Nude swimming, or skinny dipping, is the practice of bathing naked, originally in natural bodies of water, but also in swimming pools or hot tubs. The term dipping was the practice of being immersed in spring waters, for health reasons at spa towns.
The widespread social convention and practice today is for swimmers especially in public places to wear swimsuits. Most countries do not have specific laws proscribing nude swimming, and the matter is regulated largely by social convention and practice. Nude swimming takes place on nude beaches, or at naturist facilities, segregated public swimming areas or in private swimming pools. Some countries around the world regard nude swimming as public nudity, which is treated in a variety of ways, ranging from tolerance to strict enforcement of prohibitions against it.
Bathing by both sexes together had occurred since time immemorial and is documented in neolithic cave drawings and Roman mosaics and frescos. The woodcut illustrations in Everard Digby's, 1587 book The Art of Swimming (De Arte Natandi) and later, the 40 copperplate etchings in Melchisédech Thévenot's 1789 instruction book, also called The Art of Swimming, illustrate that swimming was normally costume free. When working people started visiting the coast to be 'dipped' for health or to 'bathe' for leisure cannot be determined but had been happening for 'some time' in 1709.
For the common folk, splashing in rivers and swimming was a leisure activity and always done naked by boys and men and often by the women and girls. Bathing in the sea by the lower classes was noted in Southampton by Thomas Gray in 1764, and in Exmouth by shoals of Exeter damsels in unsufferable undress in 1779. Lancashire working people bathed naked in the sea without any segregation in 1795:
lower classes of people of both sexes made an annual pilgrimage to Liverpool where they dabbled in the salt water for hours at each tide in promiscuous numbers and not much embarrassing themselves about appearance.
Thomas Guidott set up a medical practice in the English town of Bath in 1668. He became interested in the curative properties of the waters and he wrote A discourse of Bathe, and the hot waters there. Also, Some Enquiries into the Nature of the water in 1676. This brought the health-giving properties of the hot mineral waters to the attention of the aristocracy. Doctors and quacks set up further spa towns such as Harrogate, Bath, Matlock and Buxton soon after taking advantage of mineral water from chalybeate springs. Here cures were guaranteed by 'taking the water' or being 'dipped' by bathing attendant in cold water. Treatment was received in the nude. Until the 1670s nude female bathing in the spas was the norm and only after that restrictions were imposed. As time progressed the resorts had to address two questions; was it right that men and women bathed together, and was it right that clothes should be worn. Establishments sought to impose dress codes.
Each town was free to make its own laws, and some chose to. For example, the Bath Corporation official bathing dress code of 1737 prohibited men and women to swim nude either in the day or in the night. Bath's specific rules were prescribed as follows:
It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies. No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.
Female bathing costumes were derived from those worn at Bath and other spas.
Sea bathing resorts
In the early 1730s, fashionable sea bathing initially followed the inland health seeking tradition. At English resorts such as Scarborough and Whitby, natural springs emerged from the cliffs allowing fresh water to be ingested and cold dip in the sea. The resorts modelled themselves on Bath, and provided promenades, circulating libraries and assembly rooms.
While sea bathing or dipping, men and boys were naked. Women and girls were encouraged to dip wearing loose clothing. Scarborough was the first resort to provide bathing machines for changing. Some men extended this to swimming in the sea and by 1736 it was seen at Brighton and Margate, and later at Deal, Eastbourne and Portsmouth,  Seeing them frolicking in the sea attracted sightseers to the sea spa resort.
Among notable Americans, Benjamin Franklin, an avid swimmer, possessed a copy of The Art of Swimming by Melchisédech Thévenot, which featured illustrations of nude swimmers. American president John Quincy Adams was known to skinny-dip.
At the beginning of the Victorian period, working people of both sexes bathed for pleasure without clothes. The genteel classes were bathing for health from using bathing machines, the men and boys swam naked while the girls and women dipped alongside them. Near the University of Oxford an area for male nude bathing was known as Parson's Pleasure.
The rise of the influence of Christian Evangelicals caused arrangements for mixed bathing to be reassessed. Moral pressures forced some town councils to establish zones for the women and men to bathe separately. A half-hearted attempt was made to suggest to men that torso-suits would be fashionable, but this was resisted by genteel swimmers who believed that torso-suits restricted the contact between the skin and the saltwater.
These areas were not policed, and around 1860–75, under pressure from the church ever stricter bylaws were passed but not enforced. Mixed bathing was a popular activity for families, who would take their custom to the next resort along the coast if mixed bathing was forbidden. Resorts were trying to placate the Evangelicals without upsetting traditional bathers by designating separate areas of the beach.
Drawers, or caleçons as they were called (fr:caleçon de bain), came into use in the 1860s. Even then there were many who protested against them and wanted to remain in the nude. Rev. Francis Kilvert, an English nude swimmer, quoted by Cinder described men's bathing suits coming into use in the 1870s as "a pair of very short red and white striped drawers". Excerpts from Kilvert's diary show the transition in the England of the 1870s from an acceptance of nude bathing to the acceptance of bathing suits. Kilvert describes "a delicious feeling of freedom in stripping in the open air and running down naked to the sea."
