Gym changing rooms: the last bastion of body realism?
Joanna Whitehead // 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.