guys anxious. Social and economic boundaries have increased (in my view), not decreased; I totally “get” anxiety but I also know what is feared is often much more powerful than what is actually the case.

    To any man, young or old, who worries about sharing a locker room or swimming nude with a gay man, I say: don’t worry, you already have. The result was what, exactly? Only those sorry individuals with boundary problems, power problems, or clinical mental illness will seek sexual contact with those who don’t want it. For example, regarding the handsome, in-shape young man in my own YMCA locker room this morning: I would have to be blind not to notice, but I certainly would never gawk, and I have no interest in becoming emotionally or sexually involved with you. Straight guys sometimes just don’t or maybe can’t understand that gay guys aren’t interested in them. My own “gaydar” is faulty and 100% more apt to miss a man who is gay than to mistake someone who is not.

    To any man who swam nude with other males (years ago or recently), I also say: you swam nude with gay guys, you just didn’t know it (and maybe neither did they). The result is what, exactly? Some kind of contamination? I am sure that one of you, somewhere, was at some point hit on by a confused or questioning guy, gay or straight. Aren’t there worse things, really? Say no, and move on. Teenagers do experiment sexually. If you did, just let it go. One experience need not warrant a lifetime of hate.

    The unspoken fear of visible sexual arousal is also an element here, I believe. Yes, that happens (it occasionally happened to me), but much less often than some might fear. It’s part of being human; a pubescent boy’s hormones are what they are. I believe that incidents that are personally embarrassing can lead either to extend one’s empathy or to amplify one’s aggression. I’m sure someone will find my remarks offensive. None intended, but at the same time: cut a boy some slack. Sexual arousal is a mysterious event. Such events are a world away from flashers, who merely seek the power to shock, or real sexual offenders who seek to offend the innocent exactly because they are so.

    When I tell my story (linked at the bottom of this post), I will reveal that sometimes –often in certain years– I was naked in front of clothed women, both older and girls my age. For some respondents, that was somehow wrong, or clearly I enjoyed “showing my penis,” or some such language. Even then, I wasn’t really *that* shallow. I do not remember that females seemed to turn away or act uncomfortable. I was not “uncomfortable” (euphemism for afraid) either. I have or had a small exhibitionist streak in me, but never one that led me to inappropriate behavior in the wrong places. Timing is all. I never felt exploited, forced, abused, or violated by being nude in front of others, including females.

    Being nude early in my life in situations where some others (male, female, older, my age, younger) were clothed taught me a paradoxical truth: in such situations, a nude person actually holds the power of honesty or candor, and has nothing to lose or to hide. I learned, as a youth, that power is a contrary thing not always held by those of obvious position, status, or wealth. I did not seek out CMNM or CFNM situations or fantasies, but I recognize that those situations were not as crystal clear as they might have seemed. I don’t recall that the females in them either seemed or really were particularly violated, oppressed or burdened, either. At the occasional extreme, if I or another boy became aroused, it happened. Life went on. The only time I felt “violated” was once when I ended up in a friend’s backyard pool (not a party) alone with a girl who was plainly attracted to me; I was nude and she wore a one-piece. At one point I sat on the edge of the pool while she floated and we talked, and it occurred to me that my penis was right in front of her face. Oops. I went back into the pool, and she looked disappointed. I felt that maybe we had crossed some line, and I was more careful after that, if nude, not to position myself badly or “man-spread” the wrong way.

    Tom Wallace Lyons wrote about “genital privacy” as some kind of dividing line between boys and men. I don’t believe I ever really felt this; thought perhaps others did. My mother and sisters had certainly seen my genitals at every stage of development, and commented on it from time to time (I have an average endowment). My mother was a psychotherapist, and accepted human sexuality at every age. Of course we maintained boundaries; I inherited from her a quiet self-confidence that has served me well. On the HS team, we had two female assistant coaches –women from University of Michigan who really knew their stuff– and I don’t recall ever being embarrassed to be nude in front of them, or at meets. I think a dividing line was reached at the end of high school; that summer was the last time I was nude (with other swimmers) in a pool at a party that included girls. For me “genital privacy” was not the issue; conforming to “adulthood” was the social norm. At Princeton many of us were very casual about nudity in the residence halls (then all men, officially until 1969 but practically through at least 1972); no “genital privacy” there; but I stopped being nude at home when I returned for Christmas break. Later on my mother and sisters did see me nude (at Lake Michigan, for example) and it was no big deal. They probably saw me aroused as well, because on warm summer nights I slept nude on the back porch, and I was never the first one up.

    Social norms are very powerful, and their hiddenness is what gives them power. Norms express and declare behavior but deny their own presence: I don’t think Foucault was 100% correct but he made some elements of social power remarkably clear. One respondent asked, “who made those boys swim nude,” and the answer is “no one” –that “no one” names the power of social norms. They did it because it was the norm, it was expected, and they complied. Norms also declare what is shameful, to be hidden: I recall young boys being embarrassed to be nude with so many others, but not shamed by others. The embarrassment was transient; shame is a powerful sanction. I use “sanction” purposefully, because it has two diametrically opposite meanings: a “sanction” can both prohibit and permit. As a norm, Shame both concealed the power of “you must wear clothes everywhere,” and also permitted the power of “but you may swim nude here.” When I was in junior high I was not ashamed to swim nude but the very next hour I would have been terribly ashamed (and embarrassed) to attend any other class nude.

    Social norms only change under great pressure, and the changes always elicit resistance. The norm that permitted boys to swim nude also required girls to swim clothed; when the “norm” of dominant male and submissive female power changed, it elicited great protest and unexpected consequences. One consequence was that boys could no longer claim the social privilege of sanctioned (prohibited/permitted) clothing and nudity. Another consequence was that girls would be treated henceforth (theoretically, if not in reality) as athletically equal to boys (Title IX, etc.) and social behavior gradually changed to permit and encourage athletic girls. Another consequence was that gay men, lesbians, and other LGBTQ, would claim equality with heteronormative cis-gendered people, and a social behavior changed to: boys not only must wear clothes when swimming, but must wear clothes in changing areas such as locker rooms. That later norm is now so well sanctioned and the consequent behavior so entrenched that young, straight, cisgendered men automatically accept it when their grandfathers might well have considered it “un-normal.” That is social power expressed in “norms.” “No one” makes them do it; the norm conceals its presence because ultimately it is arbitrary and by convention. Consequently it is also fragile, and nothing occasions social anxiety like a behavioral norm suddenly revealed to be fragile and in some measure arbitrary.

    Thanks for listening. If you want to know my story, I wrote it here. Great work, Frank: “glory be!”

    http://stillrowing7-swimming.tumblr.com/frank-responses-to-frank-answers

    • Frank Senn

      Dear Gavin,

      Wow! What a powerful testimony to actual practices of swimming naked and what an honest personal story you append to your comment. It’s an honor to have an authority like you on the subject of boys swimming naked in school and the YMCA comment on my effort to respond to a teacher’s unwarranted and ignorant view of a practice that all the men in my class reunion group had experienced in 1957-61. I guarantee that there will be no personal attacks on my blog.

      I would observe, however, that most of the skepticism that has been expressed by commentators to my article regarding the reliability of photos or personal stories has concerned whether boys actually swam naked in front of females, especially in institutional settings. This relates not so much to fears that boys will become gay by swimming nude with other boys as a perceived violation of norms of social decency. But apparently it happened, even though some of us who swam naked did not experience those situations. Perhaps our problem is that we imagine our embarrassment if we were thrown into such a situation. Can we get over that mental hurdle and imagine that after initial embarrassment we might become comfortable with it?

