Until Fairly Recently, The YMCA Actually Required Swimmers To Be Nude

Until Fairly Recently, The YMCA Actually Required Swimmers To Be Nude

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.

12 thoughts on “Until Fairly Recently, The YMCA Actually Required Swimmers To Be Nude”

  1. My folks signed me up for the YMCA in the mid 50’s. Funny my folks were not naturists but had no qualms that the “Y” required nude swimming. Ultimately I decided I enjoyed the freedom of no swim suit and have lived a naturist lifestyle whenever possible. I believe the reason for no swim suits was back then most washing machines never fully removed the detergent from swim suits which threw off the chemical balance in the water.

  2. All of which reminds me. As I was walking back to my campsite, I car full of people came along the road which would have taken them right by the pond where everyone was nude. They asked directions, which I provided, and then I gave the occupants a heads up about the nudity. They said, that’s ok, and drove on. That encounter probably helped me to understand that nudity was no biggie.

  3. There is plenty of historical stuff out there on nude swimming and exercise in various establishments such as the Y, public and private schools… It all seems to disappear somewhere in the 60s. Our Air Cadet Squadron still swam at the base pool nude. That was a treat because most of my skinny dipping venues were pretty frigid creeks and river bends. The base pool was heated. That was 50 years ago!!

  4. Growing up in a rural area (on farms) I never had the opportunity to go to the YMCA as there were not any in the county. And when in Scouts I never got the opportunity to go to camp. But while very young we were put in a large livestock water tank nude to swim and later when us neighborhood kids would go swimming at the river if we got there without our swim trunks we never thought anything about going skinny dipping. There was even a few times girls would go with us with or without suits.

  5. I was swimming naked at the YMCA last week. Also compulsory, but then it was a naturist organised session…..

    Did similar rules apply in the UK? I never experienced this at public pools or in private schools I attended in the 60s/early 70s, but never went to YMCA pool.

  6. This was due to the bathing suits were made of a kind of wool those days. Threads of wool can be left on the pool and get directly to the filtering system, damaging it.
    That was the reason not to wear any bathing suit. Other than that that YMCA stands for “Young Men”, so there was no mixed classes, as well in other parts in US where girls and boys don´t mix for physical education. In Brazil, during the early 70´s the classes for physical education were done separately for boys and girls also.

  7. Camp Baiting Hollow, a BSA* camp on Long Island’s North Shore had a weekly nude swim in their pond (in the 1950’s). That was the first time I had ever swam nude with others. I recall that it was a very good experience. The swim was optional, and even some of those who went were too shy to disrobe, but the 99% who did probably felt the same way I did.
    *Boy Scouts of America

    • I had the same experience at Camp Wauwepex out in Wading River on the North Shore of Long Island in Suffolk County back in the 1950’s. The only time we wore bathing suits was on the weekend when family came to visit! It was no big deal and very comfortable! Most of us including myself have not even started puberty yet!

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