When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools


At a time when teens expose lots of flesh, it will probably surprise a few of you that high school boys used to swim in the nude when everyone else was much more “covered-up” than today. That practice happened in many places, but it was routine in the (CPS) Chicago Public High Schools in the middle of the last century. Research suggests it stopped at some time in the 1970s, but this post isn’t about how long it lasted. It is about the effect on those of us who lived the experience.

The privacy concerns of today were then unknown. Social Security numbers that would open the door to identity theft in 2014 were unprotected by most people 50 years ago. So, too, were the nude bodies of teen males from about age 13 to 18. It was part of what was called physical education (PE), but the lessons of this particular class were perverse.

We followed orders. We didn’t question it the way one might today. Our fathers, many of whom had been subjected to the same expectation, didn’t ask about it either. I don’t remember having any conversations with my folks or my friends, the latter until many years later. Then the injured skeletons finally popped out of the pool closet.

Organized nude male exercise dates as far back as Ancient Greece. Socrates talks about it in Plato’s Republic and even suggests at one point that male and female potential “guardians” of one’s ideal municipality should be required to work out together buff naked! At least nothing like that happened at Mather High School or elsewhere in the CPS system. Physical education wasn’t co-ed. The young ladies wore unattractive “tank suits” covering crucial parts. Males alone followed the drill sans a bathing suit and did so out of the sight of anyone but their classmates and the teacher.

Believe me, for some people I knew, just standing around nude in the confines of a cold swimming area was bad enough without an audience. Let’s start with the fact that you’d just come out of a shower warmer than the air and water in the “pool room.” The swimming area was tiled. Sitting at pool’s edge or on tile benches always felt like squatting on blocks of ice. Teeth chattered. That was just the start.

Once fully in the water, of course, brought relief from the ease with which others could inspect your “equipment.” There were always some kids who were “advanced” in this department. Others could rightfully have been called “developmentally delayed” in terms of secondary sexual characteristics like pubic hair. There were size differences, too. Comparisons were both inevitable and impossible to avoid, although most of the boys tried to be discreet about it.

Embarrassment came to those targeted by bullies, as their successors surely do today too, especially from the “big guys” who had no problem in any area of growth and enjoyed a little sadism. Mocking occurred, egos crumbled like cookies. These were the stories uttered for the first time (in my non-professional experience) by classmates I saw at the 40th Class Reunion. For a few, the memories remained painful. Young men are enormously insecure in the sexual development and attractiveness department. An entire class devoted to seeing nude bodies of your classmates could only turn out badly for some.

I wonder what the teachers were thinking, not to mention the school administrators who sanctioned this practice. I’ve heard it said that some claimed it was a matter of cleanliness. Or perhaps, somewhere way back, someone had read about Ancient Greek physical ed. and thought it sounded great. “It will make men out of them, maybe even the next Achilles” he must have been thinking.

The eventual decision to require swim trunks might have been the result of increasing concerns over discrimination bubbling up in the 50’s and ’60s about other things, notably race and eventually gender bias. Since only the boys had to swim nude, it was the male gender being disadvantaged. I really don’t know with certainty why the course changed. Surely it didn’t end all at once everywhere that it was happening in the USA.

Nor must anyone who required male nudity have considered the excruciating circumstance it must have created for gay teens at a time before the word “gay” meant anything but being jolly — when custom permitted more pejorative and degrading names for those kids with a predilection for same-sex relationships. And remember, teen-aged boys have enormous difficulty controlling the automatic arousal that can happen anytime, anywhere.

That reminds me of Mae West, a femme fatale of early talking movies. She commented to an attractive male, “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” But I’ll tell you from personal experience that erections often happen to 16-year-old males at the most inopportune moments. I find it rather ironic, in light of the overwhelming number of commercials for middle-aged men with problems of sexual performance these days.

To end, here’s  a story I was told by someone who saw it happen in another CPS swim class. Doubtless it wasn’t the only one of its kind. The teacher wanted someone to demonstrate the back float. The first couple of kids were chosen at random, but couldn’t manage the task, frustrating the instructor. “Hey Murray, you’re the finest swimmer here, show these guys how it’s  done,” he finally barked. Murray tried his stalwart best and did, indeed, display the ideal back float form for the 30 or so fellow-students assembled around him.

