body image · fat

The Weight of Expectation

“The Act With Love art collective collaborated with illustrator Jade Sarson (winner of Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel competition with For the Love of God, Marie!) to visualise the research of Oli Williams (Department of Health Sciences). Their comic tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. ”

I loved the section of the comic with the women in the pool. You get to see both their happiness at moving in the water and the anger of the lifeguards at their size.  Stay in the slow lane and they are lazy fatties, not moving enough. Move to the fast lane and they are splashing too much and taking up space. Fat people just can’t win.

Some of us here on the blog who either identify as fat or who are called that by others are going to write a join post soon about our best and worst exercising while fat stories. Here’s one of mine: Anti-cyclist abuse with a side order of body shaming.

I have extra copies of the comic. If you’d like one, drop me a line–samanthajbrennan@gmail.com and include your mailing address.

woe

body image · disability · fitness

Thinking About The Opportunity to Become Living Art: Other Sam Gets Body Painted (Guest Post)

by Sam Walsh

As someone who studies Sociology and has a visible disability (I use a wheelchair), I have always been interested in the relationship between culture and the individual (the body). I would suggest that my body falls outside the expected norm. I am often aware of strangers staring at me. I know people watch me get in and out of the car. I have had people come up to me at times and comment on things I am doing, things that I feel other people would go unnoticed for. I am also continually asked if I need help when out in public. I often wonder about how this frames my position and my body in society. As a bit of a hobby, I find ways to subvert or disrupt how my body is read or how people interact with me. I wear a lot of interesting shoes, because I feel it draws attention to a part of my body that makes people uncomfortable. Often when people ask if I need help, they will assume I want a push. My wheelchair doesn’t have push handles (specifically for this reason). I often get people to do things such as hold my coffee or purse while, I push myself. Someone once asked if I needed help while getting out of my car. I said yes and asked them to throw out my empty coffee cup. This interest in subversion and performance lends itself to a love of art and larger than life persona. I am fascinated by the work of Frida Kahlo. I appreciate contemporary art and performance. A recent fascination of mine was Body Painting. The idea of living canvas, inspired thoughts of Marchesa Casati. I applied to be a Body Painting Model for New York Body Painting Day. The application required a short paragraph about why you wanted to be a model.

I wrote,

I have become interested in body art and body painting as a way of reclaiming and redefining beauty. I am a woman with a disability. I have had the opportunity to do some modeling for a painting class. It is through this experience, that I have been able to understand my disabled body as both worthy and beautiful. I see participating in the body painting parade as a way to explore and shift the taken for granted understanding of the disabled body. I want all who see me in the parade to stop and think about how, the juxtaposition of art or a disabled body disrupts the taken for granted notions of disability as sickness or weakness.

I was ACCEPTED!!!

On July 14 2018, I got my chance to be living art as it were. I was a model for New York Body Painting day, held in Greenwich Village. The event was hosted by Human Connection Arts. The artist who painted me was Lisa Fried a painter and photographer from New Jersey. The event for me was about being living art. As mentioned above, I was really interested in disrupting the tensions between staring and disability. I was also curious about the tension between disability and beauty. The reactions from people were incredibly diverse.

Elisabeth and Sam, photo by Lisa Fried

The day started with being painted in Washington Square. This process was surprisingly interactive, because there was a crowd of onlookers for most of the day. It felt very avant-garde. I assume this must have been what the art models of the impressionist period felt like. This was my favourite part of the day. The artist painting me was very friendly and interested in hearing what I liked. She took inspiration from my mermaid tattoo. I explained that if mermaids were on land they would need wheelchairs. Additionally, the crowd for the most part seemed really engaged in watching the artistic process. Most people who were watching seemed embarrassed when I waved or smiled at them. For a lot of the process, I was naked, so I am curious if my acknowledgment that they were, there made salient that I could see them and they could see me. Lots of people both hired by human connects arts and random people took pictures. Interestingly I don’t think I am very good at having my picture taken. I tend to look directly at the camera if I want my picture taken and down or away if I am not consenting to the photo. This lead to a lot of very forced looking or posed photos. I wanted my image captured by all the body painting day photographers. However, I was less comfortable with the people at the park taking photos. It was a very Derridean experience. I wanted people to read and appreciate my image (story) one way, but really had no control over what on lookers or by standers thought.

