Every time I use the bathroom at one of my grandchildren's school events, I flash back to my own childhood. Coming face-to-face with the communal trough urinal and door-less toilet stalls triggers my feelings of juvenile embarrassment. In case a man has never used one of these urinals, eHow offers up advice on "How to Use a Trough Urinal." It cautions you to "keep in mind some people may be uncomfortable with closeness to others when using it, so keep your distance, if possible." We are instructed to "not feel the need to flush if you have to get in another person's way to reach the handle." The assumption behind these urinals, and the open-door stalls at my grandchildren’s school, is that boys do not need privacy.
Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, but the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one for Western culture. Many indigenous people would play sports without any covering, and athletes in ancient Greece also competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means “a school for naked exercise.”
Taboos against nakedness grew in Europe in the 18th century. Women began to wear more layers of clothing and protected their modesty and avoided the gaze of men at the beach by entering the water through elaborate bathing machines. In the United States, bathing suits were exceedingly modest until the bikini arrived after World War II.
But certain aspects of the tradition of naked competition still existed when I was a young man growing up in Chicago in the early 1960's. One of my worst experiences was being forced to swim in the nude in high school. This was a common practice in Chicago and other large city schools until the 1970's. You had a choice: either swim in the nude for four years of high school or take ROTC to get a waiver. Envision 30 young boys at various stages of puberty, with a wide variety of body shapes, lining up so the coach, in his well-fitted swimsuit, could take attendance. There was my dramatically overweight friend with his eyes staring straight at the ground and my other friend, a "late bloomer," just waiting for the inevitable insults about his manhood. There was also the constant anxiety that a pubescent erection could appear at any time. You could only hope that you were already in the pool when it struck. The reasons for this barbaric and hurtful practice were ill-founded—the need for hygiene, the fear of bathing suit threads clogging the pool or the desire to “build cohesion” between young men. Talk to any man raised at that time and you will get similar stories of shame and embarrassment.
After physical education we took mandatory showers, our names methodically checked off a list by the now fully-clothed coach. I always looked for a place in the corner of the shower and tried to keep my towel close at hand. Schools and many athletic facilities for men still have communal showers, no stalls.