      In any event, let’s not continue to reiterate points previously made. New stories and fresh social insights are welcome.

  7. Avatar

    Alonzo

    “fears that boys will become gay by swimming nude with other boys”

    While I find it interesting that younger men view the all-male nude swimming of the past as a “gay thing,” that men or boys who chose to swim nude together must have been gay, or —better yet— that PE instructors who required nudity in the school pool must have been gay, perverted child molesters, in reality the social norm was so thoroughly ingrained that any man or boy who expressed reluctance or misgivings about being nude in the company of other males was suspected of “being light in his shoes.” No one dared to cover himself with a towel while walking naked in the locker room. To do so would lead to being publicly called a “sissy,” a “girl,” or worse, a “fag.” “Hey, it’s all guys here, so why is Tinker Bell covering himself up?”

    Of course, in reality gay men or boys (closeted, of course) participating in all-male nude swimming must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven. Just like the fairly common male fantasy of being in a pool full of naked women (I’ve actually been in the latter situation a few times—it felt weird, believe it or not).

    Or just like the bodybuilding magazines that were for sale in many all-male gyms back in the day. The bodybuilders shown were always nude, and often full frontals. (Jack LaLanne posed for bodybuilding magazines as a young man. Google “Jack LaLanne nude” and you’ll see.) And the feeling was, why not? The buyers were all male bodybuilders, so why should the models cover up? In reality, those mags served as soft porn for gay men, much as Playboy did for straights.

  8. Avatar

    Bob

    Growing up, I attended a high school in Wisconsin which required the male student body to swim in the nude. I just cannot believe that we did not find this unusual in any way… but we didn’t. I distinctly remember that girls occasionally wandered into the pool area to pass messages from the office, to retrieve items from the pool area, etc., but no-one thought anything of this. Anyone who thinks that we were unaware of our bodies, or the bodies of our classmates, is greatly mistaken; we were very much aware, but swimming nude was simply the norm. Humans bend over backwards to subscribe to social norms, and we were no different as teenagers growing up in the Midwest.

    The nude swimming ended rather abruptly after an incident involving a school board member and his twin daughters, who were classmates of mine. I was actually in the pool area when the incident occurred. My best friend was ridiculously blessed at quite an early age, and there was nothing he could do about this fact. Of course, I thought it was mildly amusing (who could possibly ignore a scrawny teenager who was easily 3 times the size of his peers), but I never found his public display of nudity offensive. Well, Mr. School Board Member didn’t find anything remotely humorous when his daughters were literally at eye-level with my friend’s endowment as he stood on the diving board platform waiting his turn. The girls were red-faced and giggling as their stammering father inadvertently escorted them through the nearest doorway (which happened to be the door to the boys’ locker room). Sadly, this pillar of the community returned to the pool deck a few seconds later to scold my friend and our PE teacher. I recall him shouting something like, “How dare you allow that pervert to parade his family jewels in front of my girls?” Really, really unfortunate.

    Ironically, at the commencement of the next PE class, we were all given school-issued swim trunks, and everyone put them on, no-questions-asked. I did feel quite sorry for my friend, who took more than his share of ribbing over the incident. We still talk about this all these years later, although he still blushes just a little to this day. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to believe that a similar situation had never occurred before, but there you have it. Those innocent days are long gone, my friends.

    • Avatar

      Thomas Mendip

      I’m curious, Bob.
      You didn’t explain what these girls were doing there in the first place.

  9. Avatar

    Elsa

    I would like to comment on Bob’s thoughts concerning why and how nude swimming was ended at his high school 50 something years ago. My own experiences as a young female gym teacher played out in a similar fashion. My high school in northern Minnesota was also a party to nude swimming for young men, although it was becoming controversial upon my hire. The issue was the female staff who were becoming a greater proportion of the teaching faculty. I found myself having to cover gym classes for male teachers who were out for the day, or otherwise engaged. At first, I didn’t think much about all the naked boys, until one young man changed the equation.

    Charlie was the star on the school’s football and basketball teams. Tall, muscular, with movie star good looks, he was honestly a distraction for any red blooded female, let alone a 22 year old female gym teacher fresh out of college! As the boys lined up along the side of the pool for attendance, I concentrated mainly on my clip board… until I came to stand in front of Charlie. Upon my word, that young man posed the largest distraction one could possibly imagine. Compounding the issue, I was a virgin and a little too enthralled with men as physical objects. After recovering from my swoon, I knew that I had to remove myself from the situation permanently, so I met with the vice principal to delicately explain that women had no place in a pool reserved for unclothed men. When he pressed me on my assertion, I stammered a bit, but could not admit that Charlie’s extremely ample endowment had forced me to this conclusion. I argued that the boys seemed uncomfortable with the arrangement, and I shamefully lied about some of the students becoming aroused as I looked on. The next school year, nude swimming ended, and I think I had something to do with that decision, although I cannot be certain.

    To be clear, I am definitely not trying to sexualize the institution of nude swimming – not at all. However, men are men, women are women, and sometimes things happen which remind us that we need to admit that we cannot always be purely objective when the birds and bees are complicating things. Am I proud of what I did? No, not in the least. But, I think the practice belongs to a more innocent time. Liberated women cannot pretend to be unaffected by so much raw sexuality, and Charlie was enough to make any woman forget her place in the social order.

    • Frank Senn

      Thank you, Elsa, for your candid testimony. I’ve been waiting for women to enter the discussion since the most controversial topic in the comments has been about naked boys being seen by members of the opposite sex in public institutions like the public schools. When men report it as happening, others have wondered whether some of the stories they tell included elements of wishful thinking. You testify that it happened, admit the “raw sexuality” that such a situation produced, and validate the supposition that bringing boys and women together in PE classes and swim competitions contributed to the end of the practice of boys swimming naked. Commentators (being male) have been concerned about what the boys thought about being naked in front of women. Your story reminds us that women also had concerns about being in the presence of naked boys.

  10. Avatar

    Elsa

    Thank you so much, Frank, for allowing me to tell my story. “Wishful thinking” is a wonderful way to phrase what I was feeling at the time ( I could not have said it any better), and there really is no place for this kind of behavior in our public high schools. Why put people in this position when it is completely unnecessary?

    On a side note: Part of my experience was being caught off guard by my own desires and proclivities. Specifically, I had no idea that seeing an incredibly well-endowed young man would cause me to question my personal code of ethics… but it did. That’s another reason the practice of nude swimming needed to be ended in my school — the road to self-discovery can be fraught with obstacles, both moral and philosophical. Over the years I have struggled with physical wants and desires, and although I would never cross that line between authority and youth, I hope I am wise enough to avoid putting myself in the path of temptation from the very beginning. Thank you for your wonderful forum!

    • Avatar

      Thomas Mendip

      Elsa, thank you so much for that post. I congratulate you both on your honesty, and the fact that you exerted enough will power to make the right choice and resist temptation.
      I’ve been rsearching this subject for some time (I had a forum on Topix entitled “Did you swim nude in high school?”, which they deleted without warning) and I’ve simply been trying to determine how prevalent the practice was in the past. It turns out the only way to do this was to ask people to tell me the when and where. Like a lot of these forums (this one is a breath of fresh air) it got infested with trolls and bogged down to irrelevance.

