Skip navigation


Revisiting my ongoing study of nudity in America… as well as my recent post on “Swimming Nude Was the Norm 30 Years Ago” –

An early casualty of gender equity was males-only nude swimming in YMCA pools, middle schools and high schools all over the country. Men and boys had been accustomed to swimming au naturel at the YMCA in Ys everywhere, since the 1890s. The practice may have evolved from problems created by the long, wool swimming suits then in fashion, which apparently shed so much they gummed up the pool filters. Later, nude swimming was justified on the grounds of hygiene. A handbook in use at the Ys in the 1920s required that “A good soap bath must be taken before entering the swimming pool” in the same paragraph that specified “The wearing of swimming suits or supporters will not be allowed except by permission from the director” (Information for Members).

In any case, the custom was phased out as co-ed swimming became more common, although pools continued to be reserved for men from noon to 2 p.m. daily until the mid to late 70s.  Cases like that of Sonstelie -– a newcomer to the Seattle YMCA who wanted to swim during her lunch hour –- fired off a letter asking how an organization supported by the United Way could maintain such a discriminatory policy. “They changed immediately,” she says. “I had never seen an organization move that quickly” (Sonstelie Interview).

The new policy led to what Dick Knapp, the Downtown YMCA’s physical director in the early 1970s, called “interesting times,” since many of the men who regularly used the pool at noon had never had to wear swim suits before. When the gender barriers fell, it took a while for all the men to get used to the new rules.

10 Comments

  1. Hello, again! Has anyone noticed the beautiful summetry of those eight young men posed at the edge of the pool? Classic, with the fan window arch in the center of the composition, the photographer has framed his subjects with the same focal point genius as Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” — if Mr. Sand could tell me where he excavated this old “rodo-graveure (SP?)” I would love to know and I’d really like to have a copy. Notice, too, if you wish: How their great reflections are cast — almost entirely — in the water, so we have DOUBLE images, (again, Classic Greek Statue) body-weight-distribution poses
    that catch our eye as the “flow” of images makes the eye comfortably dart around the “box”.
    Can you imagine the fun of the divers, like that one man on the trapeze bar, as they would swing into the midst of the pool, and release the bar, and go jack-knifing into the pool? The screaming, the shouting, the whistling, the sonic-cavorting and splashing that boys and men do with their shrill whistles, and thunderous taunts, and jokes and cheers, ooohs and ahhhs?

    The two posers on the extreme left and right almost mimic each other’s stance– I am sure that pose was something the photographer must have thought of — and then the two, inner-margin men look a bit like the Classic Hercules without his club.
    The two seated fellows look as if they may have been placed there to be “”bodyguards” for a ninth fellow, Maxfield Parrish-like androgynous youth (who stood, a bit like an art nouveau car hood ornament from the 1930’s)
    with his upheld arms opened wide like the letter “Y” (– something of a cheer-leading pyramid formation).
    These eight “gods of the pool
    (notice, I used a small ‘g’, so as not to insult any mortal or alienate any real God)”
    were probably buddies on a swim team or a city diving team that may or may not have competed against other teams in their hometown or adjacent cities.

    There is also a delcious “Frank Lloyd Wright-quality” in the layout and design of the entire pictoral “essay” (judging from those Vast, vault doors — leading to the shower room? locker room? steam room? — and, of course, that dominating, may I remark, “Phallus Shaped window”?
    There seems to be three diamond “X’s” , one in the center and two near the right and left borders, and that diamond-shap “three-ness/trilogy” seems to be repeated with the three “steps(?)” that appear to lead into the waters.
    Whatever year this was tken: The boys/Men are all robust and have the physiques that are perpetually
    the epitome of Khorous (Sp?)["Greek, young athlete"] sculpting and beauty.

    I think it was Keats, in his “ODE TO A GREECIAN URN” who wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” and truly this old photograph continues to inspire joy and an awareness that: exercise is important to the human body and the spirit of human teamwork, athletics, competition and good health.

    These guys may not have been the “brightest” ‘eight coins in the fountain’ but I bet they were a lot of fun, honest, and devoted to each other and the sport that they served; to paraphrase a man who spoke of contestants who ran races,
    “They are beautiful because they swim, and they swim because they are beautiful.”
    Thank you, Tony Sand, for letting me admire the photo placed on your blog — you have truly captured a “divine-as-man-can-be-at rest” moment. GREGG OREO greggoreo@gmail.com

  2. Dear Tony — Is there any way that you can send to me — via REAL U. S. mail or through e-mail — a copy of that terrific 1920’a photo of the 8 men at the “YMCA pool (?)”, two of them seated and one on a trapeze bar and three with arms akimbo? I would like to have an artist friend of mine use that posed format for a canvas painting that I’d like to commission. Any assistance you give me would be greatly and heartfully appreciated — it’s a very beautiful “poster” and quite classic in its timelss tanquilty — I find the photo very “soothing” — does it affect you in that way? I guess it affects 100 different people in 100 different aspects. Best regards, and I thank you in advance for your reply: GREGG

