Last night I went for my Tuesday swim. And for the first time I allowed myself to stand in front of my locker, fully naked, while getting changed.
To some, this might sound odd. Who WOULDN’T be naked when changing? I mean, isn’t the whole act of changing part and parcel with the idea that, at some point, your body will be devoid of clothing so that it can then be covered in other clothing? Well then anyone who has these questions might not realize how big a moment this moment of public yet not-quite-public moment of nudity actually is in the mindset of a fat woman. So, let me take you on a little historical tour of my gym locker-room experiences so you can fully appreciate how awesome this moment was, shall I?
Flashing back…. the setting is middle school and high school. The age is young, lower teens. I am a pale, gawky child with declining eyesight, a good vocabulary from copious hours spent reading and a serious deficit in athletic ability or inclination. Who the hell wants to spend their time aimlessly panting around the edge of the gym or falling down on a muddy, dirty playing field when they could be reading about princesses or dragons or girls who could defeat all odds and carve their own niche in the world?
I am also feeling shy and self-conscious. In addition to the awkwardness felt by many, if not all, girls that age, dealing with having spent my entire youth to this point having been called “Fat” by family, “friends”, etc. Memories of being called “Barney the Dinosaur” for my brand new dark purple raincoat one day as I mounted the stairs to the bus, being “oink”ed at by older cousins for daring to wear shorts at a family picnic in the dead of summer, being unable to buy any but the largest sized girls’ clothing items, all sloshed and stumbled around in my mind as I entered that gym room locker full of chatting, happy, seemingly beautiful girls.
Meanwhile I was acutely conscious of how much my fat thighs seemed to rub together. Shouldn’t my legs have space between them? Enough to carry only a quarter between 4 spots? That’s what my “lovely” bio-dad had proclaimed at one point as a defining characteristic of the in-shape, beautiful woman. Mine certainly could have held far more than 4 quarters….
While they went about changing, looking (to me at least) like they had no reason to fear judgments or derision being cast upon their unworthy bodies, I hesitated. How could I dare get dressed…get NAKED in front of these normal girls? I am FAT. I am gross, disgusting, people will avert their gaze from my body is pure disdain, right? I mean, they all look confident and at ease (even if, in hindsight, they may have even been harboring many of the same fears as I).
I, however, am already sweaty (having practically jogged to the gym from the music room after band practice to make it in time to change) and my heart is racing in fear and dread: Will we have to draw teams again today so I have to stand forever in a rapidly diminishing cluster of people, chosen only and finally when no other “worse” options (like a rock or clump of dirt?) exist? Will we have to start the day again with laps around the gym? Will we *dreaded gasp* be doing the President’s Tests crap today for which we never practiced and yet were somehow expected to excel at?
So, basically, I am feeling useless, a waste of flesh. A waste of EXCESS flesh to boot. And who wants to see that? Well, I sure don’t want to be laughed at for those jiggling bits of my body.
So I take my gym clothes and change in the bathroom stall instead.
Squirreled away, dressing and undressing in shy, shameful motions, hidden away in a cramped bathroom stall. So no one can seem my young body and its hideous fatness.
Ever aware of how much easier and faster it would be if I just could drop my clothes at my locker instead; without worrying if others were looking and, if so, what they were THINKING.
I didn’t know then that those very same others were more probably more concerned with making sure THEY got changed than in looking at my own body. But in my mind, I just KNEW that they were judging me. And finding me lacking.
I hated Gym. It was a place of angst, fear and the smell of dirty socks mixed with the sweat of desperation. Indeed, not my favorite 45 minutes of the day.
Flash forward a bit…. the setting is college. Attempting to get to the gym at “off” times to work on the visible fat on my body, at times when the fewest people possible would be around to view and judge it. It is difficult to find a time when teams of athletic folks are not crowded into the gym already, shooting looks of disdain and barely concealed sighs of irritation when you happen to be existing in “their” gym, taking up space on “their” machines. I mean, come on, they were at the Gym with a plan and a need. What was I there for, in my over-sized T-shirt (baggy and black to cover my fat shame)? Vainly trying to work off some previously eaten crap food, no doubt. Gods, why can’t people like me leave the machines and good spaces for people who care and are here for a reason?
I would change in my own dorm room. Then walk the 1/2 mile or so across campus in whatever shabby work-out outfit I had to the gym. So, again, I would arrive warm, sweaty and uncomfortable in order to start my work-out. In a place filled with simmering hostility that I was daring to exist and take up space while others were so “obviously” better equipped and in need of that space.
I didn’t go there often and quickly stopped altogether. Why go to the work of getting all dressed up, in my own dorm room no less, just to be disdained with scoffs and barely concealed sighs of intense irritation that I was acting like I had any right at all to be there? (You know, being a student as well as all those other folks and all…)
A bit more fast-forwarding… and I am heading off to France for my year abroad. I may still be paying the debts (even now, fully 8 years later and likely for a long time to come) but it will always have been worth it.
