When did the memo go out, and who initiated it?
I’m talking about the memo that appears to have been received by pretty much all guys under thirty years old, instructing them that in the gym locker room they must remain covered under their towels when dressing after showering. This results in an awkward towel dance, in which the guy pulls his underwear up under his towel, and only discards the towel once the underwear is safely in place. There is no graceful way to complete the maneuver.
This perplexes me. How could all these guys know to do this? And through my travels I’ve found this practice remarkably consistent, at least in the U.S. Regardless of the state, or whether it’s a big or small city, the younger guys are doing the towel dance. Even in the gay gyms where guys are more inclined to show off for each other than be modest, I’ll notice a handful of guys changing under their towels.
Now don’t get me wrong. You may be thinking I’m acting creepy or lecherous and ogling these poor guys, and that’s compelled them to cover up. But nope, that’s not the case. I mind my own business as much as anyone, don’t engage in small talk unless someone else initiates it, and I’ll turn my back if I sense a guy near me is modest or wanting some privacy. But even with gaze fixed forward into my locker, out the corner of my eye I’ll notice the towel dance going on around me.
Other guys my age and older have noticed this too. But why were none of us ever told about it? Did they learn this at school? I know I didn’t.
When we were in school… well, yeah we were inhibited too, but it was expressed differently. In middle school we didn’t have a locker room, we just had a spare classroom that had been repurposed to become a dressing room. Since there were no showers there was no reason to get naked, so we’d just change out of our street clothes and into our gym clothes and back with underwear remaining on the whole time. Those of us who were shy would face the wall. In retrospect, how funny… it was just underwear, and yet I felt inhibited. I know other boys did too.
In high school there was a proper locker room with showers, but old habits persisted and we continued our middle school protocol. Only difference was facing a locker rather than the wall, but still the underwear was staying on. I can only think of a single exception, where once an upperclassman who none of us knew appeared naked and walked over to the showers, right there in front of everybody. Perhaps it was just my own imagination or internal shock, but it felt like the whole locker room went a bit quiet and still. Holy shit, that guy’s naked! For a lot of us, we’d never seen that.
But in college, forget about modesty. This was the grown-up locker room I’d feared all along (but also secretly coveted). A single shower room, with showers around poles for the bold and confident, and against the walls for the timid and uninitiated. And in the locker room, naked guys with towels cast aside. No towel dance, no way, don’t be a pussy. Entering this world of men for the first time, I knew I better get with the program and get used to it. And after a time, I did. Indeed, as I allowed myself to accept my true feelings, I came to look forward to it.
Looking forward to it. Perhaps this is what has spurred on the modern-day towel dance. They know we’re there. I expect in years past guys might have had an inkling that there could be some sexual interest from guys in their midst, but it wasn’t openly acknowledged or perhaps even fully understood. There was plausible deniability. Indeed, if someone wanted to make trouble, they could accuse you of being a faggot, or trying to check them out. What are you looking at, faggot? Being called a faggot in the locker room was about the worst thing imaginable.
And yet now, with gay people being more acknowledged and (generally speaking) accepted, that old deniability has gone to the wayside. In this post DADT world, we know, we all know, that in the locker room there is bound to be a gay guy or two or ten mixed in. And if you call us a faggot, some of us might feel bad but others won’t care. Yeah, so what?
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t license to leer or harass another guy against his will in the locker room. Whether it be harassment from one guy to another, between a guy and a gal, or combination thereof, harassing someone is a shitty thing to do and all that much worse if you’re naked. But harassment and all that aside, if people are gonna be naked together there’s gonna be a certain amount of checking out, regardless of sexuality. We all know it.
This is one theory at least. And while I think there is some truth to it, I don’t think it represents the full picture.
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Exhibit B: once upon a time boys and men used to get naked together all the time and nobody thought anything of it. It was a social norm in a time not too long ago, and yet now it seems inconceivable and strange. Older men can still recount these times, some wistfully (regardless of their sexuality). But over the past century, the practice has slowly but steadily receded until today, where we find our youngest men changing under their towels.
Every now and then I’d hear a dispatch from this time in the past. Reading an article in Vanity Fair a few years ago about the golden years of the Disney animation studios, there was passing mention of a rooftop sundeck where the senior male staff could go to sunbathe nude. Huh? This wasn’t portrayed as a secret or scandalous space, quite the opposite. It was mentioned as one of several workplace perks, together with assigned covered parking, a coffee shop, and carpeted office suites.
