aging · body image · clothing · diets · fat · fitness · yoga

A Tale of Two Locker Rooms


Happy International Women’s Day! In honour of IWD, I thought I’d write about my experience in a women-only space that lots of us who lead active lifestyles spend some time in: the women’s locker room.

I frequent two locker rooms regularly: the women’s locker room at the hot yoga studio and the adults only women’s locker room at the Y. These locker rooms have very different vibes and cultures. The difference fascinates me.

More than half of the women in the hot yoga locker room are under 35. A good majority of these women have youthful, firm, slender bodies that fit the ideal of feminine beauty so prized by our current social context. They take their hot yoga class wearing the shortest shorts and the teeniest crop tops. And to me, they look enviably perfect in their hot yoga clothes.

Yet these same young women hide behind their towels when they are getting dressed in the locker room. Some even change in the shower stalls or the bathroom stalls.  Many do not shower at the studio after hot yoga. They opt to leave the building hot and wet with sweat rather than get naked in a public (not so public really — it’s a locker room!) space.

The culture of modesty in this locker room even makes me change my behaviour a bit. I feel positively brazen when I remove my towel to get dressed after my shower (unlike the majority whose skills of getting their bras and panties on while holding a towel astound me). I face the wall and get my undies on as quickly as I can.

At the Y, I chose an adult’s only membership mostly because I love the locker room.  It’s got extra amenities like a steam room, hot tub, and sauna. In addition to having plenty of day lockers, each member gets a kit locker where she can keep some basics like swim goggles, toiletries, gym shoes, and a lock. There are stacks of clean white towels.

But the main reason I love that locker room at the Y is that everyone is comfortable walking around naked.  The age demographic is different from the hot yoga studio.  In my locker room at the Y, most women are between 40-75.  Of course you get a few beautiful bodies in that age range, but for the most part we are an average bunch, with cellulite and saggy arms, tummies and back fat.

No one hides behind a towel. We walk naked from the shower to the steam room where we lie down, still naked, on our white towels.  We lounge naked in the hot tub.  Sometimes, we’ll throw a towel around our waist when we leave the shower area and blow dry our hair while topless.  No blinks, winks, or furtive glances. No cowering or mincing behind towels.

No body shame.

Samantha has written quite a bit about body shaming. I’m with her. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make me feel good about who I am.  It makes us do drastic things to punish ourselves. It makes young women starve themselves to achieve thigh gaps.

The main difference between these two locker rooms is the presence of body-shame in the air.  I’m not saying that the women in the hot yoga locker room are shaming one another. I think it’s more insidious than that. These young women shame themselves. They — beautiful, youthful, fit, slender, strong — do not like the way they look naked. They feel painfully self-conscious.

And so they hide behind their towels, deny themselves a good shower until they get home, dress in the shower stall if they do shower, or pull dry top layers over soaking wet yoga clothes for the trip home.

I’m not sure why the extra step of being naked brings this on, considering that lots of hot yoga clothes are, of necessity, pretty minimal to begin with. I myself do hot yoga in the skimpiest clothing I feel comfortable in (no exposed midriff for me — yes, I do experience some self-consciousness sometimes. I’m much more comfortable totally naked than in skimpy clothing).

I would love to take every single one of these women hiding behind towels to the locker room at the Y. I’d love to say “SEE! You are allowed to enjoy your post-workout routine without trying to be invisible.”

Older women can teach younger women to take up space, not to seek to be unseen.

I have sometimes reflected that the level of comfort with nudity in the Y locker room could have something to do with our cultural assumptions about sexuality and age.  Younger women’s bodies are undeniably more sexualized than older women’s bodies. Some people think (annoyingly and wrongly) that over fifty or maybe over sixty women aren’t “sexual.” I’ve heard older women express a kind of relief that, past a certain age, they are not considered sexual beings anymore.  Might the inverse be true of the young women? Our hyper-sexualization of young women might make them want to hide their bodies. Could this have something to do with their ability to feel at ease naked in the locker room?

