Last year I spent almost all my nonworking hours in a sweaty subterranean boxing gym in lower Manhattan, training for a fight. And almost every night, after a few hours of hitting the bags, I would limp to the sorry excuse for a locker room and strip before a dozen guys fighting for space on the single long bench separating three moldy, barely curtained showerheads from a toilet.
Some of my best memories of those months emerged from that locker room, where I talked shop with a rotating cast of boxers, taking in the startling diversity of their bodies: the heavyweights with their drooping breasts moving aside for the 120-pound feather-weights who picked their way, pantherlike, among us. Men of every size and color—freckled, scarred or tattooed like me—navigated a space smaller than my studio apartment with the assurance of a group accustomed to nimble footwork and tuning out the sight of another guy’s flopping member.
After the fight, I joined the high-end gym across from my Union Square office. Its tiled, wood-paneled locker room with glass-door shower stalls and clinical atmosphere immediately made me feel strange, nearly feral. Here men changed in hushed and concentrated silence. Aside from a few peacocky muscle bros who strutted with practiced nonchalance, we undressed in the showers or corners, exposing ourselves for no more than a second. After a few weeks I found myself missing the stinking, toilet-paper-strewn locker room at the boxing gym. I started to feel that in our privacy we were tacitly agreeing we had something shameful to hide.
It wasn’t always this way. S3 Design co-founder Bryan Dunkelberger, who has done design work for Equinox and other gyms, says gang showers were the standard as late as the 1990s. He’s quick to add that today’s gym user would “revolt” at the idea. “People are more modest now versus the 1960s,” he says. Rising demand for amenities that he helped pioneer is partly to blame. “You can’t think of too many times in life when you’re going to stand naked in public,” he says. “If you ask somebody if they’d like to shower in front of 10 men or in a stall, most would take the stall.”
He’s right. But what if our need for isolation isn’t rooted in modesty but in something darker—something more like shame?
Brené Brown, a University of Houston research professor, defines shame as “the fear of disconnection,” whose roots lie in “excruciating vulnerability.” In a 2010 TED Talk she said, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
As a trans man, my instinct is to hide my nudity. It’s worth noting that I can pass, which means my gender is rarely questioned. (For those in a less privileged position, fighting for the right to safely use a locker room often means arguing for single-stall changing areas.) But I was surprised at both how easy it was to be exposed at the boxing gym and how meaningful it could be. When a brusque guy from the Bronx asked me about the scars crisscrossing my chest and I mumbled something about a car accident, a man who overheard chastised the questioner for being rude. After a few weeks of towel-and-shorts acrobatics, I realized no one would admit to looking at my dick in the first place. Although the implications were troubling, the result was a feeling of freedom I’d never known in this body.
Something in me had shifted in that cramped gym downtown. When I glimpsed myself in the filthy mirror, surrounded by men of all shapes and sizes, I saw my body clearly, liberated from shame: functional, muscled and with a story all its own. My new gym took that freedom away.
By the 2000s, the gang shower had died, coinciding with the rise of metrosexuals—those Gen X and older millennials suddenly the target of marketing campaigns touting the urbanity of caring about the shape of your abs and the fit of your shirt.
The “metrosexual effect,” as R. Tyson Smith, sociologist and author of Fighting for Recognition: Identity, Masculinity and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling, calls it, challenged norms of masculinity, but Smith sees the result as a net negative. “The policing of bodies we’ve traditionally reserved for women has extended to mean that those anxieties are felt more by men,” he says. “That’s not a gain for feminism.”
Dunkelberger traces the move toward modesty in locker-room design to the 1980s, when fitness culture graduated from YMCAs and high school gyms to a spin-crazed, Richard Simmons–style middle-class commodity. Baby boomers were raised on spartan facilities that prized functionality; Gen Xers and millennials grew up expecting something very different. “Millennials hit college, where locker rooms still had gang showers, and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Dunkelberger says.
In Smith’s view, the move toward gym modesty has more complicated origins than consumer preference. He cites another trend of the 1970s and 1980s as a major culprit: the rise of a visible post-Stonewall gay movement. “With gay liberation came the idea that anyone can be gay,” he says, and that gave the gang shower a very different meaning. “I have to believe that in a post-closet society there’s also a secondary response, a heightened concern around privacy in more intimate spaces.”
Dunkelberger’s locker-room designs, which balance the demand for privacy with open space, seem to highlight that concern. “The more privacy you provide, the more opportunity for mischief,” he says. His team now situates saunas in high-traffic areas, “so you feel less like you can go back there and hide.”
The irony is that the modern locker room provides only the illusion of privacy: Every body within is under constant watch. “We want to lay it out so staff members can walk from the front to the back and see everything,” Dunkelberger says. “It’s a funny balance. The last thing you want is someone to walk into a locker room and not feel comfortable and safe.”
For Dunkelberger, gyms give customers what they want: more space, more privacy, more walls. I for one am glad my gym doesn’t have a gang shower, but not because I’m ashamed. It’s because my body is in danger—because most men haven’t seen a body that looks like mine. The way things are going, very few ever will.
Even after I began injecting testosterone, I would blur parts of myself when facing a mirror. Some nights when my coach and I closed the boxing gym and I was the only guy left, I would turn toward the mirror above the sinks, nude, and stay there for a few seconds, practicing making myself visible. I highly recommend it.
Tonight after work, I’ll go to the gym across the street and change in the shower. I’ll be grateful for the amenity, but I’ll wrestle with the implication. Stripping down, I’ll imagine a world where guys like me can relax, exposed as the men we are. And picturing such a world—positioning my towel just so, walking back to face my locker—I’ll think, as I always do, that this isn’t it.