  3. Oh, I think there’s a couple of reasons why nudity in these places is a thing of the past. I’ll suggest two. First of all, most men are terribly homophobic and heterosexist and in the “old days”, everybody just assumed that everybody else was straight. Gays didn’t go to the gyms – they hung out in bars in dresses and wigs, so people thought. Nobody thought gays were “normal”-looking. Secondly, men never thought of themselves as “attractive” or “sexually alluring” – that was the province of women. Now that men are aware and okay with trying to look attractive, coupled with the knowledge that gay people are everywhere, you get this intense modesty in gyms, etc. I remember even 20 years ago, guys shaving at the gym buck naked. A thing of the past.

    • Hey I try to shave naked at the gym when i go.
      I have not been in a while though.

  4. It’s a shame that the YMCA can’t allow one day a week for just men to use the pool and gym and allow skinny-dipping. I guess they don’t want to encourage homosexual behavior and protect the younger guys from sexual predators. I guess today we are more afraid and have less trust in our fellow man. I think it’s sad. It’s us Christians that should bring back what we took away. Instead we are afraid to admit that we might have been wrong. I love skinny-dipping with my fellow male friends and I follow Christian standers. I hope nude swimming will come back and for the right and moral reasons.

  5. As long as the men and boys CHOSE to do it and females were never around it doesn’t seem too bad.

  6. IN the 1970 se I did swim nude in the pool of a weel known US University. We had to shower and soap in the nude in group showers . Swimming was good exercise and relaxing,,,Everyone was at ease, me too,. Sometimes though some guys gazed quickly at my penis because it is uncut, I think they didnot know sucha thing existed- Now there is no more nude swimming, but I gather, boys shower with spedos or trunks,- The USA has to deal now with excessive prudishness and with the issue of circumcision.

  7. Hello,

    This subject fascinates me. I posted the following to a forum I’m on about male shirtlessness, but the moderator rejected it as inappropriate. (No hard feelings, I accept his call.) But I did think it is relevant to the larger discussion on shirtlessness, as it might provide some insights into social attitudes towards varying degrees of undress, which apparently have been very different, even very recently—a theme that comes up often on that toward shirtlessness.

    I was surfing the Net recently and stumbled upon a nude sleeper forum with a thread on widespread MANDATORY nudity in swimming pools at the YMCA. This was not only for boys, but for men, and I’m interested in the adults in this practice. My brother had told me about a biography of Russell Kirk in which he described his own nude swimming in public schools in the 30’s, but I thought even at that time, this was just a rare practice that happened in the inner city slums, and was phased out long ago, NOT continued into the early 70’s. (Once source claimed in England it was mandatory for him in 1984!)

    Here and there, an anonymous Internet commentor scoffs at it as an urban legend, but many older people insist it was required and they engaged in it. Wikipedia seems to authenticate it, and they’re pretty good at researching confirmation.

    Some said doors were strictly locked against girls and women. Others said mothers and other females came in freely to retrieve their sons and brothers. Some say nude swim races were held and the whole family came as spectators, as well as other (clothed) female athletes to events held in the same area where nude men were visible.

    Some said sometimes “instructors” wore swimsuits. Others said one or more instructors were also nude (which would make sense, since they’d have to teach in the pool, and suits were strictly forbidden in it.)

    My questions, to ANYONE, who might have been an instructor, lifeguard, referee, coach, etc.:

    How old were you?
    Did you teach nude, as a requirement?
    Were you nude at races with spectators, as a requirement?
    Did you know you’d have to be nude before you were hired?
    Did women see you nude when teaching, refereeing, or any other job?
    If so, how often? Was it common? Rare?
    Were you nervous? Aroused? Or did you totally de-sexualize it? Was that ever hard?

    If all this is more than just an urban legend and the testimonies are true, this is a fascinating period in our history. Here we’ve all but banned “shirts vs. skins” and school showers, we’re steadily moving toward banning VOLUNTARY shirtlessness, and 40 years ago, or later, swim teachers were REQUIRED by management to walk around and do their job in large public pool rooms, buck naked, in full view of Ward & June Cleaver. It boggles my mind.

    True? False? Or somewhere in between?

    noel

  8. Correction to above post: It wasn’t Russell KIRK, but Russell BAKER, whose bio my brother read, “Growing Up”.

  9. I was a female lifeguard at a YMCA in 1975. Many times I’d hear the men’s locker room door open, a naked man (who was probably visiting our city for business the Y was located downtown) would step out, see me and pop right back in the locker room. It was hilarious every time.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Famous Nude Swimmers « SANDBLOG on 10 Aug 2008 at 9:47 am

    [...] more information on my ongoing study of nudity in America… as well as my recent posts on “Gender Equality Kills Nude Swimming” and “Swimming Nude Was the Norm 30 Years Ago” [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers

%d bloggers like this: