Sunday, June 4, 2017

Not So Long Ago, In a Place Not So Far Away: A guest post by Hoppergrass

On the cusp of summer's arrival (or sort of), thanks to Hoppergrass for his reflections on what we've lost, and we could regain.

Not so long ago, in a place not so far away, men and boys swam naked.

Philip Gladstone, "The Twenty."

They undressed, showered, eliminated and horsed around together. I thought about this during a recent trip to Iceland, where trans-generational communal showers are ubiquitous at geothermally heated swimming complexes and at natural hot springs. Every facility had a large sign in the (un)dressing room instructing the patrons to "shower nude" before entering the waters. In the gang showers, there were fit 20-30 somethings, flabby elders, gangly teens, prepubescent boys, along with toddlers and infants in readily-available plastic highchairs that allowed their responsible-adults to shower unimpeded. I observed no evidence of embarrassment, no shame, no averted eyes nor intentional exhibitionism as soapy hands washed bodies, pits, genitals, and ass-cracks. These weren’t clothing-optional or nudist facilities: the mixed-gender pool area required bathing suits.  


When did this all change in North America? 

In the late 19th century, as idyllically photographed and painted by Thomas Eakins, male trans-generational nude swimming was commonplace.

While mixed-gender bathing required full-torso garments for both women and men until after WW II, when men began routinely to expose their chests, the acceptance of men naked together in and around water persisted through mid-20th century America as they swam in schools, at the Y, and at private athletic clubs. 

Between the end of WW II and the rise of hippiedom, prudery progressively covered genitalia in all-male environments. As an early adolescent in the late 1950’s at boy scout camp, we still went skinny-dipping. I wonder how often that happens now. 

When did men and boys start feeling a fear of nakedness in front of other males? Why do even men cruising gay bathhouses today walk about with towels around their waists? Why do some gay men at “clothing-optional” resorts wear swimsuits not just to lounge but while in the pool or hot-tub? 

Not long ago I visited a hot springs north of San Francisco frequented by people of all genders and sexual orientations. Although the bathing area was designated “clothing optional”, only a few women wore bikini bottoms, and all men were nude. And then, in the more conservative East, my grandson and I were naked in an old-fashioned gang shower alongside a mix of boys, teens, men and elders -- most showering uninhibitedly, though a few wore their swimsuits as they soaped and rinsed. There I overheard an exchange between a preschooler and his grandfather, a child’s inquiry answered directly and accurately, without embarrassment: 

"I have a penis and you have a penis."
"My penis is little and your penis is big." "
Yes, But your penis will be big when you get big."
For way too long, I lived with a negative body image, and in particular felt deep anxiety about cock size. I wonder whether an easily accessible zone of shared social nudity among men would have helped me recognize earlier that I was just fine, right where I belonged on the spectrum of male anatomy. I wonder how much youthful (and adult) anxiety about the variety of male bodies, young and old, the restitution of shared nude swimming might defuse.

Paintings by Philip Gladstone.

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