Bare, naked ladies

There's not much room to commune with your own nudity, or anyone else's, in a swimming-pool locker room full of wary onlookers.

Published July 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's summer 1978 and music blares over the intercom. The song, tinny and full of static, wafts over the now-still Olympic-sized pool and disappears into the grove of walnut and oak trees in the park beyond. "Hot child in the city," some of us sing along in the shower, "acting wild and lookin' pretty." Suds roll down our bare backs, the patterns from our Speedos tanned into our skin: paisley swirls, American flags. We use hair bands to keep the shower levers wedged on, indulging ourselves in the streaming hot water. At home our mothers scold us for this, for using up the water at a languorous pace. But there's not a mother in sight; this place is ours.

Draped in towels, we loll about on the worn, wooden benches, our muscles spent from the miles swum that morning. We are content in our semi-naked, dozy state, like cats on a sill, eking out the final moments of the morning. When each of us left our homes nearly four hours ago, the town was still asleep, dotted with dewy geraniums and curled morning papers. Since we have swum lap after endless lap, kicking and pulling our way along the black lines of the cool water, the day has begun. The sun is now high, its heat becoming concentrated in the clear Midwestern sky, radiating down into the roofless locker room. Outside, a gaggle of small children have assembled, waiting for their lessons. Survival float. Side stroke. We ignore their high-pitched voices as we brush out unruly hair and munch on peanut-butter sandwiches, soft plums and foil-covered Pop-Tarts. We are ravenous, ready for early and ample lunches in our air-conditioned homes. The older among us will continue on to summer jobs and boyfriends, while others have hours of television and board games ahead. But for many, for me, the best part of the day is over. The rest is mere dressing, just time to be passed before the next morning workout, before the next weekend meet.

What comes next? I can hardly see the rest of the day after those brilliantly clear mornings. As I biked home up the steep hill, day lilies and the grasping branches of maples and oaks brushed against me. The house was cool and dark; just the dog and the hum of the refrigerator greeted me. After lunch, but not long enough for my suit to totally dry, I'd turn around, coasting downhill, biking back to the same pool. But this time I'd meet my school friends there. We'd lay our towels out on the sun deck, apply baby oil and listen to the Commodores and Donna Summer on tiny transistor radios. At the concession stand we bought Sugar Daddies, malted ice cream and those long taffies that turned brittle when dipped into pop. Grabbing for Nerf balls, boys dunked us and our bodies met underwater, curious moments filled with yearning and aversion. But all of these memories are like that: murky, underwater moments unfolding in slow motion. The screaming, splashing cacophony is muted, replaced by the slosh of water on my eardrums.

No matter how hard I try to conjure my adolescent summer afternoons, I certainly cannot recall any images of my school-day girlfriends in that same sunny locker room. We didn't linger on the benches as I did with my swimming teammates. There was no feline idleness, no semi-clothed stretching of muscles or combing of hair. No doubt we were as Victorian in our changing methods as we were at school. There in the old underground locker room of our centenarian building, we showered in dank, dark stalls, first walking over a grate that sprayed an acrid chemical onto our feet. Even at age 12 I thought the scene had a wartime quality: our naked bodies lined up and forced through the paces as a matronly guard called each name from a list. Dripping wet, we'd stand as close to our lockers as possible, shielding our bodies from the eyes of others, the eyes of girls we didn't know as well, the eyes of friends, the eyes of boys on the other side of the small door who were reported to peek through the keyhole. I don't think any of us ever really dried ourselves, so hasty were we to be covered, to be back in our familiar clothes. So now, it is only shame and anxiety that I can recall about these girls unclothed, not their tanned arms, the white of their bellies, the sinew of their legs.