Following the painting there was a photo shoot in the park which was largely inaccessible for someone who could not walk. All the models were asked to climb into a large fountain. This was frustrating because, I wasn’t included in the photos and by extension either was Lisa’s art. It was an interesting experience that in an environment that included so many people, and bodies a disabled body was unimagined. I brought my good friend Elisabeth Harrison with me who facilitated much of my access for the trip. I am very please to have such a good friend and ally.

After the photo shoot there was a parade and a bus ride through Greenwich Village. This was noteworthy, because it was a time, when I got to interact with both the public and the other painted models. Continuing with the theme of a Derridean experience, I elicited shock and awe from on lookers (the reaction I wanted). I had lots of people tell me how awesome I looked. People called out they wanted be painted too. However, I was also surprised how many people read me as needing help, or out of place. Lots of people asked if I needed help. Another, painted model explained he knew someone who used a wheelchair (they weren’t there; he just wanted me to know, he knew someone). There was however, another model there who used a wheelchair, she seemed very nice. An on looker called out “hey there’s a wheelchair”. Lisa the artist who painted me asked if I felt people were hesitant to look at me; when ironically, I might get looked at when not painted. I thought this was a good question and interesting observation. I am not sure if the reaction would have been different or more pronounced if I was walking vs. rolling. I appreciated the opportunity to experiment. I feel that for many on lookers I did disrupt the social position of disability, beauty and art. As with most art it goes out into the world. The arts has a story an interpretation. It lives within its time and context. I was living art. I had my goals and intentions for the day. I have my perceptions and readings of peoples reactions. I will never really know who was inspired; who was horrified and who was moved. Everyday I put my ideas and thoughts out into the world and everyday I have no control over what comes back. On a sunny Saturday on the Lower East side of New York, I put not only my thoughts and ideas out into the world but my body; and had no control over what came back. I will never forget the time I was living art. I am grateful to all involved including Lisa Fried and Human Connect Arts.


Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.

body image

Body positivity is a community project

Tracy and I enjoy exploring our areas of disagreement. That’s partly because we disagree about very few things. And also because our friendship is long and solid and it never feels, even we disagree strongly, that we are at any risk of hurting that friendship. I also almost always learn something from our disagreements.

One thing we disagree about is body positivity. See Here’s an Idea: Body-Neutrality and Still a fan of body neutrality and Sam responds: Why body neutrality isn’t enough (for me) and Loving the body you’ve got: Love a better motivator than hate for our respective positions.

I used to just accept this as something we felt differently about. In general, I haven’t shared Tracy’s body image problems or her disordered eating history. I’ve speculated that’s due in part to my connection to queer community (see Body Positivity and Queer Community) and to a lifetime of being outside body normative standards for women (The unexpected advantages of growing up chubby). Though I suppose that can’t be the whole story since I’ve got plenty of friends who share this back story but who can’t quite shake feelings of self loathing when it comes up their shape and size.

Lately though I’ve been thinking that Tracy and I disagree because we understand the term body positivity to mean different things. On my understanding of body positivity, I bet she’s in agreement. Or at least partway.

For me, it’s mostly about making spaces, not telling women what they must think and feel. So when Tracy says she experiences body positivity, sometimes, as a way she fails as a feminist, I think she’s understanding body positivity too individually.

This quote gets at the difference, I think. “True freedom from body oppression wouldn’t just be freedom from our own past shame, but a society that didn’t shame us for our bodies in the first place.”-Alysse Dalessandro, Body Positive Writer and Designer

It’s quoted in a piece by Melissa Gibson who says that people often think that body positivity is about loving your own body and thinking all bodies are beautiful but really the roots of the idea are far more radical. It’s about making room for all bodies outside the mainstream. That includes considerations of size but also age, ability, and race.

As Gibson says it’s not just about young, white, smaller fat women on Instagram feeling positive about their belly rolls.

Instead, look around. See the positive in all kinds of bodies. Think about what features of our communities, both in person and online, include and exclude.

Here’s tips for making your home a body positive space. How do we extend those to our schools and our workplaces, to gyms and to social spaces? How do we send the message that all bodies and welcome and valuable in all the spaces in which we move?

