I don’t deserve my body / it may not be perfect but it works for me / and I can walk and I can see the sky
—Lori McKenna, “The Deserving Song”
I haven’t been in a locker room in decades—since I first realized my two feet could connect with trail, concrete, or asphalt in a healthy way for the price of a pair of running shoes. But this morning, at the gym where I do therapy for my back, I went back to scary high school phys ed class. The snaps in my yellow uniform always gaped at the bust. The bloomers left crinkled imprints in my thighs.
I have never been proud of my body, never celebrated its accomplishments or its appearance, except for a few lean months at ages 34 and 40 and one nine-mile run. At 46, it’s not even on the same planet as perfect, and it does not work for me just yet. I can’t pick up my underwear when it falls on the floor. I have to sit to get dressed. I can’t lift more than a gallon of milk or walk a quarter of a mile. And forget touching a trail; uneven footing makes me feel as though I am walking en pointe.
Movement is hard enough. Now add an extra dozen pounds, brought on by an antidepressant (one that’s supposed to decrease appetite, naturally) to my unexercised, flabby, nonworking body, and—you can see where this is going. Last night, because it was the very last minute I could wait, I tried on last summer’s swimsuit—or tentini, as my sister likes to call hers. I looked in the mirror long enough to be sure private parts stayed private but not long enough for the image to burn my retina. When I recovered, I took a bath. My daughter came in to brush her teeth, and I asked her to close the shower curtain. For the first time in months, I couldn’t fall asleep, too ashamed of how I looked—no slack granted for four months worth of lying around with back pain.
This morning, before my Healthy Back class at the gym uptown, I hobble into the women’s locker room and hang up my coat. Though I stare intently at the row of coats and the plentiful hangers (the kind with full-circle holders, so they can’t be stolen off the rack), I can still see naked women from every corner of my eyes. A woman my age is in a half slip and stockings at the sink. Another strolls from the shower to her locker. Still another stands at the bench arranging her clothes, her gigantic dark nipples like dinner plates dangling from her chest. Young and old, fat and thin—mostly thinner than I—all these women are moseying around in various states of undress, not one of them hurrying or hiding behind a towel. Not one of them seems to possess a modicum of self-consciousness, as if walking about without clothing in a large room with other naked women were not a deranged thing to do.
I am both modest and modest about my modesty, shamed into folding my clothes neatly and carefully, so I don’t look like I’m as embarrassed as I am by the way I look, in a race to hide myself. But I don’t want, even for one second, to be a flash of puckered thigh in someone else’s peripheral vision.
Poor body image and depression can accompany one another down that dark road and keep you from doing the very things that would improve your body and lift your spirits. It’s not so easy to get over yourself. And I didn’t at first. When I am introduced to the instructor, I break down—partly with fear and partly with relief at finally doing something about my circumstances. I’m going to have to suck it up and suck it in as best I can and not let my brain spoil this for my body.
In a class of five, I am likely the youngest and the least fit. But once I make that mental note, it dissolves in the 92-degree water. For one liquid golden hour, I stand in neutral spine, walk, hang in traction, and perform exercises called “square box” and “dead bug,” And when I get out of the pool, I don’t feel the usual crunch of my spine bearing down on my tailbone as full gravity returns.
The locker room, to my chagrin, has magically refilled with new naked nipples and bare bottoms, and it’s time to face my scary semi-public nudity. But while I sit to take off my suit and put on dry clothes, I see, out of the corner of my eye, one of my classmates. She is not naked but is instead carrying her clothing into one of the small private shower rooms, where she changes.
Each fat Tuesday and Thursday, that’s where you’ll find me.
Again, you continue to amaze with your honesty and candor. I have my own locker room stories to tell, but I’ll save those for some day on patio over a cold something. Thank you, again…
I’ve got tears in my eyes. Mostly it’s from the paragraph about you in neutral spine moving around and doing exercises, that “liquid golden hour” – that is a beautiful image.
and I know very well locker room shame. I’ve had it all my life, I’ve done the changing in the other room, becoming very adept at changing my clothes without being fully naked.
at what point do we drop the towel and take pride? Can we ever be in shape enough? Is self-satisfaction physically possible if it’s mentally impossible? These women that prance around the locker room, I just don’t get it, I don’t get what they’ve got that I don’t have. I know it’s mental, I’m just wondering where I lost that self-image self-confidence along the way.
Here’s a question, what if next Thursday you just fake it? Drop the towel and walk (as best you can!) naked, feigning physical self-confidence? Maybe these healthy back classes can be also a path to healthy self-image?
diana put it so well. i haven’t worked out, not one single iota, since the race last October, and i have the pounds to prove it.
the thing is, though, is that i bet every one of us thinks we look so much worse than we really do. i am trying to take my sister’s advice, and love myself for what i am, for who i am, right now. it’s so damn hard, though. at least, for the moment.
I love your words. “Liquid golden hour.” Genius.
And I so identify with a few of these sentiments, I mean really. It has not so much to do with locker rooms for me (though I’m not even close to in shape), and everything to do with getting over myself and improving my circumstances. I haven’t been able to put it into words yet. Maybe never. But reading this makes me feel better and less wrapped up in myself in a way I can’t quite describe. (I’m really not so great with words lately, for a writer and all.)
You are so brave with your writing. And, well, everything else.
#1 – this is brilliant, honest, beautiful.
#2 – every last one of them was faking it.
#3 – it’s, as papps notes, entirely mental.
#4 – refer to #1.
I love you Leslie, I really do. Thank you for always being so honest. The fact is, I leave most dressing rooms and locker rooms fighting back tears. And it only gets worse as I get older and I feel even more shame for not appreciating my body when I was young and had a good metabolism!
