You know those locker rooms in American teen movies, where the jocks sling towels over their shoulders before openly showering in a room with no curtains? My school PE showers were sort of like that – but dirtier and smellier with the odour of 30 pairs of worn-tights wafting through the muggy air. It was an assault on the senses and I hated it, especially the naked part.
Why the tiled cubicles didn’t have curtains despite having shower rods, no one knows. It was just as inexplicable as the other weird stuff that I contended with at school, like being allowed to take off my jumper if it was hot but – God forbid – never my blazer.
This open-plan showering situation was hated by almost all the pupils in my class, except for that one Goddess Girl who made her school uniform look like a designer ensemble while the rest of us looked like Wombles. We had heaps of anxieties about our bodies and I still don’t understand why it was acceptable for a group of self-conscious teenagers to be forced to shower al fresco when the truth is that no one EVER makes you ‘shower on show’ after leaving school. Proper gyms have private showers and even in those swimming pools that do have open shower facilities, everyone keeps their costume on (apart from the odd nana who has no qualms about wandering round the changing room buck naked while seesawing a beach towel between her foo foo, all power to her).
Those gym showers made me hate PE more than the time I forgot my swim kit and the teacher forced me to wear the spare class swimming costume even though someone else had just used it in the previous session (let me tell you, there’s something so hideous about stretching a cold and sopping wet hand-me-down swimsuit over your body that just the thought of it still makes my internal organs huddle together in the pit of my stomach).
To get through the stress of the post-PE shower I’d devised an unspoken survival strategy with my classmates. The teacher, who came to check whether we’d showered at the end of the class, told us to partner up with a friend and take it in turns to hold a towel up against the cubicle and look the other way. None of us approved but we had to have evidence that we’d showered to avoid getting in trouble, so we’d turn the showers on to wet the floor and stick our legs under the water. Some of us washed only our sweaty faces and splashed our hair, leaving the rest of our bodies gross and uncomfortable until the end of the day.
Afterwards the mean girls mocked the shyer students like me who went to change in private in the loos, by chanting ‘you’ve got hairy armpits’ at them through the toilet door before laughing to themselves like cartoon bad guys (err cool burn, guys). They made me feel like there was something wrong with feeling uncomfortable about changing in front of others, like I was being a big baby.
If the toilet cubicles were taken, I had to employ the Under Towel Shimmy Technique (UTST) to change in the open. We’ve all been there right? Covered our bottom halves by shimmying on knickers and a skirt under our towel-wrapped bodies? Before moving the towel up over our shoulders to hook our bra and button our blouse?
Research shows that pupils hold back at sport because of their anxieties about the post-PE shower, and experts say body image is one of the reasons behind their dread. This was most certainly true for me.
But perhaps schools have loosened up since my PE days? I speak to Amelia, 13, and Lucy, 14, who tell me that their gym has showers WITH curtains but they aren’t forced to use them, and if they do shower it’s usually after swimming only and they keep their costumes on. And when I ask Hannah-May, 16, about her school she replies with “what showers?” suggesting that some schools have got rid of them altogether (hooray says teenage me!) or perhaps haven’t got the funding for the facilities. Which isn’t good either, let’s be honest.
I look back now and wonder why my school couldn’t install shower curtains? Or why the PE teacher gave us only five minutes to shower and change before the start of maths? I didn’t find the fun in hockey, rounders and netball because all I focused on was the horrible bit afterwards in the changing rooms. I might have loved sport if I’d had more privacy and the time to get ready in peace.
So if you’re still suffering through the post-PE shower, speak up and see if you can get your school to improve things. It could be just the refreshing change you need.
Image: Amber Griffin