Not everyone is as into group nudity or getting naked around other men as I am.
I don’t usually walk through my days thinking about how lucky I am to have the outlook on sex and sexuality that I do, but maybe I should. I came across this piece the Atlantic, published in February of 2014 by Dr. Richard Senelick, entirely by accident but it really got me thinking about how I view public or communal nudity. For me, it’s always just been awesome. Not to discount the near-universal horror show that is everyone’s middle school and some of high school experience, where I was a little bit heavy and swam with my shirt on whenever I could. But in the second part of high school and really ever since, I’ve been naked at every opportunity without a second thought about it.
But not everybody is as jazzed about being exposed that way, and our society used to (and to some extent still does) enforce a ‘nut up and get over it’ policy when it came to male nudity most especially. Dr. Senelick’s experience is certainly not unique and I think there’s value in learning about how it impacted his views of himself and his body:
Men, Manliness, and Being Naked Around Other Men
A culture that tells people to “man up” when it comes to nudity invites strange problems.
RICHARD SENELICK | FEB 3, 2014
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.
Many men don’t speak up about their desire for privacy in fear that they will be mocked for not being “man enough.” In Texas we ask young men to “cowboy up.” There is the assumption that men bond by swimming or showering together in the nude, but I can assure you that, given a choice, we would have rather worn a bathing suit and showered in a stall. Locker rooms and the military are obvious examples, but let’s not forget the doctor’s office. In medical school men are instructed on how to examine female patients and respect their modesty. I must admit that for many years I never instructed a medical student on the need have a similar concern for men.
Over the years I’ve practiced medicine, I learned several things about male modesty that I don’t ever remember being told during my training. Many men don’t like being watched while they undress. I leave the room while they change, and offer them the same gowns I would a female patient, rather than assuming they are comfortable sitting around in their underwear. Gynecomastia (growth of male breast tissue) is common in all men. We generally think of it as a phenomenon of aging, but a surprising 65 percent of adolescents have it to some degree. Many men do not feel comfortable taking off their shirt to get into a hot tub or swimming pool, and, just like women, they may also feel uncomfortable sitting on the examination table without a shirt or gown. What’s more, a digital rectal exam can be just as unnerving to a man as a pelvic examination can be for a woman.
I like to talk with my doctor with my clothes on but, in the name of efficiency, I am often asked to undress and wait. We talk, he in his white coat and me in my Jockeys. The playing field is not level. Our culture tells men to “man up“, but the doctor’s office is one place you shouldn’t have to.
It’s interesting that he ties it all up with regard to his doctor and his health to really reinforce how significant this issue can be. And all this stuff is interconnected – body shame is very deeply and significantly connected to sexual shame – so I’m certain Dr. Senelick could probably also relate to men who are ashamed of their penises and all the excellent stuff penises can do. And that sucks.