There was only one problem for good-old Murray. In the middle of everything, the poor Murray-meister had an erection that popped up like the opening of a switchblade, automatic knife. No sooner did it appear, than one of the class wags yelled out, “Up periscope, Murray!”

For an update on the reasons nude male swimming became mandatory, please read: When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public High Schools: Update.

51 thoughts on “When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools

  1. In my days as a newspaper editor, there was one word that brought so much angst for those in my position. Whenever we saw it in an article we were editing, we would always read the word slowly, ensuring *all* the letters were present, because it could have terrible results. That word? “Public.” 🙂 Just one missing letter changed the meaning *a lot*. So, of course as my training dictated, I slowed down when reading your essay and spotted the word “public.” Ironically enough, the “L” should have been banished when you speak of secondary sexual characteristics. 🙂 And as Sheldon pointed out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3gQm24DJ5w


  2. As a younger teacher with 10 years under my belt in the current climate of mollycoddling, self-esteem buoying, cliched “participation” trophies on field day, heightened sensitivity to anything that smacks of “bullying,” rampant enabling and excuse-making and pesky helicopter parents–so much of the “old school” way blows my mind, naked swimming included. Or the fact that my father-in-law was the “paddle guy” at a local elementary school as recently as the early 80s. Or my own memory of my 3rd grade teacher, who maniacally dumped the contents of my desk all over the floor (because it was messy) while berating me in front of the class. When I imagine how any one of these scenarios would play out in the middle school where I work, it’s laughable, preposterous, and grounds for a serious witch hunt replete with local news broadcast and viral video on YouTube. I’m not prepared to argue whether one or the other is better–it seems a lot of unnecessary humiliation could have been avoided by a simple round of swim suits, for example. I’m just saying, my how things have changed!


  3. No doubt the pendulum has moved a great deal — with some serious and unfortunate consequences outside the pool. Thanks for commenting.


  4. We didn’t have swimming in our school curriculum (no pool) but we did have showers. The first completely unclothed adult male I ever saw was our gym teacher who would sometimes shower with us at the end of class. Today I look back and think that was pretty creepy but at the time my reaction to seeing that sagging, pot-bellied, patchy-haired form was, “Yeesh, that is gross…”

    An image still burned in my memory.


  5. Thank you Dr Stein. Here is my experience, and I address it also to people who have been harmed by the practice – you are not alone! – and to those who tell us that times were different then and nobody minded. Rubbish.

    When my mother was young, she heard that the best school in our area was Manchester Grammar School, that it was very hard to get a place. She told me she dreamed that she’d have a son who got a place there.

    When I was 11, I passed their exam. A boy told me that I shouldn’t go there – “My cousin goes there and they make him swim with nothing on”. The culture of working class Manchester was very much that you kept your clothes on, and I made it clear to my parents that I didn’t want to go.

    Rather than give up her dream for a child’s insecurities, Mum and Dad spent the Summer trying to reassure me. Other adults helped them, by recounting how they had sons there and it was OK, or they’d been swimming at the YMCA and it was OK. I wasn’t reassured: I clammed up.

    When we went for induction at the school, one kid stuck his hand in the air and asked “What colour swimming trunks should we bring?” The reply was “You don’t wear swimming trunks in our pool” and dead silence fell. As someone said years later, all those boys so disempowered.

    On the day of the first lesson, I recall waiting, scared stiff. I recall eventually taking my towel off and feeling a sort of speechless paralysis. The lessons turned out to be worse than I’d imagined, held in a freezing cold baths that smelled like a urinal. At least one of the teachers – as has appeared in the national press – had no business being around children. Imagine that – paedophiles gravitating to where the naked children are! I said nothing at home.

    Had you asked me about the swimming in my 20s, I’d have said only that I disliked it. Years later, a man who’d been at the school walked into Mum’s shop and started talking to her about it. She said it was just conversation, but I expect a man who starts talking about such an experience, to a stranger, is himself troubled.

    After Mum mentioned this conversation to me, over the next few days feelings I’d suppressed for years burst through. It was a devastating experience, one I didn’t know could happen. Shame, grief, and an anger I’d never felt before. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, a man friends and colleagues have always had down as a tough character.

    I confronted Mum, who was appalled and apologised. But she couldn’t understand why I hadn’t made it clear how much I’d hated it. To some degree, nor can I, but how could a child overcome all those adults who thought all he needed was more and more reassurance? Nor had Mum, who’d known I was panicking about the lessons, asked me after the first one how it had gone. I guess she didn’t want to find out.

