Between my return to running and my daughters’ swim lessons, I have recently been spending a lot of time in women’s locker rooms. And during this time, I’ve observed a few things about the locker room subculture: Mainly, that the older women get, the more confident they seem to be in their own skin — and in nothing but their own skin. Also, women who exercise together talk to one another. We talk in the showers and in the toilet stalls. We talk while toweling off, while adjusting our undergarments, and while applying deodorant. We just talk.
Once, while I was dressing my three-year-old after her 11 am swim lesson, an elderly woman wearing nothing but beige underpants started a conversation with me about modern methods of preschool swim instruction.
“My granddaughter in Ohio puts life vests on my great-grandkids when they swim in their pool! I just don’t hold with that kind of nonsense,” she told me. “You just throw ‘em in. That’s the only way they learn! They don’t use those vest things here, do they?” She paused for a moment, and then continued talking. “Don’t mind me, now, I just have to blow dry under my bosom. I find that they get a bit chafed if I just let them air dry.” And sure enough, she lifted each breast, waving the hair dryer underneath and around it.
At that moment, the thinking part of my brain froze completely, leaving my socially awkward self without a working filter. Words came out of my mouth. I started describing in detail the horrible sores my daughter got as a newborn from her diapers and how we, too, had to blow dry her private bits whenever we changed her. My elderly friend just looked at me funny and finished her blow drying.
* * *
I don’t do very well with locker room talk, mostly because I am shy around naked people. So when I find myself in a crowd of women in various stages of undress, I tend to do a lot of quiet observing. And in addition to noticing how freely other people seem to behave in a situation that makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I have noticed something else as well.
The women I see in the locker rooms are fit. They work out. They swim. They pump their bodies and they Zumba and they lift. They are active, and they are real.
But none of them – not one of them — possess a body that would be featured as is, with no retouching, in a fitness magazine. There are curves, and lots of them. There are smooth and generous curves, wrinkled curves, and lumpy curves. There are bodies with angles and planes, and there are bodies with definition and obvious strength.
These are beautiful bodies, but not one of them resembles in every particular the tanned, toned, impossibly long and lean examples our media gives us of what women who are “in shape” look like. And yet, these women are the most genuine examples of what it means to be living a healthy, active lifestyle.
It would be easy for me to give in to the temptation right now to rant about how the media flaunts utterly unattainable standards of what women’s bodies should look like. There is no question that the images of what is perceived as the definition of feminine beauty that we see in print and on screens are rarely anything other than airbrushed, elongated, and enhanced images of women whose profession is looking beautiful. It is hard not to get angry that these false images have so much power in our society.
But I am not going to go that route. Because we women are smarter than that. We are stronger than that. We are better than that.
We don’t need the glossy pages of magazines to tell us where our beauty lies. We have the power to decide for ourselves what it means to be fit and healthy — and beautiful.
Images are just that – images. They are as deep as the paper they are printed on, and last as long as the time it takes to scroll past them on your computer screen. But we are real. We run, and walk, and dance, and lift, and stretch, and we have careers and we mother children and we tend to relationships and we live. Above all, we live.
Some of the women I see in the locker room are marathon runners who wear double digit sizes. Others are tiny and toned, with a padding of extra skin around their stomachs as a reminder of the fact that they made another person. Many of the women are elderly, with bodies that will never be firm and young again. All of these women inspire me. And even though they probably don’t realize it, all of these women are beautiful, in their realness and in their strength.