The stress of undress: Public change rooms can cause body anxieties for women

Mar 15, 2012
Marianne Clark's research looks at how the act of undressing in a public change room reveals the complex relationships women have with their bodies. Credit: Bev Betkowski

Sweating in the gym, surrounded by others, pounding to the beat in group exercise class has become the norm for many women. But when it comes to the experience of changing in the locker room, the acts of disrobing, dressing, showering and being naked in front of others, can be very discomfiting. It's a complex experience as women are faced with an awareness of their bodies different than in any other space.

"I walk into the change room and pace anxiously up and down the rows of lockers. I look for an empty aisle, hoping for some semblance of privacy. I don't like to change in front of others, it makes me uneasy. Perhaps I'm uptight. Or maybe I have what experts would call 'body issues.' But either way changing in public cause me stress."

So begins a new study looking at women's of changing in a public change rooms. Author Marianne Clark, a in the Faculty of and Recreation at the University of Alberta, says it was her own experience as a and frequent user of fitness facilities and therefore of public dressing rooms and change rooms that led her to explore how other felt. "Using these facilities, I've always felt an unarticulated discomfort," says Clark.

The act of undressing and being naked, and particularly where there is the potential to be observed by others, can be daunting, as much of the way we think about ourselves and our self-confidence is wrapped up in our notion of ourselves as fully clothed. Undressing in front of others, can, according to Clark, "disrupt" our experience of ourselves, because it reveals an intimate self we don't usually freely display.

Clark says in talking to other women about their experiences in these spaces, "They all had a story and it usually involved a time when there was another person involved."

One woman described being pre-occupied walking into the gym, then suddenly becoming aware of the presence of others in the change room and being reluctant to reveal her more intimate self. She said, "I angle my body this way and that as I undress and dress in the locker room. I look down to button my pants, I see my small breasts, my protruding stomach, no longer held in, contained and covered by my control top nylons and stylish skirt. This naked me is almost unfamiliar to me, so different than who I am all day, when I march around and am busy and efficient and in charge. But now, as I stand practically naked in the change room, no one can see that part of me, all there is to see is my body."

Not every woman feels this sense of discomfort. Some found the experience of being surrounded by many other women's bodies together after a workout comforting. "I like the time in the change room after a workout," said one participant. "I like being in a space where my body is just a body among other bodies. I know people might see me naked or partly naked but it doesn't bother me, this is who I am, this is my body, this is how I am in the world. I like being around all these other women of all shapes and sizes, it makes me feel connected to who I am, and somehow close to them."

Clark says she found that while older women expressed the same concerns about dressing and undressing in the change room as younger women, she says, "I think they spoke more reflectively about why we might experience these feelings of self-consciousness or modesty in a gym and they could articulate that. Although one said, 'I can't believe I still feel this way, but I do.'

"Women also talked about their body as an entity over which they have no control – it was sagging or ageing, or it just did not comply with standards of conventional beauty. And while they were OK with that, they didn't want anyone else to see it."

Many women said they first became self-conscious about their bodies while teenagers. "A lot of the women I spoke to, if not every single one of them, could recall feeling painfully self-conscious in phys-ed class and said changing in the fitness centre reminded them of changing after gym class at school," says Clark.

Also, in North American society where the "body beautiful" is celebrated - both dressed and undressed, as something to look at and a reason to be seen - its ideal is young, thin and toned. Clark said she found plenty of social and cultural layers in the women's stories that indicated their awareness of the societal notions of beautiful, healthy bodies influenced their own feelings about the shared undressing experience of the change room. "I think even in the change room, women are carrying with them these knowledges and understandings (of the fit female body) that society has constructed," she says.

Clark says those involved in the design of these facilities need to think about how people feel about changing in public spaces and who might be using them to make them friendlier for different bodies.

"Currently change rooms are designed for efficiency. As our lifestyles continue to change and gyms become a more important part of getting exercise, the change room becomes an increasingly interesting space to consider. So I think it does actually merit some study. There are so many obstacles to going to a gym for the first time, from using the equipment, to knowing how to use the equipment, to navigating your way around the space.

