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Are women avoiding exercise because of the gym's change room?

The Body Blitz Spa in Toronto.

Body Blitz Spa

I stand in front of my locker wearing only my underwear. I'm still sweating from my workout. The air feels refreshing and cool on my hot skin and I luxuriate in the sensation, take my time getting my shower things ready. Another woman comes into my area and I start, turning away instinctively, covering my breasts. For a minute I see what she sees, me, a middle-aged woman standing aimlessly in her underwear, just letting it all hang out.

That's "Nadine," one subject in a new University of Alberta study that suggests a lack of privacy in gym change rooms makes many women extremely self-conscious, possibly even deterring some from working out.

"I have always dreaded changing in these spaces and have even been discouraged from participating in recreation because of my reluctance to do so," writes Marianne Clark, a PhD candidate in the faculty of physical education and recreation who conducted the study.

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Ms. Clark is a lithe, modern dancer who works out four days a week, in addition to Pilates. Even so, "There's a reluctance to have our bodies read by other people when they don't really know us, who we are," she said.

For some, the gym change room is a warren of insecurity – the cruelty of the female gaze. For others, it is ground zero for the eradication of body image issues: Where else can you see real female bodies in a panoply of shapes and sizes? Some of the six women Ms. Clark interviewed resorted to "careful choreography" – the towel dance – to deal with the locker room. For others, the experience sparked severe anxiety.

"There was a social comparison. Usually the women felt their bodies fell short. Through the possibility of being seen by someone else, they became aware of extra curves and flesh, flabby this and flabby that," said Ms. Clark.

Breasts, belly, thighs and buttocks – body parts associated with femininity – evoked the most vivid responses.

"These are the body parts that seem to be most intensely noticed, lived, described, lamented, wondered at, admired, abhorred," she wrote. "The body changes, is full of surprises, it develops, grows, moves and ages. ... We may feel as though the body has betrayed us."

Given all the unease, should gyms be renovating their locker rooms with an eye to more privacy?

Not necessarily, says Ms. Clark, pointing out that none of the women she spoke to were interested in using the change stalls that some gyms provide, for fear of attracting attention.

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"All of them said they wouldn't use the private stall because it's not the normal thing to do. 'If there are two private stalls, why would I go in there? I should be comfortable with changing in the locker room, and if I'm not, I should just get over it.' "

Some women are over it. At an upscale Extreme Fitness location in Toronto, women young and old walk parade around with just a towel on their heads, says Laura Kobetz, who hits the gym daily.

"Being naked just doesn't faze me that much," said the 29-year-old producer. "You don't see women who are in magazines when you're in there. You see real body types, real slabs of flesh, the way that real boobs actually hang. It's a little bit reassuring."

When she's barrelling through the change room, Ms. Kobetz is typically thinking about the next thing on her to-do list, like dinner or drinks with friends – not ramifications of the female gaze.

"But there are other people who stand in front of the mirror and check themselves out for a few seconds."

Beyond the gym locker room, the question of nudity and body image also extends to the spa. At Toronto's Body Blitz, for instance, women are encouraged to go nude, exposing "as much of the skin as possible to sweat out toxins and absorb nutrients and minerals of the therapeutic water circuit," explained spa director Sara deRuiter.

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Up to 4,000 clients a month come for a "communal bathing experience." Some go bare, but many others suit up.

"It's interesting to watch women who come in perfectly tucked into their bathing suits, look around and suddenly feel quite liberated to take off their bathing suits and get into the waters with their girlfriends. For the first time, they're feeling comfortable with their own bodies," says Ms. deRuiter.

She says more women suit up on the weekends, when the place is teeming with brides-to-be and their girlfriends, many of them previously unacquainted.

"We often recommend, 'Bring a bathing suit – you can always take it off,' " said Ms. deRuiter. "Wear what you're comfortable wearing. Don't let other people make that decision for you."

Caroline Fusco, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto who has studied locker rooms, said, "There are a diversity of bodies in there. Each has different kinds of experiences."

A 2005 study found that exercising in gyms was associated with "greater body image concern" for women. Other studies, meanwhile, have shown plenty of women reporting better mental and physical confidence, stress release and even social connection after a workout.

She referenced interviews conducted with heavier-set gym users, who told her they've felt the need to take up less body space in busy locker rooms, "as opposed to spreading out all over the place."

She said recreation facilities could do with self-contained locker rooms for families, but hesitated pushing for more privacy because it would reward "cultural anxieties."

Far less angst seems to live in the men's change room, thanks partly to men's long acquaintance with public nudity in sports locker rooms, Prof. Fusco hazards.

"Maybe it's just conditioning," said Chris Stephenson, a pricing manager in Toronto who works out three times a week.

Still, Mr. Stephenson, 28, does see a divide between the young men who wrap towels around their waists and throw another one over their shoulder, and "older guys shaving in the mirror wearing only a pair of flip flops."

"I don't know if it's like a rite of passage – once you get to a certain age you just don't care anymore? You'll have the old man who's completely naked, with one leg up on the bench and he's holding court with his friends, talking about politics or what the wife did the other night. I don't find any men my age who do that."

Mr. Stephenson doesn't think gyms need to afford their members any more privacy though: "You really shouldn't have to hide when you're in the change room. If you can't change here, where can you change?"

Ms. Clark concurs – it isn't about tucking everyone away but bigger questions about the purpose of fitness, especially as far as women are concerned.

"We need to broaden our understanding of what female fitness is. We're so preoccupied with what the body looks like, that we don't often think about what the body does and how it feels."

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