On changing rooms

No doubt one of many musings about body image, this is probably one of the most personal approaches possible when it comes to body image and sport. Obvious disclaimer – these thoughts are based entirely on my own experiences and those of my friends, and are neither a universal truth, nor should anything I or my friends did necessarily be followed as advice. Also worth mentioning potential triggers – I will be talking about weight, size and exercise in relation to body image, generally positively but please be aware.

I am, for the record, generally pretty happy with my body; be that how it looks, how it feels and how it works (although I have constant disagreements with my left knee). But for all my general positivity regarding the old bod, the insecurities of my teenage years are still occasionally noticeable. In particular, the words of a girl in my year who I couldn’t describe as a friend, but rather someone my friends and I tolerated, as we changed for P.E one time:

‘It’s strange; you have a skinny waist but the thighs of a fat girl.’

Thighs of a fat girl.

Aged 13, with a confusingly shaped body (I was tall and skinny, then without warning became short and rounded as everyone else continued growing in height) and unhelpfully tall and long-legged friends, not to mention the hormones and media blitz of imperfection being wrong, those words cut deep. The memory of feeling so undermined and inferior purely on the appearance of my thighs has stuck with me vividly.

It is worth explicitly pointing out that, largely due to the positive examples of the women who surrounded me (my mother, my friends, their mums etc. etc.), her words had little lasting or damaging impact beyond heightening the levels of self-consciousness intrinsic to teenage-hood, and also that they were the exception rather than the norm in my school experience. That said, her open criticism didn’t feel out of place in the situation – it was quite normal to judge and even comment on girls in the changing room. And the stories and experiences of many other girls (and indeed people more widely) relating to how destructive body image and food can be reinforce the damaging potential of how normalised bitchy changing rooms can be. It’s entirely obvious to the cutting eye of a teenage girl when someone’s put on weight, even if that ‘weight’ is simply the effects of puberty giving you previously unthinkable curves, and that slight change makes you a viable target.

Even when we weren’t actively judging each other we were reinforcing the idea that you were supposed to be insecure about your body. The showers available in every changing room went practically unused despite our being sweaty and wearing the same skirt and jumper for 5 days straight each week (the joys of uniform are not missed). The only times I can recall anyone using the showers were after the dreaded cross-country runs, held in all weathers including snow, where you could come back quite literally covered head to toe in mud. People were unrecognisable. And yet the majority still just pulled their uniform back on and sweated it out for the rest of the day. The few who were brave enough to shower demanded a friend come in with them and hold their towel up as a guard, averting their eyes at all times of course.

Jump forward 8 years or so and my main experience of changing rooms with a team is one of almost wanton nudity, with boobs and bums jiggling in front of you in a way that the Daily Mail would describe as ‘flaunting’ at the very least. It’s an exhibition of the fullest range of body hair you could imagine (I have witnessed dyed pubes more than once and managed not to stare too much), wobbly stomachs, six packs, arses Kim Kardashian would envy, cleavages for whom ample would be an understatement, and chests which are utterly flat.

It is a deeply encouraging thing to watch (not in a creepy way…although it sounds creepier with that disclaimer) the positive changes that can and do occur in a supportive changing room. Girls who come in at the start of the season hiding behind towels become more and more comfortable, not just with their own bodies but with being around other women and their bodies. No one is criticised or mocked for their reticence, but equally no one is judged for dancing nakedly around the room after a victory, quite literally bouncing in their joy.

I reckon that one of the reasons behind this is that changing rooms are one of the few places where the undressed female body is not sexualised. And this is a rare occurrence in a world where self presentation is so carefully engineered that celebrities Photoshop their Instagram pictures – changing rooms force us to show ourselves at our most natural, and usually sweaty. Aside from the slightly tongue in cheek compliments fired at the fittest girls in the room, the size of one’s belly or rear is redundant. What bodies are important for in sport is what they are capable of on the pitch, or the track, or the court, not what they look like out of underwear. The biggest girl in the room is well known to destroy the rest of the team at weights, and the tall leggy blonde with a typically fantastic figure outstrips everyone sprinting across the pitch. The scrappy edgy girl with tattoos and a lightning bolt shaved into her muff is the fiercest fighter, and the skinny girl who prefers to change in the corner is the best downer of post-match drinks in the squad (applesourz in the showers being a particularly grand tradition).

Changing rooms can be the hub of bitchy judgement, or they can be a fantastic arena in which to celebrate the capabilities of the varieties of female bodies. They can be full of catty stares and raised eyebrows, or laughter and oblivious natter which would be conducted equally happily in clothes or not. Let us seize the positivity of the changing room, whilst maintaining polite eye contact as far as possible, and teach ourselves and teenage girls that nakedness and differences and wobbly bits and hairy bits (or the lack of both) are fundamental to the human experience, and particularly that of women who do sport.

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