      I’ve seen postings from other women who taught nude male swim classes. (As I said in the posting above, I went to college with one.) But there are so few of them, it’s difficult to infer much from them. I had to swim nude in jr high and high school in Illinois, 1962-67. The teacher was male. Until I started researching this, I never would have dreamed a female would supervise a pool full of young nude males. It certainly wouldn’t have happened in Illinois, but you being in upper Minnesota, where there is a strong Scandinavian heritage, I suppose it’s not that surprising.

      Would it be presumptuous of me to ask that you expand on your experiences a bit? You’re under no obligation of course, but you must admit your experiences are so extremely rare as to warrant a bit of curiosity. (For that matter, look at the post above from Paul LeValley; he’s been doing the same thing, researching nude swimming, as part of an article for a Naturist publication. I’ve been corresponding with him about this, in fact, it’s how I found this site. He could use your input, which would consist of nothing more than when and where, but it would help verify the reality of nude swim classes.)

      If you’re uncomfortable answering any of these questions, I won’t push the matter, and it will be your choice.
      When did this happen? (I’m guessing early 70s.)
      Could you identify the city?
      Did the parents know you were teaching a class of their nude sons? If so, was there any flack?
      How old was Charlie? (Or the other boys.)
      Did you ever have the impression that he was aware of your feelings for him​?
      You mentioned using the boys’ arousal as an excuse. What was your impression of their feelings being nude in a class taught by a woman? Were they blushing from head to foot, blasé, showing off? I know what happens in a class taught by a male, but the presence of a female must alter the dynamic somehow.

      One thing more–were you ever given any rationale for this? Why boys (and not girls, for example) had to be nude?
      Ok, done.
      As I said, answering is purely voluntary, but very appreciated.

      (I’ll give you my opinion, for what it’s worth. I don’t think a woman teaching class full of nude teenaged boys would have been any more detrimental than one taught by a male. In fact, it would have had this virtue—these boys were at the point in their lives when they were the most sensitive they would ever be concerning their bodies. To have an adult woman, and an authority figure, look upon their scrawny, misshapen bodies and not run screaming into the night with revulsion, could only have had a positive effect upon their self image.)

  11. Avatar

    Thomas Mendip – Let me address your July 6, 2017 question about the double standard which may have allowed females to coach naked high school boys even though it would have been unthinkable to have male instructors coach naked high school girls. I believe I have an answer to that question in my March 23, 2017 post. If you do me the honor of reading that post, I would like to know what you think.

    Elsa’s story raises some interesting issues, especially since she was not even a decade older than her youngest students. And she might have been quite attractive. It would have been natural for one or more of the boys to respond to Elsa the way she responded to the magnificent Charley. Had one of the boys been so smitten, he might not have had the recourse available to Elsa who was able to protest the practice. Instead he might have had an erection.

    Elsa writes: “At first, I didn’t think much about all the naked boys, until one young man changed the equation.” It would be interesting to hear from some of those erstwhile boys what THEY thought. Prior to Charley, did Elsa or anyone worry about how the boys might have felt?

    This brings me to your idea that a female coach might have helped naked teenage boys develop a positive image about their bodies. Is a teenage boy’s body image enhanced when he is forced into a situation wherein he must allow a female coach to see his penis?

    Thomas Mendip – Your July 2, 2017 post discusses a woman who said she was a lifeguard at the YMCA in 1973. You believe it was in Indianapolis. By 1973 nude swimming was being phased out at the YMCA. You might check to see if the Indianapolis YMCA still had nude swimming in 1973. Indianapolis was and is a large metropolitan area. If the YMCA was in Indianapolis, it would not have been hard to recruit a male lifeguard. Did you ask the young lady why she was chosen to watch over naked men and boys?

    Tom Wallace Lyons, July 7, 2017

    • Avatar

      Thomas Mendip

      Indianapolis may not have been the correct city. I remember it was in Indiana, as I recall at YMCA, and it was in the summer of 1973. The conversation took place at the first party of the year that fall. This was at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois. We were all taking about our summer jobs. One woman said she was glad the summer was over. Another asked why. Her response was a rhetorical question: How would you like to spend the whole summer looking at naked men? We were all taken aback, requested clarification. She said she had spent the whole summer as a lifeguard in (I think) a YMCA somewhere in Indiana where all the men swam nude. (She didn’t mention boys, but one assumes they must have also swam there, and nude; it was the custom then.)

      All the males in the room were mainly from Chicago and suburbs, where nude swimming for boys was mandatory; I was from Rockford, 90 miles away, where boys were also nude in swim class. We knew about nude swimming, but had never heard of a female being present. We thought she was exaggerating, they must have been wearing revealing costumes, such as speedos. She was, however, quite adamant—they were au naturel, bereft of clothing, wearing their birthday suits, buck nekkid! From the breathless tone she employed, her eyes frequently bulging as she talked,we inferred that she probably wasn’t aware of this when she took the job. She did say the experience left her “terminally horny.”

      My experience was the same as most of us in the American public school system. Boys were nude; girls wore suits. Separate classes, male teachers for the boys, females for the girls. I see no reason to be reluctant about the time and place (nor do I understand why anyone else would be, given that it was virtually universal, and decades ago, anyway): Rockford, Illinois, Jefferson Junior High School (1962-1965) and Rockford East High School (1965-1968).

      I never recall any females in the swimming pool. On occasion, we would see through the translucent glass at the entrance a female figure, a girl who was dispatched to collect attendance records from each room in the school. Seeing her always induced, in me at least, that well know manifestation of fear, the pucker factor! Yet, on two occasions, I remember the school nurse, an older woman with gray hair, breezing in the pool without any notice (to us) as though she somehow belonged there. She was inspecting our feet for an outbreak of some kind of infection. On one occasion, we had to sit on the floor, our legs out in front of us while she examined them. On the other, we had to stand up against the wall, with our hands on the wall, feet back, legs spread, feet uplifted for inspection. On neither occasion did I feel any embarrassment, at least no more than the usual. The girl at the door was terrifying because she was another student, but the nurse was an adult woman, and an authority figure. I was no more humiliated by her presence than that of the other boys or the guy who taught the class.

      It was about 10 years ago that I stumbled on the subject on nude swimming in school, by accident, at a website. I was dumbfounded to discover that this commonplace practice, no more than 30 or so years past and experienced by millions of men still alive and able to testify to it, was largely considered a fantasy or the work of trolls. Then I remembered Nancy, the woman I referenced in the first paragraph. Looking for accounts by boys in nude swim classes with female teachers, I also found accounts by women who taught them. Again, dismissed by the majority, most of whom were younger, as some sort of fantasy. I began to wonder about these subjects, specifically, how wide spread was it, really. So, I’ve collected hundreds of these forums, stored as pdfs or odts, over the years. Some names here are even familiar from those other forums. Caipora, for example, has posted useful information in a number of them. I even tried my own thread on Topix, entitled with the simple interrogative “Did You Swim Nude In High School?” I asked only that people supply dates and places, but like so many of these forums, as I feared, it degenerated into deniers (a character who posted as Maltamon was particularly notorious) and trolls who did nothing but flame each other. Before I could copy it, Topix, with no announcement, deleted it last month, after it had run for 7 years! (Parenthetically, I must thank the good Pastor for this forum; it seems to be the only place we can discuss this reasonably and rationally.)

