The horrors of locker-room nudity

Marie Claire doesn't want to see your big-nippled, flabby naked body "preening" around the gym

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 8, 2009 4:09PM (EDT)

Lest you thought that Glamour’s recent depiction of a real and very beautiful woman, belly roll and all, was an indication that women’s magazines aren’t world-class peddlers of dysfunctional body image issues, along comes Marie Claire to shut your naked, empowered self up.

On this month, Lea Goldman comes down with a severe case of the vapors over the shocking amount of non-aesthetically pleasing nudity she encounters at … the locker room at the gym. One looks forward to further diatribes from Ms. Goldman on the Catholicism of the pope and the amount of bear poop in the woods. She begins, in mock hyperbole, by confessing she “nearly lost consciousness” once at her “upscale health club.” Was it an overenthusiastic spin class? A lingering session in the sauna? Au contraire. It was the soul-burning sight of “a doughy naked woman, her nipples the size of salami slices.” So appalled was Goldman by “her brazen nudity -- by the boobs, folds, moles, and thatch” -- that she walked right into a locker door. Good heavens, if not even “upscale” fitness centers aren’t safe from doughy, big-nippled females, imagine if Goldman ever took a stroll through the local Y. Or yikes, a bath house.

Channeling Ben Stiller’s character in "Dodge Ball" -- an impossibly shiny fitness expert who declares that "We understand that ugliness and fatness are genetic disorders, much like baldness or necrophilia, and it's only your fault if you don't hate yourself enough to do something about it" -- Goldman proceeds to fire off a litany of offenses from her fellow gym members, including a “frizzy-haired Viola Swamp type” who dared to do some stretches unclad.

To Goldman, the women with whom she shares a gym aren’t simply a bunch of fellow humans in an environment whose showers and lockers encourage a certain amount of disrobing. Nope, they’re “preening,” they’re “peacocks,” they’re “rank exhibitionists” engaged in “bare-assed grandstanding.” Even women who are comfortably naked in their own homes, she assumes, “prance around braless.” As opposed to, say, moving in a way not conducive to profound self-loathing.

Goldman’s screed isn’t utterly without merit. Her discomfort with certain public displays of very intimate grooming isn’t unique, and I agree with her that no one should ever be forced to share in another’s toenail clipping. (A good rule of thumb is that if you’re going to extract or leave behind anything that was once attached to your body – nails, earwax or the gunk between your teeth – do it alone.) But poor Goldman’s discomfort goes far deeper. She insists, “The rules of engagement are simple: Get in, do the deed, then get the hell out.”

Why such anxiety from a bikini-owning woman who says she's comfortable with her “fullish figure?” The problem, she goes on to explain, isn’t her body as much as other people’s reactions to it. Surprise surprise, her “God-fearing, disciplinarian parents valued modesty in their three daughters.” And today, displaying her naked body to her husband “invites relentless poking and prodding — my own private Tailhook." Goldman claims she is “baffled, even horrified, by women who treat the locker room like their own sandalwood-scented boudoir.” Hey, we’re all baffled and horrified by different things. I’m rather baffled and horrifed at the rise in sexual abuse in the military, but to each her own.

It’s a free country, and Goldman’s welcome to choose, as she ultimately does, to race home “crimson-faced and still dripping with sweat” to shower in the comfort of her own bathroom. It’s her exasperation with women who don’t share her deeply wrought sense of reserve and her particular scorn for those who don’t conform to the aesthetics of a Marie Claire fashion spread that makes the piece so offensive. Throw in that jaw-droppingly insensitive joke about a very real and harrowing sex attack and you’ve got yourself yet another compelling reason why women’s magazines are losing readers faster than Glenn Beck’s losing credibility.

It’s no coincidence that the Planet Fitness chain has been able to build a tidy empire on the motto “a judgment free zone.” Working out is supposed to make you feel good. Nudity isn’t ugly. But taking personal offense at other people’s bodies sure is.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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