Why women avoid the gym? Getting naked

March 20, 2012 at 8:30 AM ET

Pamplemousse / Getty Images stock
Woman in locker room putting on shoes, stock photography

Marianne Clark calls it "the dance."

First, you whip off your work pants and quickly pull on the sweatpants. Then you attempt to put on your sports bra while still wearing your sweater or blouse, all while hiding behind the gym locker door.

"They all talked about the dance," says Clark, a PhD candidate on the faculty of the physical education and recreation department at University of Alberta, who just published a paper on women's self-consciousness in public locker rooms. "It's about exposing as little skin as possible. This was very common."

Clark did extensive interviews with a handful of women about getting naked in public places like gym locker rooms and found that many felt extremely uncomfortable stripping down in front of strangers.

"The gym can be a really intimidating space," she says. "There are complicated machines we don't know how to use, all of these fit, sweaty bodies. I think the changing room can be one more layer that can be intimidating."

Morgan Adams Blake, a 41-year-old communications professional from Richmond, Virginia, says she'll often change her clothes in a bathroom stall so people won't see her naked.

"It's not that I'm ashamed of the way I look," she says. "I'm fit, I never really was significantly overweight so it doesn't stem from that. It's just how I'm wired. I'm very self-conscious about changing in a locker room."

Clark says this kind of self-consciousness is not unusual. In fact, she herself suffers from it.

"The study came out of my own curiosity," she says. "I'm a dancer and go to a lot of gyms but no matter how many times I went, I still felt this sense of discomfort. I wondered, 'Do I have crazy body issues or is there something else going on?'"

What's going on, she found, is complex -- and probably requires more study.

"There's some reason we feel self-conscious about exposing our bodies to others," she says. "I don't have all the answers but I think it has to do with our cultural and social thoughts about bodies and health. Women come into the locker room, but so do all the social ideals as to what a healthy, fit, feminine body is. Those expectations come in, too. As we're undressing, there's a little bit of self-comparison going on in the background because of the ideals and expectations."

Clark doesn't feel that self-consciousness about getting naked could be a direct impediment to working out, though.

"The women I talked to were still using the gyms and the locker room," she says. "What came out of my data is that the changing room is a very unique space. If you're changing beside another woman, it's very different from sitting next to a woman on an airplane or in a movie theatre. We go about our daily lives and don't think about our bodies too much, then we get to a changing room and we all of a sudden have to undress in a public place."

What's more, we have to see others undress -- which can be equally uncomfortable, especially if we happen to know them.

"It's weird when you run into people you know or vaguely know," says Tina Kurfurst, a 48-year-old data coordinator from Seattle, who says she often changes her clothes in the bathroom at work before hitting the gym "You'll know someone from passing them in the hallway at work and then they're standing there naked in the locker room and you suddenly know they have some weird tattoo across their butt or something. It's awkward."

Clark's paper only looked at women's discomfort with changing in the locker room, but women aren't the only ones who can feel awkward at the gym. 

Jonathan Shipley, a 38-year-old Seattle writer, says he never goes to the gym because it makes him too self-conscious.

"Firstly, I'm about as strong and muscular as a daffodil and I know that strong and muscular people work out at the gym - I've seen 'Pumping Iron,'" he says. "And secondly, there's no way I'd shower at a gym. I had to do that in middle school as a pre-teen with a leering tennis coach and will never do it again. If I were to go to a gym, I'd just get back in the car and drive home a little stinky. Better that, than showering with strangers and/or tennis coaches."

And Jim Cherry, a 52-year-old content producer from Los Angeles, says he doesn't go to gyms anymore (he does yoga for fitness now) but that he did use locker rooms in high school, college and beyond.

"I never had the slightest twinge of self consciousness in those situations," he says. "Who cares?"

Like Cherry, there are many others who have no problem getting naked in public. Some, in fact, seem to revel in the body beautiful.

"At my gym, the women parade around naked and sit on the benches naked and are, in general, a lot more 'let it all hang out' than any other gym I've been in," says Jill Rothenberg, a 45-year-old editor from Denver. "We're talking chicks of all ages and sizes blow-drying nude. Not what I prefer to see, open-minded or no."