Commenter James Kabala pointed out this interesting NYT article from 19 years ago on a little discussed social change:
Students Still Sweat, They Just Don’t Shower
By DIRK JOHNSON
Published: April 22, 1996
WEST DUNDEE, Ill.— They might wear nose rings, shave their heads or sport tattoos on their who-knows-where. But among most American high school students these days, one thing is considered way too strange: showering with classmates after gym period.
“Standing around together naked?” said Andre Hennig, an 18-year-old senior at McHenry High School in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. “Oh no, man — people would feel really uncomfortable about that.”
In a striking measure of changed sensibilities in school and society, showering after physical education class, once an almost military ritual, has become virtually extinct. And the reasons seem as varied as insecurities about body image, heightened sexual awareness and a lack of time in a busy school schedule.
“You just cake on the deodorant,” said C. J. Glawe, a 16-year-old sophomore in a Crystal Lake South letter jacket, “and hope you’re not going to smell too bad.”
Students across the United States have abandoned school showers, and their attitudes seem to be much the same whether they live in inner-city high-rises, on suburban cul-de-sacs or in far-flung little towns in cornfield country.
“It’s just a new cultural thing,” said Judy Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, an organization of teachers and coaches. “They simply have a different routine than we did.”
To be sure, Ms. Young said, avoiding showers is not entirely new. Many people well into middle age can remember the trumped-up excuses or notes from home or the doctor that allowed them to escape the ritual.
A generation ago, when most schools mandated showers, a teacher would typically monitor students and hand out towels, making sure that proper hygiene was observed. …
Some people believe that children today simply grow up accustomed to more privacy. Years ago, when bigger families lived in smaller houses with fewer bathrooms and bedrooms, it was the rare child who could maintain a sense of modesty. …
“In 25 years of doing A.C.L.U. work — cases on prayer in the school, you name it — I had never had any response like this,” he said. “People remembered their own humiliation. I myself remember moving from my little country school to the city school, and being mortified about having to take showers. But in those days, you did what the schools said, you did what the teachers said.”
Mandatory showers and teachers on shower patrol are virtually a thing of the past now, and rinsing off after gym is the student’s option. In fact, some schools are considering removing showers because they are not used.
Modesty among young people today seems, in some ways, out of step in a culture that sells and celebrates the uncovered body in advertisements, on television and in movies.
But some health and physical education experts contend that many students withdraw precisely because of the overload of erotic images — so many perfectly toned bodies cannot help but leave ordinary mortals feeling a bit inadequate. …
“The No. 1 reason for taking steroids, as cited by these boys, is body image,” Dr. Bernhardt said.
Insecurities about body shape play a big role in the reluctance to shower at schools, judging from interviews with about two dozen young people at a shopping mall here recently. …
For Chris Oelhafen, who graduated from St. Edward’s High School in Elgin, Ill., two years ago, being overweight meant taking a lot of abuse. …
It also seems that a heightened awareness of sexuality, including the more open discussion in high schools today about homosexuality, has left many students fretting. Concern about the presence of gay students was mentioned several times as a reason not to shower.
“You never know who’s looking at you,” said Vicki Johnson, an 18-year-old from Algonquin, Ill.
This was a really good article. All it was missing was some perspective on what came before the mid-20th Century mandatory public showering era. Was it always like that, or was mass nudity in the interests of hygiene a modern invention (or re-invention)? Perhaps it was part of the Progressive push to make the public healthier, such as for war, which involved a general War on Privacy?
My vague impression is that Europeans went through long historical up and down cycles involving public bathing in the nude, with the Greeks and Romans loving it, the medievals being moderate about it, and early moderns getting dirtier and dirtier, until there was a fairly sharp push toward cleaning up the masses around or before WWI when modern plumbing made warm water cheap all of a sudden.
Okay, here’s Wikipedia on the history of the shower:
The reinvention of reliable indoor plumbing around 1850 allowed free-standing showers to be connected to a running water source, supplying a renewable flow of water.
Modern showers were installed in the barracks of the French army in the 1870s as an economic hygiene measure, under the guidance of François Merry Delabost, a French doctor and inventor. As surgeon-general at Bonne Nouvelle prison in Rouen, Delabost had previously replaced individual baths with mandatory communal showers for use by prisoners, arguing that they were more economical and hygienic. The French system of communal showers was adopted by other armies, the first being that of Prussia in 1879, and by prisons in other jurisdictions. They were also adopted by boarding schools, before being installed in public bathhouses. The first shower in a public bathhouse was in 1887 in Vienna, Austria. In France, public bathhouses and showers were established by Charles Cazalet, firstly in Bordeaux in 1893 and then in Paris in 1899.
So, it sounds like the makings of a Foucault book: the Shower as instrument of oppression of the powerless — prisoners, conscripts, bums, and rich boarding school boys — molding them into Modern Mass Man.
In general, since the invention of antibiotics at the end of WWII, people and houses have been getting a little dirtier. John Derbyshire had a good article on the fanatical cleanliness practiced by nurses of the pre-antibiotics age, when that was the only defense against sudden death by infection.