A foretaste of the new prudery

June 09, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Kids don't like to take showers after gym class any more, the newspapers reported recently, because taking their clothes off makes them feel so, well, naked.

In an earlier era, how they felt would have been considered irrelevant. Group nudity was as much a part of school life as it was of basic military training. You exercised and presumably perspired. Then you showered, hoping that no one snapped a wet towel at you. After that you changed.

If you tried to get out without a shower, your classmates would make loud derogatory noises and hold their noses. That commotion would probably attract the attention of a teacher, who would then order you into the shower and perhaps even stand watching you himself until you finished.

But that was then. Now, school administrators are expected to be in closer touch with the finer feelings of their charges, which rules out compelling them to do anything they'd rather not. Today's students can go directly from gym to chemistry without having to expose themselves to either water or embarrassment. Some may call this unhygienic, but many endorse it enthusiastically.

A boost for business

On the right, the deodorant manufacturers find it especially commendable, and note nationalistically that without America's achievements in industrial chemistry it might not even be possible. And on the left, it pleases those hyper-environmental worrywarts who are always running around turning off dripping faucets so the world won't run out of water.

Quite aside from its economic and ecological implications, the phenomenon of shower avoidance may represent an important sociological milestone. It suggests that today's modest teen-agers, the children mostly of people who grew up in the unbuttoned 1970s, are hesitantly making their own way toward a New Victorianism.

This could be a conservative counter-trend just waiting for something -- an outbreak of old-fashioned prudery, perhaps -- to set it off. But whether it's prudery or something else that's keeping today's kids out of the showers, it's truly startling in our turn-of-the-century era to find that significant numbers of people are reluctant to take their clothes off.

If this is really the beginning of a back-to-the-future trend, related developments may soon be expected. We may start hearing about the new popularity of long difficult novels containing complex sentences. Automobiles with running boards may be seen once again. Artists whose paintings depict recognizable people or landscapes may regain the respectful attention of the critics. Eggs may return to the weekday breakfast table, and occasional religious observances to public places.

Wouldn't it be entertaining to watch the market convulsions if it slowly became apparent that large numbers of young adults weren't watching television, or following professional sports, or making major purchases with their credit cards? Think of the tumult that would result if it were discovered that many of them were buying smaller houses and cheaper cars than their demographic profiles predicted, and were putting away the savings for the future.

It's possible that this optimistic interpretation is all wet, as it were -- that no such cultural rebound is taking place, and that the only reason the kids aren't taking showers is because nobody's making them do so.

In school, as in the army, there's a tendency to do what's required and nothing more. That's the main reason so many kids graduate from high school unable to write a coherent sentence, solve a basic math problem, or find Wyoming on a map of the United States. Learning to do those things would have been tedious, and nobody insisted on it.

''School days,'' wrote H.L. Mencken, ''are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency.''

I tried to imagine Mencken having a shower after gym class, but found the concept unimaginable. Anyway, his observation about school may still be true, but it's no longer really relevant. That's because today's kids can avoid the dull tasks, ignore the unpleasant ordinances, and file intimidating lawsuits over the brutal violations. They'll take a shower when they're good and ready, and not a moment before.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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