There are things the world did when I was a kid that, seen through today’s politically correct lens, would be unthinkable now. Driving without seat belts. Smoking while pregnant. Voting for Nixon.
Swimming naked in gym class is another one. Wait! Huh?
That’s right, we swam naked in high school gym class. Let that little thought nugget sink into your head for a second or two. The 21st century mind, drummed full of politically correctness for so many years, won’t parse that information quickly. Nude? Swimming? In school?
Yep, mixed in with four weeks of volleyball, four weeks of softball, floor hockey, dodgeball, whatever there were four weeks where we’d strip naked and splash around in the school pool. In broad daylight. 3rd period. 6th period. Whenever you had gym.
They’d have us run through the communal shower room first, past the showerheads already going: hot, cold, cold, scalding, warm, freezing. Then it was up a few steps, through a passageway, straddling a pipe that squirted water at your crotch, to the pool--- diving off the blocks for a race or sitting along the cold tile ledge waiting for your turn. Naked.
What---? You got a problem with 20 or 30 teenaged boys in various stages of puberty, with any number of body issues--- good and bad --- jiggling around in front of each other and three or four gym teachers, any one a potential Jerry Sandusky? Get your 2014 mind out of the gutter.
The practice was not isolated to my particular high school. Men in Wisconsin, Michigan, other places in the Midwest, and as far away as Texas have this warm and fuzzy memory from childhood. Girls had P.E. They took swimming. They wore suits. Suits were mandatory for girls. So why were boys required to let it all hang out?
One theory/excuse: nude, communal swimming among boys was natural, acceptable, a tradition dating back to the early 1900s. Boys swam naked with boys all the time at the ol’ waterin’ hole--- no biggy. Folks bathed in the crick, too; took bars of Ivory soap with them (it floats!). Why get so all fired up?
Another theory/alibi is that until pool filtration technology improved, swimsuits of the times were thought to carry too much bacteria and potential diseases for the filters to handle. The American Public Health Association set the standards for pool maintenance in 1926, which officially recommended male skinny-dipping.
These guidelines went beyond schools to other indoor public pools including the YMCA--- where you could, according to the Village People: “get yourself clean” and “do whatever you feel.” Even after the science of chlorination advanced, the mandate remained until 1962. The practice, however, continued well into the 70s.
I’m clearly not the first guy to write about this odd custom. “Haunt” might be too strong a word, but for the men who went through it, the experience sure seems to stick in our memory. For everyone else, it’s just too weird to believe.
“The reasons for this barbaric and hurtful practice were ill-founded,” Richard Senelick, a neurologist and medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio, writes in The Atlantic. “The need for hygiene, the fear of bathing suit threads clogging the pool or the desire to ‘build cohesion’ between young men,” Senelick believed, resulted in boys’ “shame and embarrassment.”
I don’t know if I’d say standing around naked for an hour every day with my male classmates traumatized me. I don’t have a brother so the experience was definitely new to me. I think it helped that I’m blind as a bat without my glasses, so the whole experience was a blur--- literally. When the girls’ class walked by the open hallway door, whooping and hollering at us, they were just a fuzzy blob.
Can you imagine a nude gym class in 2014? The PC Police, as well as the actual police, would be all over it. My kids don’t even shower after P.E.; it’s not a requirement.
Yeeeah, those were different times, simpler times--- when men were men and boys swam naked in front of them.
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