Gym changing rooms: the last bastion of body realism?

// 2 February 2010

Enjoying drinks with colleagues at a leaving party of late, I was surprised to hear giggling over how one colleague had caught a glimpse of another senior colleague “in the buff” whilst changing at our company gym. With much mirth, colleague ‘A’ recounted this experience in a confiding manner, expressing faux horror and distress at witnessing this. A conversation then followed about individual attitudes towards the issue of undressing in public places i.e. the gym changing rooms. Colleagues ‘A’ and ‘B’ were both vehemently opposed to taking their clothes off in a designated changing area, fleeing instead to the individual changing cubicles.

When I heard this, I was shocked – and then I was sad. Shocked; because I couldn’t quite believe that seeing someone naked in a traditionally naked place (i.e. a changing room) was even worthy of comment, never mind revulsion; and, sad because I wondered how and why the sight of a naked body was enough to provoke such disgust and discontent.

From my experiences and discussions on similar matters with other girls and women throughout my life, these issues seem to be depressingly familiar: that women tend to feel shame and revulsion at their own bodies, and those of other women who deviate from stereotypically acceptable body types. Why is this so? Is it the fact that we’re constantly confronted with unrealistic portrayals of what the human body actually looks like? That media representations of women tend to be ‘girls’ who are unhealthily thin and airbrushed within an inch of their lives?

Could it be that such feelings are part of a wider and more ingrained campaign to control women and their sexuality by attaching guilt and shame to ideas about the female body? It could be argued that this has certainly been true throughout history, where women have been contained, constrained and controlled.

I suspect that many people struggle to differentiate between nudity and sexuality, although content can often help to clarify this further. Although it may stir the loins of some women, being naked whilst ill in hospital could generally be agreed to fall into the realms of non-sexual nudity, for example, whilst being naked on a beach could be viewed as more ambiguous. I have to stress that I intend to pass no judgement on such scenarios, and fully accept that all situations are entirely subjective and open to differing interpretation.

As you can see from my comments above, I have lots of questions and very few answers at this stage. Returning to the issue of gym changing room nudity, however, I can say that I have sometimes found communal changing room experiences to be life-affirming, rather than fear-inducing. Being naked in such close proximity to a group of strangers in a relatively confined space requires one to surrender a degree of control. Nudity is often equated with vulnerability, and when female bodies are subjected to such judgement, it’s not hard to see why. In such situations, respect for others and their multitude of differences is surely the desirable sentiment, rather than fear and sneers?

I also feel a strange degree of responsibility to other women whilst changing, which means that I refuse to cover up just because I might not fit someone’s limited scope of the female form. In this way, changing room experiences could be argued to be almost educational, in that they involve visibility, in the most meaningful sense of the word. Where else do teenagers and young women see the female form in its most natural and varied forms? Pornography certainly doesn’t fulfil this criterion, and accepting diversity in appearance can be intensely reassuring for young women struggling to feel comfortable with their changing bodies and overwhelmed by the limitations of media representation.

I also note that there are varying reasons and exceptions to communal disrobing, and categorically state that these should be respected. As someone who is not restricted, however, I feel entitled to disrobe in such an environment, rather than hiding myself away. My reasoning is based on a simple fact: my body works, and while it continues to function healthily, I should not feel shame at its mere aesthetics, but exceptional and infinite thanks for its very functionality [Please note that this is not meant to imply that this only applies to ‘working’ or ‘healthy’ bodies – see comments for further discussion on this].

NB: To avoid any untoward accusations, I must also stress that my changing room routine normally looks something like this: enter, change, exercise, change, get the hell out.

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 2 February 2010 at 12:38 pm

“Where else do teenagers and young women see the female form in its most natural and varied forms?”

Totally agree with this – the changing room at my gym accommodates an amazing diversity of women of all ages and shapes, in fact some of the oldest women there seem to be the least embarrassed, which is nice. I do think this sends a positive message to young girls (such as my daughter) that the naked body, whatever it looks like, is not something to be ashamed of. Even if some people – like the colleagues you describe – will have an “Eeeeuuuww” reaction. That probably says far more about their own body image issues than it does about anyone else.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 2 February 2010 at 12:48 pm

Why is there such a necessity as to having a communal changing room. Why should not individual cubicles be available for individuals to change their attire? Could it be that communal changing rooms take up less space than individual ones?