    Eventually, my relationship with Mum broke down. She argued herself into the point where she hadn’t made a mistake and I should have said and so on. Effectively, the apology was taken back, behind my back, and I found out about it. A sad end to her dreams, and I wonder if anyone could possibly have gained anything from being forced to swim without his trunks, that outweighs the damage done in this one family..

    WordPress.com / Gravatar.com credentials can be used.


    • Your account is extraordinary in its understated power, David. Thank you for posting it. Your essay requires no further comment, except to agree that this practice was not one from which anyone gained anything.


  6. We swam in the ‘bare’ all through school and I was on the Y swim team for a short period of time in Junior High. I do not remember any issues whatsoever. Swimming in the bare though was easy since most of us grew up swimming in our farm’s reservoirs & creeks with nothing on. And seeing older boys and grown men like our dads and coaches in the raw was also common. So, I really don’t know how to understand this fear of being naked around other men as is described in this article. But I do know it is a problem with these current generations of men. Very sad. I wonder if how I grew up was the reason why we had no issues at all.

    I think one of the most memorable lessons growing us was when in 7th grade we had our first year of serious PE with uniforms and mandatory showers. It took about 2 days for the coach to teach us how to dress out, get our school clothes in our assigned locker and be on the gym floor within the required number of minutes and then how to get undressed, showered and dressed in time for our next class also in the required time. Both coaches also showed us how to take a full shower in the least amount of time and still smell good enough for our next class teacher.

    I do remember that there was some altercation in the shower in the first week or two when in response the coach lined all 40 of us in the bare in front of the showers. He laid into us about teasing each other about our penises which I guess had just happened in the shower. Anyhow, he gave us the riot act and made us look around at each others crotches and firmly planted in our heads that the most important thing was that we were all male, that we will all be married and have children some day, and if our stuff worked, then that was what mattered. I never forgot that lesson.

    Interesting thing was that we not only didn’t tease anymore, we all had a strong sense of protecting each other in the crotch area. It was a big deal if one of us got hit there during a game for all of us rallied to his aid no matter what we were doing.

    Even if these current generations of men are sadly insecure in their manhood, I’m very glad I raised our six sons to be comfortable around each other and me. I even forced them to shower after PE and practices at school even if they were the only one to do so. All six are very confident as men. And now their sons are showing the same manly confidence as they are entering their teenage years.


    • Thanks for this wonderful memoir, Will. And congratulations on how you raised your children. I think you’ve answered the question you posed. It may be that the community you lived in, your parents, and the great PE teacher you described knew something the rest of us missed. Bravo!


    • I remember having to shower for the first time nude in 7th grade. The summer before 7th grade neighborhood kids teased me telling me we had to be naked and showering the gym. I was worried about it all summer but I got used to it. Then it didn’t bother me ever since then. I can easily imagine at any point in time that some kids would always have a problem with it. Some kids are just shy. Some people have hangups of all kinds. My older brother used to skip class and hide under the stairs. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years later. Kids did have issues at that age as well. Not all kids had problems being naked. Some had other issues. My father and his 4 siblings all had alcohol issues and they were born between 1917 and 1932. They did live through the depression, with world wars etc. Today kids have to worry about school shootings. Being shot or knifed in the school yard instead of going home with a black eye or bloody nose.


      • Indeed, Dan. There is a world of trouble out there, and has always been. That said, thoughtful school planning can avoid some of the humiliations. Apparently, naked swimming is one of those, at least in most communities in the US. Very sorry to hear about your brother and the alcohol issues in your family. Thanks for commenting, and best wishes.


