Register Monday | December 5 | 2022

Rules of the Naked Gym

Change-Room Etiquette

Everything I've heard about men's locker rooms leads me to believe they are very naked places: bare asses, towel whipping and nonchalant showers ensemble after the squash game. It's part of the male bonding experience at the gym-or so I've been told. Being a British Canadian girl, however, I've never really lounged around much in the nude with my family and friends. I've known naked families, of course-even had conversations with bare-breasted mothers (not my own)-and think that it's quite nice when relatives are comfortable with each other in this way. It reminds me of the Finnish tradition, in which whole families, from granny to baby, take saunas together in the buck. There is nothing wrong with a naked body: nudity can be a way to relax and be comfortable, not simply a prelude to sexual activity. It's just I'd never had these experiences myself.

Five years ago, that all changed. While visiting my British cousins in London, I was invited to accompany them to an intense yoga class. "You'll love it," they assured me, describing their exclusive and beautiful fitness club, "but we just want to warn you, it's a bit of a naked gym." For a moment, I wondered if they meant that nudists worked out there-I knew that strip aerobics was on the cusp of popularity and maybe this was the new trend (first seen in London!). But it turns out they were talking about the steam room, not the exercise room.

In the end, my foray into the nude change room felt very freeing. It was the antithesis of how my high-school friends and I-for reasons now unfathomable to me-used to have special tricks for getting our bras on and off without removing our shirts. This extreme modesty wasn't because we were prudes, but because we wanted to fit in, and that's what everyone was doing those days. It was en vogue to go around saying you "hated your body" (regardless of whether you did) and to go swimming wearing Umbro shorts over your swimsuit.

Of course, we all grew up and became more comfortable with our figures and with ourselves. And so it was with some pleasure that I discovered that the gym I had joined here in Montreal was also a naked one. It's a special place, my fitness centre. It exists in a perpetual state of faded glory, as though it had its heyday in the eighties when things were more decadent and extreme. It boasts not only a steam room (wet), but also a sauna (dry) and a massive whirlpool, decorated with Klimt posters and, if I remember correctly, The Birth of Venus. The walls are painted coral, and there are mirrors just about everywhere. Thirty-eight dollars a month gets me the decadence of two fresh towels with every visit. I love it.

I am not saying it's not a strange place. It is. There are all kinds of rumours about kinky goings-on in the male change rooms, but I can't speak to those. The women's change room, however, I know intimately. Nudity and nonchalance are both prerequisites. For example, those who choose to wear their swimsuits in the whirlpool are not shunned, but they do receive quizzical looks of the "Why not naked?" variety. Nudity is just a non-issue. You can stop worrying about being obscene and just relax after a workout. It feels very liberal and European, and I have been able to put my fake Ontario modesty behind me.

There is a lot of good in this. I have seen more body types in the past year than I imagined possible. (What they said in health class is true; we are all different and beautiful.) Beside the massive bosom of a sixty-year-old you will see the most athletic body imaginable. Not only is it informative, but it can also be very comical. Once I was standing beside a fifty-year-old woman as she was drying her hair when a girl in her mid-twenties came up and said, "Now, I have to ask, are those for real? Because those are really beautiful breasts." The older woman was embarrassed, but probably pleased to say they were indeed quite real. The younger girl was looking for a recommendation for a plastic surgeon, and I believe she made the other woman's day.

It is one thing, for example, to be naked around strangers. But being introduced to a friend of a friend-shaking hands while realizing that she prefers to go Brazilian-can make me feel a little shy.

None of this is to deny that there are issues with the liberal naked gym. It is one thing, for example, to be naked around strangers. But to strip down around someone you know is another thing altogether. Anonymity helps me pretend that this is all very natural for me. But being introduced to a friend of a friend-shaking hands while realizing that she prefers to go Brazilian-can make me feel a little shy.

It has to be noted that for some individuals, nudity can bring more friendly attention than is appreciated. A dear friend of mine who is gay says he refuses to get too uncovered at his gym (which is in the gay village), and won't step foot in the sauna. Because I enjoy my naked change room so much, I asked him why. He told me he doesn't want lecherous old men watching him or thinking that he is providing some kind of provocative show-apparently, some of the other gym-users do this on a regular basis. He has learned the trick of changing very quickly while baring the least amount of skin possible.

The unavoidable observation here is that our culture inextricably ties nakedness to sex. The male steam room, for instance, has acquired a bad reputation because it has reputedly been the venue of hot (literally) man-on-man action. Thus stigmas are born. The fact is, our change rooms are divided according to sex, not sexual preference, so inevitably the lines will blur. Just last week, in fact, I saw two young and pretty lesbians canoodling in the whirlpool at my gym. It was all very tasteful, and for a moment I thought about sneaking in some relaxation with my romantic friend after a workout. But it's probably best that these areas not become sexually charged venues. It would certainly destroy the casual nature of the nudity.

Sexual preference isn't the only complication in this day and age. I am fairly certain that one woman at my gym is undergoing a sex change to become a man. She uses the women's change room, but over the past year or so, there have been significant changes to her body-notably, a beard. What is the change-room etiquette in this case? How long should she use the women's change room? Does she feel more man than woman, and should this affect where she changes? Or is it really just a matter of anatomy? Does it matter at all, as long as everyone is comfortable?

I was speaking to a friend who was on a woman's hockey team that included a player who had once been a man. She said that other than an exceptionally strong slapshot (which several other players also had), the woman's previous sex was a non-issue. "No one seemed to mind the communal shower/nude situation. When she joined the team, she was in the very end stages. Other than being quite a bit hairier than most women, she physically looked like a woman." So perhaps it is more about acceptance than anything else. "I was once the only female on a hockey team," my friend continued, "and the change-room etiquette there was quite a bit more awkward than changing with a woman who was once a man." She probably brought back the change-the-bra-without-showing-any-skin trick for that one.

Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.