Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Nobody Wore Bathing Suits"

Ah, the good old days of the early 1960s. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Yo-yos, hula-hoops and spinning tops. Playing "flipsies" for baseball cards, and then putting them in the spokes of your bike because it sounded cool. And swimming naked at the Y.

The Jackson, Tennessee, YMCA is celebrating it's 150th anniversary, so naturally there is some reminiscing. Guess what is at the top of the memory list.

Past YMCA president Charlie Barnett recalls when swimming in the nude was acceptable at what was once called the YMCA of Jackson.

"Forty-five years ago, YMCA was men-only," said Barnett, who served from 1999 to 2000, on Friday afternoon. "So nobody wore bathing suits."

According to Wikipedia, the YMCA required swimmers to be nude or to wear a bathing suit made of materials that would not contaminate the pool. I specifically remember this reason, but at my YMCA I do not remember having an option. It was either swim nude or not swim at all. It was the same at my all-male high school pool (which was outdoors), and in the showers afterwards. There was nothing sexual about being nude with other boys - it was considered normal.

But is it really the fault of the addition of women to the Y that nude swimming ended? Or is it something more complicated? After all, why not have designated swimming times where the sexes were separated?

Further research shows that the YMCA in Seattle continued to offer nude swimming for males between the hours of noon-2PM every day even after women were admitted to all activities, but in 1974 a woman named Cynthia P. Sonstelie, who wanted to take a swim during her lunch hour, wrote a letter that questioned how an organization supported by The United Way could have such a discriminatory policy. This was effectively the end of all nude swimming at the Y.

This was the age of feminism. Women were burning their bras and demanding equal rights, and I was always fully supportive, and still am. I believe that nudism is the ultimate equalizer. When the clothes come off, most of society's ills tend to disappear, too.

The problem with Ms. Sonstelie's demand for equality was that it did not consider the rights of the men who enjoyed their daily nude swim. In the feminist climate of that period, men tended to acquiesce to the demands of women, even when the demands were sometimes unreasonable.

When it comes to issues of sexual equality, there are still numerous unresolved dilemmas. There is still no Equal Rights Amendment, and there appears to be little or no support for one anymore. Women now comprise about 15% of the U.S. military and participate as pilots and in other active roles, but are still mostly held back from actual combat. And women have yet to crack the last real bastion of male domination - sports.

The only really "equal" solution to Ms. Sonstelie's demand for her rights at the Seattle Y would have been to allow her to swim nude along with the men, but in the social climate of that time period, such activity would have been unacceptable to the vast majority of people, and remains unacceptable to this day.

As I said before, this is a very complicated issue, but in this decades old blurring of the sexes we have forgotten some of what it meant to be a man, or what it meant to be a woman. Societies inevitably change, adjust, sometimes change back, and then change again.

Getting back nude swims at the Y is just a pipe dream today, for several reasons. Recently I had a discussion with a friend about swimming nude at the YMCA, and he basically insinuated that all those naked little boys were prime viewing for a pedophile. Society does today view any image of a naked child through the eyes of a pedophile, which is a myopic vision that focuses only on a negative connotation that is irrationally overblown. Using this narrow logic, one would also have to argue that beaches, schools, churches, camps and other places where children congregate should be outlawed.

Another barrier to bringing back the nude swims is homophobia. We live in a culture where the awareness and acceptance of gay people is on the rise, and that ultimately is a good thing, but the rise of gay culture is causing confusion among young males. You cannot turn on television without hearing "gay jokes" from Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien, and while I am not gay myself I find these jokes offensive, and feel that they contribute to intolerance and misunderstanding. Young males are extremely reticent to disrobe in front of other males because of homophobia, either because they are afraid that homosexual men might enjoy seeing them nude, or that they might enjoy seeing others in the nude. Nudity becomes offensive under this mindset.

Since there is virtually no normal social nudity in America, the naked body has been almost 100% associated with sexual activity, to such a degree that nudist activities at beaches, pools and bowling alleys are immediately considered suspect. If someone proposed nude swimming today at the Y, they would not only be rebuffed, but be put under suspicion as a pervert.

The last barrier to the acceptance of nude swimming is body image, which affects both men and women. You could legalize nude swimming anywhere in the United States and the vast majority of people would never strip down in front of others because they simply hate their own bodies. The unrealistic body images in the media today is one of the greatest problems confronting us today as a society because it threatens the very fabric of who we are as people. We are an increasingly overweight people continually bombarded with images of ultra-thin models who exist only in an airbrushed and digitally altered universe.

Social nudism needs to be part of everyday life instead of merely a fringe recreational activity. Children need to be brought up to accept their own bodies, and the bodies of others. Covering up with clothes and hiding the body will not make society's ills disappear, it will only make them worse. Nudism is not the solution to all these problems, but it is a piece of the puzzle that needs to be restored to get us all back to some sort of centered mindset when it comes to being comfortable in our own skins.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Phantom Nudist said...

I agree with your comments on how people see sex into naked children. You can't even take a toddler to the beach naked any more without being made to feel as if you have done something wrong.

Australian society is very weak on paedophiles yet harsh on a naked child. Something is very wrong here.

Anonymous said...

The Jr. High School I attended in Massachusetts (1968-1969) was so old (1880’s) that it didn’t have a functional gymnasium. So the 8th grade boys would take their weekly 2 hour PE class at the YMCA gymnasium down the street.

Every third week, after changing from our school clothes to regulation gym shorts, T-Shirts and sneakers, and having 30 min. of exercise in the gym, we would have an hour of swimming in the Y’s pool. Although we had heard from older students that we would all have to be nude for this part of our class, I can still remember being quite surprised the first day when the teacher announced at the end of exercise: “Go downstairs to your lockers, take off all of your clothes, and line up at the entrance to the shower room.”

So along with 25 classmates, I stripped naked, lined up and waited until we were told to walk beneath a running shower to rinse off before walking down a corridor to the pool deck. We did as we were told, and no one questioned why. To me, it kind of made sense: why go to the trouble of bringing a bathing suit, and then have to carry it around while wet all day, when all that inconvenience could be avoided by going into the pool without any clothing.

For a few weeks prior, we had been required to take a group shower in an open communal shower room after gym class, so we were already accustomed to being nude in each other’s presence. It actually felt liberating to be able to engage in an activity without clothing. The only uneasiness I recall had nothing to do with being nude per se, but rather related to the fact that I had reached puberty much earlier than almost all of my classmates, most of whom had not. So I stood out as different, having fully grown pubic hair. But after the first time we had to shower together I never felt awkward again.

It was all completely innocent and non-sexual. As far as I know, no one felt uncomfortable. No one I knew--either students or parents--ever complained. And everyone knew about that fact that we had to swim naked--other teachers and some of our female classmates would joke about it. At that time it just seemed completely natural, and it seemed that no one gave it a second thought.

Nudiarist said...

Anonymous, please e-mail me at - I also grew up in Massachusetts during the 1960s...maybe we went to the same Y.

Anonymous said...

I never went to a Y for nude swimming but I can attest to the communal showers in the mid 60's on Long Island. We started having them in 7th grade (after a short talk by the gym instructor). I don't remember them after the 9th grade for some reason.