There are very few records of magistrates enforcing the bylaws. In 1895 Cosmopolitan reported: "At most English resorts, buff bathing is available before eight o'clock in the morning" while Brighton, Worthing, Hastings, Bexhill, Bognor and Folkestone still tolerated nude bathing at any time of the day, in areas away from the central bathing areas.
In 1895, The Daily Telegraph, Standard, Daily Graphic and Daily Mail newspapers ran a campaign to reintroduce mixed bathing in all resorts, pointing out that its prohibition split up families and encouraged them to take their holidays abroad. Commercial pressure defeated the moral pressures. Sea bathing had ceased to be done for health reasons, and was done overwhelmingly for pleasure. As the segregated beaches in town disappeared, bathing costumes for men became part of the commercial package, and nude bathing ceased. Nude bathing continued to be practised outside resorts on isolated pieces of coast; a very few of these known beaches and coves later got local authority recognition as nude beaches.
The introduction of mixed bathing throughout Europe and elsewhere certainly created pressure towards bathing costumes being worn by both genders. However, well into the latter days of the Victorian Era, whereas all females were routinely wearing modest bathing attire, many boys well into their teens in Victorian England, even when in a mixed gender setting, were still swimming and playing at the beach resorts completely naked. An article published on August 23, 1891 in the Syracuse Sunday Herald suggests naked boys of up to 15 years in age were problematic for American parents with daughters, and read:
A 'Bewildered American' writes to the London Standard that he can't take his little girl to play in the sand at a British seaside resort without her being surrounded by crowds of naked boys. An English friend told him that they let their daughters play with naked boys of ten years of age, but draw the line at fifteen.
All this was very much an English problem and one of attitude. In France discreet nude bathing for both sexes remained acceptable anywhere along the coast or on river banks apart from those in the town or village centres. In Germany, provision for nude swimming is made in major city centre parks such as the English Garden in Munich.
In America, skinny dipping by boys was common. The Dixon, Illinois Evening Telegraph 1890 published a request: "for boys swimming in the mill race to be more modest as women felt they can't go down Water Street for fear of seeing them."
Swimming was not only a sport for the residents of Victorian East London, Eastern Cape, but due to periodic water shortages, sometimes a necessity. From 1873 the town council promulgated measures to control swimming hours, apparel and especially separate swimming areas for men and women. These regulations were too conservative and constraining for the taste of the residents of this coastal town and for several decades they were the subject of legal battles, or were simply ignored. The dispute was finally settled in 1906 when mixed bathing was permitted with the proviso that both men and women should wear suitable swimming costumes.
In a 1909 New York elementary schools swimming competition, boys in the 80 lb division competed naked; their bathing suits slowed them down.
The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was set up in 1842 with a mission to provide an education program and healthy sports to young men. The YMCA was responsible for providing swimming classes to countless numbers of American boys and teenagers. This included swimming in indoor pools. Swimming trunks were not permitted in their pools. In Lincoln, Nebraska in 1958, for example, learners were told just to bring a towel and not to bring trunks. In Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1954, the Recreation Department reported that 404 youngsters had attended an 11-day swimming course where the boys were unhampered by bathing suits. When the YMCA began to admit females in the early 1960s, the wearing of bathing suits became a requirement.
In Portland, Ohio in 1915, all boys and girls wore torso swimming costumes. The problem was that woollen bathing suits were unhealthy and harboured the cholera bacteria and typhus bacteria which infected the water in the pool. Both the cholera and the typhus diseases could be fatal. As a precaution, the pool was completely drained every 10 days. In 1910, sand filtration was introduced which reduced the number of bacteria present, but the safest way was not to wear woollen suits, and this approach was endorsed by the American Public Health Association (APHA). American high school and junior high school swimming in many states had policies that followed APHA guidelines. The guideline were published every three years, and from 1926 until 1962 every edition recommended nude swimming. In other states, all boys and girls bathed in clothes. The 1937 Administration of Health and Physical Recreation training manual stated, "Nude bathing for boys is practiced universally, in a few schools girls may swim nude and this is the most sanitary method."
Nude female swimming was not allowed in most schools, both for modesty reasons and because it would be awkward to accommodate menstruating girls. The Detroit public schools briefly allowed nude female swimming in 1947; this policy was revoked after three weeks due to protests from parents.
Although chlorination was effective, it was difficult to manage the pH of the water, as chlorine could cause burning of the skin if wrongly administered. A simple test was devised in 1939 which made chlorination practical. World War II delayed its introduction until the early 1950s. The October 16, 1950 Life magazine had a large illustration of boys swimming together in the indoor pool of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and the caption didn't mention they were naked. The practice continued in the states that had a tradition of nude swimming.
During the 1960s, as baby boomers were entering high school, there was a growing backlash against enforced nude male swimming and by the 1970s, it had largely been phased out along with gender integration of pools. Male students protested the double standard of being required to go nude due to wool lint from swimwear clogging pool filters when it did not appear to cause a problem with girls' swim costumes. In any case, rising living standards post-WWII created a greater desire for privacy.