  7. greg dpsulding

    Maybe that’s why I don’t cover up in the locker room at the gym….I loved swimming nude and still do every time I can…


  8. I remember just turning 14 when I started as a freshman at Grover Cleveland High in Ridgewood NY in 1960. My brother had graduated from the same school 5 years earlier and had never mentioned the mandatory swim class requirement to graduate nor the fact that boys had to swim naked while girls were provided tank type suits. The PE teacher instructed us to remove all our clothes in the locker room and take a shower before entering the pool area. It seemed kind of weird in a large shower room with so many other naked boys of different ages but the hot water caused alot of mist which made me feel less exposed. The dash to the pool room was always a cold experience and the swim coach, Mr. McArdle, who always wore a bath robe and a whistle, would be at the pool ready to greet us.. My impression was that he didn’t like his job because he always seemed grouchy and acted like he would rather be anywhere else. The first day, he explained that for pool water safety, we always had to shower before entering and use soap. Then when we entered the pool area (and this is no fabrication) he would have us stand in a line facing the pool and had us bend over and spread our cheeks so he could walk by and check for evidence of “twelve oclock shadow”. If he did see any shadows, you were automatically sent back to the showers and reinspected upon returning before you were allowed in the pool. No one wanted to run the gauntlet from shower to pool twice so his compliance record was pretty good. At the end of the class, a warning bell sounded that gave us 5 minutes before the girls swim class would come in from their locker room. The seniors in our class were always pranking the coach and I will never forget when they “relocated” his keys and our class could not get back into the locked locker room in time. You guessed it…the girls class came in like a herd of laughing hyenas and all we could do was jump back into the pool until the girls coach used her key to let us out. Needless to say, I had a hard time looking girls in the eye right after that wondering if they saw me naked!


  9. I hadn’t intended to comment again, but I see you’ve had at least one of the “naked swimming is about teaching manliness” chaps , so I thought I should return.
    The quote above is from Jim White, a journalist with a respected conservative UK newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) who attended the same school as I did. The school doctor was not the worst of the obvious paedophiles who taught manliness by …well, I’ll drop the sarcasm. This is not teaching manliness, this is a form of sexual activity with children.
    a) How did they get away with it and b) could it happen in the US or was it just a feature of the traditional English school system? Answer to a) is prestige – the school was so well thought of, not least by itself, that it stood above suspicion. And b) – well, of course it could. News of the scandal of paedophile priests in Chicago has reached as far as here in England. Just another misuse of prestige: a man of God, or a teacher at a famous school, wasn’t subjected to the scrutiny people would apply before trusting an ordinary mortal with their children.
    Next, I’d like to address a claim of Will’s that “current generations of men are insecure in their manhood”. Not my impression. I’d give as an example a karate club I joined. Our sensei suggested that people change at the dojo rather than turning up in their gi. Neither I nor any other man there had any problem doing this or showering naked. I imagine I was the only one who’d had this experience of being forced to strip naked as a kid by paedophiles cracking on they were teaching manliness. So where did the rest get this body confidence from? Comes with adulthood, I suggest. There were some young teenagers there, and I noticed that they tended to turn up in their kit. Unlike Will, sensei didn’t “force them to shower” or insist they get changed at the dojo. He had a bit more sense than that – knew they’d gain adult body confidence without having inhibitions forcibly stripped from them by the “teaching manliness” crew. Changing rooms at public baths are much the same – shy kids normally grow up to be body confident men without the input of the naked swimming enthusiasts.

    Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to the only people I recall who did behave like men. Some 16 year olds told the school what was going on, and one guy started a rebellion that stopped the practice – just turned up in trunks and told the paedophile rugby/gym teacher that naked swimming had ended as far as he was concerned.
    Next week the whole class joined him and we heard teachers got together and discussed it along the lines of “what the hell have we allowed to happen?”.
    But there was only one of them – a teacher of Greek who had nothing to do with the gym scene, who was man enough to attempt a word of regret to us. He had never been a guy we particularly liked, but he stood up and stopped his Greek class and had the manliness to say that it hadn’t been nice and shouldn’t have happened. He was met by the same dead silence with which the boys had reacted when they were told they’d be swimming naked, four years earlier. It was not the silence of indifference. It was the silence of trauma, make no mistake about it.


  10. I see the Jim White quote was missed out, my bad. It runs as follows: “,I recall one lifeguard in my era, the school doctor, who would stand naked in the shallow end with several boys crawling all over him attempting to push him under the water.
    “Duck the Doc” the game was called, and it was generally a prelude to the old pederast plonking himself in the foot bath where , like the emperor Tiberius with his minnows, he would honour his favourites by encouraging them to squirm about in his lap”.


    • Thanks for both of these comments, David. I’m stunned that a group of kids would say no “back in the day.” What year did this happen? In the early 1960s we were so in awe of authority we never challenged the practice. In a sense it was beyond our ability to imagine.