Now I’m not against communal changing rooms but I believe there should also be individual cubicles available.

Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with the naked human form, women in particular are constantly exhorted to demonstrate their ‘freedom’ by wearing as little clothing as possible and not objecting to ‘communal changing rooms.’ But this ‘freedom’ is not freedom when individual cubicles are not made available.

Another question to be posed is why these two individuals were so critical of another person’s naked body? Could it be they have internalised the belief that female bodies must endeavour to conform to the male-centered pornified representation of the female form?

So true freedom would be women being accorded communal as well as individual cubicles in gyms and this would enable women to choose for themselves whether or not to change in ‘public’ as opposed to ‘private.’

But of course women’s bodies are always on ‘display’ for the male gaze and this is why whenever a woman states a wish not to be ‘on display’ 24/7 she is often labelled ‘prudish.’

It is not a case of either or – but respecting the fact not every woman wishes to change her clothing in a communal room but prefers privacy.

Laura // Posted 2 February 2010 at 1:45 pm

Hi Joanna,

I can definitely understand where you’re coming from in enjoying the freedom that communal changing rooms offer to just be naked without it being a big issue or feeling you’re being subject to judgement or sexual attention. However, I’ve only ever experienced that as an adult in a changing room full of older women, who generally seem less indoctrinated into the current pornified female body expectations and judgemental culture. As a teenager, being forced to change in communal rooms for PE was horrible, a prime place for bullying, and I think it’s disgraceful that some schools don’t offer individual cubicles at a time when girls can feel most insecure about their bodies.

I also want to highlight this comment:

My reasoning is based on a simple fact: my body works, and while it continues to function healthily, I should not feel shame at its mere aesthetics, but exceptional and infinite thanks for its very functionality

I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but that could be read to imply that people with bodies that don’t function healthily or ‘work’ according to able-bodied society’s standards should feel shame or the need to cover up. I don’t have personal experience of this, but I imagine physically disabled women have a whole other level of body fascism to deal with when using changing areas and those of us who are able-bodied are privileged in that we are already some of the way to meeting social expectations about what women’s bodies should like.

gadgetgal // Posted 2 February 2010 at 1:55 pm

I have two very differing experiences with this – I grew up in the States, where we’re forced to take communal showers and change for PE from a very early age. When I moved over here I went to the swimming pool with some friends for PE, and as we were changing I was chatting away to them. I realised after a bit that they were all crouched under towels, deliberately averting their eyes, and they thought I was a weirdo because I was buck naked and had no probs with this. I definitely think it’s cultural, and I reckon (back then) it was the page 3 thing – basically women’s bodies are seen as sexual (even by other women) and sex is seen as rude and wrong, especially, again, for women. Add to that now the images of sexual, non-wrinkled, hairless perfection and it’s no wonder younger women have a problem with the shower room!s

Nicki // Posted 2 February 2010 at 3:31 pm

Hi Joanna,

I, again, agree that I’ve felt proud in communal changing rooms for a variety of reasons. I’ve felt satisfied with my own confidence in my (disabled, incidentally) body by being able to change without thinking about it in front of others. I’ve also been happy that by noticing other women, including teens, looking at my body, I might be allowing other people to consider a disabled body in its twenties and therefore have a wider perspective on realistic body image.

On Laura’s comment above, although I am physically disabled in part, my disabilities are chronic pain and joints problems and therefore mostly manifest through a decent sized limp, clawlike hands, shaking, swelling etc. However, I have one of those “eurgh” disabilities (my knee joints go 30 degrees backwards because of my hypermobility, and that’s just the start) so I have experienced – alongside the wierd looks when I can’t open a zip with my claw-hands – that look of utter horror when someone sees one of my knees slip backwards. I don’t feel any shame, just annoyance. I don’t want to challenge or explain, either, since I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to have to declare what’s apparently “wrong” with me to everyone and their mother.

Kate // Posted 2 February 2010 at 4:47 pm

I agree with this and this is why I think teenage girls should be encouraged to shower/change together. Let’s be honest, disappearing into a cubicle really doesn’t reduce anyone’s insecurity whereas everyone being naked together just might.

