I Saw A Room Full Of Naked Men And Thought..
Understanding the influence of culture on nudity, vis-a-vis locker room etiquettes.
The Naked Paradox Of Nudity.
I consider myself as an aspiring nudist. Even though now the term “nudism” is overburdened by philosophical overtones in my head, my love for not wearing clothes started organically.
At eighteen, when I was to leave home for university the first time, a lot of new experiences awaited me. But, the possibility of having a room to myself where I could exist in the same state that I was born in, excited me the most.
By calling myself an aspiring nudist here, I acknowledge that there have been times when societal expectations have gotten the better of my nudist instincts, and at times I might have played the role of society and influenced someone’s choices too.
I must have been in nine or ten years old then. The second downpour of the season had descended upon the city. As I was hurriedly rushing out of the house to bathe in the rain, my grandmother stopped me and asked me to get rid of the layer of tattered clothes that stood between my body and the rain. “We never wore clothes to go out in the rains when we were your age. Just keep your underwear on and run out.”, she suggested. Who wouldn’t want the feeling of cold raindrops splashing their body, after having lived through half a year of scorching heat ?
As I was running around the play ground, dwelling in some pure naked showering, I heard a few giggles from somewhere above. As I looked up to trace the source of the laughter, I saw two of my neighbours, same age as me, pointing at me and laughing. That was the first interaction between my body and society, and my last naked rain bath. As years went, the decision to keep my body covered transformed into a voluntary choice. Clothing now helped me hide body hair, acne, scars and disproportionate body fat. It had to be hidden because it was only happening with me. Everyone else, who was even shirtless in the public eye, mainly in pop culture, seemed to be immune to these bodily developments.
Between fifteen and eighteen years of age, the myth and folklore about the hippie movement had cast its spell on me. I had become conscious about how society, for reasons right and wrong, governed how we dressed, where we dressed and where we did not. Newly loaded with this information, I joined the virtue signalling tribe. I was a nudist now. And I made sure that I let the world around me know. Did you laugh at me for not being fully clothed at home ? What an illiterate, illiberal, orthodox buffoon !
Cut to, less than a year ago, I was getting drunk with a couple of friends, when an interesting conversation started. I don’t remember how it reached there, but at one point, one of my friends casually mentioned that it was not uncommon for the men in his house to change their clothes in front of each other. Four of us heard this and burst into confused laughter. We almost used the laughter to process what we had just heard. On realising that he was not joking, we bombarded him with questions. Are you serious ? Is your mom also present in the room when this happens ? Naked as in, completely naked ?
The conversation eventually ended with all of us imagining animated scenarios in the said friend’s house and making jokes about it. But given my curiosities, the conversation never left my mind. Months later, my mind slipped back to the memory when I heard late actor Irrfan Khan’s wife say something interesting in an interview on Film Companion. While talking about what he was like as a father, she said :
He had this thing you know, about everything. He was like a Sufi or a Naga Sadhu. I mean the body was something he was never embarrassed of, of anyone’s. He would change his clothes in front of them (the children). And I would be like what are you doing ?? And he would say, “Body hi toh hai. Allah miya ne di hai. It is just a biological thing.” (It’s just a body that god has given us. It is just a biological thing)
“Did you just laugh at someone deciding to change their clothes in front of their own parents at their own will ? What an illiterate, illiberal buffoon”, I reprimanded myself.
I realised that having gotten early access to information on the internet, my mind had evolved, but it was not reflecting in my behaviour yet. I played the same role in my friend’s life that my neighbours had played in my mine, years ago. I was not a nudist. Not yet at least. Maybe I was just aspiring to be one.
It is a lazy weekday afternoon. Six months of bone chilling winters are gradually making way for the summers, and I decide to start swimming again. Having booked a slot for the afternoon, I am walking by the canal. An old man has parked himself on the deck of his boat, basking in the sun. I can smell the aroma of burning tobacco and black coffee as I whisk past his boat. I see ducks fluttering and playing in water. It is a nice day. I am excited, but slightly nervous.
It is going to be the first time I am going to be in private space with a bunch of strangers, all dressing and undressing together. I am building scenarios in my head to prepare myself for what to expect.
As I walk in, I experience exactly what I had predicted I would feel in this situation. Heading towards the locker, I see a middle aged, lanky, white man walk out of the shower. His penis dangling freely in the cold, humid air of the locker room. “Don’t stare, don’t stare. Just mind your own business.”, I tell myself. As I sit down on the bench, two men walk out of the steam room and stand across me, discussing some sundry office stuff. I can’t help but stare at them. It is probably the first time I am seeing another man’s genitalia so casually. Though the sighting of the second pair of wieners passes me by more gently than the first one.
I finish a refreshing swim and cometh the moment of my cultural initiation. Now, should I, in my very first visit to the locker room, let chintu (Indian schoolboys find a strange joy in naming their dicks. Chintu is amongst the most common ones) attain complete liberation from the shackles of clothing ?
I meekly head towards the shower cubicle. I see another old black man under the open shower, singing in an incomprehensible language and soaping his midriff like nobody is watching. Which is true. Nobody around seems to be bothered. As I stand under the hot shower, I think to myself, “Why could I not walk to the shower cubicle naked, while other men seem to have no issue doing it ? Does it have anything to do where I come from ?”
While I try to excavate the answer to this question in my head, I am done with my shower. I wipe myself dry, wrap the towel around me and walk out, still thinking about the same thing. “What’s the worst that could happen if I did it too ?”, I ask myself. Before my brain formulates a response, my hands subconsciously unwrap the towel around my waist and drop it on the bench.