I hope that’s not the reason. I hope, rather, that we reach a certain age in our lives when we feel comfortable with who we are and accepting of one another.  Maybe some get there sooner than others, but we can all get there eventually.

If you aren’t there yet and want to feel inspired, I recommend a gym like my Y  where there’s a diverse age range in the locker room, bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and no shame. There’s a lot to learn about body image from the wise women who have reached a certain age.

19 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Locker Rooms

  1. It’s amazing how different in culture locker rooms can be. At my previous university, it was very much like your experience at the Y – because everyone had to pay extra for gym memberships, it tended to be an older crowd, mostly of staff and faculty members. Everyone showered in the open showers, stood naked while combing out their hair, etc.. It was great! When I go to the locker room at my current university, it’s a much younger demographic (mostly undergrad students), and everyone faces the lockers, dress/undress while making sure they’re covered up by a towel, and certainly don’t shower naked in an open shower area. It made me feel more self-conscious just being around that to the point where I would start doing the same as them — in my mind, I thought if they couldn’t look at themselves, they certainly wouldn’t want to look at me!

  2. “Older women can teach younger women to take up space, not to seek to be unseen.” Agreed. Also, I think older women can step up to help with fighting the incidious rising tide of body shaming/policing by helping to remind younger women that we as women do not owe anyone beauty or perfection, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed or contrite that we fail to appear photoshopped.

    I think some of the difference is generational about nudity in locker rooms- I’ve seen a bunch of articles shaming people who walk around naked in them of late- mostly on humor sites directed at a younger set. At 30, I think I stand between those generations- However, because Ive never had a super-toned “yoga body” as a goal, I also feel more comfortable naked than in clothes. Seem of this I blame on the recent commercialization of yoga and the image of class/gender/race etc. that goes with it. If you want to see an interesting satire/commentary on this culture, watch the K-Horror film “Yoga” (it’s on Netflix).

    A for nearly 31 year old me, I work out in sweats. I’m not into LuLuLemon and remember working out (and working in) gyms where sweats and baggy tees and nakedness in the locker room were the norm. Younger folks I suspect feel both pressure to wear less clothing and also to perfect (read: standardize and render photoshopped) even their most intimate body parts (consider the rise in labioplasty Sam has discussed. I’m both glad I don’t feel these pressures and sad that younger women do. In general I think these are increasingly hard times for women with increasingly difficult standards of “femininity” and body policing/shaming.

  3. I had exactly the same experience. I was first at a gym where I was one of the youngest female members, at 32. Women walked around naked in the locker room, put lotion on carefully etc. Very relaxed. Then I joined a much cheaper gym in a different part of town, where I was the among the oldest members. They basically managed to beam themselves into their workout outfits, no nakedness ever. Sitting in the (women-only) sauna in their underwear (in Germany, not being naked in the sauna is very unusual.) Now I am back with an older crowd, and back to a relaxed locker room atmosphere.

  4. Hmm. Complicated. I generally avoid showering in gym locker rooms and I do pull dry clothes over soaking hot-yoga clothes, but at this point, it doesn’t have a lot to do with self-consciousness. I prefer to work out at night (which is a feminist issue in that by this, in addition to late-evening hot yoga classes, I mean that I love to run, outside, alone, after 10 at night) and I relish both the calm, sweaty walk home in the dark and incorporating the post-workout shower into my bedtime routine.

    I think you’re onto something with your suggestion about the hyper-sexualization of young women, but would extend that to include fears about the sexualization of children by adults and habits and anxieties developed as a result of this. There’s definitely more to it than aesthetics and vanity. School-aged kids are discouraged from running around the locker room naked, whether at school or at other gyms (I remember parents holding up towels for their kids to change behind in the gym locker room, when I was a kid, and older kids would hold the towel for themselves, learning and mastering the trick of changing without showing any skin; when I taught K-12, the last thing anyone wanted to have to see was naked kids). At puberty, habits brought on by adult fears meet self-consciousness and peer-judgment. Reaching adulthood, that’s an awful lot of habit and worry to undo. Why would someone want to reveal their body, when that’s been constructed as dangerous almost as long as they can remember?

