Last week, I was eating lunch with a friend and her dad in Manhattan on 23rd Street, directly across from what used to be the McBurney YMCA, when my friend’s dad had a sudden recollection.
Apparently, in 1968, as part of a freshman requirement for the city college he attended, all male students took a swim class at the YMCA. For reasons somewhat unclear to him at the time (and, we joked, probably repressed until now) the Y had a particular rule: If you’re going to swim, you must swim nude.
“Nude-nude?” I asked. “Totally nude,” he said.
He remembers the instructor telling them something about it being more sanitary that way. “But,” he conceded, “no one really questioned it.” After a moment, he paused.
“What the hell was that all about?”
I thought I’d investigate. Was my friend’s dad just recalling some adolescent nightmare? Was his swim teacher some pervy old dude? Or was this requirement legit? And if it was, why? How would not wearing a bathing suit be any less sanitary than skinny-dipping?
I called up Ryan Beam, who manages the official YMCA archives at the University of Minnesota, to ask him this question. He chuckled. “I get old guys calling up semi-regularly asking, ‘Whatever happened to nude swimming?’” Beam says. “It’s kind of a hidden mystery.”
Beam confirms my friend’s dad’s story, but notes that nude swimming classes weren’t just a YMCA thing. In fact, they were a national thing. The American Public Health Association mandated them from 1926 until 1962, and thousands of high schools around the country enforced the tradition.
In general, Americans might have been more buttoned-up at the time. But when it came to all-male activities–like swimming–there wasn’t much of a taboo around stripping down.