      Which leads me to point one of number of points, your question “Can we get a handle on what really went on in YMCA type situations and in school situations in the mid-Twentieth Century? “ That’s an intriguing question. I think that the internet as a form of human communication is a dreadful failure; people don’t talk to each other, they scream; the anonymity that was supposed to allow for free communication has, instead, induced distrust. If the testimony of all of us who experienced this doesn’t persuade that it was real, what would? This was only a few decades ago and you don’t need an archaeological dig to establish its reality—you ask the people who were there. In a broader sense, it begs the question about all of history itself. If an event only a few decades old can’t be established through eye witness testimony, how can we trust that we know what actually happened at Gettysburg, at Hastings, in ancient Rome? Was Churchill right, and the victors write history? That might explain it; the victors ended nude swimming. Or is Napoleon correct, and it’s just an agreed upon fiction. Maybe Rosemary Woods really kept her foot on that record button for 18 minutes!!

      People want photographs as evidence, but it has become easy to doctor them. Suits can be removed and genitals grafted on; just as easily suits can be put on nude boys. I suspect there are photographs, and I’ve seen a number of them on the net. I even traced down one. It was a picture of a naked male college swimmer about to dive in front of some clothed female swimmers. I tracked it back to a college in Pennsylvania and found it in their 1974 year book, with the male in a striped swimsuit. Real pictures probably won’t surface, although I’ve seen them on European websites, where people aren’t as afraid of the “morality” police as here.

      I was an English major, which means I find it difficult to say good morning in less than 250 words, so I’m going to shut up for the moment and let you respond.
      Meantime, I’m going to attempt to address your other points.
      Live long and prosper!

  12. Avatar

    Elsa

    To the “Two Toms” Above: I am shocked by your interest in my experiences! I never found them to be remarkable in any way. Unfortunately, I simply cannot identify the school, since I was naive enough to use Charlie’s real name. It would be really easy to identify him if I were to provide the name of the school. It was mid to late 1960’s, that I can tell you concerning the time frame.

    As to your other questions: No-one ever discussed my interactions with the boys in the pool, although the community was discussing the topic somewhat quietly. As I wrote, the practice was coming under some scrutiny upon my hire. One mother brought the subject up at a school board meeting I attended, for example. Thinking back, the issue was not me being “inappropriate” with the boys, rather, the issue was the healthiness of the boys parading in front of a sexually mature woman.

    And, no – Charlie had no idea that I was attracted to his nudity. I only filled in that one time, as far as I can recall. He would have been much more distracted by the constant teasing and horseplay of his classmates.

    My story isn’t really about the practice of nude swimming. Instead, my story was about my own sexual identity in relation to the nude swimming class. If one of my girlfriends had said to me prior to my supervision of the naked boys, “Are you aroused by naked men with enormous penises?” I would have laughed at the absurdity of the notion. However, the situation with Charlie instigated my surprising reaction and my conclusion that exceptionally well-appointed men were most definitely interesting to me. That was the problem – I should never have been faced with this realization under those specific circumstances.

    In all fairness, I was not the only woman who was intrigued by Charlie. I became aware that many girls in the school were very much infatuated with the rumors swirling around Charlie’s prowess. But, once again, I was ashamed for feeling the way I did.

    I have since swam nude on many occasions. I have swam with both men and women in the buff, and I greatly enjoy the experience. I have never, and still do not, find the activity sexually arousing, although I did swim with a gentleman in a friend’s pool in New England who possessed a “Charlie-like” endowment. All of the other women in the pool were enthralled with this man for obvious reasons, but no-one lost her perspective or her sense of propriety. Harmless fun, but not with children present!

    • Avatar

      Thomas Mendip

      Again, thanks for your post. I’m sorry if either of us in any sense offended you, but your experiences are so unique, I just had to ask. You may not have found them to be remarkable, but every guy in my age group, millions of them, swam nude in high school, yet not one ever had a female teacher, even as a substitute. A woman teaching a swimming pool full of nude male teenagers is certainly a rarity, if nothing else.

      I understand the situation, simple temptation, and something that came as a shock, even to yourself, but you still have my admiration both for realizing it was wrong, and for making this post. Although, when you consider it, what did you do wrong? You expressed female heterosexuality by looking at an attractive nude male. Fantasies aren’t illegal or immoral, only actions are. Which was why I asked about his age. Was he too young for you even to fantasize about without guilt?

      I actually was most concerned with the way the boys took to this situation, or how they seemed to you to take to it. As I said in the post above, I don’t think it would prove damaging to them, and might even have a positive effect upon them.

      • Avatar

        Al

        Well… Tom, I have no reason to question your estimate that “millions” of American men who are now your/my age swam nude in YMCA and public school pools back in the day. But there is good reason to suggest you may have missed the mark by saying that “not one ever had a female teacher as a substitute”.

        Several posts in this series have suggested the opposite, as does my personal experience in mid-Michigan, where female swim instructors – always adults, always discreetly clothed in black tank suits – stepped in from time to time as substitutes when our otherwise all-male swim coaches and student assistants (who were also nude, just like us boys) had to be away.

        And yes, women of all ages (mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends) also sat in the pool gallery during swim classes at the Y and for swim meets at school.

        And yes, there were swim meets in which both teams competed naked in our part of the world. But always on a par with one another. Recognizing that swim suits caused “drag” and made competition unfair, if both teams normally swam nude, that’s how they would compete (thus potentially setting school and regional records more easily!). But if either team preferred suits, then everyone wore suits. Just to respect one another.

        Yes, it did happen. It happened to me and my friends, and I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal reports from other men my age that it happened to them, too. This has never been a problem for me personally. Having grown up in a German-American community, I was simply acculturated into the environment both at home and in the community, with no reason to think it was anything but normal.

        So I am reading this incredible 2-year series of posts (…having discovered Pr. Frank’s blog just yesterday while researching a different topic entirely…) with interest and amusement and new insight into how much our childhood upbringing shapes our lives, from the kindergarten classroom to the graveyard.

        Thank you, Pr. Frank, for moderating this site with so much balance, care, and wisdom. The truth will set us free.

  13. Avatar

    Elsa, my apologies! I never meant to imply that your conduct with the boys was in any way inappropriate. You write, “Thinking back, the issue was not me being “inappropriate” with the boys—-.” Believe me, that was never MY issue.

    Based on your letter, I believe you observed ALL appropriate boundaries. And I commend your effort to end a policy that might have embarrassed high school boys. On top of that, your honesty about yourself is admirable and should in no way be charged against your character. Your contribution to Pastor Senn’s blog is valuable.

    My ONLY issue: Our society today is one in which many high school age boys probably do not want their mothers and sisters to see them unclothed. Same for the late Sixties. Prior to your assignment, did you wonder about how the high school boys might feel about having you see them naked? Was this discussed with colleagues?

    I realize I repeat this question since I raised it in my July 7, 2017 letter. The purpose of the repetition is to clearly identify the question as one about how the boys might have felt about the school policy you were assigned to execute; not about how they were affected by your personal conduct. Perhaps you meant to answer that question when you wrote, “As to your other questions: No-one ever discussed my interactions with the boys in the pool,—-.”