  5. Thanks for the thought provoking post. I’m one of those young women with a socially correct body who will not change or shower at the gym even though I go to a Y-type gym where nudity is fine in the locker rooms. And yes, I can miraculously get a dressed under a towel in less than thirty seconds if necessary. Now, I live about two blocks from the gym, so part of it is that I’d rather just not deal with lugging stuff around.

    For me, though, it has to do with learned behavior. I was on a very serious swim team throughout middle school and high school, and lots of times we’d have to change on deck, so I learned how to change out of a swimsuit into street clothes without flashing anyone. Also, part of the thing with swimming was that we were all going around nearly naked so much having moments of privacy were kind of nice. The guys were even prissier about being seen naked than us girls.

    Maybe a lot of young women with these socially correct bodies were preteen/teenage serious athletes and just got used to the whole don’t-be-naked-in-the-locker-room teenage awkwardness that hits boys and girls both. It’s our life experience that makes being naked feel weird rather than our gender.

    Another thing this made me think of — one of my friends, who is my age and also was an athlete and is in good shape, has no problem walking around locker rooms naked. Had to call her to point her this way and discuss, and she pointed out one big difference between us — she has a baby and I don’t, and after the general lack of privacy of childbirth and being a mom, she just doesn’t even try to have the same kind of privacy around her body any more.

    Definitely food for thought!

    1. I’m troubled by some of the language in this comment. Most of the women commenting on here are also “in good shape” whether or not they have “socially correct bodies”, as you put it. The way you used those phrases is problematic. Many women who you wouldn’t think of as “in good shape” or having “socially correct bodies’ were/are athletes as well. I know you mean well with this comment.

      1. I’m sorry if the language wasn’t the best or clearest. As very appropriate (at least to me) outrage over comments about the body shape of female Olympians last summer showed, elite athletes do not always have “socially correct” bodies and very often women who have “socially correct” bodies are not at all athletic.

        Some women may be both athletic and have builds that marketing culture calls correct. Our prudishness may be a collection of things – body anxiety, feeling over sexualized and also some personal experiences that have little to do with gender. I think it is valuable to look at all of it and not only how women’s bodies are sexualized and commodified. To me at least, part of breaking out of that is looking at what in a woman’s experience is not only about that and paying attention to that too.

        My apologies again if it sounded like I was conflating athleticism with a specific body type.

  6. Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer, I used locker rooms just like everyone else. I strode naked from sink to locker, dried my hair, got dressed. Now, I have a very different body, one that is not as socially acceptable, or seen as often, non reconstructed, two scars, a beautiful job, really, and now unlike before-I have muscle definition. But I refuse to change my locker room behavior. I refuse to act differently, to cover my body because scars are frightening, because choosing not to reconstruct flies in the face of the current day norms. Choosing not to reconstruct our bodies is bold and brave, the easiest of all the options out there, because this is an option, even if my doctors did not present it as such. And to be honest, my scars are probably much prettier than a reconstructed breast could ever be. I want other women to see me. I need to normalize this body to society at large, and what better way than continuing to use the gym in a manner than was normal before I had to make some tough decisions.

  7. Earlier this week I joined a Y so that I can swim before work each day. Today was my fourth day swimming there. Due to my work schedule I can only find time to swim before work each day, and so I have to get to the Y when they open at 6:00 AM. I’m 22 years old, and with the exception of one woman who is probably about 40 years old, all of the other ten to twelve women who are swimming at the same time as me are in their 60’s.

    After we finish swimming I had been the only one who was showering off in the open showers in their swimsuit, the other ladies always shower in the buff.

    I had wanted to see if it was only the ladies at the Y that I go to that were so comfortable showering and walking around in the buff in the locker room, so I did a search to see what others were saying. I came across another blog that was discussing the topic, and the lady that has that blog was talking about the same topic that you are on here.

