The Naked Truth About Nude Swimming at School

I'd heard of this, but wasn't aware I just missed it (THANK GOD — I was fat and accused of having breasts playing shirts vs. skins basketball), but boys in the U.S. were mostly required to swim totally nude in school pools right through the early '80s.

Girls were usually allowed to wear simple suits.

Why? The tortured explanation seemed to, er, satisfy the coaches who had to keep watch!

Apparently, requiring that boys swim nude when segregated from girls in both public and school swimming pools was very common across the U.S. until about 1980.

I find it surprising that naked swimming in school pools was that widespread, was tolerated in the uptight '50s and is almost never depicted or referred to in movies or books. I also never, ever heard of it when I was in high school myself, just a few years later than the time when it was common ... it's like once they decided to stop it, it was a we-must-never-speak-of-this issue.

WBEZ 91.5 Chicago writes that there was a method to the madness:

The country ... also obsessed with fighting disease and promoting personal hygiene, which in the 1920s, was also associated with “good morals.” Health officials worried that allowing potentially dirty fabrics into public pools could introduce germs, and bacteria-killing pool chlorination had still not been perfected. Plus, at the time, swimming pools had fairly primitive filters that could easily be clogged by fabric fibers from swimsuits, which were made of cotton and wool — yes, wool.So, in an effort to minimize bacteria, keep pool filters from clogging and ensure male swimmers were clean, the American Public Health Association (APHA) recommended the following in their 1926 standards handbook:

(Image via American Public Health Association)

If you're not buying the idea that males wearing suits was somehow more bacteria-friendly than women wearing (much larger!) suits, you're not the only one. Many students apparently objected to the embarrassing rule — to no avail.

Swimming Naked in Gym Class Really Happened — Read

In fact, once chlorination and filtration became the naked truth, and the American Public (pubic?) Health Association reversed its policy, stating it was fine for boys to cover up, many public schools, including the massive Chicago Public Schools system, ignored the new guidelines:

By the mid-20th century, however, new chlorination science was developed and pool-filtration systems improved. Bathing suits were also being made of different fabrics, like nylon. Pool germs and fabric fibers were no longer a big issue. So the APHA dropped the nude swimming recommendation in 1962.

Parents sued the Menasha, Wisconsin, school board in 1961, trying to do away with the requirement that their sons strip nekkid before taking a dip, but lost. The arguments in the case were that buying suits for the boys would cost $3,000, and that nude swimming promoted "time-saving and the development of good physical education attributed."

Yes, They Made Us Swim Naked — Read

Girls were likely exempted out of pure sexism, a dated view that they had the good stuff and were therefore allowed to risk dying of a dreaded swimsuit-bacterial infection in order to shield their virtue. And their boobies.

Baring all, circa 1967 (Image via Janesville Daily Gazette)

This is all so nutty, I think WBEZ's got it right in noting:

Almost all of the men I talked to say young people have a hard time believing this ever happened. The men say they’re often asked why they didn’t just protest or demand a better reason from teachers for swimming naked.

As Bill Flanigin wrote for Huffington Post, the practice of nude swimming at school blew his mind in the '70s:

Before our “swimming unit” was to begin, coach went over a few quick swim guidelines: No horseplay, no running around the pool, we would be swimming naked, there would be no...wait, what? We would be swimming naked? What kind of a sick joke was this, man? He went on to explain that because our swimsuits would freeze in the Michigan winter if we took them home, or that they would mildew if we just left them in our lockers, it would be easier if we all just swam completely naked. (Years later it occurred to me that our towels would also get wet, but we still used those!)

I looked around the gym at my fellow classmates, no one looked surprised. I suppose the sophomores, juniors, and seniors had all experienced naked PE swimming before. And, perhaps a lot of the other freshmen had heard about naked swimming from their older brothers because they seemed fine with what there were hearing. I, on the other hand, was having a panic attack. I was the kind of wussy ninth grader that hated even showering after gym class. That was humiliating enough. Imagine, and remember, this skinny, mostly pubic hair-free ninth grader was in a class with high school seniors. Those dudes were basically adult men. They had fully bushed wangs and I was barely out of the peach fuzz stage. Naked swimming? Did the school board know this was happening? Was the community aware of this practice? Take a second and put yourself in my shoes here. Could there be a more frightening scenario on Earth than forced skinny dipping at school against your will? I would literally be living out the “being at school naked” nightmare many of you have experienced.

