Men at a beach, even one reserved for nudists, are never truly naked. Well, not in the sense that they are in a locker room. It’s not just that the men on the beach are in the company of others, which in itself is a distraction that hinders the observation of their nakedness. It’s more that they are invested with their roles as friend or father, and doing something, like opening a sea urchin for their son or slathering sunscreen on a lover’s back, or just talking or reading; somehow action clothes them in a way that is missing from the locker room. The nakedness of a locker room is a pure state of undress, the equivalence in flesh of a cappella song. There are, of course, scraps of biography cast about the locker benches that give a clue to the identity of these bodies —the Gucci gym bag, the discount shaving cream, socks that pill, a frayed collegiate knapsack and Aussie Bum briefs—but they are like endnotes in a paper that tells a good story: you read them, if at all, only after you’ve finished the main body of the text.
I don’t really know how comfortable the men at my gym are in their nakedness. I imagine most are. Or they’ve just accepted it, since the only way around it would be to wrap a towel around you as you slip off your shorts and jockstrap, get dressed and head off to work with a sticky sheen of sweat (which, if repeated often enough, would just earn you both ridicule and a reputation). I actually think it might even be liberating for some not to have to try to be better or someone other than who they are.
Anyway, there’s no point in trying, since you can’t compensate for whatever shortcomings you feel you might have. The locker room is the great leveler, where the beautiful actor will head to the showers sporting a flabby ring of belly fat, the young investment banker with a back overrun by a colony of crimson pimples, where a man with a hooked nose and pockmarked face will expose perfectly molded lats that flare like a cobra’s hood. Granted, these are extremes, as are nipples no bigger than a lentil and those the size of a heavy rivet (also to be observed), and the rare Adonis and Ephialtes make their appearance, but mainly the locker room is a place where the normal distribution reigns…and that applies as well to the appendage most men silently compare themselves on. Most of the bodies are just, well, average bodies. Even if bench presses have pumped up the chest an inch or two, and squats have put meat on the quads, gravity has usually take its toll and the buttocks sag a bit, like a pair of slightly deflated punching bags. And the pleasures of bar and table have exacted their price, too, and the hips are now padded with a handle of body fat. In most cases hair grows in the usual places, and most of the time conventionally wispy, though now and then thatched.
The locker room also holds a collection of secret tales, and written on the pages of the naked skin of the menwho change there. But the stories are censored whodunits in which only the corpse of the victim is revealed and at times the weapon found. We can see the traces left by the surgeon’s scalpel—the long deep furrow ploughed on the chest of one man and the buttonhole scars of a laparoscopic appendectomy on another’s—and the marks by the tattooer’s needle, though we don’t what obsession led the young weightlifter to have a dolphin inked on his lower abdomen with its snout resting on his shaved pubes. We see the disfigurations occasioned by a moment of carelessness or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but are left to imagine the circumstances of the fall, the slip of the knife, the sudden jerk of the power saw. But we also note a pecan-shaped protuberance of a hernia waiting to be repaired, the ropey tentacles of phlebitis, a knob of a cyst in the nape of the neck: tales of ‘crime’ yet to be committed.
As a child in grammar school I hated the locker room. It was both introit and recessional to an hour of embarrassment. I was a hopelessly uncoordinated skinny bookish kid and school athletics, at least back then, were exclusively devoted to team sports in which coordination, and to only a slightly lesser extent, size and strength, played an important role—the unholy trinity of football, basketball and baseball. You had to be pretty awful to get a “D” in gym, but I managed to do so. In any other subject my ineptitude would have gotten me failed, but I suppose just showing up for gym class must have counted and that saved me, together with a two-week reprieve from the “Big Three” in which we played soccer and I found out I could run, if not faster, then certainly longer than practically anyone else.
I like the locker room now. I like the small talk with another swimmer after a session in the pool. I like its camaraderie and the good people I’ve met there, and the small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness these men have shown me—the generous discount a swimmer gave me at his clothing store, the oranges another had picked from his grove in the country. And I like the bodies I see, bodies (to borrow a phrase of Auden’s) “made in God’s image but already warped,” but beautiful in their own way.
The photo on today’s post (“Other Skins”) is a work by Canadian artist Scott Treleaven, whose works is currently being exhibited at the Breeder (Iasonos 45) . The show runs till March 25th.