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Will Self: If you want to be in a naked throng, the changing room still rules

Gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners.

Ball boys: players from the French and Irish rugby union teams chat in the locker room. Photo: Getty
Ball boys: players from the French and Irish rugby union teams chat in the locker room. Photo: Getty

A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.

The peculiar nature of our taboos is such that we seldom – if ever – get to experience the primal state of human being, which is surely to be one among a crowd of naked apes. True, there is that nominatively determined performance artist, Spencer Tunick, who assembles large nude groups in public places, but the very contrivance of these fleshy sculptures always makes their elements seem rather . . .  clothed.

Then there are occasional nude bicycle rides through large cities. I’ve no idea who organises these streaking streaks of streakers, but it’s certainly exhilarating to find yourself standing, say, in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London, watching as all those breasts and scrotums stream past. But I for one have never felt inclined to saddle up, any more than I’ve seriously considered visiting a nudist colony – what would be the point? As countless nudists have testified: the initial surrealism of queuing for sausage and two veg with your sausage and two veg on display is soon enough rendered quotidian: British nudists are heavily robed by their innate modesty – even when you can stare straight up their jacksies.

No, if you want to be in a naked throng the changing room remains the best bet; but what a change there’s been there since boyhood. There was no great nudity taboo in my family home – my father had no inhibitions at all, wandering about the house buck naked and gaily saluting anyone who happened to walk in on him while he was – in the Rabelaisian formulation – performing his necessary offices. My mother didn’t have quite the same abandon, confining herself to standing in her underwear in front of a mirror while chanting “fat and old”. No wonder while I was growing up I was preternaturally modest, a veritable Alyosha Karamazov, who couldn’t bear so much as the utterance of the word “bare”.

However, with age comes acceptance: nowadays I, too, stalk the house with my knackers clacking; I, too, leave the bathroom door unlocked (in fact, there is no lock anyway); I, too, meditate in front of the mirror upon the strange inscriptions that time has carved on my wanting flesh.

And in the changing room I delight in being a scrawny, piebald, moulting man among men. Ideally, I’d like to be such among women as well, but given the perverse endurance of our taboos, this isn’t a possibility. Now that I no longer have to teeter from one foot to the other while attempting to shield my groin area from the sportive Actaeons, what amazes me about the experience is that there’s no correlation between a man’s outward characteristics and his inner awareness. I swim thrice weekly at the Marshall Street Baths hard by Carnaby Street in London and I dare say a fair few of my fellow swimmers are familiar with what Father Ted described as “the rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. Be that as it may, gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young, fair or a veritable impasto of epidermal corruption – it makes no difference: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners. Some disport themselves in the showers as if they were walruses snorting on a wave-dashed ice floe, others ablute in their swimming costumes, pulling out the front so as to funnel a jet on to their nylon-coddled genitals. Weird.

My female informants tell me that on their side of the splash bath the same lack of a rubric applies: beautiful young women, who wouldn’t look out of place cruising through the chlorine in a giant seashell, with only chiffon wisps to mask breasts and mons veneris, are beset by shyness – yet great-aged wattled creatures stomp about carefree. I find this heartening: we may think we live in a society obsessed by body form, but perhaps the commodification only really gets put on along with the clothes that reduce us to a set of economic and cultural variables. It may be that if we want to lose our nagging sense of ugliness and inferiority the best course is to get naked in a crowd: dress to kill – strip to live.

Next week: On Location