A locker room of her own
My first locker room, in the basement of Oyster River Junior High School, had beige cinderblock walls and open showers that exposed your cringing, naked pre-teen body for the whole class to see. I never used those showers. While other girls waited their turn to scrub down with pink powdered soap the consistency of Ajax, I'd slither out of my navy gym suit, stuff the wretched thing into my school bag and pull on my real-world clothes before anyone noticed that I still wore an undershirt instead of a bra. I counted the minutes till the end of gym class, when I could escape the locker room. Yet I knew that its taint would follow me. For the rest of the day, I would steep in adolescent sweat---just like those dour cinderblock walls.
I never guessed that I would come to rely on locker rooms for solace, renewal and that special camaraderie found only where women gather naked---all ages, all sizes---with no expectation but a sweet escape from from the rigors of the workaday world. In fact I'd go so far as to say, paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, that a woman needs a locker room of her own if she is to write fiction, run a business, chase toddlers or do anything at all requiring energy and focus. In the locker room I can wipe off my makeup and wrap my hair in a towel alongside other women who have shucked their public selves along with the control-top pantyhose. I often fail to recognize a locker-room friend when I meet her in the workaday world, primped and suited. "You look so different with your clothes on," I say.
Don't we all?
Like a good many women of my generation, I never played sports except when forced to do so in gym class. Even then I just stood there daydreaming. If the ball headed my way, I'd shuffle madly in the opposite direction. I associated physical activity, and all its attendant rituals, with humiliation and failure. Then puberty compounded my anguish. In the locker room, I'd catch sidelong glimpses of naked grade eight goddesses. Why had they been blessed with long legs and real bosoms? If I noticed, did that make me a lesbian? I dropped gym at the first opportunity. No more locker rooms for me!
It was vanity, pure and simple, that finally drove me to my local Y at age 36. And there I discovered what a locker room for grownups can be. More than 20 years later, I still meet women who exclaim, "I remember you! We used to chat in the hot tub at the West End Y."
Oh, those hot tub conversations! Those stolen tete-a-tetes between the early-evening fitness class and the grocery run! You name it, we talked about it. Husbands, ex and current. Children who enchanted and enraged us. Dreams that took flight, roofs that leaked, bosses who expected too much or not nearly enough. Women I'd just met (and would meet nowhere else) used to coach me with the knowing generosity of longtime friends. They weren't surprised that after my mother's death, I could have sworn I saw her on the street. "You're not crazy, you're just grieving," they would say.
I had never known a place where status counted less. It didn't matter whether you'd arrived in a silk suit, a uniform with your name on the pocket, or work-at-home sweats like mine. To take off your clothes in the locker room was to join the community.
My current locker room, in a private club, is a spiffier place than my former haven. The perks include fluffy robes and slippers that massage your feet. But for me the real reward is just being with women who, for once in their day, don't care how they measure up or who wants a piece of them. They range from young mothers with scampering kids to distinguished old dames who have come for a swim before heading to dinner and the theatre. They are not, for the most part, the buff and the beautiful. They have scars, folds and stretch marks. Together, they comprise a truth-telling, confiding, gesticulating pageant of the female life cycle. In my book, that's beautiful. I'm glad to be part of it. If I ever have a granddaughter, you can bet I'l bring her to the locker room.
If you liked this post, check out my piece "Written on the body," about the stories told by physical scars (we're born shiny and new but like cars, we acquire a lifetime's worth of dings). As for the folly of comparing yourself to other people, I've explored that theme in "What I had to learn about success."
Click here to read the first chapter of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.