    The subject is interesting. It is also emotionally fraught. I hope you will forgive me if I have offended you. If other women have supervised naked swim for adolescent boys, it would be interesting to hear how they thought the boys were affected.
    Tom Wallace Lyons

    • Frank Senn

      In reply to both Toms: I think Elsa has described what she experienced and what she felt about it. To find out what boys felt having a female teacher, we would have to hear from the boys—if they could answer as honestly as Elsa did. As you have pointed out, millions of boys who swam naked in school never had this experience. Personally, I can’t remember any episode of a female teacher. But I also think I might have become used to it if it were a regular situation—just like swimming naked in itself, about which I don’t recall having any anxiety. In any event, we need to let people tell their own stories and share their own reactions, just as Elsa did. That’s the only way we’re going to establish the historical details.

  14. Avatar

    Elsa

    Hello, Everyone! I had no idea that I would be commenting so often on this site (and about this topic), as I rarely engage in posting on any site, ever. However, this topic caught my attention, given my background.

    I was not offended by anything anyone posted! Quite the contrary. I feel like the offender. Craving this young man for even a split second was a violation of the trust that had been placed in me. To offer more detail, the guilt probably was not instantaneous – it likely built up as I heard other females at the school make comments about his manhood. You see, they all speculated, whereas I had seen him with my own eyes. It’s strangely funny that he was much more gifted than the rumors which circulated. But I was never, ever going to make any corrections to their breathless descriptions! Talk about opening up a can of worms….

    Excepting Charlie, supervising the class was a nonevent, in my opinion. Maybe the only reason I remember doing it was because of Charlie. Actually, a male friend of mine who taught at the school a few years before I did could not remember if the boys swam nude or not. His wife, who was a student at the school, could not remember either. They browsed through their annuals, and they did see what appears to be a young man’s naked backside in one of the activity photos included in the book. Having attended swim meets, she knows for certain that the boys did not swim nude when competing. I’m not sure if this helps.

    My last comment: What is the big deal, at the end of the day? Who is harmed if people see one another naked? I never understood this particular hang-up, but I do admit that throwing young people in the mix does seem to make the question a bit more interesting. Just a thought – If every man had exactly the same size/shaped penis, would male nudity even be the least bit controversial? What about female breasts? The variety is the nub of the problem.

    • Avatar

      Thomas Mendip

      Elsa, I think we have overburdened you with questions you really can’t answer.
      You may have thought the class was a non event. I can guarantee you the boys didn’t. The question both Tom and I pondered was whether they thought it a positive or negative. (I’m guessing positive.) The reason I asked if their body language betrayed anything is because I can’t ask them!

      Nudity isn’t a big deal. But what we’re dealing with here is institutionalized, mandatory, forced nudity for boys alone. It’s the mandatory part that is of the essence, and always brings up the same questions—what was the point to this? Why not girls also? What were the school board and parents thinking of? As Tom asked, what impact would it have on a young boy to be forced into nudity in front of an adult woman. (You were thoughtful enough to enlighten us about the impact on the adult woman.)

      From what I’ve read from other women who taught nude male swimmers in the same time period, the impact was fairly positive. One woman who had substituted, as you did, for a male teacher said the boys were given a choice of study hall or being nude in her class. None took the study hall. Further, the next time their male teacher was out, they specifically requested her as a substitute.

      • Frank Senn

        The reason consistently given as to why girls weren’t required to swim naked was to preserve (and perhaps to inculcate) female modesty. On public beaches and in outdoor public pools men were required to wear swim suits if women were on the beach or in the pool in deference to female modesty. So why didn’t this also apply to indoor pools, at least in public institutions? What institutional insensitivity would ignore a young woman’s modesty by putting her into a situation of teaching naked teenage boys? This blows my mind.

        • Avatar

          Thomas Mendip

          Frank: you surprise me. You look the same age as I, yet you seem to have missed the more salient societal cues from our youth. They weren’t concerned for her sensitivity because they didn’t think she had any. In those days, women were considered sexually harmless, almost asexual, and could certainly be trusted to mother (I chose that word intentionally) a pool full of nude boys without any temptation. Didn’t Elsa say that the whole thing was a non event for her, except for the well endowed Charlie? Remember that until recently, when a steady, almost daily stream of stories about female teachers “molesting” their male charges came to the fore, this was still considered true.
          The more important question is how could they possibly have thought it proper for these boys to be forced into nudity in front of her.

          • Frank Senn

            Actually, I’m a bit older than you, Thomas. I was in 7th-8th grades and high school between 1955-61. I never experienced women PE instructors for gym much less for swimming. In a large urban high school with multiple PE teachers, if Mr. Heis was absent (I don’t remember if he ever was) another male teacher would have supervised the class with the help of upper class lifeguards. We commented earlier that there seemed to be a change in attitude from the 1950s to the 1960s. There was growing resistance to boys swimming naked during the 1960s, especially from boys and their mothers. But women’s liberation was also one of the differences between the 50s and 60s. The new equation in swimming classes was not the naked boys. They had always swum naked indoors. I’ve not heard of any situations of the boys going from required suited to required naked other than for swim competitions. The new situation was adding women as teachers for a class of naked boys. Perhaps you are right that some principals considered female PE teachers as asexual, like school nurses. But eventually it occurred to most people that this was not appropriate and one by one throughout the 60s and 70s schools and Ys made the decision to cover the boys, which made co-ed classes and interchangeable teachers of both sexes possible. Elsa’s story gives us one example of this change being effected.

  15. Avatar

    Thomas Mendip

    So, at 67, I’m the kid on the block, eh? I suppose that comes as no less a shock than the fact that I am 67. I could swear I was 25 just two weeks ago. Well, “old timer,” in the interest of advancing the discussion, I should like to assert my opinions on the matter at hand, to wit, nude male swimming. Understand that I confine my opinions to this one subject: mandatory, institutionalized, male swimming, as was practiced, apparently in almost every school in the country in the past. I do not refer to nudity by choice, since I can’t believe there would be, from any quarters, an objection to this. After all, if you don’t wanna be nude, keep your clothes on; and if anyone objects, they shouldn’t be forced to watch.

    My experience was the usual, mandatory nude school swim class. I only survived it because I wasn’t there. I read an interview with an actress who had to appear nude on stage for 45 minutes in a play in Chicago. Asked how she did this, she said she “wasn’t there.” Her body was, but her mind was elsewhere. So was mine, anywhere but there. Walking through autumn leaves, riding a bike, anywhere I could be in some nice, normal, sane place where they let me wear clothes like a normal human being. It wasn’t the nudity per se, but the forced aspect of it—we were given no choice. Had we, I probably would have gone with the flow and done what the majority did, go nude or not. I am going to assert, despite anyone’s protest, that the normal human desire for privacy is not–NOT!–a pathology. In my case, it was exacerbated by the fact that I was the fat kid. I already had been bullied and teased for years before I was forced to remove my clothing to enhance the degradation. By the time I was 20, I had ballooned up to 300lbs; I lost 125lbs of it, but not till college.

    You can probably understand, therefore, why I hated to be forced into nudity. To me, it seemed as though I were being punished for something. (Forced nudity is used as a punishment, after all.) As far as I could tell, and sites such as yours seem to affirm this, boys were divided on the matter, a lot (at least saying) they were ambivalent, some detesting it as much as I did, and others claiming they enjoyed it. In the last group, not surprisingly, were the jocks, who loved any excuse to flash their bulging biceps, rippling abs, and massive pecs as a subtle reminder of just who occupied to top rung on the teenaged food chain.