So on this understanding there’s room for body neutrality in body positive spaces but that doesn’t mean all attitudes are okay. I worry, for example, about thin women who say of themselves that they’re too fat.

Here’s the problem. When you hate your body because it’s too fat and you’re lots smaller than me it’s hard to believe that you aren’t judging me too. Either you think you’re special and different rules apply to you or the rules apply equally and I’m also too fat. Maybe you can think it, but please don’t say it.

Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash Image description: Palm trees as seen from beneath, against a bright blue sky, with white puffy clouds
body image · fitness

Bathing beauty in form and function: an ocean of possibilities

Last week, Tracy posted here about her recent experience camping and swimming in hot weather. She saw kids splashing about, often just in bathing suit bottoms.  Many men were shirtless in the campground. However, some of the women there expressed embarrassment and shame about showing their bodies, so they wrapped up in towels as much as possible, often avoiding wearing a swimsuit at all.

We’ve written a lot about bathing suits, swimwear and the politics/psychology/marketing and general swarm of discordant messaging around them. See a couple of them below:

Bathing suit anxiety and why it’s so bad

Boobs and bathing suit shopping: my response to the whole “bikini body” thing

Tracy’s post provoked some really interesting conversation (check out the comments here) about the reasons and motivations behind why we choose the swim duds we choose. The issue of body shame and how it affects our clothing choices is a sensitive and personal one, and it touched a few nerves. What I realized from reading and participating in the discussion was this:

We all have complex and tender relationships with our bodies. And swimwear presents a double challenge for many of us:

  1. We have to choose swimwear that accommodates that tender relationship and lets us feel comfortable enough to present our bodies in public and participate in watery activity;
  2. We have to develop emotional tolerance for the ways our swimwear sends signals to others about us (sometimes with misleading information).

We post a lot about body positivity, body neutrality, body image, body shaming, etc. For me, the result of this continuing conversation is that one view certainly doesn’t fit all here.  We have the bodies we have, we have the emotional issues we have, and we have the preferences and motivations and interests we have. They’re all different.

However, I hope that, despite all these issues, it’s still possible for us to enjoy cannonballing into the pool, bodysurfing the waves, paddleboarding in that lake, or hanging out on the beach, enjoying sun and shade and breeze and sky.

Here are some of our thoughts about what we want to wear in water and why.  I also wanted to share some of our non-traditional options or preferences.

Cate/fieldpoppy:

The first thing to note is that I’m not really A Swimmer, so I tend not to have technical swim gear. At the same time, I have a very functional relationship with my swimgear — I pretty much swim to cool off in the summer or make sure I have a bathing suit when I’m traveling in case I want to take a dip in a pool. I prefer a sporty two piece that feels more like a sports bra and a bottom that covers my butt and has a draw string so that when I jump in, it doesn’t come off.

(That is, in places where it shouldn’t come off — when camping or in private, I prefer to swim naked). …. At the same time, I’m simultaneously Determined to Feel Comfortable being semi-clad in public, not always in the mood to keep the hair under control in the “bikini” area, and have had an experience with basal cell skin cancer on my face. So I tend to have layers that start with the sporty two piece and include a pair of shortish board shorts if I’m going to be hanging around for a long time, and maybe a white cotton long sleeved shirt that covers my shoulders and chest. I kind of look back longingly on the times when I felt comfortable on the beach in a real bikini (when I was in my 30s), but that’s more about my relationship with the sun than my relationship with my body.

I am also sort of Ostentatiously Comfortable running around in shorts and a sports bra. When running I often end up taking off my shirt and winding up in a sports bra, and the other day after a long hot ride, I whipped off my jersey and ran through a splashpad in my bike shorts and sports bra in full view of a number of adults who were totally covered up and constantly telling their kids not to splash them. I made the kids squirt me with their water cannons. I think I’m a different kind of adult.

