Locker Room Etiquette

(discreet, well-mannered, appropriate)

It’s true that I’ve been going to the gym regularly. Here in Chicago, known as The Fitness Club. As in,”What Fitness Club do you belong to? I belong to Eastbank…” We don’t belong to Eastbank, with Barack Obama or Oprah, because it’s too far from the brickhouse so that would be another excuse to not use it regularly. What with the monthly membership fees and the 5 restaurants, the drycleaners and laundry, the car wash, the meeting rooms, the spas, the hair salon, the 3 pools, the rooftop lounge deck and the stunning, yet totally evolved fellow who teaches Sunday morning yoga, I’d have to sell this place and just live there to justify the expense. Actually, I guess I could give up cooking and put a few things in storage and the cost would be about the same as the mortgage and groceries we pay for now…

Anyway, I’ve been going to the gym 2-3 times a week for a while now but I haven’t wanted to talk about it. Talking about going to the gym or writing a book or starting an Etsy shop is the surest way to put a hex on it. I’ve figured out how to ensure attendance by attaching myself to my neighbor, who has fragile bones and needs to go work out reliably. I drive so, together, we get there pretty consistently. Once there we use the recumbent bicycles and watch Oprah on TV (really, she’s probably down at the Eastbank Club working out with her personal trainer) and then I use a bunch of machines to build muscles and then I get on the step machine and watch food shows until my heart rate reaches the desired level. Then it’s off to the locker room.

Locker rooms, historically, have been traumatic places for me, even more than for most people. When I was eleven and my sister was six, my mother returned to school to finish her master’s degree before going to teach at Liggett School with Jean Harris, murderess of the diet doctor. Don’t we all want to kill diet doctors? My mom and dad were divorced, and my brother was living with my dad in New York, so during this period when she was unemployed my mother moved us into a four family flat in the heart of Detroit’s ghetto. There, she would head off to university each day and I was responsible for getting Betsy and myself to two different schools on city buses. Betsy seems to remember that as an okay time in our lives but for me, negotiating a middle school in Detroit’s inner city was akin to doing a stint in Beirut. Actually, the next year, after we had moved back to a safe neighborhood of tiny brick houses, the riots broke out and it was just like that.

Three times a week the whole 6th grade piled back on a bus and went over to the YMCA. Our school didn’t have a pool so we took some parody of swimming lessons there. With absolutely no stereotyping or prejudice, I can tell you honestly that every other girl in my class was big, black and beautiful. The emphasis here is on BIG. For the most part they were redoing 6th grade for the second or third time; some of them were 14 or 15 years old. And BIG. Possibly, it was my perspective, because I was young and skinny (I believe ‘skanky’ was the adjective I heard most frequently, as in “get yo skanky white ass offa my seat on dis bus!”) but in any case, the difference was most noticeable when it came to the bathing suits. These suits belonged to the Y and had been in use for probably about a decade before I got there and it would be another decade before I would require a bra. The suits were basic cheap tank suits made out of some heavy stretched out synthetic fabric that had taken on the odor of gym shoes filled with cat urine. They had a cross strap on the back and a round neckline that doubled as the waist line on me. The crotch hung to my knees. These suits were all in a giant laundry gurney that you didn’t have access to until after you had taken the pre-swim shower. Three times a week I had to dive naked into that gurney and scrounge around for the smallest suit, an XXL. My new friends cheered me on, laughing and pointing. After the first few times, in an effort to be sincerely helpful, one of my classmates said, “Listen! Why doan you turn that thang aroun and wear it backwards? That way yo can double them straps roun yo neck to hold it up and cover yo skinny ass at ta same time!” With 28 of my BFF pointedly watching, I stood there, with my white skinny ass shining like a distant moon, and did as she suggested. It worked. I got a very strange look from the swim instructor that day but from then on I always spent my time in the YMCA pool with a giant knot of strap under my chin and the rest of me basically covered.

I barely made it through high school physical education, usually loitering in the outfield, studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone actively participating, and it would be another two decades before I voluntarily entered women’s locker rooms. Nowadays, resigned as I am to the foibles of the human body, it’s no big deal.

At the gym where I currently belong, its a pretty diverse group of shapes and sizes. There are the usual number of young beauties who go to DePaul University and do aerobics five times a week. These women all remind me of my daughter: fit, tan, well muscled. There are a surprising number of overweight women who seem perfectly comfortable with their bodies, or at least able to move with ease around the locker room and in and out of showers. There are a lot of us on the downhill side of 50 who are also comfortably resigned to the shape of our vessels.