A fellow student and I decide to try joining a French gym. We would walk all the way across town (2km, about 24 minutes) to the gym area. Sometimes we would take the bus but that was always a risky venture since I didn’t often have a bus pass* and would have to hope that none of the bus-pass checker folks were going to hope on the bus for that ride!
That gym was a real eye opener. Women were walking around in the locker room. Naked. All shapes, sizes, levels of smooth skin versus wrinkly. All of them. My classmate and I would look rather odd if we hid in bathroom stalls or behind towels to get changed. So, with my classmate’s encouragement, I did as the French did and changed (albeit rather quickly and still somewhat shyly) out in the public.
My thoughts when I was younger, that this would indeed be a faster and more efficient means of changing, was spot on. It was also… rather freeing. None of the women cared who we were or what we looked like. I had, for the first time, an inkling of the concept that most people really AREN’T wasting their time looking at and judging other bodies. Most people are more self-centered and concentrating on their OWN worries. That is not to say that there couldn’t have been some scoffing women there who were turning up their delicate noses at my body. But the point is that not EVERYONE was. I was in a place where I could feel that it was possible to just act normally and go about my business.
It was the first time I actually ENJOYED my experience both at the gym and in a gym locker-room. Not because I was able to prance around fat and naked. Though that was a bonus. It was because I was simply another woman, getting changed and going about my business. Not a Fat Woman, though I was, but just another person. Another human being. With just as much right to be there, and not have to hide away, as the next person.
Fast forward to present times… and I am discovering the wonders of FA. Of size and body acceptance. Of knowing that, like I experienced for such a brief time abroad, no one has the RIGHT even to judge my body; it is MINE. And, frankly, I shouldn’t be so harsh on myself either.
It has been a very tough lesson, long in coming and even slower to take root. Still the tendrils of self-hatred and shyness will often find a foothold in my mind and habits/behaviors of that young girl, always seeking to hide her body from the potential scorn of others, will come right back to the forefront no matter how “accepting” I think I am of myself and my body.
My membership at my current gym is very pricey. Because there is a pool. And apparently you pay greatly for the privileged of swimming laps in water of dubious cleanliness. But I still appreciate this boon for what it is, access that I might not otherwise have if I weren’t rather lucky and (despite lingering huge student loan and credit debts) rather well off. But the cost is worth it. Because I get to swim. I get to be an otter.
But, swimming means I’m not able to change at work before driving there. Wearing a swimsuit while driving is not high on my list of desired goals. I have to get changed in the locker room. Now there IS a small cupboard with a dressing curtain for privacy, in which you can change.
But with my forays into self-acceptance I refused, after a few weeks, to use that cramped little space. Why block myself into such a small area, in the dark, when I could just divest myself of clothing and inhibitions right in front of my locker? I had NOTHING to be ashamed of.
Still, lingering habits remained and often I would leave my huge towel draped over my head, hiding my back from sight and keeping my front close to the locker itself. I was still hiding. Still assuming that people were looking, judging and finding me wanting.
Well yesterday I finally took a gulp of courage and divested myself of even that last line of defense: the uber towel. I stood, stark naked, in front of my locker. And calmly changed clothes.
When I heard another woman enter with her kids I thought of quickly grabbing my towel again but I resisted. I had every right to be there, darn it! AND to be there naked and changing clothes, as people are expected to do in a locker room.
And… nothing happened. No gasps of shock. No disdainful scoffs. I was, once again, just a woman getting dressed in a gym locker room. No more, no less. My heart may have been racing on the inside but I kept my simple smile on for the outside and continued to calmly do as I should have been doing from day one: changing my clothes. In the locker room. Without shame.
I got naked at the gym as a Fat Woman and the world didn’t stop turning. Babies didn’t die from the sight of my fat flesh. Mothers and children didn’t run screaming from the sight of my body. No jabs or jeers or frightful sneers. It could have gone otherwise; I am sure. It could have been someone else coming in who was less willing to see other bodies being *gasp* naked. Perhaps a child might have asked “Why is that Fat Woman Naked?” and that might have brought up other issues, such as responding or not and how.
But instead I had a calm, “normal” experience. And to me, that was a huge moment of “Win”. I’ll take it! Who knows, with more experiences like THAT, I might actually begin to more firmly believe my own words; that everyone (including me) is deserving of the basic right to exist and act normally. That INCLUDES changing in peace at the gym without feeling you have to hide away from sight.
*The weekly allowance students received for bus passes (I think 240 Francs in 2000/2001 money) should have bought my weekly passes. Instead, I opted to walk to school, (2.6km, 33 minutes) up a very steep hill, and save the money as my only spending money. Despite these daily walks I still felt I needed to go to the Gym. Because, you know, the only valuable exercise is that which is done hamster-wheel style, right? I mean, with the walking every day and dancing most nights and not being able to afford (or wanting to afford) drinks; I was often very sober and incredibly fit while abroad!