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The Demise Of High School Nude Swimming In The U.S

My best Buddy told me he was forced to strip naked during new student week. No, it wasn't a medical exam or some crazy fraternity ritual, but at an official university function. The scene was the university pool. He, along with several hundred other first year men were required to take a swimming test, and told there were not enough suits for all. So everyone had to completely strip, and take the test in the raw, even if they had happened to bring a suit. It was communal equality, Penn State style. The surprised men did as they were told. No word on the girls. The year was 1968. I was a freshman at Northwestern the same year--no swim test there, or forced nudity. Thank God.I had never heard of this before. As a kid, I would have been punished for prancing around naked at a backyard pool, and arrested at anything public. My memories were limited to a skinny dip at a secluded creek or pond, and well out of sight of Adults. So, as a baby boomer, I wanted to know if any others had succumbed to the same fate as my friend. I soon found a couple of forums on the subject, with one group swearing that mandatory naked swimming was an untrue urban legend. But another blog soon dispelled that--it was indeed not a legend, but very true, especially in high schools. So I began to investigate, and soon learned the boomer generation had quite a say in this practice, and true to its rebellious form, changed it, from early acceptance to downright rejection. I was soon interviewing numerous people and school staff who revealed their recollections, historical perspectives and why the policy ended. (Some names have been withheld at the respondent's request).Chicago Students Remember Being Told to Strip

"We did swim naked, " confirms Terry, a student at Chicago's Roosevelt High School during the early 60s. "You did what you were told in those days. We never really thought about it too much." Adds another, "No one really made any objection that I know of--the teacher said to do it, so we did." Indeed most early boomers agreed, "This was just the way it was for boys, " and did not give it a second thought. But the memories are vivid. The first day some men recall being told to take all of their clothes off, and then being marched through showers before entering the pool area, where they were told to line up along the pool edge for roll call. "Lining up for attendance was the worst part, " declares one former student. "Once you were in the water it was fine." Others said it was a bit weird at first, but got used to it after a few weeks. "Adolescents really had no empowerment, and if anyone objected, they would be considered a sissy, " says Allen, a 1961 Chicago Public School graduate. "That was the environment then, and we really all wanted to fit in." Although no good statistics are available, anecdotal evidence suggests the practice was widespread in the U.S., but particularly prevalent in the Midwest, especially large cities like Chicago. While nationally most schools did not have pools, one Wisconsin survey showed two of three high schools with pools employed the policy. "Most of us didn't talk about it much, " says Charlie, a mid-60s student at Amundsen High School in Chicago. "We did not tell our parents or the girls that we swam nude, and really did not talk about it amongst ourselves either. But I was embarrassed about it." Girls Wore Dumpy Suits Sandi, a former female student, confirmed, "None of us knew the boys swam nude until we were at school a few months. We heard about it on the grapevine." She added, "While we (girls) wore suits, we might as well have been naked too. The swim suits that the school provided were tanks and gave us no support, and when they got wet, they stretched out and sagged down to our knees. They were very uncomfortable. And to make things worse, they were color-coded by size. Everyone knew what size I wore because my suit was an ugly gray." But it was not the size of a suit that had some boys apprehensive. In fact a spokesman for Chicago schools cited "sexual awareness" as one of two reasons for the boys' nude requirement. (The other was hygiene). "I remember seeing all kinds of things in those classes, every variation on human (male) bodies you could imagine -- every shape, size and configuration, " recalls one blogger. "And the most startling thing was who was well endowed and who wasn't. You certainly couldn't tell when they were clothed." Another said, "We were thrown in at the start of puberty, and most of us had never swum without a suit before. I think there was some trauma." Others noted the fear of an unexpected and sudden change to the male profile, as pubescent hormones raged. "To be honest, sometimes it just felt good swimming naked in the warm water, but the fear and potential for embarrassment was always there. I got erections for no reason a few times--I don't think anyone noticed, but if they did, they said nothing, " revealed George. "I moved to Illinois from New Jersey in the middle of my freshman year and I remember being shocked when the gym coach told me that everyone swam naked. It didn't take me too long to get used to it. It seems odd to me now though, " says the former Waukegan (Illinois) West High School student. Where Did It Begin?

