In prehistory and for much of ancient history, both swimming and bathing were done without clothes, although cultures have differed as to whether bathing ought to be segregated by sex. Christian societies have generally opposed mixed nude bathing, although not all early Christians immediately abandoned Roman traditions of mixed communal bathing. In Western societies into the 20th century, nude swimming was common for men and boys, particularly in male-only contexts and to a lesser extent in the presence of clothed women and girls. Some non-Western societies have continued to practice mixed nude bathing into the present, while some Western cultures became more tolerant of the practice over the course of the 20th century.
The contemporary practices of naturism include nude swimming. The widespread acceptance of naturism in many European countries has led to legal recognition of clothing-optional swimming in locations open to the public. After a brief period of popularity in the 1960s-1970s of public "nude beaches" in the United States, acceptance is declining, confining American nude swimming generally to private locations.
In Ancient Egypt, clothing was symbolic of social status, making adult nudity an indicator of low status or poverty. However, children, even of the upper classes, would be naked until puberty. Manual laborers of either sex would wear a loincloth or skirt unless their tasks included swimming; fishermen and boatmen often being nude.
In the Victorian era, public baths and swimming pools were built in Adelaide to address problems of health and safety, but also to reduce the persistence of nude swimming in open waters. Swimming costumes were issued to pool patrons.
In the late 19th to early 20th century, using tax revenue to provide public bathing facilities for working-class men was not politically popular in London, Ontario, while private establishments served the middle and upper classes. These included swimming at the YMCA, which required membership or payment of fees. However, the problem of men being publicly naked while swimming and bathing in open water was recognized. Efforts to regulate nude swimming with laws against doing so during daylight hours did not prevent increases in incidents in the 1860s through the 1880s by laborers and boys.
In the 19th century, boys and working class men in Toronto swimming nude in the Humber and Don Rivers was allowed in secluded swimming holes, while officially prohibited elsewhere. Skinny-dipping was seen by many as an innocent activity for young males, as long it did not intrude upon the sensibilities of females. In the 20th century, urban growth had encroached upon this isolation, and also created the problem of water pollution. The development of beaches in the Sunnyside district on the Lake Ontario waterfront marked the end of nude outdoor swimming.
In 2004 after some local university students went skinny-dipping there, signs were placed at a riverside beach in a public park in Zhejiang province declaring a section to be a nudist beach. Following complaints from other park visitors, the signs were removed, although officially China has no law forbidding swimming nude. In a July 2005 a heat wave, a number of incidents of men skinny-dipping were noted.
In English boys' schools (Manchester Grammar School, for example), students recall nude swimming being required at least from the 1930s until the 1970s. No official reason for the practice was given, but some mention the problem in the early years of fibres from wool swimsuits clogged pool filters. However, nude swimming continued when modern swimsuit materials were available.
In the United States, skinny-dipping by young people, mostly boys, was common in rural areas across the country. As towns such as Logan, Utah, Humboldt, Iowa and Dixon, Illinois grew in the 1890s, the traditional locations became more visible to the public, and local ordinances were implemented prohibiting nude swimming, but were difficult to enforce, or involved very young children who were not punished. Among the features of rural Vermont being overtaken by development in the 1970s, an editorial mentions the removal of forests that sheltered ponds where boys had been swimming naked for 200 years. Older residents of Duncanville, Texas, remembered the "Blue Hole" on Ten Mile Creek a few hundred feet west of Main Street as the place to skinny-dip for decades. In 1967, misbehavior including drinking, fighting, and accidents led to complaints and calls to make the place off-limits.
Ernest Thompson Seton describes skinny dipping as one of the first activities of his Woodcraft Indians, a forerunner of the Scout movement, in 1902. A 1937 article on swimming at boy scout summer camps in Washington state makes no mention of the boys being naked in almost all the photographs. Descriptions of special "carnival" days that were coed did not mention whether swimsuits were available. It does state "Both boys and girls enjoy the thrill of swimming in the nude, so on occasion, suits may be discarded for the night plunge." Night swimming was allowed only in camps were this was safe.
Initially, men and boys swam in the nude in indoor swimming pools, as had previously been customary in lakes and rivers. YMCAs everywhere had nude swimming beginning in the 1890s until they became coed in the 1960s. Given the limits of chlorination at that time, behavioral measures were used to maintain water quality. In 1933, in addition to recommending nudity, all bathers were required to empty their bladder and shower before entering the pool. Those suffering from skin or repiratory disease were prohibited from using the pool. In 1940 health experts continued to favor boys wearing bathing suits only in pools visible to both sexes. Girls were issued cotton suits that could be boiled to disinfect them between uses; the wool suits used by boys could not because they would shrink. It was also noted that wool suits that had previously been used in salt water could not be washed effectively because salt prevents soap from lathering. In 1926, the American Public Health Association (APHA) standards handbook recommended that indoor swimming pools used by men adopt nude bathing policies and that indoor swimming pools used by women require swimsuits "of the simplest type". Students bringing their own suits was discouraged, the institutions not having control of decontamination.
In 1947 girls at the Liberty School in Highland Park, Michigan, also swam nude in their classes. Boys not having worn suits for years, girls requesting to do the same in order to give them more time in the pool rather than changing. After six weeks, the girls in the middle school were ordered to wear suits, but the elementary school girls continued to be nude. While following the wishes of parents who believed older girls should behave modestly, all the board members disagreed, stating that there was "no moral issue involved".
New developments in pool chlorination, filtration, and nylon swimsuits led the APHA to abandon its recommendation of nude swimming for males in 1962. However, the custom did not immediately cease. During the 1970s, the adoption of mixed-gender swimming led to the gradual abandonment of nude male swimming in schools. Federal Title IX rules mandating equality in physical education led most schools to switch to co-educational gym classes by 1980, ending nude swimming in public schools. In the 21st century, the practice has been forgotten, denied having existed, or viewed as an example of questionable behaviors in the past that are no longer acceptable. However, Jungian psychoanalyst Barry Miller views the sexualization of nudity in male only situations such as locker rooms and swimming pools as a loss.
In many countries in the 21st century, 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.
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. Nude swimming is fairly common in rural areas of the United States, 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 against nudity or invite local authorities to do so. 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. Many swimmers in the United States confine nude swimming to private locations due to concerns about attitudes to public nudity.
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. 1e1e36bf2d