My first time at the YMCA, I stood dripping in my navy blue swimsuit against the pastel locker background of the women’s locker room. I wasn’t sure what to do. Change under my towel? Go to a stall? Peel off my swimsuit in that vast expanse of space, leaving me entirely vulnerable?
As I stood awkwardly contemplating, I looked around and what I came upon there shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. What I saw there moved with the grace of sunrise and felt as old and real as the canyon I spent my childhood hiking into. Naked women walked across the green-tinted, wet, tiled floor around me like beaming beacons of ghosts I had never imagined. The light was just so. White and beaming from long florescent bulbs above their heads so that they all glided around the foggied place like they didn’t belong to the real world. I want to describe every single body I saw that night because in a way I wasn’t expecting, they meant something to me. The woman with skin like a white elephant who spent so long putting her leg brace back on before she pulled up her socks. The black woman in the sauna with a plastic grocery bag tight over her hair, she rubbed vanilla scented body wash over her skin until she looked like a perfect batch of dark carmel heating on a stove. The woman stretched out below me who came in fully-clothed and while we talked about toes, of all things, undressed and lay down to read her book. Her belly-button ring, her rounded hip sticking up like a wide, rolling hill. The older asian woman with short hair who was incredibly flexible. She would step outside the sauna with her towel around her waist and put her head to her ankles.
What surprised me was not the nakedness, nor the candor of all of these women to be so perfectly at ease. What really got me thinking was the way their bodies were so imperfect, all of them. It was one of the more liberating hours I’ve experienced in a long time. I haven’t seen too many naked bodies, and the ones I have seen live exclusively in T.V. or in magazines. Supposedly perfect bodies that curve in all the right places and are smoothed and tan all over. In my head, I knew this barbie-body-mantra wasn’t reasonable and hardly realistic, but also, so easy to perpetuate and compare to, especially when I’ve been exposed to little else.
I don’t know if a sense of comradery is simply assumed by everyone in a situation like the locker room at the YMCA, but that is what I felt. Many women had stomachs that had clearly housed children at some point, breasts that had served their purpose and now seemed like symbols of the feminine. Younger women who were round and glowing. Some skin was smooth, but not all. Flat feet, wide calves, skinny arms, rolly backs.
Why I hadn’t supposed that all bodies are vastly different and not at all like what I’ve been cultured to believe, I can’t quite figure out. I’ve seen many people clothed, and they clearly aren’t going to be chosen for America’s next top model, but still it was honestly such a surprise and also a delight to realize that I am a part of something much larger than a few photoshopped magazine spreads or flashes of women in bikinis on fancy shows. I, with my large-hipped body and less than flat stomach am on the inside of something important. I am already part of the tribe.
I plan on going back, and I think I may be brave enough next time to take off that old, wet swimsuit and let myself be a part of something sacred.