Do you remember changing for gym with other girls in elementary school? Does a residue of trauma cling to you like it does me?
I have a confession to make: I am used to hiding my body. Imperfection lurks beneath my clothes. My curves are not entirely symmetrical; my skin is flawed and although I may appear slim in carefully chosen outfits, my belly is bigger than I would like it to be. In short, I do not look like all those perfect people you see on screen. But I’m sure everyone else does.
At least, I used to be…
The first time I went swimming at the rec centre I kept my gaze down and my towel high in the ladies change room. Around me, women stripped down, wiggled into swimwear and toweled dry, all the while talking, laughing and looking at one another. It was impossible to miss the fact that although bashful was welcome and respected, it was not the norm here.
The camaraderie of the locker room attracted me. I kept going back and enjoying the feeling of being part of that sisterhood as much as I enjoyed my swim.
One day a lady with long limbs protruding from a loosely held towel rattled her locker desperately; she’d unwittingly swapped locks with someone earlier in the week and now had no idea how to get at her dry clothes because she’d used someone else’s lock. In her dismay, as she yanked at the door, she lost grip on her towel. Naked and giggly, this middle-aged woman tittered with some of the others, also in various stages of undress, all of them wondering who would go tell front desk staff to fetch the custodian with bolt cutters.
Something hard and tight shook free from my spirit as I learned to relax in the presence of naked women.
Truly, not a sentence I ever thought to write, never mind share.
The locker room, it turns out, is a place of healing. Imperfect women strip down and make friends in the nude. They talk about family and work and health and they do it without any clothes on. No one seems shocked by anyone else, no matter how wrinkly or scarred or saggy or round she is.
There’s a scene you’ve seen before – it plays out in movies featuring a hostage situation where the criminals make everyone take off their clothes. In shame, people strip down, vainly trying to cover themselves. Actors in this scene are not taut or shapely. These characters look like you and me and they are mortified as they remove their clothing.
As I would be.
Or as I would have been.
It turns out routine exposure to cheerful, normal, naked women is therapeutic. I’ve discovered that my community is filled with happy women whose bodies are imperfect, yet they use them to make love, engage in sports, go to work, and form friendships.
I remember entering the shower room, once, to find three women in a row under hot streams of water. They blinked at me in very dim light.
“Why are you showering in the dark?” I asked.
“There’s something wrong with the lights,” one answered.
“She keeps stepping in front of the door to trigger that florescent panel, but then the door to the pool opens and everyone can see her,” explained another.
“Maybe that’s what she wants!”
All three cackled and shifted, making space for me to peel off my suit and join them.
The miracle of the woman’s locker room is that, after a moment’s hesitation, I did.