NSFW picture below!
For much of the 20th Century, boys in American high schools and colleges were routinely required to swim in the nude. The girls wore swimsuits.
Below is a picture that appeared in Life Magazine in 1938, the guys of Michigan State's swim team in all their bare-ass glory. Can you imagine a mainstream magazine printing this today?
If dignity is one of the qualities that separates humans from animals, human males have always been afforded less personal dignity than females (can you say "military conscription"?). Professor Damien Ridge recently wrote: "Society long ago decided that men do not have the same rights to privacy as women. This can create trauma for awkward male adolescents, for instance, forced to shower with other boys in shared showers."
Back when nude swimming was the norm, the authorities didn't give a damn about the boys' feelings of awkwardness -- issues about weight and bodily maturation -- but many grown men recall the experience with horror. One man recalls that "when the girls’ class walked by the open hallway door," they were "whooping and hollering at us . . . ." Another guy and his friends "couldn't help but stare at the ones that weren't [circumcised] and wondered, what the hell happened to him?" One time, so the story goes, while boys were doing a backstroke, a boy had an involuntary erection, so the coach swatted him on the midsection with a lifesaving pole and shouted, "Get that periscope down." (That one might be an urban legend.)
Even when parents complained, the schools generally didn't care. Among other things, they said forcing boys to swim nude in front of other boys developed "good education and physical attitudes." Parents' concerns about modesty were dismissed as "warped modesty." The boys were forced to communally shower naked anyway, so a lot of school administrators didn't think nude swimming was such a big deal. (With that logic, why not force the boys attend class in the nude?)
The main reason for nude swimming supposedly was sanitation. Back in 1926, the American Public Health Association mandated nude swimming for school boys, and this was the rule for decades. It was more sanitary to have teen peens flapping around in the pool as opposed to being tucked away under swim trunks. Somehow, all this concern about "sanitation" did not mean the girls had to swim nude.
I wonder if the motivation for this bizarre practice might have been something more sinister. There were certainly Jerry Sanduskys around back then, and is it a stretch to assume some teachers or administrators were eager to stage their own peeny parades, involving unwilling teen models?
Thankfully, the nude swimming frenzy pretty much ended in the '60s and early '70s, and there's no way it could happen in this day and age. Young men today insist on being treated with more personal dignity, evidenced by the trend to eliminate communal showering in schools. Modern students think communal showers are "weird." And it seems boys are more sensitive to body image issues, and they now realize that some of their classmates are likely gay and that it may not be appropriate to parade around in the buff in that atmosphere.
Whatever the reason, it's one way that boys are being treated more like human beings than in the old days.