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.

20 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.

  6. Ha! Loved finding this. I see you saw my HuffPost article.
    Still seems crazy that this was a common practice in some parts of the country!

  7. Pretty much normal practice for single-sex schools in the UK too. Not exactly uncommon in mixed-sex Primary schooling either – I learned to swim in the UK (Plymouth, Devon) at age 8 or so and the entire class was naked. Obviously well pre-pubertal so no-one thought anything of it (Ballard’s Swimming Pool down in the City Centre). I think we all liked to swim naked since the costumes of that era (early 70’s) were definitely “pre-Lycra” era and pretty uncomfortable.

    Secondary (Grammar) school and here swimming naked was compulsory (and that included the annual Swimming Gala). Those who had not had prior experience of swimming naked (or being naked in mixed company) probably found this a bit challenging whilst those of us who had, really no problem (apart from the freezing cold water! :-D). Our PT Teacher was a Naturist, and had no problems with nudity – to the point that if we forgot our PT shorts we exercised naked. Again, those who were not comfortable with being naked found this difficult, whereas those of us who were comfortable “often forgot” especially during the warmer months when we exercised outdoors. Whilst not actually encouraging this Pete Wall was of the opinion that it was more beneficial than harmful – and it helped us to “control our urges” (which was actually true!).

    Interestingly almost all of us who were happy being naked settled down to normal family lives – no (i.e. ZERO) cases of abusive relationships or paedophilia – which rather defeats the common misconception that being forced to be naked during your school years leads to “problems” in later life. The only “problem” I found was finding places to swim and sunbathe naked – it’s one of those things that once experienced, you always need that little bit more! 🙂

    • Sorry but what age are u talking about? And during the swimming gala? In front of everybody?
      Explain please!

  8. When I went to High School (class of 1956 all boys swimming classes were nude.
    I loved it and made sure I took swimming in all 4 years.

    I felt a bit strange the first day – mainly because almost all of the guys were eJewish and were cut. I still had my foreskin and was the only guy in the class with one.
    The swimming coach/teacher alsos taught the sex Ed class and paid me dto model nude for his classes and also for some art classes.
    It was a great way to earn some easy bucks. My 9plus uncut inches were the talk of the school

    • Mr. Chenevy, my curiosity is killing me:
      Were the sex ed classes mixed?
      And were the art classes mixed?

    • Mr. Chenevey, my curiosity is killing me:
      Were the sex ed class and art class all-male or coed?
      And what was demonstrated in the sex ed class?
      Did the teacher give a lecture on circumcision and use you as an example?
      You have a heck of a good story and I’m greedy for details.

      I hope the classes were coed.
      That would make it more fun to identify with you.

      • Since the school was over 90 per cent Juewish I was the minority and VERY PROUD TO BE UNCUT AND BE SEEN NUDE. I even was asked to be a nude model for our sex-ed classes.

  9. Did you or your classmates get a hard on during naked swimming ? Did the guys joke around if someone got a woody ?

    • Of course some of the guys had erections at times. Have you ever tried to practice diving off a high board many times in a row and not be erect./

  10. I don’t see the problem with it, it’s only been 9 years since I was 15 and at school after sports lessons we could swim for a half hour & we could choose if we went in naked or not, most of us jumped in nude. We’d often get out if the weather was nice outside & just hang around in the courtyard naked until it was time to leave. Occasionally some of us would get up to some naughty stuff (we were young teens) but that was normal. Even on weekends if we’d catch up with our school friends it wasn’t uncommon to just get naked at the quiet end of the beach or run in front of the sprinkler at the local park. I don’t see the issue with it, it’s completely normal.

  11. Phil S. was right. Nudity fulfills a need for every child. I was deprived of that need, and that deprivation has left me with a desire to go back to childhood and get that need fulfilled the second time. I have envied children in nudist camps, children in cultures where child nudity is acceptable, Japanese drum students, Orchid Island schoolboys, and nude child photographic subjects. I think that most children in any of these categories grow up free from the uneasiness which I feel.