      • Year in question is 1975, Dr Stein. I have to agree that “we were so in awe of authority we never challenged the practice” is about where I and nearly everyone else was at. “In a sense it was beyond our ability to imagine” is a comment that interests me. What is the process involved in that disempowerment – the child’s world shrinks to the point where you cannot tell your parents, cannot tell yourself, that what is going on is something that you don’t want, that shouldn’t be happening, that there are alternatives?
        Anyway, I wouldn’t credit a group of kids so much as one person. The guy who challenged the teacher was a confident, arrogant and engaging character who modelled himself on Lord Byron. A real eccentric, he was probably enjoying challenging authority as much as trying to stop the crap. He didn’t even bother gathering support from other boys – just turned up in his trunks and challenged the teacher directly. He was sent out, but next week the class fell in behind him, and the pool was “closed for repairs” for over a year. Shortly before reopening, the school announced its new item of uniform, navy blue trunks. Still had to be seen to be in charge, you see: no choice of colour.
        Anyway, that was how one brave lad stood up. I think I am in order to name him: Stephen L Prasher. Don’t know where he is now but I continue to remember his stand with great respect. I recently met some men who had started at the school while the pool was “closed for repairs”. They recalled how they’d heard the stories and were dreading those teachers and the naked swimming lessons. Thanks to Stephen, what they dreaded they were spared.
        I would guess that if anyone who taught at that school in those years thinks back on those days, they imagine that they too are remembered with respect by people like me. I left that school to take up what was regarded as Oxford University’s top scholarship in my subject, for which the school duly praised me pretty loudly, and which they no doubt regarded as a feather in their cap. Well, my old teachers – that classics guy excepted – you did me a sight more harm than good: you failed me and many others and may God’s curse light upon you all. As you said previously, Dr Stein, I understate things.


      • Thanks, David. “What is the process involved in that disempowerment – the child’s world shrinks to the point where you cannot tell your parents, cannot tell yourself, that what is going on is something that you don’t want, that shouldn’t be happening, that there are alternatives?” I don’t have a complete answer for you, but here is what comes to mind: I think it is hard, especially as a youngster, to see outside certain boundaries set by those in charge and by the experience of those around you. I treated many adult males who experienced severe corporal punishment as children and made light of it by referencing that it was common in their neighborhood and among their friends. At my old high school (now an inner city school), too many of the young people believe that the lives lived by their same-aged peers on TV don’t apply to them. That is, they think such lives are impossible to achieve and therefore give up. It is as if their imagination fails. I remember John Ciardi, the poet, referencing listening to Caruso records in this regard. Ciardi said those old records enlarged your imagination because previous to hearing them you could not have known either what a human voice could produce in terms of technical perfection and beauty, or envisioned the interpretive scope it could achieve. Certainly, respect for authority in the USA in 1960, when I began high school, was an unquestioned thing. By the late ’60s it was collapsing. Surely that played a part in our acceptance of the nude swimming. There seemed no choice but to submit.


  11. Reading these (and other comments) I can honestly say that at the time, it never occurred to me that there was anything untoward, unacceptable or in any way out of the ordinary in the way we were expected to present ourselves for swimming. In retrospect – yes, there seems to be a lot wrong with it, but I cannot recall thinking about it at all. It was just something you did. I can also recall shopping with my mother and two sisters for our school kit, and two swimming costumes complete with the school badge being bought for them. Again, if I had any thoughts about the stark (pun intended) difference, I cannot remember them.


    • Thanks, Steven. As I replied to David Latham, I think there was a frame of reference that went something like this: if my parents think it is OK and the teachers think it is OK then it must be OK. Perhaps this is too conscious a process. Of course, I have no evidence to support this hypothesis. Best wishes.


    • Thanks for your continued contributions to this conversation, Steven.


  12. I suspect you are both right: authority can do this strange thing of stopping one thinking and feeling – and speaking out – about matters as one otherwise would. I recall, during that period of over twenty years before suddenly having my suppressed emotions break through, reading about some events at an Ivy League college in the US. They had insisted that all freshmen be photographed naked. Some famous people (Hillary Clinton was one) had been through this and people who saw the photos – now destroyed as part of a bizarre experiment now regarded as pointless, it may have been something inspired by the eugenics movement – said you could see the humiliation on the faces of some of the people. Two thoughts I have now: how did I read this, and be startled by it, without connecting that something worse had happened to me? And, obviously, some of these future leaders of society, like me, hadn’t wanted to undergo this but had done so without sufficient protest.

