There’s a lot to say, in this moment of cracking and (I hope) crumbling gender binaries, about how we adapt our body images, and our images of others’ bodies, to a changing sex/gender paradigm. Getting comfortable with ourselves in our totally imperfect and non-binary bodies is only part of the challenge ahead; the other part is getting comfortable with the many different kinds of bodies around us, bodies whose hard-won privileges cannot any longer be denied.
A few weeks ago I found myself in Cate’s flat, asking her about gender-neutral change room etiquette. My question was prompted by my recent experiences in the changing rooms of the swimming pools I frequent.
My amazing new home town of Hamilton, Ontario has been renovating its swimming and recreation centres, and as part of that work has been installing gender-neutral change rooms. I do not identify as fluid, but I do identify as an LGBTQ ally, so I cheer this decision; I want to use the change rooms in order to show my support for their construction, and in order to show my support for non-binary folks using the space. Thus, when I went to a new pool in the suburb of Ancaster in early November, I bounced right on in through the middle door, without a second thought.
It was only when I was getting out of the pool and ready to shower that I started thinking twice about some of the complexities of getting naked, showering, and then re-dressing in this mixed space.
Two images of gender-neutral toilet and change spaces. The image on the left shows three brown doors with blue signs, one for “men”, one for “women”, and one in the middle showing figures of a man and a woman side by side. The image on the right (from the YMCA in Calgary, Alberta) shows the entrance to a clean-lined, white and blue locker space, with white figures and writing on a brown wall. The figures are of a woman, a man, and a wheelchair user, and the writing says “Universal Locker Room”.
Now, let me be clear. I am very comfortable being naked in women’s change rooms, and I’m very comfortable with the idea of other women, including trans women, being naked around me. I’m also fine with men (and trans-men) being naked around me in settings where it is clear that we are in a non-sexual space and that the protocol is one of mutual respect along those lines (see below for more of what I mean here).
But as I was preparing to shower (and I LOVE my post-swim shower, in the warm water, joyfully naked after having pulled my tight swimsuit off) I realized that, maybe, not everyone in the gender-neutral change room in Ancaster would feel the same way as I do about public nudity. What if there was a man in the room who was comfortable with non-binary identifications but not comfortable with my nudity as a woman in a mixed space? What if there were parents with pubescent children of mixed ages who saw this space as also for them, but were similarly not comfortable? This is, after all, North America we’re talking about, and Ancaster ain’t exactly The Castro.
I posed the question to Cate: is it cool to get naked in a gender-neutral change room? Her response was measured but confident: anyone in that space is either fluid or an ally, and therefore should be comfortable with mixed bodies. Plus, it’s a change room: change rooms by definition are places you are allowed to be naked in public.
Are they, though?
It turns out this changing-room-nudity thing is a pretty culturally-determined truth. Cate and I feel a certain way, as do a host of my friends and colleagues, but we’re a particular demographic (fit academic feminists, for the most part, and many of us are white). Others clearly do not feel as we do. A town in the province of Quebec recently banned nudity in change rooms of all kinds in its public recreation centres; this is QUEBEC, people, aka the France of North America. And I’d be lying if I said I was usually joined in the women’s change room of various pools and fitness centres in my unabashed nudity; normally it’s all swimsuits, towels covering breasts, furtive scurrying, and ducking into changing cubicles.
Plus, I do get looks – sometimes.
Are locker rooms safe spaces to be naked in public? The image shows a woman, with long hair in a pony tail, dressed in a pink striped sports top and loose black running shorts, hiding in part behind a locker door.
I don’t mean to belittle the activity of covering up – not at all. As a woman who grew up with horrifically bad body-image problems, I understand very well why hiding and scurrying and ducking happens.
But what if we thought of changing rooms as places where we can be, kindly and respectfully, and above all safely, exposed to a variety of uncovered bodies of different sizes, shapes, genders, and racial backgrounds – helping to make that bodily difference normative, and even comfortable?
This might (might…) be one hope behind the increase in gender-neutral change spaces more broadly. In pools around London, UK, where I also spend a lot of time swimming, I’ve noticed this trend taking shape. Twice this year I’ve been at facilities (run by Better, a not-for-profit organization) where large communal change spaces have been installed post-renovation (one of these, I’ll note, is in the Olympic swimming centre that became a public facility after the 2012 games). The demographic in both of the spaces I’ve swum (the other is in Chelsea, the posh West London community) has been very mixed; as these are effectively public recreation centres (as opposed to private clubs), visitors run the gamut of colours and languages, as well as ages and social classes.
These gender-neutral spaces are fairly big, to accommodate all users, but they are not really all that spacious; this is because they are populated largely by banks of lockers and changing stalls, lined up in neat rows. The idea is that you choose a locker near a free stall, and shut yourself in to get into and out of your swimming costume. There are also shower/change cubicles, so you are able to shower fully, removing your suit, and then change before opening the door to the world. Implicitly, I take from the presence of these larger cubicles, you’re not meant to get naked in the open shower area. Certainly, I’ve noticed no nudity whatsoever in these mixed spaces on the many occasions I’ve now visited them.
