Another Blog About Bodies
I've discussed bodies before, and this blog once again involves talking about the human body - especially my human body. There is no gentle lead-up. I begin from the outset. If this is something that offends or disgusts you, I suggest that you skip this blog - the next one might be less graphic.
I had been swimming, and I was in the changing room. In the mirror I caught sight of a naked body standing there. There was nothing remarkable about this body. It was a man's body - that is all. I was very surprised when I shut the locker door to see that my own head belonged to this unfamiliar nude figure. Last time I had bothered to look; this wasn't what my own body looked like.
This is not so surprising to me. When I was growing up, we never really made any reference to the fact that we were corporeal beings. Bathroom doors remained locked at all times. Beach holidays meant the boys changing under towels and the girls changing underneath this toilet-tent-like garment with an elasticated neck. Both methods involved contortion and wriggling and fear that someone might be looking at us long enough to catch something pink flop out unexpectedly. There was a cognitive dissonance in how we thought about our bodies - we never acknowledged the fact that being inside them was the only place we could inhabit; there was little mention of flesh or function. Even the word 'fart' was forbidden. In fact, I don't think anyone ever passed wind throughout my entire childhood - and I am certain that no one ever 'farted'.
Changing rooms have never been happy places for me. At school, I would physically shrink behind the locker doors and get out of there as soon as possible. Nothing traumatic ever happened - as far as I can remember. I was never the victim of any changing room cruelty. We had one PE teacher who would insist on us parading into the large communal showers, and would stand there until he could guarantee that all the boys had gone through. I don't think his motives were suspicious; he also took us for maths and he probably didn't want the smell of adolescent body odour during a double lesson. Even now, I feel a bit sick whenever I go into the changing rooms. Beyond the ordeal of going to an all boys' school, the stress involved is simply all about getting naked in front of strangers.
Times have changed. My own children both know how to unlock the bathroom door from the outside. The idea of the bathroom being a sacred or private place is unknown to them. I could be in the shower, or sitting on the loo, and if one of them wants something then they see it as perfectly normal to just unlock the door and come in. The implication of this is that there is nowhere in the house where I can get some piece and quiet. So, if I choose to extend my visit to the bathroom because I want to read a newspaper article, or I'm mid way through a game of scrabble on my iPad; I have to scream at them when I hear them approaching the door as if my life depended on it. They are slowly beginning to realise - the bathroom is a place I go to when I just want to be alone.
I take both our children swimming weekly. The freedom which they display in taking their clothes off in a public space startles me. Even before I have unpacked their swimming kit from the rucksack, they are both naked. It must seem strange to them that their father always huddles behind a locker door to get changed and also always showers in one of the few cubicles with a door; they choose the open plan ones so that they can entertain each other doing whatever it is that they do - I honestly don't know as I'm far too stressed to notice, but they seem to involve a lot of splashing and noise and it earns disapproving looks from others using the changing rooms.
For our son, getting changed in a public space is a completely natural activity. At school he has to change in or out of ballet clothes at least four times a day. My feelings of shame or embarrassment are something foreign to him. He just wouldn't have time to indulge them. Also, during ballet classes, his body is under non-stop scrutiny: lines, shapes and timings are commented on constantly. When I was his age I would have crumbled under such a microscope of relentless physical dissection. Even now - especially now, as I focus on the beginning of middle-age decline - I wouldn't survive comments about how I look or the way I move. And yet our son seems entirely comfortable with this culture of physical exhibitionism and continual assessment. He has an ease with his body of which I am envious. Already I have learned much from him. While I am not nearly at his level of physical comfort and kinetic precision, I am happier living in my God-given body and taking up my rightful amount of space than I have ever been. Even though feelings of shame and embarrassment still linger, it is not nearly as bad as it once was. I wish that in my awkward and cumbersome twenties our son had been around to lead by example and show me the way so clearly. But, that of course would have been impossible.