Here’s the thing: there’s a certain etiquette involved in women’s locker rooms. I assume this is also true in men’s locker rooms although prime time television suggests there may be more towel/butt snapping going on there. I haven’t observed women doing that. In the women’s locker room, you’re expected to go about your business of getting undressed, showered and redressed in orderly fashion without a lot of extraneous activity or horsing around. About half of the women wrap themselves in towels, the rest don’t and it’s no big deal either way. Chit chat is usually reserved for the time when you’re in a shower stall and you have the walls as a barrier of sorts and you call over them or for time spent in front of the mirrors blowing your hair dry when you’re either half way or fully dressed.

I would say the key point of protocol is that you don’t outright stare at each other’s naked bodies. This is sort of too bad because sometimes I would like to stare. I would like to look and see who has c-section scars or for that matter, see if, upon close scrutiny, I can tell whether someone has borne children or not. By that, I mean look at their hips or bellies and make a guess and then chat them up at the mirror until I find out if I guessed right. That would just be with the really firm shapely young women. My body changed, ever so slightly, after having my first child and more after the second, so I would like to know if it’s possible to have children without any outward evidence at all. But that would require staring and, as I said, we don’t stare at each other, especially in the vicinity of c-section scars, when we’re in the women’s locker room.

(less than discreet. Inappropriate.)

Today, Susan and I had finished our work out and she went out to wait by the juice bar while I took a quick shower. She’s still nursing a broken foot so prefers to shower at home but I like to use the club’s towels and shampoo as long as I’m there and then leave feeling clean and ready to go. So I showered and walked back by the bank of mirrors with my towel wrap and hooked a right at our row of lockers. At the beginning of the row I almost tripped over a woman about my age, sitting on the floor. So, of course, I looked down briefly and changed course around her and got to my locker. In those brief milliseconds this is what registered, nay, imprinted, on my brain. Burned in there like a camp project on a tree slice.

This woman was tall and lanky and had silver dollar pancake shaped breasts that were snuggly plastered against her chest. She was seated facing the mirrors, buck naked and legs akimbo on the floor with a towel spread in front of her with a book on it. Apparently she was worried the book might get a fungus or something off the carpet and I would be too, given that it’s a locker room floor. No such concern for her skanky derriere. Nope, she was sitting right there on the low pile damp green carpet. Giving herself a pedicure and reading an apparently fascinating book. She was hard at work with a pumice stone on her heels for all of the time I was getting dressed; this required a fair amount of shifting from right foot to left and back again. Sort of a naked and seated can-can dance. At this point I was doing that thing of actively looking away towards the opposite far wall and acting as though the row of lockers against that wall was the most riveting thing I’d ever seen.

In less than two minutes flat I was up at the bank of mirrors snatching up a blow dryer. It was then that I realized that everyone drying their hair had moved down ten feet, crammed up in a short section nearest the exit, rather than enjoy the mirror image of this woman comfortably reading and grooming her feet. I left, not knowing quite what to make of the whole situation.

(Questionable. Morning coffee lovers don’t mind.)

I almost used this as an excuse not to return to my regularly scheduled workout today. But then, the voyeur in me prevailed.

35 responses to “Locker Room Etiquette

  1. It has been about 4 years since we let our Ymembership lapse and still I am haunted by visions of the woman who put lotion on as an exhibition.

  2. I love your descriptive language. You’re amazing.

  3. HA!!! That is really funny. Do you figure that this woman is just really SUPER comfortable in her naked skin or that she’s got a little streak of exhibitionism going on?

    Speaking of naked, I swam naked in my lesbian friend’s pool one night last week. Maybe I should blog about that?

  4. I’ve wanted to blog about my locker room memories but even after all these years, I’m still too traumatized by the contrast between their 42DD’s and my Wonder Woman underoos.

  5. I remember those one piece gym short jumpsuits we had to wear in junior high and high school. I also remember that it was gym class that kept me from graduating high school at age 16. It was the only class I had left…. all the others were done and they wouldn’t let me get around it. So, I had to spend another year and taking additional… English, math, physics for the second time and as many electives as the small high school had.. Hmm.. perhaps this is one of the reasons I hate gyms.

  6. We were required to shower after gym class from grades 7 through 12 when I was in Junior High and High School, and the locker rooms had those group showers with no privacy of any kind. So, in the process I got so used to locker room nudity that I’ve never had any issues about it when I’m at my gym or the Y.

    I can comfortably shower and change clothes in the presence of other ladies, and iy doesn’t faze me in the least if other ladies are naked in my presence.

    But I’m sorry, that woman sitting naked on the floor of the locker room must have a screw loose? There’s nothing wrong with her being naked in the ladies locker room. But to be laying or sitting on a locker room floor, and to be naked to boot…she must have something wrong with her?

    I would say that most of the ladies at my gym and at the Y that I take my daughters swimming at are mostly comfortable with nudity, seeing as probably at least 75% of them do walk around nude in the locker room. But I’ve never seen any of them sitting naked on the floor.