    In my case, the frame of reference went, in Dr Stein’s formulation, “my parents think it is OK and the teachers think it is OK but it is not OK”. Even as an eleven year old I knew that naked swimming had a sexual connotation, hence its frequent representation in films; the behaviour of some teachers made this obvious and I knew then that my parents, and any decent teachers, were wrong and the kid at my other school was right. Too late for me: power was in the hands, not of the perceptive child, but of the stupid adults, and in at least two cases, the perverted adults (both dead now). As a friend suggested, it seemed like a gigantic conspiracy of adults all against me, and my response was to clam up, and shut the whole thing in a room in my mind, and forget for many years that the room was there. I am pretty sure that had I gone straightforward Dr Stein “…the teachers think it is OK then it must be OK” then I’d have incurred less damage.

    On a greater scale, is this process of authority shutting down normal reactions similar to what we see in, for example, soldiers? How many people can kill another without suffering huge trauma and guilt? I wonder if there are soldiers who would in other circumstances have suffered before shooting – but the state said it’s OK to kill people and they haven’t really thought about it. I wonder if some have mental rooms they’ll never open, and if others suddenly realise what lies behind them?


    • I think I’m not too far from your way of thinking, David. And, I probably confused my opinion by my choice of words. Many of the kids experienced that it was peculiar, uncomfortable, and were ashamed (based on later reports I heard). That said, the reason they did not talk or confront it was because it was an accepted practice, tacitly agreed to by the teachers and parents (authorities) who made no issue of it. I was surely not as heroic and confident as the young man you described who did take it on. Nor was I mocked by my peers or damaged by the process. I made my peace with it. But, as the essay notes, many were talking of it at the Class Reunion #40, so it did linger for them. As to soldiers, I believe you are right to say that the authority, and appeal to patriotism and manhood was enough to get people to compartmentalize. Based on the amount of PTSD now suffered by soldiers on repeated tours of duty in war zones, the compartments do eventually break down for some.


  13. My opinion about swimming naked is quite different, practiced it at the end of the 60s at a Midwestern UniversityI enjoyed warm showers,mandatory before and after the swim,The the pleasure of being nudeinthe waterIelt very well with my body beiing naked! In h showers and when dressing in the lockers some dudes got boners;no big deal! Unfortunately no nude swimming has dissappeared and a groupof friends still swimnakked i friend’s house’s private swiming pool!


    • Interesting, Matt. I wonder if part of the difference was one of age — 13 and 14 year olds starting in high school vs. college students. Thanks for your comment.


  14. All these comments can only come from a prudish, protestant society. In other parts of the world you would not be shaming, comparing, or embarrassed. They’re just bodies. If you’re working on your body, then why hide it? Part of the reason for being nude is for bonding with others and to help you understand your body and see it naturally, not as something to be ashamed of. The idea of being ashamed of your bodies come from the religious protestant teachings.


  15. I just stumbled across this page and after reading the story and comments, I wanted to chime in with my experience and opinion.

    As a child I was profoundly private and easily frightened and shamed. I couldn’t use public toilets anywhere unless I was absolutely certain they were empty — and also if they had private partitions. I don’t know why I was so frightened of public toilets as a child.

    I lost my father when I was six and I was an extremely effeminate boy growing up in a very small, rural south Texas town. School was hard. I had very few friends and the teachers and school staff were hostile in general. I think the only person I felt I could trust was the school counselor. I was considered an undisciplined troublemaker for all the times a fight would break out with me trying to stand up for myself. I was paddled on a weekly basis.

    Fast forward to grade school. You can imagine my horror and chagrin when I found out I’d have to shower naked with other boys from my gym class. I never let anyone see me naked even at home. I dreaded it in the worst way, but it changed profoundly after the first day of school when it was time to strip down for gym class.

    I was one of the early bloomers. Puberty hit me like a freight train when I was ten years old. One night I went to bed a regular prepubescent boy and woke up with the unmistakable signs of maturity starting. I took it for granted that I was no different from any other boy at school, but you can imagine my surprise when the gym coach spotted me amidst the otherwise skinny, hairless, boys. He walked over to me and asked me how old I was. I told him and he had to double-check with the assistant coach to make sure I wasn’t one of the older boys who had came to the wrong gym class. After being satisfied that I was in the right class, he told me I had to get a jock strap. All this while I stood there, completely naked. The other boys stood there gape mouthed at my appearance. I realized that the stares were a mix of envy, curiosity and respect. It was the first glimmer of decency I got at school. After that, I was never naked again in the showers after gym class — I was nude and I felt better about myself than I had in years.

