For the past three decades, America seems to be getting more prudish than ever where nudity is concerned. Take the Janet Jackson episode during the Super Bowl a few years ago. Has America always been this prudish? In television and movies, yes, but in everyday life, I don’t believe the evidence supports it. John Quincy Adams used to get up two hours before sunrise to go skinny dipping in the Potomac River, and he was not even the only president to enjoy skinny dipping. Rumor has it that Harry Truman enjoyed swimming au naturel, and that Billy Graham went skinny dipping with Lyndon Johnson.
Until the last three decades, American high school boys took showers after PE classes. Nudity in gyms showers was quite normal. Guys didn’t do the towel dance. If you were in the steam room or sauna, you went naked. You took your shower in the open, but now most guys wear towels in the steam room and sauna, and shower in private stalls.
What’s so odd is that 40 years ago, nude swimming was the norm. It’s what was acceptable. Below, you can see that they even used to shower in groups before they jumped in the pool.
A paradigm shift has happened and I’m curious as to why? I really can’t help but wonder — of all the factors that have gone into this shift. The YMCAs used to enforce nude swimming and many, like the one below, even gyms right above or next to the pool. Between laps, guys would just head over and lift weights — yes, completely nude.
From the 1890s to the 1930s, men who swam at the YMCA did so in the nude, apparently wool swimsuits (the fashion of the time) clogged up the pool filters. An excerpt from the history of the Seattle YMCA gives a reason for the change:
An early casualty of gender equity was males-only nude swimming in the downtown pool. Men and boys had been accustomed to swimming au naturel at the YMCA, not only in Seattle but 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 Seattle Y 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.”Is gender equality the only reason for the change in nudity in all-male arenas? I doubt it. Women are still not allowed in boys locker rooms. Public baths have largely closed because of the AIDS scare, but also because of a crack down on “morality.” Could the movie Caligula be made today? It is doubtful. One of the major changes has to do with the Reagan presidency. Many Republicans venerate him because of his ushering in of patriotism (which had declined since the Vietnam War), deregulation, and the Christian Right. Did the resurgence of prudish behavior begin with the Reagan administration, or did it begin before then? The Puritans supplied us with a large number of our founding fathers. Yet, as prudish and “pure” as the Puritans were, they still had more illegitimate births per capita than any other group in American history. Why? Because most of them lived on the frontier, and they could not wait to have sex until after the next time that a minister would travel through to marry them. Puritan ministers were not a populous group, so communities shared ministers, only getting a minister every few months. The same is true of the rural South during colonial times, when Anglican priests were few and far between.
The ultimate question is, with the resurging popularity of porn and the internet, why is America so prudish?
More after the JUMP.