Catherine:

I was thinking about the ways I like to feel in swimwear, namely skin covered but body shape exposed. I love tight speedo one pieces and I also liked the stinger suits (adult swimming onesies) for snorkeling in Australia. In fact, I’d wear one for ocean swimming, as I wouldn’t have to worry about sunscreen (just my face). I’ve always hated tankinis, as they ride up, which makes me feel frumpy and uncomfortable. Yes, I know—it’s also about my negative feelings about showing my belly.  Well, there it is…

Why do I like one-piece suits?   I think I feel sort of professional– like I’m a swimmer/athlete, even though I don’t swim a lot these days. It feels like it identifies me as an athlete in the way that wearing cycling kit does. I feel great in cycling kit, too, for the same reason.

Writing this post is making me rethink my position about two-piece suits; I feel self-conscious about showing a lot of skin and prominently displaying my breasts (albeit covered by a cute top).  But I can now imagine circumstances where it might be fun and freeing, so it’s worth exploring. I’m now on the hunt for a bikini that says me.

These are two of my favorite swimwear pics (from about 5 years ago, so I need to get going with more recent bathing suit shots!), in my blue reversible speedo one-piece.

 

Martha:

I have always found bathing suits really problematic. Mostly because they don’t fit properly. There’s also a lot of fuss and bother because there are expectations on how women should look in bathing suits. But five years ago I was interviewing a woman who runs a lingerie store and discovered that there are lots of new styles in bathing suits. She encouraged me to try on this one suit and I absolutely loved it. Since last summer I have been averaging at least one swim a week if not two when my schedule allows it. My thought now is that once you get past the assumptions that people will make about differently sized and different looking bodies that are female in a suit you can find something that will work for you in the way that you need it to.

Here’s a selfie that Martha took of her in her favorite swimsuit:

Selfie of Martha's greenish skirted v-neck swimsuit with a waistband; her foot is wearing a pink flip-flop.
Selfie of Martha’s greenish skirted v-neck swimsuit with a waistband; her foot is wearing a pink flip-flop.

Samantha:

It took me awhile to find the right sort of bathing suit, one that matches who I am. The bikinis I wear and prefer are athletic bikinis. And I think with my shoulders and leg muscles, the message they send is ‘I’m here to swim.’ Think athletic over aesthetic values, something I’ve blogged about here. Opting out of the bathing suit aesthetics has served me well but that’s not such an easy choice if you’re not someone who thinks of herself as an athlete.

These days I also wear skimpy hot tub bikinis. Think minimal coverage. But they’re for backyard use only. Just friends and family. I wouldn’t wear them to the beach though I’d comfortably go nude at a nude beach. But these days I’m also frantic and anxious about sun and skin damage. I had a friend of 15 years die in her early 40s with two kids under 5, from skin cancer. Lots of friends have had less serious skin cancer lesions removed. And a few years in Australia cemented the sun and skin cancer worry. Sunscreen is a back up thing. It’s not as effective as we think. The best plan is covering up and staying out of the sun.

Here are some pics of Samantha in swimwear:

Tracy:

What I look for in a swimsuit depends on what I’m looking for it for. I spend a lot of time on a sailboat and these days my swimsuit purchasing is mostly about what I can wear aboard. So I’ll get to that.

For lap swimming though, I like a simple one piece sport style suit with a racer back. My three most recent are plain suits that fit snugly and cost very little when I bought them at cost from my triathlon coach back when I did regular swim training. At that time (three years ago) I also really liked swimming in a wetsuit with my triathlon suit underneath. Wearing a wetsuit makes me move through the water in a way that feels sleek and fast. Mine is a full suit designed for swimming not diving. If you plan to get a wetsuit for swimming you absolutely need to get that kind. A diving wetsuit for scuba lacks the arm mobility for the kind of stroke you’ll do while swimming. Besides keeping me sleek in the water, the wetsuit is also great protection for lake swimming where there are weeds and fish and other things that freak me out. I’m not sure if they protect against jelly fish but they’re great for non-stinging creatures and plants.

Okay, for the boat. I’ve got at least ten bottoms and a bunch of bikini tops, two tankini tops and a one piece I never wear because it’s usually too hot. My favourite go-to bottoms right now are boy-shorts. I have two pairs — one black with white polka dots and the other plain blue. I wear them almost all the time on the boat. But I also have a few “Brazilian” bikinis. That’s the kind that are so skimpy they don’t even try covering your butt. They’re a bit too skimpy for some occasions (parents, for example) but good for a quick dive in and out, then off they come and the boy short comes back on. It’s functional and great for active living. I never have to pull at them or adjust them. My idea of successful clothing choice is something I can put on and stop thinking about. That extends to swimsuits.

