Sweating in the gym, surrounded by others, pounding to the beat in group exercise class has become the norm for many women. But when it comes to the experience of changing in the locker room, the acts of disrobing, dressing, showering and being naked in front of others, can be very discomfiting. It's a complex experience as women are faced with an awareness of their bodies different than in any other space.
"I walk into the change room and pace anxiously up and down the rows of lockers. I look for an empty aisle, hoping for some semblance of privacy. I don't like to change in front of others, it makes me uneasy. Perhaps I'm uptight. Or maybe I have what experts would call 'body issues.' But either way changing in public cause me stress."
So begins a new study looking at women's experiences of changing in a public change rooms. Author Marianne Clark, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, says it was her own experience as a dancer and frequent user of fitness facilities and therefore of public dressing rooms and change rooms that led her to explore how other women felt. "Using these facilities, I've always felt an unarticulated discomfort," says Clark.
The act of undressing and being naked, and particularly where there is the potential to be observed by others, can be daunting, as much of the way we think about ourselves and our self-confidence is wrapped up in our notion of ourselves as fully clothed. Undressing in front of others, can, according to Clark, "disrupt" our experience of ourselves, because it reveals an intimate self we don't usually freely display.
Clark says in talking to other women about their experiences in these spaces, "They all had a story and it usually involved a time when there was another person involved."
One woman described being pre-occupied walking into the gym, then suddenly becoming aware of the presence of others in the change room and being reluctant to reveal her more intimate self. She said, "I angle my body this way and that as I undress and dress in the locker room. I look down to button my pants, I see my small breasts, my protruding stomach, no longer held in, contained and covered by my control top nylons and stylish skirt. This naked me is almost unfamiliar to me, so different than who I am all day, when I march around and am busy and efficient and in charge. But now, as I stand practically naked in the change room, no one can see that part of me, all there is to see is my body."
Not every woman feels this sense of discomfort. Some found the experience of being surrounded by many other women's bodies together after a workout comforting. "I like the time in the change room after a workout," said one participant. "I like being in a space where my body is just a body among other bodies. I know people might see me naked or partly naked but it doesn't bother me, this is who I am, this is my body, this is how I am in the world. I like being around all these other women of all shapes and sizes, it makes me feel connected to who I am, and somehow close to them."
Clark says she found that while older women expressed the same concerns about dressing and undressing in the change room as younger women, she says, "I think they spoke more reflectively about why we might experience these feelings of self-consciousness or modesty in a gym and they could articulate that. Although one said, 'I can't believe I still feel this way, but I do.'
"Women also talked about their body as an entity over which they have no control – it was sagging or ageing, or it just did not comply with standards of conventional beauty. And while they were OK with that, they didn't want anyone else to see it."
Many women said they first became self-conscious about their bodies while teenagers. "A lot of the women I spoke to, if not every single one of them, could recall feeling painfully self-conscious in phys-ed class and said changing in the fitness centre reminded them of changing after gym class at school," says Clark.
Also, in North American society where the "body beautiful" is celebrated - both dressed and undressed, as something to look at and a reason to be seen - its ideal is young, thin and toned. Clark said she found plenty of social and cultural layers in the women's stories that indicated their awareness of the societal notions of beautiful, healthy bodies influenced their own feelings about the shared undressing experience of the change room. "I think even in the change room, women are carrying with them these knowledges and understandings (of the fit female body) that society has constructed," she says.
Clark says those involved in the design of these facilities need to think about how people feel about changing in public spaces and who might be using them to make them friendlier for different bodies.
"Currently change rooms are designed for efficiency. As our lifestyles continue to change and gyms become a more important part of getting exercise, the change room becomes an increasingly interesting space to consider. So I think it does actually merit some study. There are so many obstacles to going to a gym for the first time, from using the equipment, to knowing how to use the equipment, to navigating your way around the space.
"And then for people who find change rooms a difficult space, that's a barrier too. So I think we can be more thoughtful in general, but also in our approach to these spaces and what they might mean for the way that women understand themselves in relationship to health and fitness."