    Now blow-drying their hair or applying makeup while naked, that I’ve seen a lot of. But not what you were subjected to seeing.

    Nudity in the locker room is perfectly fine in my opinion. But people still need to exercise good hygiene, and sitting your bare butt on the floor isn’t good by any means.

  7. And people wonder why I am worried about my daughter going to middle school. I am just amazed at how well you write — you simply bring things to life (and I know there is really nothing simple about it!).

    Anyway, I agree with you that the kiss of death on a project is telling people about it. Damned inertia — I thought that public humiliation would be enough but it isn’t. In other words, no, I didn’t write today.

  8. I laughed out loud quite a few times while reading this! I guess I’ve endured junior high swim team, and communal showers in college during a J-term trip to the Virgin Islands. Heck, I do an outdoor shower now, and hope the electrician or somebody doesn’t show up while I’m there. (I didn’t post about THAT experience…of course, nothing happened, but still…)

    Anyway, great entertaining post. And I think I remember those swim suits from 7th grade.

  9. A grande post, indeed. (Starbucks continually courts controversy in these parts.)

    Seeing real female bodies as the beautiful vessels they are is why I love Seattle’s Korean baths. I tried to meet you there once, but culinary epicureans prevailed. Where else can one take a Chinese sauna?

  10. I can still remember my first day of the seventh grade and finding out that they were going to make us shower IN THE NUDE (insert shocked looking face here) and how I thought “What? No way! You’ve got to be kidding me!)

    And then to top it all off we had to undress and walk totally nude through the locker room to the showers, and then shower in a group while our gym teacher and a student teacher watched and checked-off our names on a sheet of paper attached to a clip-board.

    I thought I was going to die of embarrassment that first day.

    Thank God I got over it quick. After a couple of days all of that embarrassment goes away. But that first day sure seems embarrassing at the time.

  11. Now aren’t you ashamed for making me spew beer all over my computer?

    (Lord, woman, you’re funny! I can’t believe that other woman sat on the locker room floor. I’d rather sit naked almost anywhere but there.)

  12. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a locker room, probably 25 years, but I can still remember the dance– the ones who shed all their clothes along with their inhibitions, the ones who surreptitiously removed their bras and undies while wrapped in a cover-up towel. I was always a bit of a middle-of-the-road naked person. I could take all of my clothes off, but not without thinking about it.

    So Oprah and Barack go to the same gym? I wonder who walks naked there.

  13. One word.


    (at the skanky lady, not at your post, which is great. And Kenju sent me here!)

  14. legs akimbo in front of a mirror? in public? yuk! and did you go back to see more?

    what I found when I went to the gym was that everyone else had a tattoo. I seemed to be the only unsullied body but there again, I WAS the only one over 50 I reckon.

    now I don’t parade anything in public without agonies of ‘ohmigod, now I reeaally look old’ when I see my aged thighs!

  15. robin andrea,

    Funny thing, back about 12 years or so ago Oprah did an episode about etiquette.

    They discussed all kinds of topics like breast feeding in public and those sorts of things.

    One of the topics was locker room nudity. They pretty much determined that it is fine to be nude in front of other members of the same sex when your in a locker room. But Oprah did mention that on many different occasions in the locker room she was approached by totally nude women who wanted to talk to her or have her sign autographs.

  16. I bet if you asked her name and then googled it, you’d find her many parts all over the internet. Eeek!

    Great post 🙂

  17. The weeding dress photo is gorgeous.

  18. I didn’t used to have body issues. I was quite comfortable in Jr. and Sr. High. in Sr. High I was on the swim team, so we all changed before and after, and there were never any issues. Now that I’ve had kids, well, let’s just say my husband is lucky that he gets to see me naked. I can’t believe she was sitting naked on carpet! Ewww!

  19. I spend lots of time (after working out, of course) in the YW locker room. I swim right before water aerobics, so I’m often the youngest person in the locker room. But sometimes there are these 20-something girls who spend about ten minutes rubbing Noxema on their faces and necks while parading around the locker room. Funny!

  20. This is hilarious!! I took my 1 year old daughter today to her second swim class at the Y, I was so bothered by what I saw in the locker room these 2 days that I had to talk to someone about it and this someone was my husband haha. His first question was….so were they bushy bushy? and I said ahh lets just say they need to pay a visit to the Brazilian wax place ASAP. two naked ladies drying their hair and having conversation… come on put some panties on ladies! My husband said I should blog about it and then I found your blog. too funny!

  21. Haha this post is amazing! I’m definitely in the “naked camp” though I do not sit on the floor painting my nails… I just released an article called “Top 10 Things I Do in the Women’s Locker Room and don’t Tell You About” – hope you enjoy mine as much as I enjoyed yours!

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