In a recent disquieting article for the New York Times, Choire Sicha investigates a curious new challenge for gyms: Some men want to shower and change without ever being publicly nude, and they expect their gyms to build locker rooms that accommodate that desire. Drawing upon the experiences of gym managers and architects, Sicha explains that over the last quarter-century, men have grown increasingly uneasy with being naked in the locker room. While older men generally remain comfortable being undressed among others, younger ones insist on maximum privacy, pining for a way to strip, shower, and change clothes without even a flash of nudity.
There are probably all kinds of fascinating cultural and ethnographic factors behind this shift, which I hope others will explore. But to my mind, this problem can be resolved quite quickly—with a gentle reminder that if you are not comfortable being naked around other people, you are not a real adult.
As a child and a teenager, public nudity is scary. Puberty does strange things to our bodies, and we spend much of our younger years fretting about the development (or lack thereof) of our secondary sex characteristics. That is why schools should not force children and teens to take group showers: The practice fosters anxiety and bullying and deprives children of some bodily autonomy. It makes good sense to encourage teens to grow comfortable with their changing bodies in private.
But there is really no rational reason to remain afraid of public nudity once you are an adult. Your body looks more or less like everyone else’s, especially everyone else with the same sex. The fear driving men to slide their underwear on under their towels is rooted squarely in insecurity, an insecurity about one’s body and genitals picked up during pubescence. That’s fine—we all have insecurities—but that doesn’t make the insecurity healthy. It makes it an irrational phobia, one that should be conquered, not accommodated. (Trans people, who may face a legitimate threat of harassment should they disrobe, are the only adults who have a rational basis for avoiding public nudity.)
The process of conquering irrational phobias picked up during youth is typically called “growing up.” Many children are afraid of sharks, but we do not let them veto a family beach trip. Many preteens are afraid of being teased in the classroom, but we do not let them quit school. Many teenagers are afraid of seeming uncool if they don’t drink, but we don’t give them a fake ID and a keg. Instead, we help young people work past their fears and take control of their lives: by wading into the ocean a few inches at a time; by ignoring or reporting the idiot who mocked you; by incentivizing responsible behavior for teens who drink little or no alcohol.
Because adults are mostly free to make their own mistakes, our society permits them to suffer from untreated phobias. We all know people who are scared to fly or pet a dog or leave the house. We cannot force them into therapy—but we should also refuse to alter our own habits to accommodate their neuroses.
The race to build nudity-free locker rooms demonstrates the dangers of countenancing and accommodating adult phobias. It normalizes unhealthy behavior (body shame and consciousness) and pressures others to adopt that behavior. Adults who are nervous about being naked around other adults are not rational and should not be treated as though they are. They are scared and insecure—and the only way they can work around their fear is to face it directly. I thought the standard locker room forced everyone to do just that, but Sicha writes otherwise:
Each day, thousands upon thousands of men in locker rooms nationwide struggle to put on their underwear while still covered chastely in shower towels, like horrible breathless arthropods molting into something tender-skinned. They writhe, still moist, into fresh clothes.
This is absurd. What, exactly, are these men afraid of? Other people seeing their genitals? If so, why? What is objectively frightening about that possibility? Are they afraid of being judged? If so, that distant (and pretty benign) possibility certainly does not justify modifying their behavior. Are they afraid gay men will leer at them? If so, I wish to assure them that we do not care what your nude body looks like. In fact, if anything, gay men are exceedingly self-conscious about not looking at other men’s private parts, since we are often (and unfairly) assumed to be creepily voyeuristic.
Gyms, and well-adjusted adults, should not let these childish anxieties dictate their decisions. Fear of nudity is a socialized trait, and it can be resolved by forcing yourself to be naked in a locker room. Once you’ve dared to remove your towel for a few moments on two or three occasions, you will stop being an apprehensive child and start being an actualized adult. You will be freed from the illogical chains of body consciousness. And, best of all, you will no longer be one of the breathless trembling molting arthropods who want to force their pubescent insecurities on the rest of us.