Tales of the Small College Town

(With apologies to Armistead Maupin.)  A correspondent writes:

Dear Historiann–

I work out at a gym off campus.  I have often seen some of my colleagues and one of my graduate students in various states of undress, including nudity.  Likewise, they have seen me the same way.  While I am generally very comfortable being naked in front of others, I have found that these encounters make me slightly uncomfortable.  They also make me laugh.  What is the etiquette for seeing your colleagues and your students naked in the gym locker room?  I sure could use some advice.

Heh.  I’ve never been so grateful for my 33 mile commute as I am today!

Dear readers, let me throw this one out to you.  While I’ve lived in college towns for the past 14 years, they weren’t the towns where my university was located, so while I appreciate that this is a problem for many uni faculty and students, I’m not the best person to answer this question.  (Come to think of it, I’ve never regularly showered anywhere but home.  I’m a runner–I don’t need a gym.)  What do you think?  What is locker-room etiquette anyway, besides “don’t stare” and/or “acknowledge your colleague/student but only above the collar bone?”

Related but not immediately relevant confession:  I’m just not into all of the body care in public facilities that’s become nearly de rigeur over the past decade.  What’s with all the spas and waxing everywhere, all of the time?  It’s like middle-class women are all ancient Romans, getting oiled up and wiped down by strigil-wielding  attendants.  Thanks, but no thanks!

25 thoughts on “Tales of the Small College Town

  1. Locker room etiquette for men may be different from locker room etiquette for women, so I can only speak to the former, but I think a simple nod is quite sufficient. I also cultivate the appearance of constantly being in a hurry to avoid uninvited naked-time conversation, so this has never really been a problem for me. But apparently in Japan it’s customary for a professor to go the sauna with his or her students, so I guess it could be worse, right?


  2. This is totally normal in field sciences and to various degrees in some other cultures. Where it’s normal, it’s not uncomfortable. Yes, the etiquette is to not stare, and talk as though you were both dressed, which extends to locker rooms as well. Laughing would probably be pretty inappropriate though!


  3. I’ve always lived close enough to change at home and walk over (as now) or been at places that had separate faculty facilities–which latter arrangement obliviated at least part of the issue. Actually, just being in the gym itself, to say nothing of the locker room, in student-dominated environments, can be a bit weird for some faculty, but I’ve pretty much let that all go. Just get into your treadmill trance and think about tomorrow’s meeting of the faculty development and infrastructure committee. Or is that the curriculum dynamics and maintenance committee?


  4. It’s been a while since I’ve had to deal with this, but I’d add maybe follow their lead? If the student/colleague seems friendly/eager to say hello, chat away; if they seem uncomfortable, feel free to ignore.

    A grad school friend of mine said one of the good things about wearing glasses was that in the showers at the school gym, she couldn’t really see anyone anyway. So cultivating near-sightedness might be a strategy.

    And myself, I am an ancient Roman. I love massages and spas and all that stuff. Not so much the waxing, though.


  5. I can’t speak for the women’s room, but for men the etiquette is to nod in recognition and occasionally to exchange a few words, generally about what happened in the gym. I’ve sometimes been asked about my shoes even though I’m not wearing them (or anything else).

    I have noticed that in the men’s locker room, it’s the old men (mostly faculty) who walk between locker and shower (and urinal) naked, despite our pot bellies and scraggly greying chest hair. The young men (mostly students), despite their flat stomachs and smooth chests, strategically position their locker doors when changing and wrap themselves in towels until the last possible moment.


  6. Early on, I was a member of the campus gym (free for students; faculty and staff had to join). It was never an issue, mostly because like Indyanna, I usually changed at home. I did have a colleague who specifically chose to go off-campus because she didn’t want to run into students. She’s also more formal than I am, in general.

    But really…I’d say don’t stare; say hello–pretty much what you’d do if you ran into anyone else out of context, for example, your pastor or priest, daycare provider, your kid’s school teacher….


  7. I don’t have this issue now, because I live in a building with a gym, so I can just take the elevator up and shower at home. But I did at my previous job. I found that it worked best to ignore the fact that we were naked. Say hello in passing, as you would if you ran into someone in, say, the stacks of the library (to which a locker room has always seemed to me to bear an uncanny resemblance). Neither is a place to stand around and talk, because you are there for another purpose.