Years later, I have continued to swim, seeking out public pools in every town where I've lived and in cities I've visited. Three days a week I stand in a tiled cement room, put on my suit, stretch out my muscles, put on my cap and then an hour later return and go through the same process in reverse. I watch the people around me; I see how teenage girls -- those who are at the pool to sunbathe and get dunked by boys -- still possess the amazing skill of shimmying in and out of swimsuits with little more than a wrist or a knee exposed to view. Most of them, in their underwire bra bikinis, are more sexy dressed than undressed. The younger girls follow their example, but whereas the older girls seem to be avoiding the prying, judging eyes of their peers, the younger ones are wary of the roving glances of strangers. It's as though they've all watched hours and hours of sensationalist documentaries about child pornography and molestation. They look at me and the other grown women in the locker room with mistrust, as though we're likely to try something inappropriate. I wonder if girls were like this in earlier eras.

Recently I watched as an entire birthday party of little girls -- they must have been about 8 years old -- moved amoeba-like into a small dressing stall. In the one foot of open space under the metal door, I saw 14 feet kick off underwear and trip over damp towels dropped onto the gritty floor. One girl, younger than the rest, stayed outside and dressed herself right next to me. Off went her suit with a wet slap. Then she took a moment to look around, assessing her next move. She fished her clothes from a locker and, proceeding methodically, pulled on each pant leg and worked up her zipper. Her cotton undershirt hugged her still-damp belly. She tugged on a green turtleneck, struggling to lift her head into and through the tight hole. Periodically, a voice called to her from the dressing room, one of the brood reprimanding her for her lack of sophistication: "Mandy, don't get dressed out there! Come in here!" She didn't blink or smile, but continued at her task, unfazed by both the whining order and my adult presence.

One of my favorite pools remains the Medgar Evers Aquatic Center in Seattle, a place full of charming incongruities. It is one of the rare pools named after a civil rights leader. And in a sport that remains lily white, I never fail to smile at my memory of the local team's emblem: a decidedly African-American octopus. The pool sits at the juncture of two neighborhoods, one black and the other gay, an area that is simultaneously homespun, beat-down and gentrified. The water aerobics classes are filled with large, older black women in flowered swim caps and flounced suits bobbing side-by-side with thin young men sporting the tiniest swatches of Lycra. Afterwards in the locker room, the women are boisterous, loudly swapping gossip as they rub their bodies with lotion. I imagine the men do the same.

In the years I swam at Medgar Evers, I often shared the water with preschoolers who commandeered the shallow end for a noontime dip. Out in the water, learning to swim, they all dog paddled and made desperate gasps for air. They were children, equal in their ability and enthusiasm. But in the locker room, amid the smell of mold and shampoo, they were a fascinating mixed bag. On Mondays and Wednesdays a group of Muslim preschoolers filed in accompanied by three women in headdresses and flowing robes. The little Mohammads and Chitras moved quickly and quietly to the curtained changing stalls at the far end of the room, averting their eyes from the semi-nakedness of the other swimmers. Their teachers held up towels to shelter any stragglers. Although I could never discern an all-clear signal, none of them emerged until the others were suited up.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays a boisterous class of private-schoolers, each with their funky names and miniature Doc Martens, came running in to greet us older, lackadaisical dressing women. As they tested the acoustics with their squawks and hoots, a lone teacher tried to coax them into changing. She awarded points to any individual who differentiated herself from the wriggling, giggling mass by moving with alacrity from street clothes to swimsuit. One curly haired boy named Conifer was always last. He'd strip to his underwear and then plop down onto the damp cement and commence to stare. Mainly, he stared at me. His staring was so unabashed, as though he were memorizing me for future reference, that it made me wonder what he looked at on those days when I wasn't at the pool. Initially I was discomforted, not at all sure what the sexual life of a 4-year-old amounted to. But it grew to be such a regular event that I went about my business, neither the teacher nor Conifer nor I making any fuss over it. There we were together under the fluorescent bulbs, all covered in chlorine, unadorned, and getting dressed.

It seems a simple enough process, getting dressed. A daily task that can be done briskly or with calm contemplation, it has the potential for grace. That moment of bareness as we change from one costume to the next is a reminder of our link to other mammals. Beneath the neon-colored bras, high-paneled white cotton undies and other accouterments, we are animals with peach-fuzz fur and soft skin. And when we dispense of our clothing in public it's a moment to look around, even fleetingly, and see that we are all just bodies of different shapes and strengths, all just animal bodies getting by as best we can in our worlds.