    What I couldn’t understand was the why? What had I done wrong, and why did my four sisters escape this kind of humiliation. I thought I was being punished for having a penis; or they were being rewarded for having boobs. Which ever it was, the vast discrepancy between our treatment in swimming (the girls attired in near armor of tank suits, and us completely nude) didn’t make sense. It was only much later, in fact, when I began researching this stuff that I began to understand what had been going on. And the explanation doesn’t reside in the official pronouncements of the APHA, the YMCA, Red Cross, or the school board, or swim coaches, or anyone in authority, it seeps out from between the cracks of the mortar holding together what we generally call a culture. (The big advantage I got from growing up in the 50s through 70s is that I learned always to question the official explanation for everything!)

    You had stated tradition was the reason. I concur, but with the knowledge that while traditions often last well past their use by date, they never the less serve a function. So, one is tempted to ask what was the point to this tradition? I’m not naive enough to believe the stuff about the suits clogging the filters . (If the filters clog, clean them.) Or I might question the magic in the girls’ suits that prevented it. (Look it up; they were made of the same fibers, but became magical on a female form.) Nor any of the pat explanations for the supposed virtues of group male nudity—that it’s a form of bonding; that it enhances body acceptance and self confidence. Girls apparently didn’t need body acceptance or self confidence!

    I believe the most powerful force on the planet is group sanctions. It can make people put on uniforms and go kill other people, or be killed; it can isolate people, forcing them into lives of despair because they are “different” than the group, or make them hide that difference; it can, allied with the equally intractable power of mythology, send whole societies into collective psychotic episodes (Nazi Germany) or convince vast numbers of the citizens in them that they should spend their lives in pursuit of ideals which they would never dare to question, but which leave them empty. Admittedly, used correctly, it can quell aggressive impulses and make for an open and accepting world, but that’s more the exception than the rule.

    I think mandatory nudity in young males was simply an extension of a set of societal expectations we would now call “gender roles.” In those days, boys and girls were on different career paths. The girls were there to make babies, essentially their only function. The boys were to be the cannon fodder with which the endless wars are propagated. We were both supposed to take the roles assigned to us without question. We were both supposed to become what George Carlin called “worker/consumer units.” In that time period, in the working class town where I lived, the next stop for a lot of boys was the army. I knew several who returned from Vietnam in body bags. Modesty had to be stamped out of boys. Only manly men could “bring home that coon skin,” as LBJ put it. Conveniently, nude swimming was just part of a set of rituals, almost a rite of passage, by which to accomplish this; it was already sanctioned officially and part of a tradition, and boys who were reluctant to do the manly thing of parading nude with their fellows could be ostracized and humiliated into compliance. Boys were, after all, already socialized against complaining, less they be considered unmanly. Privacy was considered a female thing.

    Lurking in the background of the manly/unmanly thing is something that can’t be ignored, given the time frame. I’m referring to homosexuality and the rather unenlightened view people had of it in those days. There was a time when homosexuality was equated with pedophilia, and American families lived in dread of the possibility that their apple cheeked young boy or darling little princess could grow up to be a lesbo or a fudge packer. It’s certainly not one of the enumerated reasons, few as those are, but it surfaces in comments from that time period about the necessity to identify gays. One reason for male nudity was supposedly to do just that. How this would work is beyond me. Would the boys who became too excited be suspect? Or, since homosexuality in those days was equated with effeminacy, would shy boys warrant watching. I don’t know; I can’t think like that. I can only say, that having researched the prevailing attitudes of the day, it seems to be a part of the mix of things that made male nudity a requirement, and I bring it up because I think it was one of the reasons for boys’ nudity.

    We all know that societal norms change slowly. So much so that you barely notice the tectonic plates moving beneath your feet. The women’s libbers liked to take credit for it, and should have some it, but the reason women entered the work force in huge numbers starting in the early 70s was largely economic, cultural norms shifting to accommodate this utilitarian fact. The massive shift in wealth caused by our dear friends the Arabs when the jacked up the price of oil had a profound effect on the middle class. Unless you made an extraordinarily good income, one was no longer enough. Women had to enter the workforce, and with that came this huge change in those gender roles. It’s so profound that we no longer even notice it, but parents now days accept that their daughters, as well as their sons, will have careers. (MOM was the girls’ career in our day.) And along with it came this huge shift in norms of modesty.

    As female modesty has decreased, male modesty has increased. Had there been an internet in the 60s, does anyone believe teenage girls would have been sending nude selfies to their boyfriends? And before anyone starts decrying the “feminization of boys,” understand that the sexes exist only in juxtaposition to each other, and a certain bit of male modesty would benefit boys who are otherwise too naive to know and those who are too aggressive for their own good. Dennis Hastert was a wrestling coach at a school in a time when boys swam nude. Wonder how much time he spent hanging around the pool? And please, don’t tell me I’m being hysterical. I know the current obsession with pedophiles is over blown, but I also know they exist and children do need to be protected. We’ve manifestly over done it, but then, like most things, it’s a pendulum, and it will eventually find an equilibrium and stop swaying to extremes.

    While Title IX factors into it, I don’t find it too much of a coincidence that both the end of conscription and the Arab oil embargo both occurred in 1973. And almost immediately, boys’ nude swim classes began to disappear. Granted, it took about a decade, as far as I can tell, but it started around then, and we now live in a world so radically changed, both for good and bad, that the whole thing seems to those younger than us like an urban legend.

    Frank, thank you again for this site. It’s the only (and I mean only) site I’ve found where you can discuss this subject rationally, absent trolls and flamers. If Elsa could post here, that’s a pretty strong endorsement. I would hope those younger than we, who don’t believe nude swim classes were real, would visit here in the hope of understanding both how the world now is so different and how we got from that point to this.

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      Noah

      Wow, that’s quite a testimony. I’m reading this topic with absolute fascination. I somewhat see the nude swimming thing as part traumatisation and part liberation. I’m 20 and I swear to god, even my mum has not seen me naked (except my first and only girlfriend at 19) since I was 5 years old. Maybe except one time at 15 when we went to the hospital and it was found out that I needed an emergency operation. I was panicking and got sedated. I can’t remember anything else until I woke up naked. Somebody had to strip me, I guess. What I wanted to say is that to this day I have not overcome my irrational fear of nudity but I wish that I had. No matter btw the consequences, and from what I understand fathers used to beat their sons, I would not have swam naked, ever. Beat me ALL you want, I’ve weathered the storm. Sit me in the corner for 6 hours, send me to bed hungry, I don’t fucking care. I would not have done it. I envy the boys who made it through somewhat ok. From that I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m a little wrong in the head. So, yeah, I envy the boys who made it through. I don’t like it when girls and women get involved into this issue. I’m younger than most here it seems and for my generation, this would be sexism and extremely humiliating. Then there’s the whole LGBTQ stuff… But running around somewhere with your friends just to find a suitable stream or lake take off your clothes in dive in? That’s liberating, especially if the girls could not do it. That would even be a privilege. There are so many facets to this. But I agree, forced no. Especially in the presence of females. Gosh, you guys are all so damn eloquent. Excuse me, at this point I leave my standard I’m-not-an-english-native disclaimer.

