The Important Locker Room Lesson My Grandmother Taught Me

Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
I was halfway undressed, getting ready to shower after my workout, when I realized it: I didn’t have a towel.

I assessed the situation from my spot in front of my locker. Behind me, I could see a stack of freshly folded towels, in full view of the rest of the gym. Farther into the women’s locker room, far off by the shower, sat a second pile.

I held my sweaty bra in my hands and considered my options. I considered putting my bra back on, allowing me to walk, at least partially covered, to the stack of towels by the shower. Then, I realized, I’d have to walk back to my locker, re-undress, then walk to the showers a second time, this time with the towel on. OR I could re-dress completely, wriggling back into all my sweaty clothes.

Then I thought of my grandmother, Minnie. She’s 94 now, and her fire is fading fast. It’s been a long, slow process of watching her age, and now when I think of her, it’s too often the Minnie before me today, or of the past few years, that I conjure up first. The Minnie of my childhood, a true force of nature, has become obscured. Because I want to remember all of her, not just her at the end, I find myself thinking back a lot to the grandmother I knew growing up.

It’s always been easy to impress people with stories about my grandmother: She was a pediatrician, one of the only women in her medical school class in the 1940s. She refused to segregate her waiting rooms in the 1950s South, and immediately had her Black patients moved out of the “colored” wing of the hospital on the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. She worked until she was 89, and is as much a public institution in our town as she was a living, breathing member of my family.

But, of course, that’s what she really was: She was a hero, but she was also just our grandmother. She picked us up from school every Wednesday (her day off). She let me suck on the limes in her gin and tonics, and bought me as many chapter books as I wanted from the book fair. She took us swimming to the nearby pool in the summer so she could swim laps (a habit she kept up daily until her 90s), and my cousins and I would splash around in the shallow end, playing “mermaids” for hours. When she was done, we’d follow her to the locker room, a place equally as entertaining for kids: We could spend our time running endlessly between the sauna and shower, probably irritating every woman unlucky enough to cross paths with us.

Minnie, meanwhile, would go about the process of slowly showering and dressing after her laps. In my memory, half of that time was spent meticulously applying lotion, completely naked, in front of the long mirror by the sinks. I was vaguely aware that wasn’t normal — most women walked around with towels on their bodies and on their heads, ducking into changing stalls to shimmy into bras and underwear. If they changed by the lockers, they did so quickly, facing away from the rest of the room. But Minnie, octogenarian, former Texan, with a lifetime of sunspots to show for it, birther of four children, stood unbothered and fully exposed.
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Because she was Minnie and she was larger than life, it just seemed like another one of her quirks, another way she got to defy the laws that the rest of the world quietly obeyed. She was never one for rules anyway. So much of what she had accomplished was because of her ability to charge ahead, her own vision firmly set. I used to think it was because she didn’t care what people thought; now, I think that sometimes it was because she didn’t even notice.

I, meanwhile, was all too aware of what people thought. I remember, what seems like forever ago, not caring about my body, or mostly being amused by it: by the scabs I loved picking at, by the strength of my arms and the way I could poke my belly out and make my friends laugh. Then, one day, a member of my family took me aside and told me I should lose weight. If I lost weight, family members would comment approvingly, even Minnie. If I gained weight, I knew they were silently marking it to themselves. It was like Eve in the Garden of Eden discovering her nakedness. But it wasn’t that I saw myself for the first time. Instead, I saw myself as others saw me.

Ever since then, I’ve developed a near-daily routine of looking at myself in the mirror, peering at the same face and body, wondering how other people see me. Do they notice my thighs or belly? Does the sight of my upper arms disgust them? Is it not as bad as I think it is — or is it worse? My body has become a burden, something I have to manage, fret over, and worry about. I used to hope this worry would be something I could shed as I aged, as if getting married or having children would somehow free me to a higher plane of being where I’m not worried about how my butt looks in jeans. But I once heard two older women talking in the locker room. One woman bemoaned her short torso, the other countered with complaints about her forehead. The message was loud and clear: It never ends.

And then, that same day in the locker room, I started to wonder if maybe it could.

I won’t ever be able to go back to the Eden of just having a body, free of judgment and flaws. But I can think about how my grandmother viewed bodies — even her own — and maybe I can start slowly chipping away at 15 years of loathing and doubt.

To Minnie, the human body is a miracle. Her worldview is part science, part spiritual. She loved listening to taped lectures about ear canals, but would also sit outside and listen to the birds for hours, meditating on God’s creation. She had studied the human body, had even peeled back a cadaver’s skin in medical school, sawed through a breastbone, held a brain in her hands. She had seen the intricate mechanics that link bones to sinew to skin, in order to allow us to breathe, think, and love. As a pediatrician, she tended to the sick and healed them, and even saw the eradication of childhood diseases like polio and smallpox.

But she also appreciated the human body as a masterpiece separate from science. If she caught my sister and me snickering at nudes in an art book, she would scold us, reminding us that the human body is beautiful. I would listen to her words, look at the gaze of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," and wonder what, really, was so funny, after all.

It has taken me the better part of my life to start realizing that there is nothing funny, or shameful, or less than miraculous, about my body. I considered my sweaty bra one more time, and tossed it in my locker. I finished undressing and walked, naked as the day I was born, to the showers.

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