This is a potentially derailing aside, but I disagree with you on nudity in hospital. It comes across as a bit blasé and as someone who was mortified to be exposed to a ward by frankly shoddy hospital staff I’m not ready to jump on board with the line that if it’s not sexual nudity it doesn’t matter.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2010 at 5:05 pm

@Jennifer Drew I don’t think Joanna was suggesting communal changing rooms should be enforced!

I agree it’s probably best to have an option so all can use the changing room, but I’m not sure how lack of individual cubicals in some gyms has anything to do with the male gaze – changing rooms may be communal, but generally not co-ed! :)

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2010 at 5:08 pm

@Kate My reading of Joanna’s comment about hospital nudity is not that she was being blase about it, or that just because it’s non-sexual it ‘doesn’t matter’. Sorry to hear about your experience!

Lorna Gregory // Posted 2 February 2010 at 5:42 pm

I used to go to a gym with 2 changing rooms, one with individual cubicles and a comunal section and one with just a communal section. When changing and showering in the room which was purely communal I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. That I was able to be naked without any shame but also just exist without being consious of my bodies societally defined imperfections(ie I felt more comfortable than I did walking down the street fully clothed).

Incidentally I did not feel that it was giving up some aspect of control but more like it was saying my body is ok as it is.

In the other changing room it was exactly the opposite. It felt like changing for PE in school. Firstly that my body was being judged and secondly that my choice to be naked was considered disgusting.

Kez // Posted 2 February 2010 at 5:53 pm

@ Jennifer Drew – “women’s bodies are always on ‘display’ for the male gaze”.

Well, probably not in a women-only changing room!

In my experience, most changing rooms do have the option of cubicles for those who prefer to change privately, as well as communal facilities… which is, of course, how it should be. And those who use the communal facilities range from women who are quite happy to wander around indefinitely and strike up conversations with strangers while in a state of undress, to those who change as quickly as possible under a towel, with most of us being somewhere between the two extremes…

I didn’t think Joanna’s comment about hospital were intended to suggest that nudity didn’t matter or that dignity shouldn’t be respected (it would be hard to argue for that), rather I thought she was just giving an example of an environment in which bodies/nakedness are not, generally, sexualised.

Elmo // Posted 2 February 2010 at 6:02 pm

um, we had to change naked at swimming classes at school-REALLY not fun, specially since most other girls kept trying to see if my collar and cuffs matched….

If they wernt doing that, they were staring and asking why i was so pale-didnt i find it gross? Had i never been abroad? Dont you know what fake tan is?

Changing might not be so much of a problem for those of you who never experienced this, but its NOT fun. It wasnt an oppurtunity for everyone to see how, actually, under our clothes we are very similar, it was an oppurtuinity for others to see that i DIDNT look the same, and they didnt accept that, they made fun of it.

I’ll change in front of others to a point, but not completly, and I dont think making school girls take their clothes off (espcially those who look in any way different)in front of each other will help. It didnt help me. They didnt learn to accept that I looked difference, they just had more to laugh at. The nasty ones will always be nasty, and it wont do any good for other peoples self esteem to change in front of them.

I agree, however, that once you are an adult, you should be able to change without making/being the subject of comments. I know the best way to do this is to start ’em young, but I really dont want others do go through what I did when I had to change at school.

So really, it was a pretty useless thing to say, since i havnt offered any solution, except to say that school changing room nudity did NOTHING to help me.

Anne Onne // Posted 2 February 2010 at 7:17 pm

I like to hope that as a society we can let the body be non-sexual and un-taboo and that as women we can have the choice to change without shame in front of each other. I would like to see us encourage body positivity. I do think that experiencing female bodies leads to understanding and less body issues.

But as society stands, changing in front of some women does attract mockery of one’s body shape for deviating from the norm. To those that don’t mind, or do it regardless, I salute you. :) Trying to get awkward teenage girls, some of whom are bullying the others, to change together may actually make some girls feel much more self-conscious rather than less. I feel the teens would be the most difficult time to start changing communally if you are not used to it because many are so, so aware of their bodies, their peers’ bodies and the images around them. I can easily imagine that a fat girl, a flat-chested one, or a really early or really late developer, or someone with acne or noticeable body hair might in particular feel much more awkward about being naked in front of each other.