I went home and told my mom. She didn’t believe me.

As unbelievable as it was, it was. Until it wasn't.

But it took the 1980 federal Title IX gender equality rules to completely kill off the practice of requiring boys to swim nude in many public and school pools.

Imagine trying to argue that nude swimming in public schools would be a good idea today? Well, it was happening less than 40 years ago, so some of the older members of various school boards — feigning shock and horror — would have to admit that ah, yes, they remembered it hell. I mean ... well.

6 Responses

  1. It’s true! I had to swim naked at my high school in the early 70s. Unfortunately, I am near-sighted, so I couldn’t get a good look at my classmates. Didn’t bother me otherwise.

    • Matthew Rettenmund

      Whereabout were you? I was in MI and never heard of this until recently.

  2. I remember seeing a 1980s movie called “Heaven Help Us” set in a 1950s or 1960s boy’s parochial school. There’s a nude swimming scene in it.

  3. In the 50s my mother mentioned to me that in high school the boys swam in the nude at school. Even in mixed swim meets, boys still swam nude but not the girls. This stopped finally as guys began to object that at swim meets open to the public it was embarrassing. Plenty of pics at boysswimnude.tumblr showing mixed swimming.

  4. snude for boys was common growing up. I learned to swim in the Y and we were all nude. The younger boys had female coaches but at times there were also highschool girls helping the female coaches even when us older boys were around.There were no girls other than that allowed. However there were many instances when a mother would drop off her son for practice and wait in the bleachers for her son. In many instances us olderboys were standing on the deck nude and the coaches and moms had full view. As I got older and more aware of my sexuality I realized that there were some of us that would get erections from all of the exposure. Nobody ever made the mome leave and there were moms of some of the older boys my age that I know in the bleachers waiting for us to finish. There were also times my mom and sister waited for me to finish if were were going out afterwards. The only thing ever said was by my sistem when I was talking to my mom and she asked why my penis was hard. My mom the troo0per that she is looked at it and just said it was because the water was cold. LOL but in those days it was just taken as granted that boys could be seen naked and it was no big deal and we were not to be ashamed.

  5. In relation to my previous comment. I want to mention that this still happenes at least as late as the 1990’s.
    We have a summer house in Maine and the HOA has a swim club on the lake. The younger children can get swim lessons before graduating and swimming in the lake. My daughter was a swim coach there and one day I went to get her to take her to lunch and I walked in and there was a sign no girls allowed. I walked into the pool area and my daughter was in the pool. At this time my daughter was about 17 and she was in the pool with a boy I guess was about 11 or so. she was helping him float on his back and do the back stroke. I looked and could see he was naked. I looked around and saw other coaches mostly male with other groups of boys and they were all nude. Just then my daughter finished and they both climbed the stairs by me to get out of the pool. My daughter introduced the boy to me and he shook my hand and my daughter asked what I was there for. The entire time I was talking this naked boy stood there by my daughter. I realized that in addition to being nude this thille boy had a full blown erection or as much as a 12 year old can have. I could tell my daughter was not embarrassed with this erection right in front of her . The boy excused himself and hugged my daughter and walked off. I asked her what that was all about and she said he was on the swim team and needed extra help with his backstroke and breating technigue. I asked about his erection and she said it happens with some of the older boys as they are mautring. she said this was the 2nd time this particular boy had gotten an erection with her so he must be maturing. she laughed and said it was not a big deal and he didn’t have anything she had not seen before as some of the other boys get erections and some are older then him and are fully developed. I spoke to my wife and she said the same thing and that practicing nude is something the boys do. She said the girl coaches usually coach the younger boys and it is rare for them to coach the older boys although they do see them and it is nothing to get upset about. As I grew up this way I was not upset, I just didn’t think it was something still being done. This was a number of years ago so it may in fact not be done anymore.

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