    As for the other boys, if anyone ever teased or bullied someone based on their body, the coach pretty much (excuse the euphemism) busted their balls and did it in front of everybody. His discipline worked. Nobody ever gave anyone grief about their appearance when they were undressed. In many ways, without our clothes to distinguish ourselves, we were all reduced to a common, equal status. We were all just young men, no more, no less.

    I’m not saying nudity is some kind of panacea. But, I think there were far fewer people who suffered from body issues when I was a child back in the 1970s. I attribute it in a small part to the fact that we all saw one another nude on a near daily basis in school. It opened a lot of eyes and minds to the fact that everyone came in different sizes and shapes. What we saw on television or in magazines was very much out of the ordinary. We realized how normal our bodies were and we were more relaxed about ourselves.

    It saddens me to see how repressed and ashamed younger men are now. When I’m at the gym, I am comfortable being casually nude in the lockers, hot tub or sauna. So are other men around my age. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen looks of horror, disgust and embarrassment in the faces of younger men when they see me and other older men relaxed in our nude bodies.

    Every man’s experience is different when it comes to situation like this one. I feel sorry for the terrible experiences most of the commentators had. I wouldn’t trade my positive experience with school/gym/shower nudity for anything. It instilled some much-needed self respect, a sense of normalcy and the feeling that I belonged that I had lacked until that time.


  16. I entered junior high school in 1974 in Los Angeles. We had mandatory gym class, which was something totally new to me. I wasn’t in the least bit athletic in elementary school, and the other boys treated me pretty badly and excluded me from playing with them at recess. But, I was really horrified when we were told on the first day of gym class that we would be required to shower every day after class. I was terrified at the thought of being naked in front of other boys. We were also required to wear a jock-strap for class, which didn’t bother me. What was funny was the gym teacher would do a jock-strap check every day during roll call when we were lined up in squads. If you didn’t have a jock strap, you were forced to remove you underwear and have nothing on under your gym shorts. That taught us pretty quickly not to forget our jock-straps! Anyway, I dreaded the first day when we would have to shower after class. They made sure we showered because we had to grab a towel from the shower monitor afterwards, and they checked our name off a list. If you didn’t shower, there was hell to pay from the gym teacher. I remember being incredibly nervous taking off all my gym gear and trying not to look at the other boys, which was hard because even though I didn’t yet know what homosexual or gay meant, I knew I was attracted to boys and not girls, and I was terrified of getting an erection. It turned out that I was so preoccupied with getting to the shower room, showering, and getting my towel and then getting dressed all in time to make my next class, that I never had a problem. My best friend, Peter, on the other hand was not so fortunate. He got an erection every day when we showered. I felt so bad for him, but no one ever said a word about it. I think everyone was just glad it didn’t happen to them. I got comfortable pretty quickly with the showers and remember being amazed at the wide range of maturation in the other boys. We were not fortunate enough to have swimming pools in junior high or high school in LA. The schools were so underfunded and old that they could never afford that, and I had no idea about the naked swimming thing in other states until recently. I kind of wish I’d had that opportunity.


    • I am glad to hear you survived, Jay. In many situations, that’s the best we can do. Thanks for adding to the conversation.


  17. I am, in my own way, both familiar and unfamiliar with this practice. This was something, as far as I know, that was not done in every school district in the country at it’s peak. I had absolutely no idea that any of this was going on anywhere, when it was still being practiced in a handful of school districts at the time that I graduated from highschool. I didn’t even learn about it until four years after I graduated from highschool. At the time, I thought that it just had to do with an obscure and archaic public health regulation and didn’t give it much thought. During the past week and a half, however, I accidentally stumbled upon some information about the full extent of this practice which could easily be viewed as both alarming and compelling, to say the least. The nude swimming rule in the name of public health extended to competitions with other schools before a public audience. Here are some of the things that I uncovered about what went on with swim related school competition while the male nudity policy was being observed:

    – Extensive photography of team members in contests with other schools for the yearbook and possibly the local newspaper with persons in the photographs identified by name in the captions while fully exposed.