I wasn’t ever overweight (though everyone in my class seemed so much skinnier *rolls eyes at teen self*) as a teenager but being an early developer made me super-self conscious. I hated having to do gymnastics in tight clothes as it was, the very idea of exposing oneself to girls who you knew would mock you for it would definitely have sent the young me hiding somewhere else to change.

I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, but that whilst we are still bombarded with hyper-perfect photoshopped bodies, we will still have a lot of pressure on women to conform. And that there may be negatives to communal changing as people currently view things.

It occurred to me that sometimes lesbians are ignored in all this. I’m not discounting lesbians : ie arguing that communal nudity between women is non-sexual by default because lesbians don’t exist. Rather that to me the idea of changing in front of a lesbian stranger is different to changing in front of a man, for a host of reasons to do with the male gaze, rape culture etc. I don’t know how most women see this, though in general society doesn’t cast lesbians as predatory in the same way as gay men, perhaps leading women to not care as much as men? Or perhaps that’s optimistic.

Anna // Posted 2 February 2010 at 8:49 pm

Dunno about adult women, my experiences with teenage girls in communal changing rooms definitely find lesbians a threat – twice a week I was (often physically) kicked out of the changing room, because obviously I was such a filthy dyke I was perving on them all, etc. Wouldn’t have touched any of them with a ten foot pole, but yunno, any excuse to be unpleasant.

Julie Anne Burton // Posted 2 February 2010 at 8:57 pm

Unfortunately, I blew up to 300 lbs in less than six months thanks to some serious health problems and medication. My gym only has a communal dressing room. I HATE changing there, but since I swim, I must. No one has said anything to my face, and the older women (I’m in my 50s, so we’re talking women in their late 60s and 70s) pretty much treat me as if I were clothed while I change. The younger women, however, stop talking to me as I change. I hear the occasional snicker, and each one is a knife in my heart. Don’t they think I’d be a normal weight if I *could* be? Don’t they realize that I’m working out as hard as they are (if not harder — I swim a mile 5 times a week, bike for half an hour 5 times a week, and do strength training 3-4 times a week)? In the communal strength-training area, the men are universally supportive, encouraging me as I push myself harder and harder. The women avert their eyes. Evidently it’s not just a problem with my nakedness.

Jenny // Posted 2 February 2010 at 11:06 pm

In your average local sports centre I have always found a mix of people who are comfortable to change naked in the communal area and those who are not. However, I have also found that those who practise sport more regularly are more likely to be comfortable to change and shower in front of other people. This is partly practicality – even if you started trying to change under a towel, it just gets boring after a while. But also I think it is due to the different way the body is viewed in sport. Your body’s value is judged more in terms of what it can do rather than what it looks like in societal or sexual terms. My body is very large and as a young woman I had no way of conceiving of it apart from ‘fat’ or ‘outsized’. When I took up rowing, it became ‘powerful’ and ‘extremely useful’.

Spilt Milk // Posted 3 February 2010 at 10:03 am

I definitely agree with the general sentiment here – feeling free and easy with one’s body, even when nude, is a fine goal. But the ableism in the last paragraph is staggering. Should those with ‘unhealthy’ bodies stay in a cubicle? And if you did not mean this, could you please clarify? Left as is that passage is pretty offensive.

Spilt Milk // Posted 3 February 2010 at 10:04 am

I definitely agree with the general sentiment here – feeling free and easy with one’s body, even when nude, is a fine goal. But the ableism in the last paragraph is staggering. Should those with ‘unhealthy’ bodies stay in a cubicle? And if you did not mean this, could you please clarify? Left as is that passage is pretty offensive.

lauredhel // Posted 3 February 2010 at 10:10 am

“rather I thought she was just giving an example of an environment in which bodies/nakedness are not, generally, sexualised.”

Except that women’s bodies _are_ exposed and sexualised and shamed and abused and raped in hospital and healthcare settings. Women with disabilities are particularly but by no means exclusively subject to this abuse. A throwaway crack at – what, attempted humour? – about how exposure in hospital might “stir the loins” of some women denies, erases and makes a joke of that reality. In the context of a post with a deeply ableist closing paragraph, it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Napalmnacey // Posted 3 February 2010 at 11:03 am

My reasoning is based on a simple fact: my body works, and while it continues to function healthily, I should not feel shame at its mere aesthetics, but exceptional and infinite thanks for its very functionality.

