I never used a public locker room at a gym until my first or second year of grad school. I’d always worked close enough to my fitness facilities of choice to head home to my own shower, where I didn’t have to worry about strange fungi or whether the towels were large enough to cover all my “swimsuit regions.” And, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t much aware of locker room culture once I did start changing out at the gym I belonged to before my current job, because I was usually huddled in a corner, behind the tiny cupboard door of my half-size locker, hoping it obscured the view of my body. I comforted myself with the fact that most people were likely not looking at me, and grew bolder as I realized I was right. Unless you were one of those chicks who wander around naked as they blow dry their hair or examine their breasts in the shared vanity mirror, you could rest assured that most people were more interested in finding their tube of body lotion than judging your cellulite.
With time, I did notice one distinct pattern: most of the gym personnel brought clothes with them to the showers so they could change in stall, or hid away in one of the bathrooms to change. Strange that so many of them would be so prudish, I thought. Most of my friends with athletic backgrounds seemed to be the least concerned with stripping down in a group of women, if only because they got used to it from years of practices and sporting events. Why was everybody so afraid of being seen naked? Had there been issues with sexual harassment at the gym before?
Then I started working at a gym myself. My showering habits didn’t change: I use the locker room with the rest of the members. At this point, I live fairly close to the gym, so I will go home if I can. Oftentimes, though, it makes more sense for me to exercise during breaks and clean up at the club. It saves 15 minutes commute time, vying for bathroom time with my roommates (who have equally unpredictable schedules), and I just tend to dawdle less than I do in my own bathroom, where I can tweeze my eyebrows with abandon and analyze my pores for far longer than is practical.
I’ll find a few of my coworkers in the locker room, but not many. Some have magical, underactive sweat glands that allow them to save showering for when they get home at the end of the day. Some, I imagine, have Type A fear of bacteria and have heard one too many stories of Gross Things Women Do In Public Restrooms to risk entering a public shower stall. But more than a few have mentioned not wanting to be seen naked by members.
On one hand, I get it. It’d be weird for both parties, say, to run into your therapist or gynecologist when she’s wearing only her birthday suit. How would that be different for a fitness professional/client combo?
But part of the argument has to do with not wanting to be judged for one’s appearance: in other words, what will my clients think of me if my naked body doesn’t look the way they expect a trainer/class instructor/what-have-you’s body should look like? How do I know they’re not checking out the shape of my ass when I’m just trying to apply deodorant in a manner that will not cover my uniform shirt in unsightly streaks of powder? I know that someone can be incredibly healthy and still have bits of flubber around her bra straps, but do they? Will something about my naked body make them doubt my ability as a lifestyle coach?
This question of the importance of appearance when working in the fitness industry comes up a fair amount. I have friends who talk about it: about that time they were at the sporting goods store and ask if they’re a trainer, or the time they were working out another gym and someone asked if they were a trainer. I’ve been told I should have photos of myself on this blog, because image sells. A new trainer at our gym—who lasted all of two weeks before disappearing—quipped to one of my friends about how nobody should take advice from a fat trainer.
When I first decided to switch roles at the club to become a trainer, I tightened up my diet, in part to make myself be the model of fitness I thought I should be for my new clients (and, to be honest, partly because I the prospect of not being a salesperson for the rest of my life made significantly cut down on my emotional eating). And, when my low tolerance for stress got the best of me, and I regained most (read: all, plus five extra pounds) of the weight, I grappled emotionally with the idea of whether I could be respected as a fitness professional if my clothing size stayed planted firmly in the double digits and I ate brownie sundaes on my way home from particularly tedious closing shifts.
It took me a few months and a number of fairly athletic clients commenting that I probably never have to think about food because I’m in such great shape to realize that, amazingly enough, most people don’t pay that much attention, even if they think they do. And whether my appearance meets most people’s assumed standards for what fitness should look like or not, it doesn’t seem to be affecting my business. And, you know, despite what my body’s looked like, I’ve still been improving my pushups, running faster, and externally rotating my shoulder better (What? That last one doesn’t sound cool? Wait ‘til you battle with borderline wonky shoulders and then come talk to me.)
Yet the locker room conundrum: most women in the US at this point live with some consciousness that their bodies don’t look the way they’re “supposed to.” And while it may or may not cause personal distress, it’s totally understandable to not want to be judged for these characteristics when you don’t mean to be putting them on display. Plus, just because someone works in fitness doesn’t mean she lives entirely without insecurity about her body. (Hell, sometimes I wonder if I’ve met more people with body issues in the fitness world than I did when I lived in plain-Jane academia. Or, perhaps it’s more simple: we think about our bodies more, good and bad.)
But I wonder if more women would be helped if more fitness professionals (or any fit-striving person) took the time to disrobe in the locker room. Let’s face it: if the only view of the near-naked athletic body women get to see is the airbrushed model gracing this month’s issue of Women’s Health or Shape, they’re never going to have the chance to really learn all the forms healthy living can take, unless they take a quick peek around their friendly neighborhood locker room.
It’s like this: Fitness professionals (at least the ones I’ve met and seen on the world wide interwebs) often show before and after photos of themselves as a way to illustrate how this diet or that routine transformed them. But what’s usually missing from these photologs is the discussion that the girl in the before picture could do 10 full pushups or box jump to a 24-inch platform or run ten miles or some remarkable marker of fitness in Pilates that I don’t know because I’m not too good at Pilates. We can argue that even if we looked fit in that before photo, it wasn’t fit for us, but the fact of the matter is nobody is at peak fitness all the time—we function within ranges, and it’s better to acknowledge that a little fall of the wagon that makes you slightly more flubbery and bloated does not mean you will find yourself bingeing every afternoon on Cheetos while you watch Sally Jessy Raphael on DVD. It’s as though we don’t want to place ourselves as a shining example of fitness until we meet society’s rigorous appearance standards.
Yes, there’s a chance that someone who saw you working out on the weight floor silently judges you when she sees you strip in her periphery vision. But there’s also a chance if she’s looking that closely, she’s trying to use others’ bodies to contextualize her own, and to see that somebody who she knows kicks butt in the gym doesn’t have defined abs or has extra bits of meat around the inner thigh or knee can make her feel better about the fact that all her hard work hasn’t turned her into a fitness model. Since appearance does act as a measure of fitness time and again, valid or not, then it only makes sense for fitness professionals to point out that an imperfect body can be a fit one, and—when considering the standards presented by media—most women’s bodies are “imperfect” in one way or another. Consider it no different from explaining to a woman that lifting weights won’t make her manly or that the hip abductor/adductor machines are the biggest load of mechanical bullshit known to the fitness industry.
As one of my forty-something-year-old clients tells me, “It’s always young girls who go through these painful processes to get dressed completely under a towel. I want to tell them to stop. It’s the best your body’s ever going to look, so flaunt it while you’ve got it.”
PS – Dear Mom, Don’t worry, you did not raise a nudist. Love, Your favorite daughter.