Americans might be products of Western Civilization, but we certainly have a different perspective on humility than our Western ancestors.
The Ancient Greeks, the people who gave us what we call Western Civilization, held individualism on a pedestal. Each Ancient Greek city-state flaunted its own individual culture. In Athens, the men attended the Assembly to speak their own individual minds. The Greek word for city-state, polis, refers to the individual people who make up the city. The Olympics were a celebration of the gods, specifically Zeus, and an opportunity for competitors to “show off” their individual talents, as well as their strong bodies.
Olympic participants celebrated their gods by displaying their naked strength. Nude wrestlers growled — their intertwined sculpted muscles flexing for victory. Runners raced wearing their helmets and shields, but little else. And when Olympians carried the torch through the streets of Athens, the competitors ran free of spandex or jockstraps.
Such flaunted nudity wasn’t shocking. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, evidence exists of women and girls attending Ancient Greek games, which means that the competitors who wore nothing, leaving their manhood to dance about in the open, were not offensive to the viewers.
Spartan boys who spent a lot of time with each other during their training to become men during the agoge trained in the buff. Impressionist artist Edgar Degas depicted this in his Young Spartans Exercising painting, which shows nude boys and girls. The latter also having to endure the demands of physical perfection Spartans placed on their people.
Get the point? Oh, wait. One more thing. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gynos, which means naked.
Okay, so there’s a lot of nudity going on here. Adult, youth, male, female nudity. Of course, this is some years ago, a different age and a different continent, but we are descendants of Western Civilization, which makes me wonder why we’re so guarded in the locker rooms today. We love the individual rights that come with Wester Civilization, just not the nudity.
Friends have confessed to me that they don’t feel comfortable standing around naked in the locker room. But their reserve is relatively new.
Some older pals of mine remember swimming naked as a youth at the YMCA. What?!
Up until the early 1970s, many YMCA facilities required nude swimming, claiming that the cotton or wool from the suits could clog the filters.
No! Wait! Hold on! Don’t go!
It makes sense. Swimming would have been segregated before the 1960s. So boys and girls didn’t have to worry about being seen by the opposite sex.
Plus, being buff and nude used to be cool and comfortable.
Advertisements of Cannon Towels from the 1940s and 50s show manly U. S. G.I.s bathing nude. Just like our Ancient Greek ancestors, chiseled, naked bodies were a symbol of health and strength.
But, as male and women swimming together began to become more common, privates had to be covered. As the 1960s rolled around, different views surfaced on the nude factor.
An article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1961 states that there were some concerned parents pushing for a change to the naked swimming policy at Menasha High School. The board president responded, “The boys undress together, use gang showers and dress together, so their lack of swimming attire is unimportant.” Gang showers, eh?
As Gen-Xers came of age, the swimming worlds of men and women became one, modesty became more conservative, and nude swimming vanished.
Maybe one day, nude swimming will return. We are part of Western Civilization after all.
Arieti, James A. “Nudity in Greek Athletics.” The Classical World 68.7 (1975) : 431-436. JSTOR.
Dillon, Matthew. “Did Parthenoi Attend the Olympic Games? Girls and Women Competing, Spectating, and Carrying out Cult Roles at Greek Religious Festivals.” Hermes 128. Bd., H. 4 (2000) : 457-480. JSTOR.
“Girls Barred; Boys Bared at Menasha.” Milwaukee Sentinel (1961) November 15.