ike so many humans, I have spent a lot of time flagellating my body with my mind. My chin is weak. My thighs too fat. My breasts too small, my hips too wide. I pinch the fat beside my armpits when donning a strapless dress, drawing my lips into a snickering frown. Well, that looks disgusting, I spit at the mirror, unzipping the dress and hanging it angrily on the dressing room hooks.
I inspect creeping wrinkles and rogue hairs — slavering on expensive lotions and plucking tiny black sprouts from my chin and upper lip, eyebrows and nipples — sighing all the while that my body is so badly wrought. So difficult to contain and master.
On my worst days I can loathe and lament the seeping of age into my skin and bones, grunting in the morning from a stiff back and shoulders, shaking my head that my body isn’t the perfectly taut lithe gazelle of a girl it was at 17. I zoom in on photos until my face is grotesque, analyzing the crevices and crannies, the maybe-degeneration of my smile.
I mock my body, snickering at its folds and softness and make it beg for forgiveness telling it all the while it’ll never be good enough. We’re on a one-way trip to old and ugly, I tell it.
And then I get angry that I’ve let the world — which, in my mind, I vigilantly watch for damaging messages day in and day out — successfully break me to its will. And of course, this shame and exhaustion and perpetual mantra of ‘I’m never good enough’ is ubiquitous as air in America.
It’s no revelation that capitalism’s fostering of self-loathing and inadequacy is lucrative. But I still find the figures staggering when compared with the $70 billion budget for U.S. education, for example. Disturbing and enervating. And yet here we are. I had let the water quietly slip over my head. At 36, I felt I had no fight left.
I thought my ship of self-love had sailed; who was I to combat the systemic self-aversion so much of our entire society is predicated upon?
And then I joined the YMCA.
How many naked bodies have you seen that weren’t lovers or close friends? Your mothers’ or fathers’?
My dear friends and I change in front of one another all the time, sharing clothes, sharing bathroom stalls, marching into the shower to demand some advice; we often skinny-dip, romping in lakes and rivers whenever we can — we’re more naked than your average group of friends perhaps — and yet the YMCA was still a revelation.
First, you get to see everyone clothed — everyone milling about and pushing back against their bodies, trying to be faster, stronger, longer, taller. Some of it vanity, some of it pleasure. Some for cardiovascular strength. Some for mental health. I’ve always exercised because I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling depressed and anxious and it’s the best thing I’ve ever found for keeping my blues at bay.
When the edges of my mind begin to grow inky — steady as storm clouds, the temperature plummeting and the wind picking up — I put on my sneakers and I run. I crawl to my yoga mat and I sweat. I table my pride and dance to oldies at Happy Hour with Jack. And as my heart begins to pound and those endorphins course through my brain, there is an analgesic effect — creeping joy mingled with an absence of pain — and my darkness recedes, quiet as a rogue wave.
The diversity of bodies colliding in its space is staggering. Stunning. All ages, races, backgrounds, and races; sizes and colors and strength and fragility all grunt and grin and grind away side by side. Bodies that have been fed and starved. Plied with drugs and hormones and surgeries. Bodies with babies tugged from stomachs and vaginas. Bodies riddled with complicated scars and tattoos. Straight and queer, the androgynous and gay — the edges of masculine and the height of hyper femme — they share the mats and the floors and the walls and the machines and they contend with their bodies.
See the shine of sweat on lips and brows. Hear the dull metal babble of weights and feet slapping the floor; hear the pneumatic wheeze of the stationary bikes, the instructor grinning in the half dark urging his class over the pounding of synth beats.
Hear the squeak of sneakers on the basketball court, the collective groans of the weight-lifters, the peals of childhood joy and splashing echoing across the pool’s walls, out the windows and into the streets. Hear the clapping of hands on backs in congratulations; hear the clicks and snaps of your neighbors’ bodies as they roll their necks side to side.
See the diamond-stud earrings and kabbalah bracelets; see the thread-bare t-shirts and neon-perfect Nikes. See the baldness, the dreadlocks and hair-sprayed poofs; see the afros and shaved undercuts, the gelled spikes and turquoise ponytails.
Hear the tripping of tongues over four, five, six different languages in a room.
Watch 30 sets of legs rise silently together through the glass window of an aerobics class. Smile into the six faces in the mirror as you test a kettlebell and wince at its weight. See the awkwardness and grace. See the slices of skin, the muscles straining inside.
And then head downstairs — heart beating your blood in percussive eighth notes bouncing your sternum — and head to the women’s locker room.
When I was seven years old, I told my four-year-old cousin I couldn’t take baths with her anymore. My mother used to pile the tub with four feet of bubbles and we’d play for hours; the pictures are blissful. Two little girls buried in white foam, laughing and laughing.
I’m too old for that now, I told her. What I couldn’t say was how dangerous my body already felt. How I’d taken to tugging at my long pajama t-shirt to hide my tiny butt from my own father in the morning. How naked being naked was.