I get what these kinds of “gender-neutral” spaces are about, I think: saving space overall, breaking down gender division (an identified social goal in the UK right now), and sharing space more equitably between men’s and women’s zones are all worthy goals. Yet I cannot help but notice, in each of these “neutral” spaces, the lack of true neutrality. Because these spaces continue to encourage the hiding of our sexed and gendered flesh in the change cubicles, they do not invite us to break down the hierarchies of shaming and valorization that attend to, for example, fit vs unfit bodies, white bodies vs black or brown bodies, and men’s bodies vs women’s bodies.
Nothing about our bodies or their place in our world is shifted by this kind of flesh-policing “neutrality”; really, we’re just being herded into a more efficient, multi-use spatial system.
Would I prefer the female/male/neutral triad of choices now available to me in Hamilton to the enforced neutrality in all-comers gender-neutral spaces? Yes indeed, if only because the choice, in the first case, is provocative: it requires me to do some thinking about where I want to locate my body, and why.
(It’s also essential, I think, for those transitioning to feel safe in a changing space. One that is clearly marked as non-binary, alongside other, more “traditional” gendered space options, is by definition such a space. Click here, for example, for an article on the logic behind UC Berkeley’s decision to build a non-binary change room in its campus gym.)
Being herded into a large mixed change space, with its pressure to get dressed and undressed privately, does little except make me both physically and intellectually uncomfortable. I’d argue that it diminishes thoughtfulness around what “neutrality” really means, suppresses rather than invites important questions about gender.
It leads directly to the twin expectations that a) we all must share public space equally (a seemingly good thing), but that b) we also all must necessarily occupy that public space individually, keeping our bodies (and the shame they still too often carry) to ourselves (in no way a good thing).
This strikes me as separate-but-equal logic, which I cannot get behind.
I’d like your thoughts on this, very much; I’m still mulling and stewing. But before I close, I want to present a third example.
In early December I gave a workshop in the German lakeside town of Konstanz, on the Swiss border. Konstanz has a gorgeous local thermal spa facility, which includes a large and extremely well designed and maintained sauna section. (Entry to the thermal baths and outdoor pools alone is, like the Olympic swimming centre in London, less than $10 – this is a public facility. To use the sauna [also publicly maintained] costs a fair bit more, though substantially less than comparable but much less nice places in Canada, such as Toronto’s Body Blitz chain. To say the Konstanz spa-sauna is good value for money is an absolute understatement.)
On my last day in the town, my colleague Julia and I spent the morning at the sauna, moving between steam room, plunge pool, saunas of three temperatures, and a wonderful “calm room” for relaxing with a view of the Alps in the distance.
An image of the 60-degree-heat sauna at Konstanz’s thermal spa facility; the picture is of a dark brown room with rectangular windows opening onto greenery, and the room is populated with curling light wood benches stacked in a rake for sauna users. The people in the space are covered in towels; in reality, these folks would be sitting on their towels naked, not wearing them. The spa’s website includes no nudity, although nudity is normative at the spa.
Julia advised me ahead of time that I needed no swim suit in the sauna area of the spa; it is considered inappropriate and unhygienic to wear one. Everyone changes into a robe or towel in the communal change room, then attends each of the saunas and plunge pools nude. This is traditional, and ingrained in German culture; the space of the spa is one where all bodies are welcome, and where nobody is to be leered at or commented upon inappropriately.
Of course this is not body nirvana: as Julia remarked, culture in this part of Germany is very homogenous, and all the bodies I saw were white and appeared to be non-trans (though I was not, in keeping with protocol, looking closely). How I’d feel as the lone person of colour, or lone non-binary body, in this space is a matter for another post entirely (or for a comment – if you have had such an experience, please let me know!).
What I can say, though, is that as a middle-aged woman with residual body image issues, I’ve never felt quite so at ease with my own body as I did in the sauna space. Young and old, male and female, fat and thin and in between; all seemed at ease in their bodies and fully accepting of the bodies around them. I found the resulting sense of ease permeated the space, generating a calming and welcoming affect that made the experience truly satisfying for me.
I found myself wishing we could infuse both Hamilton’s new gender-neutral change rooms, and the mixed/neutral change rooms of my London pools, with some of this embodied ease.
I’ll do my part, by continuing to use the new change rooms back home, and by being as naked as ever in them. I’ll welcome other naked bodies in turn, either with quick eye contact and a smile, or by not remarking on anything unusual – whatever works in the moment.
How about you? What’s your experience of gender-neutral changing spaces? If you’ve been at a public spa where nudity is common or expected, what was your embodied experience like?