Love the hell out of that working body. I love my body, as pain-riddled as it is, but I wish I hadn’t wasted the time I did berating myself for not having the body I thought I was expected to have, before I was sick.

I have a weird thing about changing rooms at gyms or swimming pools/beaches. Being bi, I prefer to get changed in a cubicle and avoid the main changing area, because ostensibly, the sexes are split up to make people comfortable and to cut out the perving problem. I’m not one to look at women, but I do feel embarrassed if I cop an eyeful and I think, “That woman doesn’t know I find women attractive”, and I feel like an intruder in the space. I feel honour-bound to stick to the corner with the cubicle and to keep my eyes to the floor.

That said, I appreciate the main thrust of your post. As an artist, I was taught to see the beauty in all of the differing forms of humanity, not to laud one body type over another. I wish this was something more people were taught as they were learning about the world.

Rachel H-G // Posted 3 February 2010 at 11:59 am

I can see both sides of the argument here. One of my most “liberating” body experiences was taking a traditional sauna on holiday in Sweden, mostly with other women, but once with men present. It really felt as if no-one cared what anyone else looked like for the moment, and just enjoyed being warm and in good company.

However, my experiences with gym changing rooms are not the same. I tend to feel quite scrutinised in them and prefer to change in private.

coldneedles // Posted 3 February 2010 at 12:12 pm

My reasoning is based on a simple fact: my body works, and while it continues to function healthily, I should not feel shame at its mere aesthetics, but exceptional and infinite thanks for its very functionality.

I’m fairly comfortable with my own (naked) body, but thanks for the suggestion that my body is worth shame if it doesn’t function healthily. As a chronically ill feminist that’s really empowering.

being naked whilst ill in hospital could generally be agreed to fall into the realms of non-sexual nudity

You’d think so, but the high rate of sexual abuse in hospitals and institutions suggest otherwise.

Jenny: Your body’s value is judged more in terms of what it can do

I understand what you’re trying to say, but that’s problematic for those of us who are disabled. We tend to be shamed for what we can and can’t do. I’d rather see everyone’s bodies as inherently valuable.

Joana Andrade // Posted 3 February 2010 at 1:58 pm

I don’t think that Joanna is being ableist and some of the comments are really missing the point and projecting their (rightful) anger at an ableist society on the post. Just because someone is happy and thankful for being able bodied doesn’t mean that she/he is diminishing anyone who isn’t.

J Whitehead // Posted 3 February 2010 at 2:05 pm

Many thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and comment on this piece… lots of very interesting and thought-provoking comments.

In response to the accusation of ‘ableism’: this certainly wasn’t my intention and I apologise profusely if anyone felt offended or hurt by my comments. The point I was trying to make was more about me feeling personal gratitude that my body is healthy, rather than being hung up on it not fitting society’s narrow definition of acceptability. This was not meant to imply that bodies that weren’t healthy should be shameful or hidden. On the contrary, I fully support visibility for ALL bodies.

johanna // Posted 3 February 2010 at 6:30 pm

Joanna — while you may not have meant to be ableist, surely as a feminist you’ve encountered men exhibiting sexist behavior who fobbed it off by saying that “they didn’t mean it”? And surely you thought that intent wasn’t all that mattered? Same thing.

lauredhel // Posted 4 February 2010 at 3:44 am

“rather I thought she was just giving an example of an environment in which bodies/nakedness are not, generally, sexualised.”

Except that women’s bodies _are_ exposed and sexualised and shamed and abused and raped in hospital and healthcare settings. Women with disabilities are particularly but by no means exclusively subject to this abuse. A throwaway crack at – what, attempted humour? – about how exposure in hospital might “stir the loins” of some women denies, erases and makes a joke of that reality. In the context of a post with a deeply ableist closing paragraph, it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

lauredhel // Posted 4 February 2010 at 3:47 am

Please don’t apologise conditionally. Please don’t attempt to apologise for other people’s feelings.

You need to apologise for _your_ actions.