  8. I think a lot of this depends on regional culture/ culture of the gym itself. I’ve belonged to two gyms where I live, both of which have a lot of old people/families as members (i.e., people don’t dress up to work out or prance and preen showing off their toned bodies and checking one another out) and I live in a pretty modest part of the country. In both cases, people either just showed up in their work-out clothes and then went home to shower (thus eliminating the issue altogether) or quickly changed looking at the locker. I’ve never belonged to my campus gym (even though it’s free) mainly because I need to leave work when the workday is through – hanging around longer than I have to makes me feel twitchy, and pretty much eliminates any stress-relieving benefits of exercise.


  9. When I was in college I walked into the steam room and nearly fainted when I saw my Spenser prof sitting there. We were both starkers. She was utterly gracious, acted as if the encounter were a normal one, and I took my seat. I did my best to project a mature attitude, closed my eyes and that was that.

    I doubt she remembered it for more than a nanosecond, but I still do, because she was more important to me than I to her.


  10. Our gym has separate areas for students and faculty/staff. Maybe we are just a chatty crowd but I’ve met interesting people, engaged in interesting conversations, and learned a few things about campus and state politics in the locker room. Networking.

    Also, what Emily said about field sciences. I have worked in small tent camps in the middle of a desert, no trees, no tall rocks, no nothing. You just do what you need to do and people are polite. The issue I think, is expectations. In that setting, expectations are clear.


  11. One great feature of my old uni was a huge fitness center with separate locker rooms, four in total, for students and faculty/staff, like truffula’s. I miss it …

    … but still shudder recalling the male student from five years ago who found me there lying supine, legs spread open at about 40 degrees, feet in stirrup-like holders, doing some repeated exercise that probably had no value. He came by to chat about heaven knows what. It would have been awkward for him to look me in the eye because that would have forced him to stand between my legs–so he chose to aim his unending conversational arc at my flattened-out breasts. I wanted to flee, but my feet were locked in.


  12. Where I am many white people change at home since locker rooms are integrated now and they would thus have to change and shower with persons of color. Other people always change at home for reasons having to do with modesty. So, locker rooms are mostly empty of locals; in them are Scandinavians like me and other foreigners who don’t have all these issues about the body that Americans have.

    But, I don’t remember this being a problem. I’ve had faculty dressing in the university gym locker rooms since freshman year. Swimming in the pool, lifting weights, they didn’t seem to get upset and they didn’t bother me.

    When I became a professor, my co graduate students informed me that I ought to now feel funny about sharing gym facilities with my students. Ought to need to keep a strict separation, etc. I’m not at all the Good-by Mr. Chips type of professor and I don’t seek out students haunts but we’re all members of the university, right – can’t we then all use it???

    I had one afternoon class once that *all* went to the gym after class – we’d all independently figured out it was our best workout hour. We weren’t going to do the same things in the gym, but we did migrate en masse, and it was just funny. I made a rule that people could chit chat with me but that no office hour type conversation could be held in gym.


  13. P.S. re LadyProf’s comment – that is why I am Scandinavian and weird, I guess, I think I’d have not noticed those things and just had the conversation while continuing to pump iron. In fact, I think I must have done this already a few times.

    However, I hear from younger male faculty that having the senior types walk up to them naked in the gym, sticking out their hand and saying things like, “Great to meet you, I hear you are doing wonderful research on [whatver], makes them really uncomfortable.”


  14. Ha! I had just this thought last year when I was a member of an on-campus gym. I really don’t care much about seeing or being seen naked at the gym, but this is just more information than students and professors really want to have about each other.

    In the end, I just told myself a version of Dr. Radical’s story: if it ever happens, likely they’ll be much more embarrassed than I am. My real anxiety was making my students uncomfortable. So I made a point of changing in an out-of-the-way corner.


  15. I don’t know from experience, as I am also a walk/run-home-and-change-there type, but I’d probably 1) try not to look, or at least not to stare, and 2) make conversation if they initiate it, but probably not otherwise. I am shy but not painfully so, and also unaccustomed to nudity but not freaked out by it.

    (I would sometimes run into TAs and professors — more frequently TAs — at the gym, but in the weight room rather than the locker room. I liked seeing them there, and would almost always go over and chat.)


  16. Well, well, well, as one who served in the military and then used the university gym with whoever happens to be there, I can say: no big deal. Everyone has about the same equipment.

    Everything goes really. You gain the respect of your soldiers or students in your daily dressed contacts. After that they couldn’t care less whether you are dressed or not.

    To be extra polite, wear a hat.


  17. When I was on a post-doc years ago, I would swim at lunch time, and then sit in the sauna. I remember being embarrassed the first time I ran into a student at the sauna, but just decided that we were doing what we were doing, and the sauna etiquette was “don’t talk”, so that was easy. When I’ve been swimming, the rule always seemed to be just “don’t stare”. I loved seeing the different body shapes, though.