    – Graphic team pictures with fully exposed members identified in captions below.

    – Special and somewhat provocative separate photographs for team captains and exceptional performer’s, all totally nude.

    – Photographs of VIPS in suits and ties and fully clothed coaches standing around a completely nude male star swimmer.

    – Teenage girls standing along side wall of the front of the gym to get a better look at the swimmers during a competition with another school.

    I would like to clear the air and state unequivocally on my honor: I am not able to make any of this stuff up! For my own part, I merely discovered the photographs online. From my own point of view, strictly speaking, society in days gone by stretched a public health practice to the limit to cultivate its own secret sexual garden in plain sight and on the backs of succeeding generations of young men, while greasing the wheels all the way with one rationalization straight after another. When I entered highschool and had no idea whatsoever that this practice was going on in other school districts, it was very quietly and very gradually being phased out when the rationalizations began to reek. Unfortunately, from my point of view, I see these same rationalizations being used when this practice is being discussed in the present day. These rationalizations include talk of “not being ashamed to be men” and “self confidence” (rather redundant, I admit). After the recent discoveries that I have made, rather than being merely an outdated public health practice, compulsory nude male swimming in public schools had a definite sexual dimension to it that nobody seems willing to discuss openly as far as I’m concerned. I would very much like to hear your comments regarding my recent discoveries. Thank you, in advance, for your help.


    • Well, I’d be interested in the internet links, if you’d care to share them. What you describe is extraordinary. Given what is done in the name of “the good” or “the national interest,” or, “for your own good,” the human capacity for damaging one another is greater than we usually admit. For now, that’s probably as much as I’ll say. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation, Joseph.


    • I experienced five years of nude swimming during junior high and senior high in Dearborn, Michigan between 1967 and 1972, in addition to nude mandatory showers. Never witnessed or heard about any sexual dimension.


      • drgeraldstein

        Thanks for this observation, Richard.


      • I would like to add a few other observations about my five years of nude swim class. (These are my experiences and may not reflect the views of management!)

        That we were nude during swim class was irrelevant, as we had been nude together in the gang showers at the end of gym class for many weeks. Being nude for swimming was just an extension of that. Also, seeing the similarities and differences between us was educational. For the most part our genitalia (as that is what makes for nudity) was without a lot of variation. That in itself was interesting. Nonetheless, there were a few boys which stood out, but those differences did not become topics of conversation.

        Finally, during the week or two of Red Cross life saving class we were required to wear blue Speedo swimwear. (It was never revealed why, but my guess is the boys came into contact with each other.) After the life saving sessions were over we were allowed to continue wearing the Speedos or go back to swimming nude. A few boys wore the Speedos for a few days and then it was back to all of us swimming nude (until the end of time).


      • drgeraldstein

        Thanks again, Richard. Your perspective is refreshing in the “zen” of it – experiencing it without judgement. I wish some of the kids I knew were as serene.


    • The photos you are referring to are all fake. The originals have the guys in swim shorts but then are photoshopped to make them look naked.


  18. Thank you for hearing me out. To view the images that I have described, you can use Google to go directly to “nude male swimming” and click on “images” at the top of the page. Focus mainly on black and white swimming photographs and some of the links and you will see everything that I saw, very shortly. Thank you, again, for your time and interest.


  19. Amazing. I’ve included the link here: https://sites.google.com/site/historicarchives4maleswimming/home/archives—mid-20th-century-to-current/photographic

    The site notes that the images coming from around the world. It is difficult, in most cases, to determine the time and place, and clearly some date back to early in the 20th century. Thanks for the enlightenment, Joseph.


  20. I’m a female and also attended Mather. I want to thank you for writing this article because men to whom I have related the phenomenon of nude swimming for boys don’t believe me.


  21. In College, me and a friend showered nude. At the Men’s Locker room, the lockers were on one side and the showers on the other. There were no hooks for towels. In the middle of the locker room was the door to the gym. As we showered a guy open the door and left it opened. The girls’ volleyball team was in the gym. The coach was talking to them. Me and my class friend had to walk to the lockers. I don’t think they saw us.


    • Quite a story, Travis. Most of the embarrassing moments I’ve heard about only involved other guys. Your story adds something new. Thank you.


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