My visits to innumerable locker rooms have left me with a rash generalization: non-Americans seem to get this notion of nakedness better than we Americans do. Around the world, being naked in public is not cause for consternation. But here in the land torn between Falwellian family values and tabloid imagery, we do not do nakedness particularly well. All too often I've encountered families bent on turning the public dressing room into a scene of high paranoia. The mood, the message, echoes that of my junior-high locker room: Avert your eyes; be quick about it. Upon entering the little tiled room, a mother and children either disappear into separate stalls or practice the pull-on-shirt-over-bathing suit method that seems like a sleight of hand. Meanwhile I, still in my old swim-club habits, shuffle about the locker room, lazy from a long, hot tub. I rinse out my suit and stare absently into the mirror. At least one mother will glare at me for brazenly walking around disrobed in front of her children. The harder she glares, the more her 8-year-old son (who, by the rules, ought to be in the boys' locker room) stares at me too. It is not the gentle, spacey stare of Conifer, but the stare of a boy who knows I am naked and that I am bad in my nakedness.

But I've also watched immigrants and visitors in locker rooms. I've gone to pools in other countries. I've listened to mothers converse in Italian or Russian or some African dialect. Their children are troubled by neither their own naked bodies nor those of the strangers around them. It is a time for quiet conversation, for jokes and having your hair brushed by mom. Even those Muslim schoolchildren and their teachers, so orderly in their approach, never made me feel sheepish that I wasn't dressing behind a curtain. We had different ways; our nakedness simply meant different things.

Of course, most kids don't immediately get the subtext of locker rooms. Either they make a big deal of covering their bodies and avoiding other people or they're completely unaware of the whole issue. Sometimes they talk to me. One girl asked me in the smallest voice if I could help her button her dress. My hands tripped over the tiny pink buttons that led like a pathway up her delicate spine. Under the dress she wore hot-pink tights and cotton-candy-colored sneakers. I asked the obvious: Was pink her favorite color? The girl looked at the floor.

"No," she explained quietly, "my mom bought all of this."

Trying to bring some uplift to her little person, I pressed on: "Did you have fun swimming?"

No, she hadn't, because she didn't know how to swim. Her younger brother was getting swimming lessons but she was only allowed to take cheerleading.

My heart sank at this. Though I was never a cheerleader, I cannot imagine that there's much locker-room camaraderie associated with the activity. Painting nails and blow-drying hair do not a locker-room experience make. I wanted to take this little girl, with her small, depleted self, and thrust her into a locker room of laughing, strong young women. I wanted her to see muscles flash in the sunlight and hear girls musing about boys in the same breath as they argued about who should swim the final leg of the 400 free relay. I wanted her to feel exhausted and hungry in the way that only pure physical exertion can bring. She would, in my dream, yank off those pink things and run around the locker room draped only in a towel and a smile, happy with the freedom of her young body.

A few days later at the same pool, I was in the shower when a young woman sauntered in and stripped off her suit. We'd just been in the lap area together swimming under the large "Records" board that still holds some of the names of my childhood teammates. Many of the swimmers raise their heads timidly to breathe and stop at the wall after every lap, so we had noted and admired each other's clean, strong strokes. "You swam?" she inquired. When I told her that my competitive days were two decades ago, alluding to a few of the older names on the board, she nearly dropped her shampoo bottle. Then she looked my naked body up and down. There was nothing sexual about it. It was one athlete surveying another.

"You look great. I hope I look like that at your age."

I laughed because I didn't think I'd come to the "at your age" stage of life. Mainly, though, I was just happy to be there under the streaming warm water with another woman who was tired from her workout, who was happy and oblivious to her nakedness. I closed my eyes as the shampoo flowed down my face and I felt myself back in that sunny locker room, with the laughing voices of those girls all around me.

By Jennifer New

Jennifer New writes and swims in Iowa City, Iowa. Her last piece for Salon was "Iowa Heartland."

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