I hate how we humans waste so much of our energy on self-loathing. Sometimes I can fake it, but that’s what it is: faking it.
I guarantee you that 95% of the women you saw were burning with self-loathing and trying to fake it.
In recovery we say “fake it ’til you make it”…if we practice behaving ‘as if’ long enough, we’ll start to believe it.
I’m with Diana, near tears, but cheering you on inside.
This is a tough thing. You are brave.
Bravery isn’t doing things with ease, it’s doing the tough things in spite of their toughness.
And through it you discovered a well deserved blessing of relief.
I used to really embarrassed about my body as a guy. I guess the Navy got me over that mostly.
To this day though, at times, I’m very conscious of my body. I’ve been overweight for many years, and though I can live with that at times, at other times I just know folks are laughing inside or disrespecting me for it.
My wife’s WW leader constantly reminds them that you can’t really approach a better life style if you hate our body as it is. They push acceptance of the where you are, to help lose the emotion about negative imagery.
I wonder if they have water therapy for cervical spine…
I joined the Y once. Locker room HORROR….naked friends, naked strangers….
You said this so beautifully.
THANK YOU! You took the thoughts right out of my head. This is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels so good to know that other women feel exactly the same as me.
Today really is ‘Fat Tuesday’ down here in NOLA and I had the day off. Know what I did? I stayed home and sat in my recliner all day napping and watching daytime TV. Every time I got up to go to the bathroom, I stole a glance at myself in the mirror. I saw bumps, bulges and rolls under my sweatpants and t-shirt that weren’t there a few months ago. I willed myself to get up and do something, anything to get some exercise. I threw on some old jeans and went outside in the beautiful evening weather and mowed the lawn! It took me almost two hours and I’m tired and sore, but I feel great! I’ve made a vow to myself to do some sort of exercise each day.
I’ve always been very modest (or uncomfortable with public nudity), so I don’t think that’ll ever change. That’s why, like you, I prefer to exercise where locker rooms don’t exist.
Screw ’em. You are beautiful!
This is terrific. Thank you for sharing.
The class will be wonderful. I made huge gains in mine.
I am sorry I can’t login as me.
Get plenty of rest.
“For one liquid golden hour” says it all. I”m glad that water therapy is that for you.
If all of us, and I’m definitely including myself, are ashamed of our bodies, who are these people who are gadding about naked, without a care of what others think?
This was a wonderful piece. So many of us can identify with it and feel a little better…at least we are not alone.
Loved this. An absolutely naked piece of writing (and I truly meant no pun…) that opened me up. I hope these classes are able to help you feel so much better.
I was so thrilled to be finished with HS phy ed and all that was involved in the locker room shame. And looking back, I had nothing to feel that about! The more I age, the more difficult locker rooms get. the Y was a nightmare of difficult feelings.
I believe it’s all in the fake. It has to be.
This is a fantastic piece Leslie.
I really wonder about the self loathing and I’ve come to believe that we’re taught the process through the very sources that are supposed to help us. Clothing stores, fashion magazines, self help magazines, TV!, advertising in general.
For a long time I thought I was, if not immune to the advertising, at least I was intelligent enough to know when it was affecting me. Since I wasn’t absolutely certain, I did a small experiment. For one week, I didn’t read a trendy magazine, watch tv, or even browse check out tabloids.
It was a little hard but after maybe three days I found myself, walking a little taller.
My little evil internal voice, Mona, got quiet.I wasn’t perpetually comparing and cataloging my faults. I had the space to get to know and accept ME.
Well-written and honest, as usual.
Maybe one thing: One of those average-sized women once came up to my XXL-sized me, standing naked in a locker room at a gym (pretending to be relaxed about it), and said how she admired my easiness with my body. It obviously made her feel better about hers.
Although that wasn’t exactly flattering for me, I thought at least this exercise in bravery had SOME purpose – if only in serving as a reverse role model…
Thanks for your comments, everyone. I noticed today that there were a lot of people in worse shape than I am. It’s a gym, after all, so you’re going to see lots of fit people and lots of people trying to get fit. I think the thin people are thinking, “At least she’s getting started,” and the fat people are thinking, “Maybe I’ll look like that someday.”
I’m even embarrassed in my suit because my legs are SOOOOO flabby. Oh, and worse—I have a giant burn on my thigh from my laptop battery!
I used the shower to dress today, but it’s WET–the little room for dressing in front of the shower is always wet, and there’s no place to sit! So I did my best. UGH.
“gigantic dark nipples like dinner plates dangling from her chest”
And that’s why I change in private. That’s why they’re called “privates.” 😉
Actually, that line is so beautifully poetic and an accurate “food related” description.
LOL, Fran. I know LOTS of people (women, mostly) with those, and it’s not a judgment, which you know. Just an observation of our differences, which only very special women seem to celebrate much better than I.
Pride is probably the wrong word, but I feel something like pride for you. I don’t go to the gym. I exercise only at home, or use the machines at my apartment gym and walk back to my place for a shower. Your healthy back class sounds amazing, and I’m glad you were brave enough to do it. I hope it makes all the difference in the world for you.
Anyone remember the dreaded group showers in junior high and high school?
To be honest I kind of admire the ladies who can prance around the gym locker room in the nude. I'm not like that myself, but I admire their comfortableness with locker room nudity. I wish I did have that confidence myself.
The biggest shock I ever got in a locker room was the time that my ministers wife stood buck naked in the ladies locker room chatting with me. She spotted me at my locker and just walked over 100% nude from head to toe and started chatting with me for several minutes.