I confess to feeling a bit self-conscious in a bikini top at the beginning of any time I spend on the boat. If there is one part of my body that I feel shame about (I’m doing my best not to write an angst-filled paragraph here) it’s my belly. Everything I actually believe rails against that and knows that it’s simply the old oppressive ideas of normative femininity combined with lingering body dysmorphia from my days of disordered eating and body obsession. So at the beginning I need to force myself. But I have tops that I really like and that fit well, and lots of them. And in a pinch, if I’m having a tough day where body acceptance eludes me, I go for the tankini top. On a positive note, I haven’t done that for some time AND I like my butt!

Final point: I am not opposed to tankini, one pieces, swim skirts, or anything that gives more coverage. Women can wear what they like. But if we wear these things out of body shame then there is work to do. That’s the main point I was making in my post the other day about body acceptance and camping.

Here are some swimwear pics of Tracy:

Natalie:

I’m posting here for her because she is, of course, way ahead of all of us, having already written two summers ago about her bikini body.  Read all about it here. And you can see more photos of Natalie in her newly purchased bikini below.

Christine:

My swimsuits tend to be largely functional. I have two suits, both are over 5 years old, one of them is a one piece and the other is a two piece but it essentially fits together like a one piece.

I don’t think I have owned a bikini since I was a little kid. It’s not a matter of self-consciousness, they just never had much appeal for me.

I did try to buy one a few years ago – just out of sheer stubbornness after I saw an article that explained why women my age *shouldn’t* wear them – but I didn’t like the lack of support. I hated the idea of spending my swimming time wondering if my top was slipping!

When I go swimming at ponds (if you are not in NL, you would probably call them lakes), I often keep a cotton skirt on when I go swimming – but that’s about not wanting to put on even more sunscreen rather than being concerned about how I look in my suit. (I view sunscreen as a necessary evil and I dress in layers to minimize having to apply more).

Readers:  what are your favorite swim wear ensembles? What do you love?  What do you hate?  Who knows, maybe someone is listening to us– you never know…

body image · Sat with Nat · sex

Nat gets a night guard and contemplates ableist ideas about sex appeal

Last month I shared some of my experience encountering sexism while accessing medical care.

Nat gets her hearing checked…

I’ve since seen my dentist, who I just love as we’ve had the most amazing discussions over the years, and gotten a night guard (aka bite plate aka mouth guard). I’m very privileged that my extended dental benefits covered the multiple visits and the appliance.

A selfie of Nat making the “ah” face revealing a clear mouth guard on her bottom teeth. She is inside her car and wearing a super cute pink blouse.

I immediately thought about how unsexy I felt. This was echoed by many folks who decided that this alone was enough to not wear a dental appliance.

That sat really poorly with me. This night guard is a minor thing, easily removed when needed. My muscles are relaxing as the appliance does its job. But yet it felt like such a big thing to myself and other people because of concerns around losing sex appeal.

Not rational and, for myself, not terribly examined.

The night guard is to alleviate numbness in my face caused my clenching of my jaw. Scarring on the inside of my cheeks and scalloping along the edges of my tongue were signs I was indeed a clencher. So is my sister Anj and my father. It’s likely gotten worse because of a change in my paid work that has increased my stress.

The benefits of wearing this little clear appliance are less headaches and a return of feeling to my face.

I think, at the heart of all this sex appeal talk, is a nugget of ableism. The idea that only bodies that don’t need assistive devices, dental appliances or any other supports are less sexy than able/unassisted bodies is deeply problematic and I need to fight that impulse.

The other part is our old frenemy, sexism and the idea that women must constantly strive to be sexy to all people, especially men, at all times.

You know what is sexy? Someone who has had a good night’s sleep instead of clenching their jaw into spasms. Self care is sexy AF.