Cate // Posted 4 February 2010 at 11:17 am

I have to admit that when reading the first paragraph of this article I felt I would behave exactly the same way as your colleagues. Not because it was a woman I saw naked, but that it was someone senior to me in the company. I love my body and am 100% happy with the way I look but I personally feel that being naked is a very private thing. To be naked in front of anyone else makes me feel exposed and vulnerable and to see a powerful senior member of staff (male or female) in that way is, for me, just plain weird. It reminds me of when someone goes to an important job interview and everyone says ‘just imagine them all naked and then they won’t seem so scary.’ I think seeing my boss in that light would definitely make me laugh – though certainly not to her face…

gadgetgal // Posted 4 February 2010 at 1:02 pm

I have had a disability for many years now, I have deformities in both my knee-joints, which has always made me extremely knock-kneed (sometimes embarrassingly so) and has now paved the way for me to develop early arthritis in one of them, which is painful and debilitating. So I must admit the last paragraph rubbed me a bit the wrong way too. It wan’t deliberately mean, but it was a bit unthinking.

So maybe the wording would need an apology but I don’t think the sentiment should – lots of people are grateful for things they have, very vocally sometimes as well, does that mean I should get an apology from the rich person who just bought something (I can’t afford to buy anything), or the thin person who’s proud s/he lost weight (the last time I saw my doctor he not only told me about my knee but he said I was obese as well – nice timing!), or the person who has a child (I’m not even going to get into my reproductive issues here)? I’m thankful my arthritis isn’t any worse yet – I think I should be allowed to be thankful for that, I’m not trying to say “I’m better than you because yours is more severe than mine”. I’m just glad it’s not any worse and I can still get up for work, I may not be able to do that too much longer, and that’s the same as the able-bodied – they don’t generally stay that way forever, and if they appreciate it while it’s there then great!

I also take issue with the idea that an unthinking sexist comment should be as severely punished as a thinking one – of course I would forgive the unthinking comment more easily. Following the logic of punishing offenders equally would mean you should punish someone who accidentally trips you up exactly the same as someone who did it deliberately – but you wouldn’t because that would be unfair as one was unintentional.

Getting back to the article: I can see your point on the beach scenario, and it even made me think of another one that I’ve always found particularly odd – the difference in sexualisation of the body when someone is wearing a bikini as opposed to a bra and knickers. Some (if not most) beachwear is actually more revealing than any underwear, so why is one hyper-sexualised more than the other? Because one is outerwear and the other goes under your clothes? I’ve always thought that was odd…

Kit // Posted 4 February 2010 at 2:19 pm

“Trying to get awkward teenage girls, some of whom are bullying the others, to change together may actually make some girls feel much more self-conscious rather than less.” – Anne Onne

I’m so glad the communal showers didn’t work in the girl’s changing room in my school. I would have missed so many days otherwise. I’m much happier getting used to my body in my own time and on my own terms.

“being naked whilst ill in hospital could generally be agreed to fall into the realms of non-sexual nudity

You’d think so, but the high rate of sexual abuse in hospitals and institutions suggest otherwise. ” – coldneedles

I find it troubling that being nude whatever the environment is a _cause_ for sexual abuse. Even if it’s a comment on the abuser’s motivation and how they view nudity, it’s not hard for that to get twisted back on the person being abused (or if they have no control of their nudity for whatever reason, the person looking after them).

Lilly // Posted 4 February 2010 at 4:15 pm

Anne Onne:

I can easily imagine that a fat girl, a flat-chested one, or a really early or really late developer, or someone with acne or noticeable body hair might in particular feel much more awkward about being naked in front of each other. … I wasn’t ever overweight (though everyone in my class seemed so much skinnier *rolls eyes at teen self*) as a teenager but being an early developer made me super-self conscious.

ALL THIS, yes.

I, too, was super self-conscious in changing rooms. I wouldn’t even say I was ashamed of my body in any way. Looking back, I’m amazed how un-body-image-conscious (but still self-conscious) I was for a teenaged girl: I never felt too fat or too thin, I found nothing objectionable in my reflection in the mirror, and I was never ashamed of the way my body looked in a swimsuit, despite its not being perfect. (All my looks-related insecurities were centred on the face, alas!) But there’s something terribly disturbing about being a late developer in an early developer’s body. I was hugely uncomfortable with nudity, not because I was ashamed of my body or embarrassed by other people’s bodies, but because I was already very aware of the connection between nudity and sex and wanted to keep the latter away from my consciousness. It’s not that I had any particular hang-ups about sex (though I was certainly made to feel that way, being called a ‘prude’ for objecting to porn, etc.) but I still felt like a child and felt strongly that I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with sex yet. When I looked at my breasts, my thought wasn’t that they were too small/big/ugly, but an angsty “Not yet, not yet!!” I’m lucky not to have had any worse experiences of harassment, but even so the one incident that disturbed me most about those years was when an adult man made a leering comment about my breasts when I was 12.