    However, I get the impression that YMCA nude swimming students were the luckiest. Here is why:

    –Children in nudist camps are treated as equal to everyone else. YMCA nude swim students were displayed to the public.

    –Like children in nudist camps, children in cultures where child nudity is acceptable are treated as equal to everyone else. Like I say, YMCA students were displayed to the public.

    –Like YMCA nude swim students, Japanese drum students and Orchid Island schoolboys are displayed to the public. However, YMCA nude swimming students still had a few advantages:

    Most importantly, Japanese drum students and Orchid Island schoolboys have to wear loincloths, whereas the boys in YMCA swim class wore absolutely nothing.

    The supply of loincloths might imply to the boys that certain parts of their bodies are dirty. YMCA students, on the other hand, probably got the message that any body part was as clean as any other body part.

    Secondly, Japanese drum students and Orchid Island schoolboys fit into a culture where their corporeal display is quite normal. In the culture in which YMCA centers were established, the students’ nudity was shocking.

    Thirdly, although Japanese drum students and Orchid Island schoolboys were displayed to the public, they appeared on a stage where they were separated from the public. YMCA students were closer to their public. According to some accounts, any student who was not otherwise occupied was free to walk over to the bleachers and start a conversation, thereby offering not only congenial hospitality but a panoramic view of his anatomy.

    –Nude child photographic subjects have the advantage of a wider audience, but YMCA nude swim students still had a couple of advantages:

    Firstly, the photographic subjects are admired on paper, whereas YMCA nude swim students were admired in real life.

    Secondly, the photographic subjects are admired by people they don’t know and never see, whereas the YMCA students were admired by people whom they knew and saw every day. I understand that the boys got an especially warm feeling from greeting girl classmates who had seen them naked.

    Thirdly, a viewer of a photograph of a nude child is expected to think a certain way and to feel a certain way. We are expected to imagine the everyday surroundings of Sally Mann’s summer home and the everyday surroundings of Jock Sturge’s European beach.

    In the YMCA context, there does not seem to be any such censorship. Never mind what the difference is between art and porn or sexual and sensual. YMCA students were free to develop erections. This gave them the right to think and feel any way they wanted to, which in turn gave their audience the right to think and feel any way they wanted to.

    An account from a sister of a YMCA student reveals that she and her friends deported themselves as clean-minded ladies in the presence of the boys but changed their tune when the boys were not present.

    I wish I could have had the advantage that they had, and I wish every boy in our present society could have the opportunity that they had.

  12. Of course some of the guys had erections at times. Have you ever tried to practice diving off a high board many times in a row and not be erect./

  13. I forgot to say that – as you can see from my nude photos – I have a foreskin. AND I went to school in a school system where 98 per cent of the students were Jewish and therefore circumcised. Yes, I was different and I gradually got to be glad to have a foreskin. It made me stand out and be different from the group and be a special person. I even managed to make some money posing nude for art classes and other nude events.

    My foreskin became known by most of my classmates and I managed to model nude for sex ed classes.

    What a way to grow up – being different and appreciated.

    I became an expositionist which I am to this day – enjoying the feeling of public nudity.
    As an adult, my job sent me to New York City every year for a series of meetings before Christmas AND I managed to get a part-time job as a male stripper doing 4 shows every afternoon. (I especially enjoyed walking through the audience on the arm rests of their chairs trying to avoid having my cock and balls squeezed and handled by the men as I passed them. (Some really pulled and that hurt – by I really enjoyed it.)
    What a great way to spend several weeks before the Holidays.

  14. Dan

    In the mid to late 80s when I was at secondary school the boys swum naked when it was just them. I don’t think it was a rule but just how it was. Of course if it was a meet or co-ed event we covered up our male bits. The girls wore costumes but is they forgot it then they swum naked. Although it was a boarding school they did have day pupils and they were disadvantaged until we had a few thefts and the forms were locked most of the day, so if a girl left it upstairs…

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