Basically if someone dares tell you or me that our self care, dental appliances, accessibility supports or anything else we need to be well are somehow making us less sexy we need to flip those people the bird.

body image · fitness

Camping as a study in body image and gender

image description: Tracy at the campground in a wide-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses, and an 'active dress,' smiling, pine tree in background.
image description: Tracy at the campground in a wide-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses, and an ‘active dress,’ smiling, pine tree in background.

I went camping on the weekend. It was Canada’s birthday weekend and though it is almost always hot on the July 1 long weekend, it isn’t always quite THIS hot. Saturday was in the 30s Celsius with a Humidex (“feels like”) reading of 45C. That’s pretty much unheard of around here in Southwestern Ontario.

With temperatures like that you would expect people to wear as little clothing as they can get away with. Swimsuits maybe? We were camping after all. Shortly into the hellish heat of Saturday, I observed that many more men than women were dressed in ways that expressed body acceptance, and that the children were the most comfortable in their skins than most of the adults.

What criteria did I use to draw my conclusion? Firstly, let’s talk about the kids. Swimsuits, sometimes only the bottoms, and sheer joy in the splash pad or in the lake or on the slip and slide thing or in the wading pool or running through the sprinkler. The kids had zero self-consciousness about their bodies.

Second, the men. I hate to generalize along gender lines because there are always exceptions. But many men felt perfectly at ease with their shirts off in the heat of the day. And that was appropriate to the temperature, even if you were in the shade.

Finally, the women. It’s a very common sight at beaches and swimming pools to see women with big towels wrapped around themselves until the moment they get into the water and back around them the moment they get out. It was no different at the campground. That is, if they wore a swimsuit at all. Few women wore two piece swimsuits that weren’t tankinis.

I understand feeling body conscious. I felt it myself, debating long and hard whether to wear a regular bikini top or a tankini (I went for the bikini top).

I don’t begrudge men their comfort with their bodies. But it has always been a mild source of resentment for me that there is a larger range of body types with which men can be comfortable as opposed to the range of body types for women. Now, of course, it’s always up to anyone to say “screw the normative standards of what constitutes ‘acceptable appearance.'” But even if you disagree, for many it’s still a lot of work to challenge those standards. And so we end up with men baring their chests on a really hot day while women stay covered up, either with clothing, tankinis and one-piece swimsuits, or towels.

There is something unfair about that, and it really became clear to me on the weekend.

Have you noticed this too?

accessibility · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · swimming

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

Back in December I wrote a post about being naked in public, three ways: in new “universal” change rooms in pools in my city of Hamilton, Ontario; in the same kinds of spaces (with WAY more cubicles and tight corners) in London, England; and in a public spa and thermal bath complex in Konstanz, Germany (few cubicles; lots of comfy nudity).

My questions in that post revolved around etiquette, protocol, expectation, and the cultural labour these spaces appear to be doing towards supporting inclusive, body-positive community (whether or not they are actually doing that labour).

Today, for the first time in a while, I returned to one of the facilities here in Hamilton that have converted to M/F/U change spaces; I was overbooked and had to skip my usual Friday swim (which happens at an older facility not yet renovated to include a gender-neutral room).

To my surprise, when I swanned toward the universal change room entryway, I found this:

fullsizeoutput_1046

(A sign, posted on a green cinder-block wall, that reads: “Change in dressing cubicle only; clothing or bathing suit myst be worn at all times outside dressing cubicle.” The images on the sign include a green circle around a woman’s body clad in a one-piece swim suit and a man’s body clad in swim shorts; and a red circle with a strike-through against the images of the same bodies, with one-piece and shorts off to the side. Note: I snapped this photo from the change-room threshold, which is barrier-free and opens onto the lobby. I made sure no bodies were nearby in order to respect the “no photography in change rooms” rule.)

I stopped for a minute, a bit gobsmacked. New sign; aggressive sign.

NO NUDITY! DO NOT EXIT THE CUBICLES NUDE! THIS IS A GENDER NEUTRAL SPACE!

OK, so that’s not exactly what the sign said. But it might as well have.

locker-room-etiquette-sign-s2-1269

I googled “gender-neutral change room etiquette” and this list of do’s and don’ts turned up. It is haranguing: be neat, tidy, and for god’s sake cover up your freaking horrific human of a body; don’t be lazy, slow, or glowery. Get the fuck out ASAP. Sounds familiar.)