From then, till now, it felt like time froze. I am not sure what happened. As I pull up my underwear and sit down to wear my pants, time regains its original speed. I see the janitor mopping the floor and the two men still bitching about their boss(though now clothed). Nobody seems interested in seeing chintu enjoy absolute freedom for half a minute.
From this point on, every trip to the sports centre will be an opportunity to push the envelope a little. The next time I go, I get rid of the trunks while walking back from the shower. The feeling isn’t bad.
Till two hours ago from when I am writing this piece, I have pushed the boundaries to a point where I pretty much walk around naked in the locker room. The only remaining step remaining is taking a shower in the open section, which I am certain will happen within a few weeks.
Born and raised in a hippie commune, porn star Indica Flower said something interesting. She said, “Nudity is only sexual to me in a context.” This got me thinking. I had a lot of questions in mind. Why men in one part of the world are extremely cautious about keeping it under wraps, while others find it absolutely normal to roam around naked ? Who is more comfortable with nudity, the old or the young ? Does this have anything to history ?
On reading up a little, you realise that in ancient Athens, it was a regular practice for elder men to sit around, gazing at young boys swimming in the nude. Centuries later, during World War 2, the Jewish tradition of men sitting around naked in baths drinking, playing cards and discussing their everyday problems was ubiquitous in New York. This culture of communal bathing was known as Schvitz.
Writing about it in his paper titled “On the loss of nudity in men’s locker room”, author Barry Miller reminisces about his childhood, where it was common for young boys to not just shower naked in the locker room, but also swim naked in each other’s company. This, he said, was the dominant culture in New York high schools till five decades ago. In Germany on the other hand, nude, unisex sauna culture is prevalent till date.
If we go east of India, Japan is the last remaining bastion of nude, public bathing. Onsen, a tradition of communal bathing in hot water springs continues to find participants from all around the world. In Onsen, men and women separately take a dip in hot water springs in the nude, creating spaces for women and men across generations to let off their bodily inhibitions and just be one with nature.
Nudity In 2023
Despite communal nudity being common amongst the same sex in cultures around the world, I can sense an undercurrent of change. Lesser and lesser men are opting to be nude in public view in the locker room. From my limited reading, I have been able to trace two main reasons behind this.
The first reason was unknowingly encapsulated by something that a friend said. Walking back from the squash court, he asked me if I was carrying my bathing kit. I responded in the negative. “Doesn’t matter, the shower here is too gay anyway.”, he said. It is easy to pounce on him for being politically incorrect, but what he said has roots in contemporary history. Talking about how Schvitz culture died down in New York, Barry miller says :
The jewish men moved out of the schvitz to enjoy their time in drawing rooms and pool parlours and the bath houses turned into centres for gay, revolutionary sex.
Even though this historical trivia should give us a perspective on why nude showering is associated with homosexuality, I am convinced that behind the “shower here is too gay” mentality in 2023 is the classic straight man fallacy of thinking that gay men have nothing better to do than to ogle at straight men.
Some researchers also believe that the declining popularity of nudity in the locker room might have something to do with men’s fear of being subjected to the male gaze, which is usually reserved only for women outside the locker room.
I am certainly not qualified to make concrete claims about why this culture is changing, but having keenly observed the locker room behaviour for a month now, I definitely see men my age being more conscious about their body. One of the most simple, yet convincing explanations for this comes from Kevin Kavanaugh, owner of Barton Gym in the U.S, who in this New York Times article said :
It’s funny, they’re more socially open with everything — Facebook, social media — yet more private in their personal space.
Two of my female friends who I spoke to, tend to agree. While there might be multiple reasons behind this, they believe that social media definitely plays a role in setting an ideal body image in their mind, making them more conscious about their bodies.
While the young are demanding more privacy in locker rooms, wealthy old men are doing their bit to have a safe space where they can jump in the pool naked, finding a temporary escape in feeling like the young boys that they once used to be. To conserve this culture, bankers, lawyers and businessmen in Manhattan have been running elite clubs in the heart of the city, where influential politicians, businessmen, ex-olympians and celebrities gather every evening for an hour of naked swimming. The membership of the club has been intentionally kept exclusive so that their nudity can be saved from the changing morals of the outside world.
Divided between the young and the old, the east and the west, the brain and the mind, it is not easy to see your body for what it really is. One can only aspire to get as comfortable with their body as possible. And in my humble opinion, having more experiences can help you attain this comfort.
I am particularly looking forward to experience skinny dipping and visiting a nude beach to see how that influences my behaviour. Will keep you posted as and when that happens !
If you liked what you read, and wish to dive deeper in to these subjects, you can click on the links below and read the following articles that I used for research:
- On the loss of nudity in men's locker room - Barry Miller
-WHY DON’T GUYS GO NAKED IN THE LOCKER ROOM ANYMORE? THE REASONS WHY ARE SURPRISINGLY COMPLEX ? - Mel Magazine.
- On Indica Flower, the hippie porn star who made $1.5 million dollars on Only Fans.
-Men’s Locker Room Designers Take Pity on Naked Millennials
Recommendations of the week :
Customary Mahima Vashisht recommendation. In this week’s edition of Womaning In India, she writes about Weaponised Incompetence in Indian Marriages. Thought provoking, as always.
If you were intrigued by the story about the secret nude swimming clubs of Manhattan, you must read this detailed piece on it in the New York Times. Fascinating read through and through !
If you are a fan of live music, Pranav Manie in his latest newsletter Sound Logic gives a detailed insight into the business of creating big ticket music events in India, and how it has evolved over the years. Manie taps into his unique expertise of looking at pop culture through the prism of data and business.
Lastly, a fascinating conversation series started by Nikhil Kamat, one of the coolest voices in India’s start up scene. In this episode, he sits down with a bunch of other overachievers to dissect social media from the lens of psychology and business.
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