    After reading her comments I was inspired to work up the guts to ditch the swimsuit in the showers today after I swam. I have to say that I was proud of myself for having the guts to do that! I also have to admit that it was very liberating!!! We had the normal type of conversations that we had had the first few days, the only difference was that today I was in my birthday suit like the other ladies. No one stares, no one judges one another, it was kind of nice. I was really surprised by how liberating it felt.

    After the first day that I swam at the Y I had mentioned to my mom that the older ladies all showered in the buff and how surprised I was about that at first. My mom said that she thinks that part of the reason that a lot of the 40 and over crowd is more comfortable with that than my age group in general is that most of the 40 and over generations had to take group showers in gym classes in school, whereas a lot of my age group was not required to shower at school. My mom was surprised to find out that I did not have to shower in middle school and high school gym classes. I was surprised to find out that at one time a lot of students had to shower after gym classes.

    Thank you for the interesting and educating post on your blog!

    1. I love this comment. Good for you for breaking out of the old ideas about nudity and trying to get comfortable in your skin. Thanks for sharing your story!

  8. When I first joined my gym (a women-only one), I would do my best to hide my body when I changed, not because I was ashamed of it, but because I thought that that’s what you’re supposed to do. I soon noticed that while there were a few shy ladies who hid under towels, most women just walked around naked. Women of all ages. And I loved it. I loved seeing every body type. It made me feel normal (and when I first joined the gym, I was a big girl). So I slowly started ditching the various hiding myself techniques, and now I’m one of the ones who walks around in the buff. Being naked in the locker room isn’t just good for your own body image, it’s good for other women’s. Seeing real women in real life in the buff really does something to your perception of what a body “should” be.

  9. Thank you, Tracy!

    I found this article by a teen girl that you might like reading. It fits in with what you were discussing here.

    I hated gym class in high school, mainly because I hated having to go through the rest of the school day sweaty. We were allowed to use the showers after gym class if we wanted to, but we didn’t have much time in the locker room before our next class, and only the girls on the sports teams ever used them.
    I’m starting to wish that maybe my school had just required them like they did in my moms day. We would have been a lot cleaner throughout the rest of the school day, and I think that it might actually be good for girls to see a mix of different body types.

  10. i recently was told it was “disgusting” that i was changing out in the open in a women’s (specified on the door as 19 years and older) locker room at my local Y. the woman and the friend she was with spoke about me as i sat on the bench in front of them (they spoke to my back) as if i was not there. the woman was with her 2 year old son (she chose to not use the family changing room, apparently), and i was sitting and changing with my back to them. when i stood up to get my underwear from the top shelf of my locker, she cautioned her son, “don’t look!” (at my bare ass). she and her friend went on to discuss how some people have no morals (me), and how it’s a parent’s job to protect their kids from such people.

    as i left, i told her to her face that i’d rather be naked than unkind. and i told her that all bodies are beautiful.

    “not yours,” she said. “it’s disgusting to show your ass to other people, especially a little kid.”

    i told her her body wasn’t beautiful either (i am a thin white woman; she is a large black one; i am fifty two; i put her at twenty years my junior). and i immediately regretted it–because i don’t truly feel that way. i truly believe my body is beautiful and all bodies are beautiful. (and trust me when i say i am an attractive woman, as seen by others–not just by my mother and my son!)

    i said what i said purely out of defense–and as a result of being caught off guard. (i have always considered a women’s locker room as a source of safety from the judging eyes of the world. but i learned there are people with distorted vision everywhere. . . . )

    i stand by what i said to her in my last words before leaving: “it’s your soul that is ugly.” and even that will come out more accurately should it have to be uttered again.

    i am beautiful, you are beautiful. teach your child to see that everyone is beautiful–and you may end up seeing it yourself.

    1. How awful! First of all she shouldn’t have a child in the adults only locker room. And second of all, what a horrible attitude she has. It’s really sad that people are so judgmental and ashamed of the naked body.

      Even though you said some things you regretted, your overall attitude is healthy and a much-needed antidote to what is out there. Thanks for sharing your story.

