OK, imagine you’re a 14-year-old boy. You’ve just started your freshman year at a brand new high school. You’re self conscious and worried about fitting in. Then, your gym teacher tells you to strip naked and walk onto the pool deck with your nude male classmates. Yes, those same classmates you sit next to in math.
It’s hard to imagine that any high school would require boys to swim naked today. But for more than 50 years (even until 1980, by some accounts), this was standard policy at public high schools in Chicago and across the country.
Curious City listener Michael San Filippo grew up hearing stories about what it was like from his dad.
“We just could not really believe that that was something they did,” he says.
Michael and several other listeners have sent questions to Curious City asking for more information about the school policy. Specifically, Michael asked: Why did Chicago boys swim naked in high school? How did that start and why did it stop? And was it unique to Chicago?
Curious City asked Chicago Public Schools for data and information about the nude swimming policy multiple times, but officials did not respond to multiple requests.
So, we turned to documents, archivists, former CPS coaches, and former students to piece together what the practice was like, why schools required it, what effect it had on students, and how it finally ended.
The search for answers revealed a lot about the limits of early 20th-century pool-filtration technology and the way American society’s attitudes have changed on personal hygiene, privacy, sexuality, and gender. It also uncovered a mountain of anger, confusion, and anxiety among some former students who still wonder why school officials made them swim naked while their female counterparts got to wear suits in separate classes.
Why boys were required to swim nude
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 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 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.”
Another consideration was money. In 1961, the Menasha, Wisconsin school board successfully blocked a parental challenge to the nude rule by claiming it would cost up to $3,000 to buy suits for the boys. CPS would have had to fork over even more money to buy suits for all its male freshmen.
In addition to sanitation and cleanliness, the Menasha officials further defended the practice by saying it “promoted … time saving and the development of good physical education attitudes.”
But even if these arguments make some sense, there is still the question of why none of them applied to girls. Coach Lewis offers a common argument from the time: that girls are just more modest than boys.
“When you look at a female’s body, there are more things that are showing than on males,” he says. “Females had breasts and everything, so they were able to cover that because females like to hide a lot of things, whereas on boys there’s only one thing and everyone had the same thing.”
Bullying and bucking up
John Connors, who graduated from Kennedy High School on the South Side in the ’70s, disagrees with Coach Lewis’s argument that freshman boys all had the exact same things. As if bullies weren’t already a problem in high school, Connors says the nude rule opened up a whole new category of bullying opportunities.
“There were kids that were heckled and abused and whose penis size was made fun of,” he says. “And there were these two obese twins – and even then I remember I felt so horrible for them having to stand there naked.”
Connors says there’s another moment that stands out.
“I remember there was this big, tough burnout guy, and he had a really big d*** and he was always flipping it around to people,” Connors says. “And I don’t think that happens today. I don’t think a freshman going to Kennedy today has to deal with this bully guy, like, flipping his d*** at you.”
On top of that, Lane Tech graduate Robin Washington says at his school, there was a routine body inspection by upperclassmen.
“Seniors wearing their bathing caps and nothing else would inspect you — after the shower and before you got into the pool — and rub their hands on you to find dirt and send you back into the shower — sometimes two and three times,” he says.
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.
But Robin Washington says at the time, “you didn’t question anything.”
“And the suggestion was that if you did ask, you were in danger of being classified as the in-between sex, if you catch my drift,” says Ron Grossman, who attended Lane Tech from 1948 to 1952. He’s referring to a common assumption, even expressed by Ann Landers in 1974, that any guy who resisted group nudity in gym class must be gay, which was seen as a negative at the time.
Many of the guys I spoke to said they’d prefer to forget this chapter of their childhood. In fact, James Mitchell, who grew up in Cabrini Green and went to what is now called Lincoln Park High School, says he and his school buddies “never talk about it.”
“I guess I would liken it to having to drink out of the black water fountain instead of the white fountain,” he says. “It was just something they had control over and they made you do it.”