Personally I think we should let young girls feel like children for as long as they possibly can. I have only anecdotal evidence to back up my theories, but the thing is, I’ve never had any issues with body image whatsoever, which seems very odd (in a good way that I’m grateful for, of course!) – and my other then-‘prudish’ friends are the only women in my acquaintance who are similarly fortunate. If I worked in this field, I’d be very curious to study whether early sexualisation of one’s own body might be akin (if only as a very distant relative) to sexual trauma – and how a precocious *acceptance* of, and aspiration to, early sexual maturity might have a negative impact on body image. It’s not that I’d ban mini skirts and snogging, or punish girls who mature quickly, but I’d definitely ENCOURAGE them to wear baggy clothes and climb trees and use their imaginations and play with toys when they’re 13 instead of getting fake IDs to go to a night club…

This sounds like any other ‘bah, humbug’ rant at how things were better in the good old days, I know. I feel like my opinions come from a somewhat different place, but I’m not doing a very good job at expressing them properly.

Anyway, I can’t help thinking that communal changing is a lot like reading in this respect: ‘get them when they’re young’. A lot of people who are encouraged to read voraciously as children tend to drop reading when they hit their teens, but take it up again as grown-ups. If we are to promote positive body image among young women, we would probably do best to encourage them to be comfortable with their own and their peers’ naked bodies as children, but back off when they hit their teens and let them be awkward and shy and private about their changing bodies during that difficult time. Not to leave them alone, to fend of their teenage demons on their own – but to allow them to keep their bodies to themselves. If everything goes well, they might emerge from those awkward years with the same unselfconscious confidence they had as children.

Mandassassin // Posted 4 February 2010 at 5:14 pm

Joanna – I understand perfectly what you *meant*, with your last paragraph. By all means, a personal sense of gratitude is healthy and wonderful.

With the words you used in the order you used them, though, this is not what you *said*.

What we (people with disabilities and allies) read was that by virtue of your health you had the right to be unashamed of your body in public.

You may not have meant to express ableism (which does not belong in quotes, by the by), but nonetheless it was accomplished.

If you regret that you offended and hurt people, apologizing in a way that takes responsibility for making a mistake is a surer way to mitigate that.

@Elmo – Absolutely. Just exposing young girls to a variety of body types doesn’t necessarily do any good at a stage in life where judging people’s physical appearance establishes a social pecking order. In high school, I myself had the joy of being one of two heavy upperclassmen in a class full of freshman cheerleaders. The nasty ones will indeed, still be nasty.

Anne Onne // Posted 4 February 2010 at 8:32 pm

@ Lilly: You know, I think the ‘get em when they’re young’ aproach would be a lot easier. We’re a lot less self-conscious as small children.

To be honest, I don’t think it was mostly about hating my body. Sure, there were times I bemoaned some aspects, but to be honest, fear of how other girls would treat me (based on how they treated others to their face and behind their back) was probably more important to my younger self. It’s a lot easier down the line to say that it doesn’t matter what people say, but it doesn’t help isolated teenagers who aren’t socially accepted at the time when they most feel the need for social acceptance. It’s not even necessarily about approval: more about not being the object of derision. Even being invisible can seem a better option than being noticed and mocked.

If we encouraged people to non-judgementally view our own and each others’ bodies from a younger age, and drastically decreased our photoshopped women culture, I can’t see changing together being a big thing.

But ironically, it’s much harder to combat perfectionist culture if that very culture itself breeds attitudes and bullying that make it harder to view each others’ bodies neutrally.

@ Kit: I don’t think that being nude in hospital is the cause of the abuse (although some may justify it that way), but rather that there are women and men who are vulnerable because they may be immobile or spend lots of time unconsious, and because some people who don’t see anything wrong with abuse feel they can get away with abusing these people where they should be safe. The ’cause’ lies very much with the rapist/abuser for taking advantage of a situation and doing something nobody has any excuse for. Not that you were implying that, I just wanted to point it out.