    I occasionally go to the gym on my way home from work, but I’ve never run into a student or colleague while changing. I have run into colleagues while working out who want to talk about business, and I’m like, “Dude, can’t you see I’m trying to do my workout?” But that’s annoying because if I’m at the gym, I’m trying NOT to think about work. But in my SMALL town, there are two gyms to choose from, so you do run into people.


  18. I’m faculty at a SLAC in a very small town. I’m really really uncomfortable with my students seeing me naked – I just don’t want to go there. I also largely don’t invite them to my house, even though it is kind of a thing for faculty here. The only hard part of living in a small town for me is the lack of any anonymity, and I make a point of putting some separation between my college and home life where I can.

    After running into a student in the showers once (I was not naked, as I usually shower in my bathing suit after swimming since I’m just rinsing off), I went ahead and joined the town gym instead.


  19. I work at a K-12 that has a great gym facility. A few years ago, the Upper School history teachers decided to do Wednesday work-out day after school. We usually talked shop on the machines while the one teacher who was also the cross-country coach showed the other two of us what to do. Our students would frequently come to find us there (which was fine by us) if they had a question or a form to sign or something like that. I miss that. (Some rule changes on the school day start and stop time and who could use the gym when killed that particular practice).


  20. “You gain the respect of your soldiers or students in your daily dressed contacts. After that they couldn’t care less whether you are dressed or not.”

    Well said, koshembos

    And on the subject of hats….I learned a long time ago that if you really don’t want to be seen by your students, just change your normal mode slightly. I once was in line at the coffee shop next to one of my advisees, a young woman I saw at least once a week in a tutorial. I was in a baseball cap and sunglasses. Absolutely no signs of recognition on her part. None.

    That first time it was an accident…since I don’t always want to engage when I run into students in the summer (it was summer), I filed that away for future reference.


  21. Eh. I’d rather not have my students see me starkers, but if they do, they do. Really don’t care about my colleagues female or male (it would be weirder with some than others — of either sex). I would be fine with going to a spa with the university pres., a woman, maybe ok with my boss’s boss (male, but his wife is a friend and he works out at my gym), and totally not ok with my dean. That would just be weird. Except that I’d probably get over it. It’s just bodies.


  22. Thanks, everyone, for your commiseration, advice, and good humor! It’s so interesting that so many of you can relate to my reader’s question about locker room etiquette.

    After I posted yesterday, I was reminded of two times in my life when I used a gym and locker room: in graduate school, when I’d run on the Penn track and use the steam room and showers there, and then when I was teaching at a university as a lecturer before I finished my Ph.D. In both cases, there were so few women on the History faculties that I never ran into professors or colleagues buck nekkid. In fact, the women’s locker rooms at both unis were pretty deserted compared to the men’s locker rooms.

    Jim way upthread makes an interesting observation about the greater comfort of the old and saggy bodies versus the discomfort/modesty of the young and firm. I guess even when we take our clothes off, the prevailing hierarchies are still quite operative. While in part I think greater comfort with one’s body is a positive sign of maturity, it’s also a privilege to be nekkid and/or display one’s body unashamedly in front of one’s inferiors. (I’m reminded of the elaborate assistance that Louis XIV required in toileting, ablutions, and getting dressed, or for a more recent example, Lyndon Johnson conducting meetings with his staff and congressmen from inside the toilet in the Oval Office. When the big guy needs to take a dump, the courtiers and peons don’t have the privilege of excusing themselves.)

    It’s also a (white) guy thing: most men aren’t evaluated primarily on their bodies or attractiveness–their power and influence comes from elsewhere, whereas even powerful women are very much evaluated on these things too and held to a higher standard than their male peers. (There are exceptions to this of course–elite athletes, for example, where proportionately there are a lot more black and brown men as compared to Wall Street boardrooms, Capitol Hill, and the White House.) While most older women in a locker room situation might feel more comfortable with their bodies than their younger and firmer peers, I bet they don’t feel quite as free to flop around and let it all hang out as their male peers.


  23. I guess there is something about the privileged male thing — they think people should deal with their bodies no matter what (and find them desirable, even, and so on).

    But I also think people are just a lot more puritanical now than when I was in college / graduate school.


  24. I guess I spent enough time playing sports and dealing with communal showers that I just don’t think about it. It is what it is. Follow the norms of the shower culture of the particular space and move on. But then again, I’m ok showering nekkid in those communal shower rooms (see: played sports). And there were also the college co-ed bathrooms. Yeah, I just don’t care.


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