And that’s not something you remember with pride, he says.
Students and coaches rebel
By the ’70s, pockets of dissent were erupting in Chicago and around the country. At Kennedy High School on the South Side, Connors says boys protested by breaking glass bottles and throwing them in the pool.
“And after they drained, cleaned, and filled up the pool again, they broke more bottles and threw them in the pool again,” Connors remembers. “That’s how much anxiety they were having. They were committing misdemeanors just to avoid having to take all their clothes off in front of everybody.”
And in the Albany Park neighborhood on the North Side, Roosevelt High School coach Manny Weincord staged a different kind of protest. By the early ’70s, he says boys were skipping class and weren’t learning life-saving swimming skills because of the rule.
Weincord took the issue to CPS’ central office, where he recalls telling officials, “These boys are sitting up in the balcony in their street clothes because they don’t want to get nude. You’re taking a great activity aways from these boys … an activity that could save lives.”
But when officials wouldn’t budge, Weincord says he took matters into his own hands and dropped the rule at Roosevelt in the early ’70s.
‘That’s what it meant to be a man’
Still, the policy was met with range of reactions because not everyone felt the same way about modesty and personal privacy. Some boys thought swimming naked wasn’t a big deal.
My own great uncle, Michael Magan, who graduated from Lane Tech in 1958, says swimming nude was not a problem for him.
Coach Lewis of Lane Tech contends, “I never saw any boy being embarrassed or anything like that.” And he swam nude at Dunbar High School and didn’t think much of it, he says.
Thompson, the archivist, says he’s heard from hundreds of men while doing research on nude swimming. He says that while most people who spoke to him had problems with swimming naked, many men said they were OK with it.
“A lot of them said, ‘Hey, that’s what it meant to be a man,’ and that you bucked up and you did what you had to do, and there was nothing wrong with it,” he says. “They had good, fond memories of it.”
The policy winds down
By the 1970s, the nation was changing and school policies adapted.
In some towns like Duluth, Minnesota, entire school districts dropped the rule altogether. The Duluth School District declared its 1973-74 budget would include “an amount that secures a sufficient number of tank suits for the boy's swim program and that the practice of requiring boys to swim nude be discontinued. “
But in CPS, the end of nude swimming was harder to track. Again, the district would not share official data, but accounts from hundreds of former Chicago students indicate that individual high schools stopped enforcing the policy one by one, starting in the early ’70s.
By 1980, even the hold outs couldn’t fight federal Title IX rules that required equality in physical education classes. This meant that most schools were converting to co-ed gym classes, and co-ed nude swimming wasn’t going to work.
Still, Title IX enforcement came too late for guys like Connors. He says the experience and the bullying have followed him into adulthood.
“The first time I joined a gym, I had total locker-room anxiety,” he recalls. “And it took a really long time for that to kind of subside. I mean, it’s not like some businessman going to the gym was going to start picking on me, but it was still in the back of my head.”
More about our questioner
Michael San Filippo grew up in Des Plaines and graduated from Maine West High School in 1992. He’s currently a media relations specialist for the American Veterinary Medical Association. He has also recently gone back to college to study library science.
“I’ve got a strong interest in local history,” he says. “So we’ve recently been researching our [Chicago-area] house, the people who lived there, and the neighborhood.”
San Filippo says he wanted to follow up on his father’s stories of high school nude swimming as an extension of that interest in Chicago history.
He was surprised to learn it was practiced so widely and for so long. He says he doesn’t buy the squishy rationale used at the time to justify the practice.
“It seems like there were a lot of conflicting answers, confusion, and shrugs, like, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’” he says.
San Filippo says he couldn’t imagine adding the stress of nude swimming to the usual stress of high school. So, what would he have done if they had the policy when he was a freshman in the late ’80s?
“I think I would’ve faked a headache and talked to my parents about finding a different high school.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Michael San Filippo went to Leyden Township High School. He went to Maine West High School. This story has been updated accordingly.