Locker rooms terrify me.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve avoided them at all costs. Drowning in a closet of homophobic shame and insecurity for most of my life, I hated the idea of an unsupervised male-only space where we were expected to take our clothes off and, at least according to Donald Trump, release our insuppressible heterosexuality. On my first day of middle school gym class, I was the only kid to change in a toilet stall, which would soon become my bizarre box of refuge from the masculine norms outside.
Fast forward a few years. I’m wedged between the members of my Outdoor Action group beneath our low-hanging tarp. It was one of those late-night conversations where it’s too dark to know who’s still awake, so you just stare at the ceiling and listen to disembodied voices.
“Wait. What did you just say?”
“We shower together.”
“What do you mean?”
“The whole team showers together.”
“Is that weird for you?”
Given my complex relationship with locker rooms in general, I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about this new intel re: Princeton’s athletic teams. Where I come from, even athletes don’t take their underwear off around each other, let alone bathe together. I tried imagining myself showering with a roomful of other guys and it only made me sink deeper into my sleeping bag. More than anything though, I was baffled that this was normal.
Soon after returning from the woods, I messaged some athlete friends in order to hear their takes. A few days later, I narrowed my focus and sought meetings specifically with gay and bi athletes – partly because I was intrigued by their seemingly paradoxical identities, but mostly because I was hoping to discover some muckraker story about rampant homophobia and violent locker room bullying – a story I liked to imagine was behind my own fear of locker rooms (for the sake of transparency: I spoke with ten athletes from nine teams – three gay-identifying men, two bi-identifying men, two straight-identifying men, and three gay-identifying women).
The rumors you’ve heard are true. If you’re an athlete at Princeton, you’re probably going to be expected to shower communally with your team. Irrespective of sport, the locker room showers have no – or few – dividers between them.
As I quickly learned, showering in the locker rooms makes sense for most athletes. In one stop, you can change, wash off the workout, and pack up for the day without any detours back to the dorms. And when I asked about the lack of dividers, the athletes either shrugged or took a few moments to think of a reasonable way to explain it to an outsider.
According to one athlete, the absence of dividers in the football locker room is “most efficient from a space usage standpoint right now.”
Another athlete – who asked to be called Electra for this article – emphasized the efficiency of showering so openly: “It makes it easier… you don’t have to worry about holding a towel up around you and carrying stuff.”
For one baseball player, being naked with his teammates felt like an important bonding experience: “Once you have a conversation naked, baring everything, it creates a different kind of connection. You’ve seen everything they have. It builds a sense of community.”
“After your team wins you’re having a fucking party in the shower,” Electra added.
I was skeptical – I didn’t think they were lying, but I found it hard to believe any adolescent could be socialized to value this experience, let alone a gay athlete in a single-sex locker room. Were these athletes just trying to hide their discomfort from me?
Unfortunately for me, I found no buried journalistic treasure. According to almost everyone I spoke to the awkwardness of showering communally dissolves pretty quickly. Although the adjustment period varied from person to person, almost everyone I interviewed expressed a preference for maintaining status quo rather than switching to curtained showers.
When describing their inaugural visit to the shower room, they almost unanimously used words like “intimidating,” “surprising,” even “horrifying.” As one first-year rower still adjusting to the showers in the boathouse described, “it just makes me uncomfortable… I don’t want to show myself… It feels to me like a very intimate thing.”
For Electra, the initial discomfort hit before even entering the showers: “It wasn’t in the shower where I was first surprised; it was in the locker room…because everybody just gets butt naked in the locker room.” One track and field sprinter recalled his self-consciousness those first few days. While everyone else unabashedly undressed after practice, he was “slow, self-conscious, covering [him]self.”
Nevertheless, it all seemed to fade after their first or second foray into the shower room.
Electra, who joined her team in the showers within the first few days of the season, explained: “You can spend 3 weeks being really uncomfortable over this or you can just get naked today. You’re uncomfortable for a day and then you get over it.” Now, as an upperclassman, she smiles as she describes the freshmen on their first day in the showers: “When one of them joins the shower there will be a big welcome yell, which I’m sure embarrasses them.”
Even for the queer athletes I met, the space feels comfortable after an appropriate adjustment period. As a gay diver on the swim team explained: “You really just turn your sexuality off when you’re in that setting.” For Electra, who identifies as lesbian, the team “is completely desexualized. It is impossible for me to sexualize people who are my teammates and friends. It’s one of those unspoken sports rules; it’s blatantly obvious. You don’t do that.” Showering together is just “business as usual.”
When I asked Electra about any homophobic encounters with her team, she shook her head energetically. “Gay is cool, dude. Nobody on my team gives a shit.” As a lesbian on the softball team quipped, “more than anything [my sexuality has] been kinda sorta a joke [on the team],” a habit she illustrated by sharing some of her teammates’ funniest “lesbian on a softball team” jokes.
For one of the gay football players, who has been publicly out for over a year, the football locker room is “a fun locker room to be in.” Even though “most guys talk about girls – I recognize that I’m a minority on that front,” he hasn’t felt ostracized in any way by his team.
A gay diver observed that “I’ve probably been exposed here to more slurs than I was in high school, but that’s more because of the difficulty of breaking habits than it is actual sentiment about the LGBT community.” As one bisexual male athlete explained to me, “gay athletes exist in a culture where non-heterosexuality and athletics don’t really mix.” That said, he couldn’t think of any specific incident at Princeton that followed from this general attitude.
Parting somewhat from the norm, a second gay diver who spoke with me expressed feeling “some sense of otherness” on his team. He noted a number of heteronormative experiences on the swim team, including an icebreaker exercise asking what in women turned them on the most. Although the team’s culture has become significantly more welcoming over the past number of years, he reported hearing stories about his team’s “gay room” in the 1970s – a hotel room assigned to the suspected gay members of the swim team during their annual training trip to Florida.
After listening to the stories of these athletes, I noticed my own hang-ups fading too. What initially sounded so unbelievable began to feel not only normal, but also ideal. Growing more conscious of my own socialization, I started thinking back to the photographs of me and my siblings in the bathtub together as toddlers. Why do grown-ups have such a deep fear of nakedness in ourselves and others? And on what basis do we differentiate between sexual spaces and bodies and their platonic counterparts? At least according to the athletes I met, it can be rewarding to actively redefine these boundaries, especially as part of a community norm.
Don’t get me wrong, you won’t find me showering with you naked any time soon. But I’m beginning to wonder whether I might give locker rooms another chance. For all I know, my future husband is waiting for me outside the toilet stall.