I am putting on my workout gear in the change room at my Pilates studio when another exerciser comes apologizing that she needs to enter the change room: there was no space to hang her coat at the studio entrance. I acknowledge that it is, indeed, busy at the studio when I realize that I am usually the only one using the studio change room. Most clients enter and leave without changing clothes although they often exercise intensely. When I reflect upon my observation with Marianne who uses the same studio, she tells me that she recently published a paper on women’s experiences of changing in public change rooms and locker rooms. This is the conversation Marianne and I shared the other day.
Marianne's research reveals that the public change room can be a daunting space. "Many of us," she observes, "can picture them clearly; the rows and rows of lockers, the austere, hard benches, and the weight scales in the corner." For many women and girls, these spaces can bring about feelings of self-consciousness.
“They’re complex spaces,” she continues, “and there’s a lot going on for people who use them. For some, it doesn’t face them at all, but for others, these rooms can be intimidating.” When she recognized her own self-consciousness in these places, Marianne wondered if other women felt the same and decided to interview women familiar with such spaces to explore their experiences.
From her study, she found that women often felt self-conscious about changing in front of others, and often held up their own body in comparison to the ‘body beautiful’ slathered across women’s fitness and lifestyle magazines, as well as men’s magazines. Almost always, the women felt their bodies fell short of this ideal. Women also said they felt others could read their bodies in different ways when naked, and that they didn’t always have control over what others could see.
For example, one participant described her body as one that didn’t fit the stereotypical idea of ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’, yet she considered herself to be in good shape as she follows a regular fitness program. “But anyone who doesn’t know me, wouldn’t necessarily tell that from my body. And for some reason in the change room, I feel like something is exposed.”
Marianne explained that many of her participants shared a sense that their bodies told only one part of the story about who they were. Many women also recalled bad memories of changing in Phys Ed class when they were teenagers. “It was the worst thing to have to change in front of others at that age,” says one participant. “All I remember about Phys Ed in high school and junior high is the dread of changing in public. As an adult, it’s not quite as bad as it used to be, but I can’t completely shake that feeling”. When asked what was so difficult about undressing in school change rooms at that age, women generally agreed it had to do with the self-consciousness about their changing adolescent bodies, and also because it was often their first time having to change in front of others.
It’s important to point out that not everybody experiences modesty or self-consciousness. “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.” And another said, “It’s not really something I worry about, but I’m definitely aware of my body in a different way when I change in public.”
For women who didn’t mind changing, it seemed that being around real, live, moving bodies of different shapes and sizes put the unrealistic image of the fit feminine body in a different perspective.
Marianne points out that there are groups of women not represented in her study. For example, women who have played on team sports may have different experiences. As well, she says, it’s important to think about how women of different cultural backgrounds, physical abilities, and ages might experience the change room. Although designed as a generic, efficient space, the bodies that use and move through these spaces are diverse.
Marianne notes that the gym itself can be intimidating enough, with its complicated looking equipment, and all of those buff, sweating bodies. In their study, Martin-Ginis, Jung, and Gauvin show that women experience different degrees of confidence depending on whether or not there is a mirror in the space they are working out. For women who did not exercise a lot, mirrors tended to make them feel less confident. Mirrors also prompted women to focus mostly on what their body looked like, and not so much on how the exercise was performed. Yet fitness centers are becoming increasingly important in our health-conscious society. Women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities are turning to them in pursuit of health and recreation, a fit body, or for social connections. "Therefore," says Marianne, "the change room becomes even more important to think about."
What should be done to make the change room a friendlier space for women? Based on her research, Marianne suggests that more consideration be given to the diverse needs of women that use change rooms. She stresses however, that separate cubicles didn’t appear to be the answer. Many women in her study said that even if more private cubicles were available, they likely wouldn’t use them because then it would be obvious that they felt self-conscious. Therefore, Marianne suggests that we look more broadly at the ways society defines women’s bodies and the ways in which women develop relationships with their own bodies. She points out that even though we’ve been talking about and critiquing the ideal fit, beautiful body for many years, it’s still very salient and problematic for many women.
Clark, M. (2011). Whose eyes?: Women’s experiences of changing in a public change room. Phenomenology and Practice, 5, 57-69.
Martin-Ginis, K. A., Jung, M., & Gauvin, L. (2003). To see or not to see: The effects of
exercising in mirrored environments on sedentary women’s feeling states and self-efficacy. Health Psychology, 22, 354–361.
Marianne Clark, PhD student interested in women’s health and fitness. University of Alberta.