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 obsolete. 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. T. 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.
"It's just a new cultural thing," said Judy Young, 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, 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. In schools with pools, students were sometimes required to swim naked, and teachers would conduct inspections for cleanliness that schools today would not dare allow, whether because of greater respect for children or greater fear of lawsuits.
The antipathy to taking showers after gym class puzzles some teachers and coaches. "These guys don't want to undress in front of each other," said John Wrenn, a teacher at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in suburban Chicago, who can scarcely conceal his contempt for the new sensibilities. "I just don't get it. When I started in '74, nobody even thought about things like this. The whole thing is just hard for me to accept."
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.
Students who dreaded showering at school got a boost two years ago after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file a lawsuit in federal court over a mandatory shower policy in Hollidaysburg, Pa.
"Unless a student is drawing flies," said David Millstein, the lawyer in the case, who represented a shy, overweight girl who felt humiliated in the showers, "it's none of the school's business."
The school district dropped its policy. But in the meantime, Millstein was deluged with calls and letters of support from people who recalled their own feelings of shame and embarrassment in the public showers.
"In 25 years of doing ACLU 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 today's young people may seem out of step in a culture that sells and celebrates the uncovered body in advertisements, on TV and in movies.
But some health and physical education experts contend many students withdraw precisely because of the overload of erotic images -- so many perfectly toned bodies cannot help but leave ordinary mortals feeling inadequate.
"It doesn't do any favors for your self-esteem," said Dr. David Bernhardt, a specialist in pediatrics and sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "And when you don't feel good about yourself, you tend to pull back, close off."
Pub Date: 5/27/96