Comment: On Getting Naked in Public Changing Rooms
Rhianne Sinclair-Phillips gives us an unflinching account of how putting our body on display can both help and hinder our self-confidence.
I never knew how to get changed in public. But as I slipped into my gym clothes within the confined walls of the toilet, I knew something was wrong. Avicii was blasting through the speakers getting the “new year, new body” members ready for a workout and for the first time I was envious of the women who openly let it all hang out in the changing rooms. They had confidence with their bodies, something I lacked. And this was a problem.
Perhaps it was the winter weather or the reflective momentum that comes with a new year, but I began to wonder about this female angst: why was I so insecure about my body? Was this a result of the Tumblr of tucked tums and thigh gaps constantly thrust in my face? Why couldn’t I get changed in public?
That morning made me feel separated from the women I walked and worked freely amongst. I had always written off the narcissism of women who spent hours contemplating their looks; contouring their faces and obsessing over achieving their perfect beach body designed for Instagram likes. There’s an episode in season 3 of Sex and the City where Charlotte refuses to get naked in an all-female sauna. When Carrie questions why, she exclaims “because all the other women’s boobs are so perfect”. It’s a scenario that resonated deeply. But now that I was excluded from a pre-workout routine, that particular moment felt surprisingly poignant. Stepping out of that toilet cubicle to change in front of everybody exposed me to judgements on my body, or so I believed.
Attending an all-girls school, I became incredibly insecure. This was the mid-00s; Paris Hilton had changed the beauty standard to a size 0 while Jennifer Lopez advocated the curvy girl with their stomach in and ass out. Not much has changed but needless to say I had neither. During P.E. I was always the first to claim a shower cubicle to avoid the collective routine of changing in an open space. I was never athletic. But the moment I turned 16, I marched down to my local fitness centre to sign up for gym access. And despite the heat of the summer, I would exchange crop tops for the baggy depths of a Nike hoodie just to be covered.
Remember being a teenager and having a list of unrealistic goals of how to look? Back then it would always be “if I had [insert physical attribute to change] then I would feel like my normal self”. But what is “the normal self”? Isn’t the way we look just it? And surely the goal should be to maintain a healthy figure and state of mind rather than a skinny one.
This ordeal made me realise how so many women are socialised to loath their bodies. Thanks to snarky comments and photoshop, we are happy to submit to a series of fad diets endorsed by our favourite celebrities (tummy tea anyone?) and in my case, a rigorous fitness routine. When the zipper of a pair of jeans refuses to go up or that faithful little black dress suddenly turns its back on you, we enter a state of panic. A couple inches off the waist is all we need in order for us to cherish our physical selves again.
For me, this was in part a realisation that I was like so many other twenty-something women: in an adolescent state minus the hormonal turmoil. A diet change including multiple servings of green tea and a stamina increase are of varied use because there are only so many times you can feel “more like yourself again”. At this point, I had moved on from trying to maintain a weight loss goal - an old trailed and failed routine. I was more interested in developing a lifestyle change. One where I could get out of my own head.
In a matter of weeks, my attitude had shifted. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt comfortable in my skin as it was always dependent on a physical attribute that refused to change. Mentally, I found expectance and dare I say it, even happiness with what I saw in the mirror. Week by week I began to join the women I once envied so much. Starting with my socks and trainers one month, the next saw the top and eventually the bra off. I was half naked in a changing room! No-one was judging or watching and most importantly, I wasn’t judging myself. It was a liberating feeling - even profound - and I’m embracing it. Now to wearing a bikini on the beach without a shirt, but I’ll face that challenge next summer!
About Rhianne Sinclair-Phillips
Rhianne is a freelance writer and curator based in London. An alumna of Central Saint Martins, she has edited and produced the art criticism journal Unknown Quantities. She writes on contemporary culture covering music, art and celebrity culture from a critical perspective.