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Thursday, February 11, 2010

All Right, Shower Up!

Showers in Public High School

Remember high school and taking showers after gym class? Mandatory showers were upheld by schools as a practice of good hygiene and common respect for others. How about you athletes? Surely you took showers after practices and games, didn't you? Would it surprise you to know showering in high school after vigorous physical activity is now not required and seldom practiced? In fact, the trend has been so for over a decade.

John Irish, swimming coach of Milwaukee's Madison High School, voiced a dissenting opinion about the suspension of communal showering. "Showering is the backbone of a physical education program," said Irish. "If a kid doesn't have to shower, that means he doesn't have to work. Or, he wreaks. School is supposed to be a laboratory of life.
(Karen Herzog, "The Shower Police," Milwaukee Sentinel, January 13 1995)

Coach Irish laments that many kids don't work up a sweat anymore in gym class, and few shower regardless. He thinks the rigor has been taken out of physical education. "In my humble opinion, physical education at my school is nothing more than glorified recreation," said Irish, a 28-year teaching veteran known for being outspoken.
He also thinks today's students take modesty to an extreme. "Boys are afraid they'll be labeled gay if they even glance at each other nude," he said. For most students, toweling off at the sink after P.E. is the closest they come to showering.

Traditionally, junior highers have been sensitive about their bodies. It is very painful for them to have to strip in front of one another. Because they vary so much in development at that age, some look like grown-up adults while others still resemble prepubescent kids. For junior high students, putting their bodies on display is like prodding a pack of adolescent wolves to tear them to pieces. Some become the butt of jokes and cruel harassment. They may feel fat, skinny, hairy, or defective in some nature. Most school systems never required junior high students to shower.

In the past, such fears of public ridicule or judgment were usually considered to be overcome or, at least, significantly reduced by high school. Relying on no-nonsense supervision by gym instructors and coaches, high school students faced their initial fears of ridicule, horseplay, or prey by their peers as a somewhat awkward rite of passage. Some, undoubtedly, suffered hazing and humiliation, but wise adults usually stepped in and punished those responsible for such vicious behavior. To say showering did not cause its share of problems would be to deny the obvious; however, the same activity did help many overcome insecurities.

Wasn't part of the responsibility of being a caring parent, coach, or P.E. instructor to discuss the fears and timidity  associated with public showers? After all, it is normal to feel embarrassed and to have the perception that everyone is checking each other out to see who has the most perfect body or who is best endowed. And, true, some teens do like to compare themselves with their peers, but, for the most part, everyone is trying to get to the showers, finish the chore and get out as quickly as possible. Few really have the time to size anyone up and make value judgments.   

Longtime physical education teachers say the decline began more than a decade ago and may have started when schools cut back on laundering towels to save money. Kids forgot to bring towels, and it spiraled from there to become optional. Nobody complained, and gym teachers found better things to do than monitor the showers.

It didn't help that popular movies like Carrie and Porky’s reinforced the belief that “gym showers either overflow with sexuality… or crawl with psychological trauma.” Unfortunately, immature students saw reinforcement for their wicked ridicule in these portrayals as well as giving their victims reasons for total distrust. 

Evidently, the negative concept of communal showering has grown to the point of outright rejection. Charles Corbin, professor of exercise and fitness at Arizona State University stated, "What we're finding out is that in more than a few cases, especially among kids who aren't athletically gifted, the physical education experience can be negative... And a lot of it surrounds what goes on in the locker rooms." (quoted by Randy Dotinga, "Where Have All the Showers Gone?" Christian Science Monitor, February 3 2004)

Some Reasons For the Decline of Communal Showering

1.  Some schools cannot maintain their locker rooms and other such facilities because of a lack of school funding.

2. Students say they don't have time to shower (before their next class or return home).

3. Students are more sensitive about body image partly because they live in a world saturated by the media's idea of perfection. 

4. Some students express a concern about the presence of gay students in the locker room. Some of this attitude is caused by other students and adults making threatening statements such as "Gays are everywhere."

5. More and more students think that even the slightest interest in the same sex marks them as "queer," so they shun any association with the naked body. 

6. Yet the biggest reason for dropping mandatory showers seems to be liability. The combination of adult teachers and naked kids in a locker room opens up school districts to all sorts of expensive lawsuits for molestation and/or harassment. So, coaches and teachers have become very leery of false charges of sexual abuse. Even if untrue, a person's entire career could go down the drain just by the suggestion that he or she was enjoying looking at the kids.


Genesis tells about the moment humans first “realized” they were naked, quickly followed by the moment they were first ashamed of being naked — but it doesn’t explain why humans were ashamed. Many people would say the shame of nudity occurred over thousands of generations because people learned that showing off a naked body sent out sexual signals that threatened the security of mating pairs. And, American society has chosen to agree that, that is a bad thing. Even in the communal shower, some people insist on considering nakedness as sexuality.

Here is their erroneous conclusion: "When you are naked, you are completely vulnerable to that other person who is looking at you." In truth, in the high school shower room, people are not occupied with what others are thinking or with other's looks. They want to get clean and move on -- but a cultural ideology has taught them that "nude is naughty" and regarded as sexual. Poor old Coach Irish. I feel that people's general insecurities have made his job pretty "smelly."

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