Inconceivable as nude sunbathing with coworkers may seem today, that’s nothing compare to the various reports I’d hear from time to time about boys’ P.E. swimming classes requiring the students to swim nude. Was this some kind of urban legend? How could this be? I kept hearing about this again and again, mainly from older guys who had been experienced it or knew others who had. Yet thinking back to my days of facing the wall and not taking showers, the idea of a naked swim class was unfathomable.
The best overview I’ve seen of this is an article describing how men’s nude swimming was a common practice in many parts of the country until as recently as the 1960s (check out the link to the article. There is also a well-produced video on the subject featured). Indeed, the author of the article notes that the American Public Health Association mandated nude swimming from 1926 until 1962. Even after that time, apparently the practice endured in some places as late as the 1970s. For whatever reason, this practice only applied to boys and men, whereas girls and women were suited up.
The article and accompanying video together present a context where, despite other cultural norms being more conservative compared to today, when it came to all-male activities like swimming there wasn’t much of a taboo around stripping down. I can imagine it being a kind of male bonding thing, akin to guys nowadays getting together to grab some beers. The distinction (and hence de-sexualization of the practice) was that the focus was not the getting naked part, it was the activity. It just happened to involve getting naked, but nakedness wasn’t the stated objective. As it goes, it wasn’t that the guys were going to the swimming hole to be naked with each other, it was that they were going there and would just so happen to get naked in the process. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
An interesting part of the theory is that in the era before indoor plumbing, people (guys particularly) would bathe in communal bath houses, and at least for the men not think much of it. The theory goes that as indoor plumbing and private bathrooms became more common through the 20th Century and bath houses as a venue for washing up disappeared, boys and men became more accustomed to bathing in private. Over time they’d expect privacy elsewhere, starting with the nude swimming classes but eventually extending to where we are today with locker room etiquette.
This theory would suggest what I’d term a “progression of modesty” evolving from the common bath houses where there was little modesty, to today’s highly-modest towel dance. The progression has been slow but relatively constant.
Supporting this theory is an account from a message board I read from time to time, where a retired school teacher describes this progression. “I vividly remember that when I was in high school in the 1950’s after P.E. class we all used a large gang shower and nobody thought anything about it,” he sated. “During my last years of teaching in the late 1990’s locker shower rooms were NEVER used. Only freshmen and sophomores took P.E. and they refused to shower together at the end of class. Athletic teams would go home after their practices and games and shower there.” Indeed, I too have noticed guys leaving the gym in their gym clothes, presumably to shower at home.
Along these lines, I’ve noticed in the various gyms I’ve visited over the years a similar “progression of modesty” in the replacement of common shower rooms (the “gang shower”) with private shower stalls. First the stalls emerged as partitions but still open to view, but now the norm is becoming either curtains or shower doors. Ironically, the inclusion of these privacy elements, particularly the curtains and doors, facilitates the kind of sexual liaisons between consenting men that may have been the concern in the first place. However once out of the shower stall, one must still get dressed, and hence the towel dance.
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Then there’s the porn theory. This comes from a buddy of mine, who when I told him about this article said he thought the phenomenon was the result of everyone having seen porn. He thinks though porn we’ve gotten used to seeing dicks that are big and hard, so guys feel they need to live up to the standard. They are inclined to cover up if they don’t think they measure up.
Being a “grower not a shower” I can relate to this. At the gay gym I go to from time to time, I’ll be more self-conscious thinking I’m not presenting myself in the most favorable light. According to my friend’s theory, I’m not the only one thinking this, and there is a collective shame amongst those who feel inadequate. “Only the guys with the big dicks run around showing off,” he says.
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So which theory is it? Or maybe it’s a bit of all of it. Think about it: you’re accustomed to privacy when showering and dressing, you’re in a locker room where you’re pretty sure there are some guys who are interested in you, and you may be feeling a bit inadequate down there. And while this scenario implies a straight guy, it can just as easily apply to a gay guy. Indeed, when I’m in the showers with other gay guys I want to look my best, and may even try some subtle fluffing just to get some volume to show. With guys who I think are straight, I don’t really care.
But this brings us back to that memo, the one where all the guys of a certain age learned to get dressed under their towels. Not just face the wall or the locker, but keep covered at all times. If anyone can provide me a copy of it, I’d like to see what it really says.