In some English schools, Manchester Grammar School for example, nude swimming was compulsory until the 1970s. It was discontinued when it started admitting girls. This was also the case for some American high schools. and junior high schools and in some summer camps. John Torney in his 1937 article on Swimming and Lifesaving programs for summer camps wrote that boys and girls enjoy the thrill of swimming nude and costumes can be discarded for a night swim. A 2006 Roper poll showed that 25% of all American adults had been skinny dipping at least once, and that 74% believed nude swimming should be tolerated at accepted locations.
In the United States, states, counties and municipalities may enact their own dress codes, and many have. According to an Australian magazine, "In the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. In 1907, at the height of her popularity, Annette Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for indecency – she was wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes." In 1919, Ethelda Bleibtrey was arrested for nude swimming at the beach of Manhattan—she removed her stockings at a pool where it was forbidden to bare "the lower female extremities for public bathing". The subsequent public support for Bleibtrey led to the abandonment of stockings as a conventional element in women’s swimwear.
The 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden were the first Olympic Games to feature female swimming as an event and the costumes used, which became translucent when wet, caused somewhat of a scandal. The United States protested that the event was "obscene" and refused to send a female swim team to the Olympics. Eventually an American women's swim team participated in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Nude swimming is fairly common in rural areas, where unexpected visitors are less likely. However, in some places even that type of swimming is prohibited by law. There is no federal law against nudity. Nude beaches, such as Baker Beach in San Francisco, operate within federal park lands in California. However, under a provision called concurrent jurisdiction, federal park rangers may enforce state and local laws, or invite local authorities to do so. Today, many swimmers in the United States confine nude swimming to private situations due to concerns about attitudes to public nudity.
Since the early 20th century, the naturist movement has developed in western countries that seeks a return to non-sexual nakedness when swimming and during other appropriate activities. In some places around the world, nude beaches have been set aside for people who choose to engage in normal beach activities in the nude.
In many countries today nude swimming mostly takes place at nude beaches, naturist facilities, private swimming pools, or secluded or segregated public swimming areas. Some Western countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have no laws prohibiting nude swimming in public areas, but some countries around the world strictly enforce various laws against public nudity, including nude swimming. Some jurisdictions which maintain laws against public nudity may turn a blind eye to incidents of skinny dipping depending on the circumstances, as police officers on the spot decline to make arrests.
Conflicts have arisen in the United States on federally-designated beaches, which are nevertheless patrolled by local police, since there is no federal law against nudity in these areas, but there may well be local ones. Skinny-dippers generally deal with this by keeping an eye out for local patrols, who generally do not go out of their way to find violators, as long as it is not flagrant.
In Germany nude bathing is more widespread than many other countries. A 2014 study revealed Germans (28%) were the most likely of all nations surveyed to have been nude at a beach.
The current world record for the most people naked swimming is held by BW Summer Festival and The Edge. The official figure is 744 people and was achieved on December 31, 2013 at Midway Beach, Gisborne, New Zealand. The annual Skinny Dip World Record attempt is part of BW Summer Festivals annual events program.
Nude swimming was a common subject of Old Masters – painters from before the 1800s – and Romantic oil paintings, usually bucolic or in a mythological or historical settings. For example, Swedish painters Georg Pauli and Anders Zorn painted a number of nude swimming scenes.[better source needed]
Late in the 19th Century painters started to render nude boys and men in a realistic setting. Daumier's Bathers shows youths clumsily hauling off their clothes (a symbol of repression) and a naked short stocky youth stepping cautiously into the water that represents freedom. Seurat's Bathers Asnières uses similar symbolism to show the bathers removing their every day identities to step into the momentary sunlight.
The bathers in Thomas Eakins's The Swimming Hole each represent different stage in the artist's life. He prepared for this canvas by taking multiple photographs of his students frolicking at this location- and overall portrays a happy physical unselfconsciousness seen through the perspective of age- a nostalgia for youth. By the 1880s this nostalgia for youth was a veneer carefully disguising a latent homosexuality. In contrast there were poets and painters who would contrast free young beauty of bodies in the water with the approaching grind of maturity and responsibility. Henry Tuke loved to paint naked bathers in a soft idealised style deliberately avoiding overt sexuality.
Cezanne's monumental male bathers derive from memories of a happy childhood rather than direct observation. This was described by his friend Emile Zola as a time when "they were possessed with the joys of plunging (naked) into the deeper pools where the waters flowed, or spending the days stark naked in the sun, drying them selves on the burning sand, diving in once more to live in the river..."
In later periods, depictions of nude swimming scenes became rarer, but more likely to depict straightforward contemporary scenes. The cover of the August 19, 1911 edition of the Saturday Evening Post had a Leyendecker painting of three boys; the cover of the June 4, 1921 edition had Norman Rockwell's painting No Swimming, depicting boys in various states of undress escaping from the local authorities.
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