CHULA VISTA, CALIF. — With their roomy individual stalls and sturdy vinyl curtains, the locker-room showers at Otay Ranch High School look as if they belong in an elite fitness center. Everything is clean and sparkling and, most days, dry as a bone.
Students in this San Diego suburb would rather stink than shower at school, and coaches are helpless to force anyone to bathe after marathon two-hour physical education classes. "We encourage it, we suggest it, we do everything we can," says Gene Alim, veteran athletic director at Otay Ranch. "But the problem is that we're restricted as to what we can enforce."
Like thousands of other high schools from Texas to Pennsylvania, Otay Ranch High makes showers voluntary in order to save money and reduce aggravation. But if a leading children's fitness advocate has his way, gym showers won't be all washed up.
Charles Corbin, professor of exercise and fitness at Arizona State University, says individual stalls are just the beginning. He is calling on high schools to coax kids into cleanliness by building fancier locker rooms, providing amenities like hair dryers, and making sure adults prevent horseplay.
"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," says Mr. Corbin. "And a lot of it surrounds what goes on in the locker rooms."
Before the crackdown on mandatory showers began about 20 years ago, American schoolchildren routinely had to strip down and soap up.
According to physical education experts, the tradition began decades ago when many students didn't have running water at home. "It was in place because it was important for hygienic reasons," says Dianne Wilson-Graham, physical education consultant with the California Department of Education.
In addition to cleaner bodies, mandatory shower policies spawned lasting memories among generations of teenagers. Ms. Wilson-Graham, a former physical education teacher, remembers parents who attended open house with their children and reminisced not about playing basketball or volleyball but disrobing and bathing in front of their peers. "Whether it was positive or negative, it had an impact in those people's minds."
Moviemakers remember, too. In popular films, gym showers either overflow with sexuality (boys spied on girls through peepholes in "Porky's") or crawl with psychological trauma (the title character of the Stephen King horror flick "Carrie" is humiliated in a shower room and gets revenge by killing off her classmates).
While they don't tend to overreact like Carrie, many teens are clearly mortified by gym showers.
"If you're gay or perceived as gay, you get picked on," Mr. Corbin says. "And boys who don't develop early may be afraid to be seen by others."
Girls aren't immune from embarrassment, either. In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union went to court to protect an overweight teenage girl from having to strip in front of female classmates at a high school in Pennsylvania. The school district eventually backed down and dumped its mandatory shower policy.
In California, mandatory showers vanished after the legendary Proposition 13 slashed school funding in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and campuses stopped providing clean towels to students.
"They could bring a towel from home, but most schools think that's a nightmare," says Wilson-Graham, the California consultant. "We're asking them to take care of a wet towel that often gets thrown into a locker and left there for a couple days. That's a difficult situation."
Other than coaches and teachers, few people seem, well, exercised about showers. Only a few teachers or students complain about body odor - "most people bring deodorant and spray it on," says Derek Murray, a 15-year-old sophomore at Otay Ranch High - and parents are mostly mum about the hygiene issue.
"Honestly, they aren't banging down our door and saying, 'Fund towels and make our kids take showers,' " says Christina Becker, director of long-range planning at the Cajon Valley Union School District, just east of San Diego. She says coaches ask her to knock out showers to make more space, and she's seen some schools turn showers into storage areas.
New California middle and high schools are required by law to build showers. Districts typically try to build as few as possible, although individual stalls - unlike the "gang" showers of the past - are becoming popular.
If high schools can find money to build huge stadiums, Corbin adds, they can manage to afford more appealing locker rooms. Some schools are following Corbin's advice and making their gym facilities more user-friendly.
Whether students take showers or not, something more important than hygiene is at stake, he says. "We don't want them to just be active in school. The goal of people like me is to promote lifetime physical activity."