Although almost non-existent today, institutional male nude swimming in the U.S. got its start at the YMCA in the 1890s. At the time, men wore wooly suits, which shed fibers, clogging the then sensitive water filters. It became traditional and mandatory for men and boys to swim au natural at these facilities, and many believe schools copied the policy of this respected institution. One mid-60s student remembers, "We were told it was tradition, but still no one was anxious to strip naked for class." Indeed men from earlier generations seemed to have had no problem with swimming nude. Says one, "It is my belief that previous generations considered communal, same-gender nudity for boys to be healthy and normal." The leading edge of the baby boomer generation began to go to high school in the early 60s, and with thousands of boomer students, came a need for more schools, particularly in suburban areas. While pools even today remain luxuries in many parts of the country, many new suburban and consolidated rural schools began to add them. As a result, an ever increasing number of boys were exposed to the "swim nude" policies--many more than in previous generations where it was largely limited to the Y and a few big city school systems. An added result was that some began to ask questions. A Washington State man whose school did not require nudity adds, "Overall kids in that age range tend to be self conscious, and it's hard for me to believe that many would choose the greater exposure without some significant introductory period (i.e. introduced at a very young age)--or direct orders they thought they had to follow. I'm sure I would not have (agreed to swim nude if not forced)." Threads Clogged the Drains? Oh, Come On, This is the 60s Indeed, if there was an urban legend, it was more the reasons for nude swimming, than the practice itself. The most frequent reasons cited were threads clogging the drains and hygiene, even though woolen swimsuits were long gone by the 60s, and replaced with fabrics that did not shed. Exclaims one blogger, "Has it dawned on anyone that a lot of us would have been satisfied with a simple cogent explanation when we were forced to swim naked in school? After all, when the math teacher gives us a rule for solving equations and we ask why, that teacher gives a logical answer. But when you ask a gym teacher why you need to be nude and he gives an obviously false answer--the suits will clog the filters--but the girls' suits will not despite having more cloth, we suspect this is not the real reason." A Minnesota pre-boomer suggests one reason was discipline, and that boys were not expected to be bothered by nudity. "Nude swimming for boys was a no-nonsense, practical, easy, conforming and cohesive, method of handling 30 exuberant boys in one hour." Nudity had a calming affect for even the most boisterous boys. Still others credit the military. Schools in the 60s were largely administered by the World War II generation, and during the war, there was little respect for male privacy. Many believe they transferred this norm to schools. And even in the early 70s, one man remembers a selective service physical where "long lines of naked guys being inspected for everything from flat feet to eyesight and hearing in a shockingly open environment." Things Begin to Change Indeed, as more and more baby boomers entered high school, the policy became increasingly unpopular. In schools, particularly coed schools, it was not seen as a "traditional" male past-time, such as skinny dipping at the creek or with buddies at camp. Instead it was viewed as a forced, unwelcome intrusion on privacy. Says Felix, a former early 70s student at Chicago's St. Patrick Catholic High School, "I liked to be able to swim naked, but I could tell many of the others didn't. They didn't say much, but you could tell by the way they walked (around the pool) and acted in class." "There were two types of boys in our swim class" writes David Kaplan in a Houston Chronicle commentary--those who didn't care that they were naked and unselfconsciously had fun--and those like me who were thinking, get me out of here." "The only time in my education when I felt discriminated against as a male was at secondary school and all connected with the school's physical ed arrangements, " declares one blogger. But students did not outwardly complain. Retired Chicago Public High School teacher and counselor Aida Guidice notes, "In the 70s it would have been unthinkable for a boy to complain about the swim policy to a gym teacher--kids just didn't do that in those days, but I know some had a problem with swim class. The typical behavioral response would have been avoidance." Some recall the excuses. One Amundsen student remembers getting a doctor's excuse for "chronic chlorine eye irritation, " and says this and similar excuses were common, adding the real reason was required nudity. Still others joined ROTC where swimming classes were waived, and others cited religious considerations. Some Chicago suburban schools exempted students with a signed waiver from a parent. One New York area man remembers in the late 60s that the football team refused to go naked and brought their own suits. The following year the policy changed. Guidice said that if all else failed, some boys would simply cut swim class. "This actually was a problem for PE classes in general. You also have to remember this all occurred at a very self-conscious age, and there was resistance, particularly those with body image issues." Parents also voiced concerns, some calling it degrading, discriminatory and unnecessary. In an early 70s Chicago Tribune Action Express column, one parent asked "Why do Chicago high schools demand that boys swim in the nude? This offends my sense of morality, and it must bother other people too. Besides, why are girls and instructors allowed to wear suits?" A Chicago School Board consultant replied that it was cheaper and cleaner. He said girls needed more (clothing) support, but Guidice added that cultural and modesty standards for girls at that time would never have allowed it. School boards began changing policies and banning male "in the buff" swims in the 60s, but it was 1972 national legislation--Title IX--that accelerated the process. The law banned discrimination on the basis of Sex for any institution accepting federal funds, and was designed to equalize funds expended for boys and girls sports. In the past more money was spent on boy's programs like basketball, although swimming programs had provided mostly equal opportunities. Ironically, the law also gave legal justification to parents and school board members supporting suits for boys. School districts routinely purchased girl's suits resulting in an argument questioning why tax dollars were used to clothe girls while boys went naked. While Title IX did not specifically require coed classes, many school districts reacted by integrating boys' and girls' PE sessions, ensuring equality both in curriculum and clothing. In Chicago, while some men remember naked classes that lingered at some schools well into the 70s, a Chicago Public School spokesman said the nude swimming policy officially ended in 1972. Says Guidice, "I think administrators everywhere were trying to be responsive to student needs." Never Again By the end of the 70s, suit-less swimming for U.S. male high school students was all but extinct, and many quickly forgot it ever existed. Indeed some young men today express shock that it ever happened. Dennis Gonzalez, a Chicago Lane Tech 2002 graduate said, "A friend of mine told me about this and I could hardly believe it. I think it was crazy. I would never do this, nor would my friends. I think it's all about respect for each other and our privacy. Sounds like there was less respect years ago--I would have rather failed the class than go naked." Gonzalez added that students today avoid communal nudity, and even shower at school with swimsuits. Some older men lament the changes, blaming 60s and 70s societal upheavals--from feminism to privacy expectations fueled by rising living standards. "Boys used to swim nude at camp, the Y and at school. I have great memories--lots of camaraderie, and we were all equal." says one nostalgic older man on an Internet forum. "I am glad I grew up when I did, and feel sad for the kids today." Now relegated to the baby boomer archive, institutional nude swimming is but a distant memory--part of American folklore--even at Penn State.

By Jeff Fulton - Jeff Fulton is a writer specializing in travel and culture. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Chicago. He has worked in sa...  

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