  11. Interesting and thought-provoking article. I thought I might lend my perspective. I’m 22 with a rather athletic body so I might be able to speak for that perspective. I think you’re onto something with the oversexualization idea. I don’t mind the way my body looks at all. In fact, I’ve had more problems with my face than with my body. And unfortunately, plastic surgery is quite expensive. But the thing is, I do see excessive nudity often as some kind of sexually-related ploy for attention. I don’t often admit it to myself, since I know I’m wrong. But it floats around my subconscious. And I feel that if I’m naked, someone will think I’m being presumptuous – and even if it’s not a sexual thing, they’ll think that I’m showing off and inevitably, they’ll find something to criticize in response to my presumptuousness. So it’s a fear of being perceived as sexually suggestive or presumptuous about our appearance, I would argue. And since none of us are without flaws, I’d hate to hear what they’d come up with, even though I generally don’t have a problem with my body. They’d probably criticize some of the strange places I have hair. Thanks a lot, Armenian heritage.

  12. I’ve never seen nudity in the locker room as an issue. I go to a Y and it’s the exception to see a woman struggling to get changed under a towel or even bother wearing their towel to walk to and from the showers . I workout early mornings and most all of us are in our birthday suits without caring or looking in each others directions. Only one time did my friend get dirty looks from a clothed gym goer who had brought her 6 year old son into the locker room. My friend had just finished her workout and was walking, sans towel, to the shower room when she walked past the woman and her wide eyed son. The woman gave an audible “ughh” as my friend walked past. For the sake of full transparency, my friend is quite endowed in the chest area for being such a thin woman. With clothes on she has been accused multiple times for having had a boob job, but when naked it is easy to tell that her boobs are quite real and hang freely as she walks. When my friend returned from the showers, still dripping wet and naked as the day she was born, the same woman pulled her son in and covered his eyes with her hand. The ironic part is that the lady was in the middle of a conversation with another (albeit less “curvy”) woman who was also without a stitch of clothing . I guess maybe there is a double standard in the locker room sometimes.

  13. I’m 25. It took me a while to become used to locker room nudity. I was never afraid, but it was a slow, gradual build-up to comfort over the better part of a decade. I’m proud to say today I and most of the woman I go to the Y with have no issues with locker room nudity.
    We started changing for gym in middle school. There were stalls we could use, but most girls were comfortable changing in front of everyone by the time we moved on to high school. Not a soul would’ve thought about changing underwear or showering, though.
    That began to change (no pun intended) in high school. We were required to take two years of PE and I played three varsity sports all four years. We had two locker rooms: one for PE and general use that had a handful of stalled showers with curtains in the middle of the room and one for varsity sports with a small communal shower.
    Most everyone expanded their boundaries a little bit, even though we were only ever required to change, not shower. Girls would change into sports bras or put on spandex shorts in the open. One of my friends showered after our first gym class freshman year. By sophomore year, about half the class would hop in the stalls after a particularly sweaty period. I think that was a major milestone for many of us.
    Still, some boundaries were unbreakable. When changing underwear, most girls would keep to themselves. No one dared use the gang shower in the varsity locker room. We would only occasionally shower in the PE locker room after practices or games if we had somewhere to be. And after road games we’d usually just change out of our uniforms and hop on the bus, waiting until home to shower to the dismay of our coaches.
    College took that basic locker room attitude I had developed and ramped it up. Fast. I played basketball and the upperclassmen were very comfortable with themselves in the locker room and made sure that attitude was passed along. And their comfort made the transition super easy. They had no problem getting naked and staying naked while they got ready before or after practice. No one turned their back to the room or hid under a towel. We had communal showers at home and used them after very practice and game. And facilities on the road were often very spartan. Everyone would always hop into the almost always communal showers before the long ride home.
    Today, the Y I go to is much like the ones Tracy, Amanda and Kristen wrote about. Most women are comfortable changing in the open, though a few will hide behind towels or head to a bathroom stall. Most of our showers are open and the majority of the women seem okay with that. Some my age will head towards the stalls, but there are only five of those. If it gets busy and they’re full, it’s always good to see someone face their fears and use the open showers. Their inhibitions always wash right down the drain.

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