I’m trained as a literature scholar and a scholar of theatre and performance; that means I read cultural texts for their nuances, for a living, and try to make sense of what they aim to accomplish amongst actual, human lives.

My pool’s universal change-room sign said the following to me.

The bright blue that backgrounds “Change in dressing cubicle ONLY” sets that text off in sharp relief. All-caps for ONLY is scolding typography, as though to say: DO NOT DARE LEAVE YOUR CUBICLE NAKED! It is fairly patronizing and deeply shaming.

The images are workmanlike and designed to be read across languages and cultural contexts (more or less; only North American Christianity could, if you ask me, dream up such a blatantly unsexy way to render human nudity). The communication is meant to cross language barriers because there are lots of immigrants in our community (I witnessed one Chinese-language speaker interacting with a lifeguard this afternoon, for example), and the sign is obviously in part, if not primarily, targeted at them.

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

The sign makes no mention of the showers – my personal favourite part of locker-room-sanctioned nudity – but we can guess the implied protocol.

What to make of this?

Well, on a purely pragmatic level, I’ll tell you what I made of it in the split second it took me to decide what to do with my body upon encountering this sign.

I realized I could be my nude and joyous post-swimming self only in the women’s change room, so I went there.

And here’s the rub, the sad bit, the loss: I had to choose between body-positive feelings, and the gender-neutral change room.

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

gnr

(Another image that popped up in my google search. It reads, in a plain, sans-serif font: “A gender-neutral restroom designation means this restroom is safe for transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer people, as well as people of all gender identities and expressions. If you choose to use this restroom, you are aware that it is a safe space. Please refrain from gender policing… If you are uncomfortable using a gender-neutral restroom, please use any of the other restrooms, as this is your privilege.” NOW THIS SIGN I CAN SUPER GET BEHIND.)

I thought a lot about the change-room sign incident after I left the pool. I thought, too, about the several FFI community members who fed back about my original post and noted they would not be super comfortable nude in mixed spaces.

I realized that my biggest problem with the sign wasn’t the message it was (sort of, maybe, clumsily?) trying to communicate.

The problem was with language, and its intention.

The sign is trying, I think, to say this: DO NOT GET NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU NAKED. ALSO: DO NOT GET NAKED AGGRESSIVELY.

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

But the language also, therefore, assumes predation, assumes a lack of tact and generosity on the part of body-positive users; it assumes that all bodies in the space share a sense of nudity-as-shame, nudity-as-aggression. Which isn’t true.

So in the car on the way to my next gig, I started thinking about how I might phrase some similar caution in a more welcoming, dare I say body-positive-positive, way.

I came up with this:

This change room is a gender-neutral, body-positive space that welcomes people of all identifications.

Please use the space in a way that respects the privacy and comfort level of others around you.

Thank you!

(I’m not sure about imagery. I’d love suggestions!)

The language I’m proposing states what I hope are the deep intentions behind the creation of the space: it’s for everyone, care-fully. I think that’s the idea behind gender-neutral spaces in Hamilton-area pools; I’m not sure, though. (My sense from the sign I encountered today is that they might be souped-up “family” change rooms. Sigh.)

It also places the responsibility for fair use on a community of users, acting together in everyone’s best interests. (This is called democracy, btw. At least to me.)

Are you alone in the space? Go nuts! You do you! Get naked, sing ABBA. Rock on.

Is someone in the space with you who seems more modest, shy? Perhaps calibrate your ostentation to remember that they also share this space, and that your ostentation might be taking up more than its fair share of that space, for them.

Is someone in the space with you who might be nervous about your presence? That’s ok – they are here because they have trust and faith. Be you, but not aggressively. Instead, assert your good will toward that person.

Is someone in the space with you who might think you are unnerved by them? That’s ok – it’s part of the process of becoming a community. Be you, welcomingly.

This is just one shot – my shot – at a better way to say what needs to be made clear in gender-neutral spaces: some protocol for what to do once you’re inside, but not in a way that assumes a normative sense of embodiment, nor that assumes body-as-shame.

Do you have examples of, or suggestions for, gender-neutral change-room etiquette? I’d love to hear!

Yours swimmingly,

Kim