"And then for people who find change rooms a difficult space, that's a barrier too. So I think we can be more thoughtful in general, but also in our approach to these spaces and what they might mean for the way that women understand themselves in relationship to health and fitness."

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User comments : 12

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bredmond
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 15, 2012
This warrants further studies. here is another article that linkes facebook time with bodyh image: http://www.virtua...me/17155 . anxiety over body image can cause a lot of problems for people, and the extent and dynamics of the issue is still unclear. Is it better for women to learn to accept their bodies through exposure to others? or is it actually harmful? Similarly, is porn healthy for adults? or unhealthy? My comments are very open-ended, but the point is it is best to have data and a full understanding of the issue. we should understand what is truely best for our health, and what we should do to be the most healthy.
bugmenot23
1 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2012
How can we combat "body anxiety" for women? Burkhas in fitting rooms? Making Facebook off limits to females?
Vendicar_Decarian
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2012
Two words...

Toilet Cam.

They could being in some extra income for corporate management in the era of Libertarian/Randite Free Marketism.
RitchieGuy
1 / 5 (6) Mar 17, 2012
LOL. . .Venditard is overwhelmed with toilet issues. His mama flushed away his poop before he was finished pooping and he hated her because he truly wanted to put his poop in a box and keep it next to his bed. . .thus his fixation on toilets.
Poor Venditardo never gets off on the thought of all those naked women in the locker room. Instead, his thoughts wander to corporate management and politics instead of the female body. What a loser.
Vendicar_Decarian
4 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2012
RichieTard would rather people not realize that in an unregulated free market, unregulated businesses would be free to market scenes from their dressing rooms or bathrooms.

Unless of course, there are regulations created by da evils gubderment to criminalize such things.

Poor RichieTard. So wrong. So transparent.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (8) Mar 17, 2012
This is some American (US) complex. East european women generally enjoy being naked.
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2012
You are just gong to make RichieTard jealous. And you know how kookie he gets when he is jealous.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2012
LOL. . .Venditard is overwhelmed with toilet issues. His mama flushed away his poop before he was finished pooping and he hated her because he truly wanted to put his poop in a box and keep it next to his bed. . .thus his fixation on toilets.
Poor Venditardo never gets off on the thought of all those naked women in the locker room. Instead, his thoughts wander to corporate management and politics instead of the female body. What a loser.
Sorry ritchie youve been reported again for offensive language, pointless verbiage, being egregiously off-topic, lying through your teeth, and demeaning this site by treating it like a chatroom. Go back to 4chan will you?
Tausch
1 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2012
...society constructed behavior...


...and one thousand words (the posted article) describing the effects and outcomes of society's constructed behaviors.
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2012
RichieTard would rather people not realize that in an unregulated free market, unregulated businesses would be free to market scenes from their dressing rooms or bathrooms.


This kind of thing rarely happens in a free market, and it does (rarely) happen in heavily regulated markets. Businesses, wanting business not unhappy customers or employees, would not allow such cameras, and would immediately fire anyone who placed such a camera. One could make the case, that violations of privacy such as this, are more problems in less free countries, as the government is often in bed with the offenders.

Businesses already use cameras to monitor their inventory, as evidenced by all the cameras placed in plain sight (but not in dressing rooms or bathrooms).
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2012
This kind of thing rarely happens in a free market
Being from a country that was forced to change systems overnight, I am in a greater position to qualify that opinion as BS. I'm not doubting your intellect or capabilities for analysis, but we have real experience in that venue. In Russia EVERYTHING was for sale, even the law. Virtually everything that was not illegal was attempted repeatedly, and a lot of blood was spilled deciding these issues with fists, bombs, fires, backdoor dealing, guns and broken bottles.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Mar 19, 2012
Since there is already financial incentives present to do it when it is against the law, only a fool would believe that it will not even become more popular once it is legalized through corporate deregulation.

"This kind of thing rarely happens in a free market" - ForFreeTards