She came over for dinner recently and I apologized for ending our bath times prematurely. Oh my god, she said, blushing at the memory, I was actually totally devastated! We shook our heads. We certainly weren’t going to take baths now. Something had been taken from us. It’s so sad, we both smiled at each other.
bell hooks writes in her 1998 essay — naked without shame : a counter-hegemonic body politic — on the trauma and pain heaped onto her young black body growing up, outlining the blistering intersection between her blackness and her womanhood.
“Ours is a history of shame. Written on the body we cannot erase. Imagine growing up with five sisters in two large attic bedrooms painted a dusty rose. Roomed with slanted roofs, huge windows from ceiling to floor. Six brown girls living in a private world no man can enter. You might imagine this world would be a place where we would forget all Puritanical notions about the body learned outside, and live in our flesh anew. That was not the way it was…
We denied the presence of the body. Nakedness was forbidden…We refused to see one another’s bodies. We worked hard to turn our eyes away, to dress in the dark, in half-light, to change when no one was there…We denied our bodies, our right to see and feel ourselves…”
hooks manages to capture in two paragraphs what I’ve struggled to articulate my entire life — what else is new — but reminds me that the brown and black bodies on this earth are subjected to vast greater danger. Both internal and elsewhere. She makes me feel seen, but I defer to her depth of pain, to her lineage of trauma.
How do we refuse our own history? How do we rewrite the very stories we were forged in?
There are very few naked bodies proffered as beautiful. This we know. Thin and white — age 18 to 30 — seems to be the quick and dirty ideal. Bonus points for blondness and pliable sexual ennui. Hetero of course. No matter that’s a tiny, preposterously small fraction of humanity. It’s elusiveness is all the better for maintaining its un-attainability, for reinforcing the erroneous Special-ness that has sanctioned the subjugation and slaughter of so many bodies for time immemorial.
And so. Those that aren’t thin and white — they’re ugly, they’re not enough. They’re meant to feel ashamed at their deficiency and behave accordingly — small, clad in loose utilitarian clothes designed to hide in. If naked, they are to skulk and shirk themselves.
And stranger and more painful still, we’re also asked to police one another — to wince and snicker when a Fat body dares to flaunt a plump stomach; to click our teeth when a Brown face deigns to proudly post photographs of their glinting in the sun skin.
That’s a little much, we say. Does she really think she has the body to do that? we ask. They’re not pretty enough to —
This is the darkness. Realizing you’re perpetuating the power dynamics that have poisoned our society to the brink of madness.
Why can’t we just leave our bodies alone?
The gift of these bodies. I’ll never get over it. The flesh old and new. Cream-colored and pimpled, pruned from hot water. Long and androgynous, slender and angular and poised to leap like a cricket. Rounded as a pumpkin, breasts swinging, nipples encircled by purpled rivulets of veins. Lumbering yet tiny. Almost black or brown like biscuits, necks arcing like marigolds seeking the sun. Dark whorls of pubic hair meeting leg hair, a blanket, a promise of warmth. Vulvas shining, shorn, winking in the light.
Steam rising from the body like smoke from meat; soap bubbles tumbling down in great torrents over skin taut and loose.
Infinite permutations of bodies, rising and falling with breathe and motion.
The locker room as altar. As a magical misty land where everyone is naked everywhere just going about their business like so many slick-headed seals. Drying, fluffing, plucking their socks off. Hopping on one foot as they tug on leggings. As they shake water from their ears. The babbles of greetings, of laughter rising over the parapets of these shiny grey lockers.
It’s the height of intimacy because it doesn’t exist as a performance of sexuality or anything else. It’s like glimpsing straight into a stranger’s bathroom. Because you are.
Derrida, in his essay The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), gets at the beautiful animalness that we’ve lost in all this bodily shame.
“I have trouble repressing a reflex dictated by immodesty. Trouble keeping silent within me a protest against the indecency. Against the impropriety before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see…in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, visionary, or extra-lucid blind person. It is as if I were ashamed and therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also shamed for being ashamed.”
Animals are naked “or so it is thought, without the slightest inkling of being so.”
Ironically — perhaps, due to all the current nakedness — the YMCA was founded in 1844 by evangelicals as the Young Men’s Christian Association in London; as the industrial revolution roared and men poured into the city to build the railroad, the conditions were, of course, an abomination (and oh so godless!) so a draper by the name of George Williams decided to open a place where menfolks could sleep safe and study the bible.
But what began as a shelter from the steel-girded storm became the foundation for the radically inclusive iteration we find today.
By 1854, the first YMCA for African Americans was founded in Washington, D.C., by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, and 397 separate Ys in seven nations — boasting more than 30,000 members — had sprung up, steadily dissolving the once immutable lines between religion and class.
The YMCA is slowly affording me a strange and necessary alchemy. To feel I’m not naked in that way anymore. And neither is anyone else. All these bodies have shown me a new kind of nakedness that heralds just being alive.