The reason why we have segregated change rooms is so that we can boldly wander around naked without worrying that we are being stared at, isn’t it? It also prevents timid members of the opposite sex (and children) from being traumatized by our flaunting our natural assets, doesn’t it?
In the change-room we can drop out jeans without the crazy beach car-park ritual of trying to disrobe under a towel, right? Well, how come some blokes hide away in the shower cubicle when they are dressing or undressing? Some even do the awkward and uncomfortable towel thing as if they are convinced that I am desperate to peek at their privates. I don’t get it. Do they really think that I would give a rat’s arse about the size of their teeny wiener… or the colour of their pubes? I don’t think so! Mine are ginger, so I have nothing to gloat about! There is nothing impressive about the size of my private bits, either but I don’t care. So why are the shy ones so damned determined to keep their body secrets from me. I am a bloke too, for goodness sakes.
I’ll be honest. I don’t understand any of this stuff. It’s complicated. People are so different. Some men are so immodest that they strut around the change room in naked like roosters with their beer guts, baggy butts and bollocks all on proud display. Others peer at the ceiling of the change room terrified to even make eye contact with other men… just in case some bloke was trying to pick them up, or something. It’s weird.
Change room and swimming pool behaviour have had a significant sociological impact on Australia life throughout history that few are aware of. Some of the issues surrounding swimming pool social policy are cropping up again right now and it will be interesting to see how things pan out, over time.
Swimming booms in popularity
Way back in the late nineteenth century, in the days when bathing was still banned on Australia’s public beaches, public swimming pools boomed. In the earlier 19th century, small numbers of the public would be seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon frolicking naked in the quiet waters of Sydney Harbour or the ocean beaches but by the middle of the century the numbers of the colony’s bathers had multiplied a hundred times over. The public, made aware of the health-giving benefits of swimming by the medical and scientific fraternity, flocked to newly-opened public baths like ants to a honey-pot. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, swimming had emerged as the unofficial national sport of Australia and learning to swim were compulsory elements of school curricula for boys and girls across the colonies!
Back in the 1820s, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, had ensured that decency would prevail by banning public swimming and his anti-bathing laws were continued by later legislators, but that didn’t stop the public from taking to the waters of enclosed public baths. Swimming at the baths was, of course, segregated. Men and boys would swim together at a designated session which would be followed by women, their infants and girls at the next session. This would continue throughout the day so that everyone could enjoy a swim and get some exercise free from the observation of the opposite sex, either in the morning, middle of the day or afternoon.
Baths became a central part of Australian popular culture. In the suburbs of Australia’s main cities, individuals would win community credibility through their participation in activities at the local pool. It was one thing to be a pretty good cricketer, rugby player or singer in the church choir but to be a big name down at the pool was the ultimate in cool. To be the local who spent most time in the water, was the fastest swimmer, was least afraid of the cold or was the best diver meant that you were somebody! In eighteenth century water sports swimwear was optional, of course. While many chose to wear modest swimming attire many more considered the restrictive nature of uncomfortable woollen swimwear an unnecessary evil and did their bathing precisely as God intended. Stark naked.
The late nineteenth century was certainly a time of social liberation. After centuries of prudish neck to knee cover up, Australians were rapidly turning into a bunch who thought nothing about wandering around in a public space with hundreds of others who were wearing bugger all. Sure, there was segregation of the sexes… but body-shame was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
By 1902, the banning of swimming at public beaches was finally given the old heave ho. Despite a small number of prudes wanting to maintain no public bathing regulations most of the public had moved on in their attitude to public bathing and Australia’s beaches were finally opened to recreational swimming, bathing and even surfing. Many local councils attempted to maintain gender segregation through dividing beaches into male and female areas but the cat was out of the bag. Australia had become a nation of swimmers and no one was going to tell the public where they could and couldn’t swim.
Ironically, segregation liberates
Without doubt it was the implementation of segregated swimming that was the initial enabler of the Australian swimming revolution. The freedom and pleasure that the punters experienced at their local baths, not to mention the sense that it was not just okay but it was normal to strip down and play in front of your neighbours, could not have been achieved without gender segregation.
While segregation had been a positive and liberating thing for Australians, by 1912 it had become a problem. The problem caused a serious split among our earliest feminists. International athletic officials by 1912 had finally decided that women should be invited to compete at the Stockholm Olympic Games. Many feminists, including Australia’s greatest female swimmers (Fanny Durack and Mina Wiley), celebrated the news. Others argued that segregation had liberated and enabled women and that if women were expected to compete in front of men they would no longer enjoy the experience of being able to do as they pleased without judgement or leering as they had in Australia for many years.
Women’s libbers split
Australia’s most celebrated women’s rights advocate and head of the NSW Women’s Swimming Association, Rose Scott, bitterly opposed our women athletes attending the Stockholm Olympics. While, initially, her wishes were embraced, others campaigned for Durack and Wylie to able to compete against the world’s best. Under public pressure, eventually the women’s swimming governing body relented and Durack and Wyle were given permission to compete. They rewarded the public’s faith in them by bringing home gold and silver medals from the games. While the success of the women was a shot in the arm for Australia’s emerging international sporting status, their being allowed to swim was less an indicator of the Australian public’s acceptance of women’s rights than it was a show of our lust for Olympic medals. The burning question that remained after the games was whether the true feminists were the women who competed (and covered our young country with sporting glory) or were they the women who argued that women should not be forced to compete in front of men?
If we jump forward a hundred years a similar debate is starting to rage right now. Many councils throughout Australia are testing the public’s desire for limited segregated swimming at public pools by declaring certain times as ”women only”. Some have even installed curtains that enable pools to be shut off from the male gaze. Women’s only sessions are patrolled by female life guards, of course.
Segregation makes a come-back
Opponents of these measures argue that introducing segregated swimming is not only sexist and discriminatory against men but it is setting the women’s movement back to an earlier century when women were discouraged from being seen in public. They argue that segregation is a return to a more repressive time. Plenty argue that this view could not be more wrong. Many believe that providing shy women, women who for religious reasons cannot swim in front of men, and women who feel freer to be themselves when not subject to the male gaze are liberated by the opportunity. They argue that the community is more inclusive and welcoming if it provides women who would not normally swim with the chance to experience the pleasures of public bathing. Looking back to the nineteenth century experience it seem reasonable to assume that segregation may well provide some impetus toward drawing previously excluded individuals right into the swimming culture. That cannot be a bad thing. The pro-segregationists also make the point that “women’s only” sessions make up only a tiny percentage of the overall swimming time available to the public so bleating by men that they are being excluded seems a bit rich.
My gut feeling is that limited segregation could indeed be empowering and exciting for those women who would normally be inhibited or prevented from public bathing for whatever reason. I reckon, give it a go. To those who complain that such moves are sexist, discriminatory and a return to the bad old days I suggest that the complainers might want to look at our history. Segregations can sometimes play a positive role in the evolution of society.
I still don’t understand, though, why people are so shy in segregated change rooms.