      • Frank Senn

        Hey, Noah, welcome. Yeah, you may be the youngest to post. The gay millennial farther up the comments is just slightly older. Boys your age have no frame of reference for this “tradition.” For boys of my generation swimming naked in indoor pools and secluded lakes and streams is just what we did, but usually NOT in front of girls. We didn’t even think about the issues of swimming naked in the 1950s; it’s just what we did in these circumstances. But in the 1960s people did begin to think about it and to a great extent they thought about it because of the presence of women in school and YMCA pools, some teaching and coaching naked teenage boys, and because some mothers didn’t think their boys should have to suffer the indignity of being naked in front of others if it embarrassed them. In my opinion this didn’t deal with whatever body shame boys had for whatever reason they had it. Thomas writes about being overweight. I was small and skinny. We both were probably sensitive about our body sizes. But in the 1950s it was simply the tradition for boys to swim naked in school and we accepted it. I don’t recall having any anxieties about it. Nor did I ever hear any complaints from classmates, who were a multi-cultural mix of whites and blacks, gentiles and Jews, affluent and working class teens in my urban high school. I believe, in fact, that there was a lot of bonding in the pool since no clothes makes everyone equal.

        I’m glad you found this article. Direct your friends to it. I’d be interested in how they respond to this history. How would they feel about swimming naked in school if they had the chance to do this?

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        Paul Walker

        Noah’s contribution of 27 July 2017 is interesting and Frank’s reply that Noah doesn’t have a ‘frame of reference’ strikes a chord with me. In February, I posted that I attended a special school in England. This was state funded; not the privately-funded upper class school often associated with the British. But, like many upper class schools, mine was a boarding school. For us, during the 1980s, it was completely normal to have female staff in our communal showers and pool changing rooms. Even then, we knew this was not usual in mainstream schools; in fact, I recall my economics teacher telling us once that, in a ‘normal’ mainstream school, the boys would have kicked out the female staff. So why was it OK in our school?

        Well, the ‘easy’ answer is because these female staff had to help the minority of us who had physical disabilities and the very young children (down to four years old), so they had a legitimate reason (even by today’s standards) to be in there (if you accept that there was no need to employ men for the task). But they also would come in as part of their supervisory rounds. There were three house-matrons to each house of 50 lads, working a rota with two of them often on duty at the same time, so we saw a lot of them and they saw a lot of us, time-wise, as well as our bodies! They were, really, part of the family and, as I said in February, once they’d seen you, there was nothing left to hide. However, when I say ‘part of the family’, I think of Noah saying that his mother hasn’t seen him naked since he was five. Well, nor has mine!

        Interestingly, teachers also did duties on the houses, usually about seven of them doing one evening/overnight shift per week, so we did not see them in this context nearly as often as we did the house-matrons. The female teachers never entered the showers or changing areas, but some of the male teachers did. In the pool changing room, this was entirely accepted but, in the dormitory bathrooms, the boys frowned on this. We thought there was no need for teachers to come in.

        Thinking of Noah’s comments and Frank’s reply, for us we did have a reference framework: that nudity was acceptable in front of some of the staff but, once they were accepted at all, this sub-set of the staff did not have to be providing personal care for their presence to be acceptable, whereas those staff who lacked a legitimate reason ever, were never accepted. So I can quite understand how boys and men were OK being naked in front of people of any age and gender before the 1980s; it was the circumstances that counted, not the mere fact that the males were naked.

        Noah says that he would never have ‘got’ naked in the first place. Well, like so many of the people writing here about their USA experience before the 1980s, I did it because all the boys around me did it. It was not so much that ‘doing the towel dance’ would have got me bullied. It was a kind of sub-conscious peer pressure. If it was normal for everyone else, why not for me. It was a complete non-issue, provided our exposure was to the ‘accepted’ people.

        Reading the posts, I obviously was living through the change: some of my teachers actively encouraged nude swimming, presumably because it had been normal for them. But we never, ever, did that with staff present.

        One other thing, during the early 1990s an English headteacher did get into trouble for refusing to end nude swimming in his school. At about the same time, not all officialdom had given up on the idea that nudity could have its benefits. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools was still publishing reports highlighting the potential benefits that showering naked together after team sports could bring to male team spirits.

        Finally, I saw a few posts recently from the USA suggesting that some people think it is inappropriate for boys to be shirtless, including when playing football. It left me wondering whether, in 20 years, we might be looking back incredulously at the idea that boys could ever remove their shirts, just as so many are looking back and thinking the same about their shorts!

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    Kenneth Scharf

    I attended High School in the late 60’s in Brooklyn NY. By this time the rules had changed so that swimming nude was optional, though forgetting to bring your swimsuit was not an excuse to miss class. I would actually never learn to swim well until my early 20’s, though I did receive some half hearted lessons from the PE teachers in school. Mostly I just tried to practice in the shallow end of the pool by myself. I do remember leaving the swim suit in the locker on the last day I ever had swim class in HS, I wanted to try it. The worst part about it was having to sit bare ass on the cold wooden bench while attendance was taken before being able to get into the pool.

    A few years later, a friend who had been on his HS swim team volunteered to teach me how to swim. The local JCA had a swimming pool, and it was open two nights a week for men only, (two nights a week for women, and was ‘family’ at other times). My friend’s family was a member there, and I was invited to come along when he and his father went. I wore my swim suit the first time we went, but after noticing that many men there skinny dipped, I would do that every other time we went.

    To this day I prefer to swim nude, and since my wife and I live in a private house where our neighbors are hidden from our view in the back yard, I can do so in my own pool (which alas, like most home pools isn’t big enough to really do laps without having to reverse directions after just a few strokes!).

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    Rick

    It has certainly been a great education to read all the comments folks have made. I’m 77 years old and have had extensive experience with naked bathing in both private and public settings over these many years. The first time swimming naked was at a water filled old quarry outside the city of Chicago. I was 10 yr. old at the time. The other kids called it Bare Ass Beach. I found out why when we arrived. We were all neighborhood boys ages 9 through 15. They stripped off all their clothes and went swimming naked. I was shocked, having been raised by a Mother who for religious reasons taught my sister and I that wearing clothes all the time except in the bath tub was the rule. I was a born rebel in those days and still am today. I stripped and went in the water with the rest of the boys. We would ride our bikes two to three times a week to go swimming. A year later my 6 yr. old sister joined us. She had learned from the neighbor kids what we were doing at the quarry so many times and wanted to go swimming also. She had no problem stripping down naked and joining us. I was a bit embarrassed at the time being naked with my sister but got over it quickly. She then talked a couple of her friends into joining us and soon there were about an equal mix of boys and girls swimming naked together. This lasted for a couple more years. Then someone drowned and the Police had the property owner steel fence the quarry. No more swimming.

    The experience served me well. When I was a freshman at a Chicago Public High School I was required to take swimming. The boys were mandated to swim naked. Didn’t bother me a bit but some boys refused. Lots of trouble for them.

    Entering the USAF and standing around naked, marching from one place to another with 90 other recruits was not a problem for me either. I’ll never forget the Drill Instructor saying “God did NOT make all men equal”. He was certainly correct when you compared the sagging lengths of 90 penis’s all lined up in a row. Never forgot the image.

    My first wife (I had two) was very modest. A prude you might say. Also a Virgin as I found out on my honeymoon. Took quite a bit of talking to get her out of her bedclothes and into bed for sex. Lights out of course so I wouldn’t see her naked body. Come to find out she had a sleeping libido and enjoyed intercourse and the expressions of love and tenderness that accompany it a lot. We had two wonderful children. A girl first who is now a Lawyer and part time Superior Court Judge and a boy who is now a metallurgic engineer for Alcoa Aluminum. First wife was killed by drunk driver after 25 years, second wife died from injuries suffered in a auto accident 5 years ago. We were married 27 years. So, here I am putting up with the problems of old age such as a swollen prostate and associated bladder problems. Oh well, such is life.