@ Joanna Whitehead: I know what you are trying to say. I see Lauredhel’s point, though, that the wording ‘I’m sorry if X offended you’, whilst often coming from a viewpoint of general sympathy, is problematic. It has been used over the years to place the responsibility for people feeling offended on them. i.e. often implying ‘I am sorry you chose to be offended, it has nothing to do with how I phrased something’. That’s obviously not what you meant, but it can make the people we apologise to feel like they are being blamed (like they are, most of the time) for being offended.

I do think it is hard to apologise earnestly for having written something deliberately or not deliberately offensive, because so much of how we learn to apologise in society is cloaked in blaming others for taking offence.

Perhaps the phrasing ‘I meant Y, but I can see how others can interpret my comment in negative/offensive manner X, and I apologise for my wording. I will bear it in mind in future’ comes closer to what most of us are trying to say when we reply to someone we have offended. I am sure there are much better ways of phrasing it than this, but hopefully this clarifies the point I am trying to make.

gadgetgal // Posted 5 February 2010 at 12:13 pm

@Mandassassin & Anne Onne – well said to all your points, you both put things that are very hard to put into words very clearly :)

Kit // Posted 5 February 2010 at 12:30 pm

@Anne Onne – I completely agree with you, I was trying to point out how what coldneedles said read to me :)

On apologies I don’t see why “I’m sorry I was (being?) offensive,” isn’t reasonable. Even if someone didn’t intend to cause offence, that someone was offended kinda makes what they were doing offensive.

Sarah // Posted 5 February 2010 at 8:41 pm

Hi, the tile of this article certainly rings true for me! I did martial arts for a couple of years, and the school I went to had a communal changing s & showers (well, two – one for men, one for women). I’ve always been able-bodied and slim, though as a teenager, like many women, was convinced I was fat and hideous and didn’t eat much. As I got older I realised my body was fine, but it wasn’t until I started going to this school that I really got over this fear and shame that I feel really is hammered into us. Seeing women of all ages, shapes and sizes, (and clothing styles and body-hair styles and tatooed/pierced or not), and realising THIS was the norm, and not the one version we get spoon-fed every day through various media, was very liberating. Knowing that we all kicked ass to the best of our abilities, which was not dependent on being fat or thin. Also talking about the lesson and everything else, while being in various inelegant states of undress, made me for one so much more relaxed about bodies and nakedness.

This was in Germany, where I grew up, though, and where there is (or was?) a much more relaxed attitude to nudity than anything here in the UK. In a swimming pool recently I found it was (in a women’s only show room) expressly forbidden to shower naked…

PharaohKatt // Posted 6 February 2010 at 2:28 pm

Oh gods, communal changing rooms and showers… In Australia, communal showering doesn’t happen at school (at least, not any of the schools I’ve been to). But swimming lessons happen each summer.

The pool we went to (only one in town) had individual cubicles but they had no doors, thus no privacy. I always felt exposed, and so would change in the toilets or showers, which had doors.

My reasons for feeling shame (yes, shame) weren’t to do with my body so much as what I did to my body – namely, self harm. Not something I wanted my school peers to see :/

As for the ableism (not ‘ableism’, thanks ever so), Lauredhel, spilk_milk and others have already said all that I could. Thanks to all of you.

Jess // Posted 16 March 2010 at 2:30 pm

Just wanted to respond to the point about pornography.

“Where else do teenagers and young women see the female form in its most natural and varied forms? Pornography certainly doesn’t fulfil this criterion, and accepting diversity in appearance can be intensely reassuring for young women struggling to feel comfortable with their changing bodies and overwhelmed by the limitations of media representation”

I read this kind of thing on this website a lot, and it always strikes me that it comes from someone who has seen very little actual pornography. Without wanting to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of this, I sometimes use pornography (I’m female, a feminist, and in a relationship) and I have seen a wider diversity of female bodies in porn than anywhere in real life.

You may well object to the way that all the different types of bodies are fetishised and sexualised, but the fact is that women’s bodies in pornography are hugely variable: in terms of body size and shape, hairiness, ethnicity, age, body modification, etc. when you actually look at porn what you realise is that just about every woman in the world is desirable to some men (and women) out there.

Tastes are hugely varied, sexual attraction is massively weird and wonderful, and pornography shows this far better than more mainstream media.

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