Today’s Pontificate – Oh, you betcha, this is gonna be one of the craziest things you’ve heard of in a long time. But it’s true because I lived it… as did many others from back in the day. Submitted for your approval, a time long, long ago.. and not so far away. That signpost up ahead is your next stop…………
There was a period of time during the last century (20th, that is) where swimming in gym class in the Chicago Public High School system required guys to swim naked. Yeppers… that requirement didn’t vanish until the 1970’s. I know, I know… shock & awe.. and you have loads of questions. Well, first off… it was not co-ed, at least in my time. Girls’ gym class had basic female swimwear (they hated the style). Peep-holes in the shower walls aside, girls and boys did not mix in gym classes in general unless some sort of intra-mural sport thing.
Let’s start here. What’s swimming naked got to do with high school R.O.T.C.? Actually who even knows the complete answer to that one. But more on the “Reserve Officer Training Corp” connection a little later.
(Author’s Digression Note: One might also even ask, what’s ROTC got anything to do with high school, but that’s for another post.. and a bit easier to explain.. well, sorta. I mean, we had loads of guns, a couple machine guns, a bazooka…. a shooting range in the basement; well, maybe it’s not so easy to explain what all that stuff was doing in a school.)
But why swim naked at all… with a bunch of other guys… in a high school… where everyone is all underage? Where’s the cops when you need ’em, right? More to the point, where’s the irate parents and the school PTA (or PTO as they call it now), and, um, in retrospect, what criteria (if any) did they use to vet/hire the male gym instructors?
Well.. I did find a couple links to informative sources and I will provide them at the end. But to save some time I will post parts of the text here. The following is from Chicago radio station WBEZ… an NPR station that was around when I was going to high school.
So, was there a good reason to make teenage boys swim naked while their female counterparts got to wear suits?
To find an answer, it helps to know a few things about the history of public swimming pools and the evolving views on personal hygiene. During the 1920s, YMCAs and schools were building pools across the country for fitness and to teach swimming. Drowning was a big problem at the time. The country was also obsessed with fighting disease <Auth.: they had just had their pandemic a few years before> 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:
Now, keep in mind these were not federal regulations, but just recommendations from a membership group of public health professionals who believed that having men swim without bathing suits would keep pools cleaner. Still, those APHA guidelines turned out to be extremely influential. They steered policies at YMCAs, Boys Clubs, and schools across the nation for decades, according to Brad Thompson, who has compiled a detailed archive on the history of nude swimming. He says the practice became so widespread that pools “that didn’t have the policy were anomalous.”
As far as the double standard for girls and boys, Thompson says things were just different back then. Women had only recently gotten the right to vote. And, for the most part, double standards were just the accepted norm. So, at a time of primitive filters, wool suits, iffy chlorination, and different standards for girls, one might understand the adherence to, if not the logic behind, following the APHA guidelines for male nude swimming.
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. But Chicago Public Schools continued to enforce nude swimming for almost 20 years after the APHA’s reversal.
CPS <Chicago Public Schools> officials declined to comment, but one of my old Lane Tech teachers, John Lewis, says coaches like him believed the rule was about encouraging boys to get cleaner. “You soaped your body up good to make sure you got all the soap and germs away so that you could go swimming,” he says. “This is why the boys went nude.”
Now to that last bit… soaping up before going into the pool, given what we now know how chlorine kills germs anyway… back when I was growing up the local public pools in and around the city actually had their shower building designed for the patrons.. males and females separate, of course… to traverse through a shower room prior to entry out into the pool area.. and there was a person there to monitor your compliance. If you didn’t soap up properly, naked of course to shed loose body hair, the person sent you back. The idea was trying to restrict hair in the pool filters.
But there was also the “silent” horror to it all. I think that part can be encapsulated a bit from part of a blog by Chicago psychologist, Dr. Gerald Stein. To that he writes…..
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 can speak from a first hand account that one of the guys in my Boy Scout troop, which included many from the same high school as myself. Story goes he got an erection during swim class. Now, that by no means suggests a sexual arousal, especially in the hot/cold environment of a swimming pool… and the fact that teenage boys often get erections with just a simple westerly breeze (ah, the good old days!). Apparently “they” (instructor? bullies?) made him stand on the diving board for all to witness and provide the jeering, until his penile posture declined. Imagine living through that humiliation. Imagine if that were your son.
The following is a rather poor piece of advice with total lack of empathy in an “Ann Landers” column in a letter from a 15 year old boy. Surely this represents not only a sign of the times but pure ignorance by our standards today. To those of my readers who have no idea who Ann Landers was.. she was a hugely popular advice columnist for decades.. syndicated nationally. Just reading this infuriates me.
What about the ROTC connection? As I mentioned, as high schoolers there were required courses of study we had to take for graduation. The physical preparation was a choice of either phys-ed (gym) or ROTC. My time was during the Vietnam years so joining anything resembling the military was not in vogue, hence not many joined ROTC (wearing the required uniform each Friday simply garnered “baby killer” taunts; uniforms attracting girls was an urban myth back then). The other source of teasing was because if you opted for ROTC then you obviously were avoiding anything physical (contrary to what the board of education thought, or the military, there was NO physical training in our ROTC classes). In other words, you weren’t a jock. When anyone ever asked why I joined ROTC I simply told the truth.. I had no interest in swimming naked in front of a bunch of guys… and I sort of wasn’t interested in the physically competitive nature of gym class. Call it what you will.
If you want to read more of this activity in the days of yore check these out……….
As Ripley would say….. believe it, or not.