    There is a Nudist Resort in Sun River, AZ. that the second wife and I used to visit every week end and camp out. I haven’t been there since she died. Nice people there. It is a 2 hour one way trip and I just don’t have the energy anymore to drive that far so stay home and socialize with the local Senior Citizens groups here in town. I have met only one fellow Nudist. An 86 yr. old lady who also doesn’t want to travel that far to get naked so she comes over to my house and we soak naked in my back yard Jacuzzi which is surrounded by an 8 ft. high wooden fence for privacy. A Jacuzzi is a great healer for old worn out muscles. No body issues for either of us we both having been married for 50 plus years. Met her at my Church social one Sunday.

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    Dave

    I am a widowed heterosexual male, and I find swimming naked feels very liberating and natural. I have visited nudist clubs and beaches, and everyone seems very comfortable being nude in a mixed-gender environment. I think that nudists have a much healthier attitude towards the human body than non-nudists, and I think that it is good to bring up children in an open environment. Children are taught by our society from a very young age to be ashamed of their nakedness, and girls and women are objectified in advertising, music, porn, and popular culture. Violent porn and some music even sends the message that men can force sex upon a woman. This is why we are experiencing a rape culture. Society’s response to all of this is for girls and women to be taught to cover up and to be ashamed of their bodies because “boys will be boys.” I think that is pathetic. Men need to take responsibility for their actions and respect women and not blame it on women dressing “too provocatively,” etc. All of this is why It is refreshing and seems very natural to be with men and women who practice naturism.

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    Richard

    I was subjected to forced nude swimming in Junior High from 1962 thru 1965 in Butler, PA., at the YMCA and Boy Scout camp. We were not prepared for this because we came from small schools to a centralized junior high school and even if there were rumors, we wouldn’t have believed them. The school swimming pool was located between the boys and girls locker rooms. Back then, kids flunked school so the age group could have been 12-17 year olds if some flunked 2 years. Our gym teacher’s name was H. Weightman, newly graduated, I’d say in his mid-20s at the time. He also taught the class nude. We alternated with the girls, one week we had swimming, the other we had gym. I don’t remember how many times we had the girls’ gym teacher for a substitute, but I remember the first time vividly. She was also in her mid 20s and I thought, back then, very good looking. You have to realize that being a gym teacher was on the low end of the pecking order for teachers back then and they were all athletic. It was also a time when teaching didn’t pay well and teachers taught because they wanted to teach. She wore a one piece dark blue or black suit that went high up on her chest, no cleavage showing, and looped down in the back, well above her butt. I can still see us all sitting on the bench naked and her coming up with her clip board which had the attendance sheet. We each had to stand up in front of her and give our name as she checked off the attendance. At that age you have no control over an erection and probably a 1/3 to 1/2 the class had erections as they stood up and gave their names. I don’t remember much else about this experience or the others when she taught. But consider this: our graduating class in 1968 had 869 students. For simple purposes, let’s say that they were split evenly between boys and girls. That would mean that she viewed around 435 naked males between the ages of 12 thru 17 in one week. She had to have raging hormones at that point.
    When the girls’ swimming and the gym teacher was out, the girls all went to study hall in the cafeteria. I have my theory on why the boys were not given that option which I’ll discuss later in another post.

    I went to McQuistion Grade school for grades 1 thru 5. There were only two bathrooms, one for girls and one for boys. We would all go as a group to the bathrooms. All the teachers were female. It was not uncommon for the teacher to accompany the boys into the bathroom. There were probably a half dozen urinals that went from the floor to a height of about 4 feet. The toilets did not have doors or dividers. The teacher would monitor us as we relieved ourselves always saying hurry up and quit playing around.

    College wasn’t much different. I went to the University of Cincinnati 1968 thru 1973. Freshmen year I was in Dabney Hall – an all male dorm. There were about 20 rooms to a floor, two boys to a room. Rooms were about 10 x 10 with bunk beds, desks and closets. There was one large bathroom with toilets and urinals to the left, sinks and a gang shower to the right. There was no doors or dividers on the toilets. Nudity was quite common. Maid service was included weekly in freshmen dorms. The maids were all black, middle aged – we’re talking 1968. When a woman entered the floor, she had to shout “Woman on Floor.” It was common to have the maid cleaning the bathroom while someone was naked showing, urinating, or defecating. Occasionally, some of the cruder boys would lie naked in bed, look at naked magazines and masturbate while she cleaned. Nothing was ever said.

    Rather than make this post real long, I’ll post at a later date my experiences at the YMCA and scout camp.

    The best history on nude swimming can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/historicarchives4maleswimming/home. It will take you about 4 hours to go thru all the material and pictures.

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      Thomas Mendip

      Richard, I’d be curious to hear your opinion on this. My (long winded) notion has already been posted. Nude swimming was not unusual in those days, but the presence of a female had to alter the equation dramatically, as Elsa attested. I never experienced such a thing, but as you noted, the matter of an erection, something you wouldn’t have to worry about without a female present, would have scared the crap out of me.
      As a side note, I just read a piece of “erotic” fiction. The YMCA swim meet with nude male swimmers and females viewing. I didn’t realize it was fiction, which was why I was reading it. Anyway, when the author gets to the end, he had a footnote to the effect that people had asked him to separate the fictional from real events in the story. (He had begun by saying it was based on real events.) Essentially, he said almost nothing was fiction–the three lifeguards were all female, and recalled one of them blistering his butt with a paddle so hard the blows echoed off the wall; the observers ( one of whom was his cousin, and who he says still teases him to this day) were mainly female; one of his aunts took (gulp!) pictures of him that still reside in the family album.
      The interesting part is that although he didn’t identify the town, this took place in the early 60s in Pennsylvania.

  20. Avatar

    David Greger

    Beginning in 7th grade we boys had always showered together in a common shower room following Physical Education classes. You couldn’t be excused from the class without showering and after the first day of group showers we never thought a thing about it. I entered high school in the fall of 1964. My high school had an old tile pool in a basement room, vented by a big fan to the exterior of the building. The men’s PE classes always used the pool nude. I didn’t consider it barbaric at all but completely natural and wonderfullly comfortable. I remember having swim races in those P.E. classes and how much fun those competitions were. I was a horribly skinny kid, but I swam well and I loved the days when our PE coach would send us to the pool. I think the whole experience helped me overcome my sense of insecurity about my body.

    Today, the coach would be hauled before a judge if he had his students swim naked. How sad that young men today don’t develop that innate comfort while being naked together.

    When I got to Navy boot camp in San Diego we had to take a swimming test in the first day or two. Due to some problem that day we reversed the normal order and took the swim test before being issued our uniforms…so we had no swim suits. This was in the all-male days of Navy boot camp, and our company commander simply marched us to the pool building, had us strip off our clothes and take our swim test nude. What could have been more natural? Nobody gave the nudity a second thought….and we didn’t have to pack a wet suit into our bag of new uniforms. Barbaric? Absolutely not. Natural, fun, exhilarating? …..Yes indeed!

    Glad to have experienced these days that some young men cannot even imagine.

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