‘Lean Girls’ – a story of the women’s changing room

22 Oct

There’s a gym in the basement of my new office building. I’ve been going at least twice a week for over a month, hauling myself out of bed an hour early to burn some calories. I’ve even been working with a personal trainer. Where once I was intimidated by the grunting and groaning of the singlet-wearing weight lifters, now I waltz into the strength area with confidence. Well, not quite. But getting there.

Stepping into the gym is like entering another world, replete with harsh fluorescent strip-lighting, a non-stop Rihanna soundtrack and posters that urge us to ‘get fit or die trying’ (!). But there is another, hidden place nested within this one, like a matryoshka, or more fittingly, a harem buried deep within the sultan’s palace. I’m speaking of the women’s changing room.

The women’s changing room has its own particular social dynamics, and they can be hard to divine at first. After your first few sessions, you will be wriggling awkwardly under your towel as you try to put on a bra one-handed. Soon you’ll realise that you might as well bare your boobs because that one woman is prancing around practically naked and nobody’s batting an eyelid. You might think it’s preferable to maintain a tube-style silence whilst all this is going on, but it turns out there’s all manner of personal therapy going on in here – from cheating boyfriends to Tinder trouble, everything’s out in the open. The changing room seems to be the place to make bosom buddies, in more ways than one.

Most mornings, for example, I see two young women who finish their sessions at the same time as me. Let’s call them ‘Regina’ and ‘Gretchen’. Regina is the kind of gorgeous posh girl you always wanted to be: a year-round tan, tumbling golden locks and a husky voice to put ‘Phoebe from Friends with a cold’ to shame. She’s living that St. Paul’s – History of Art at Bristol – Shoreditch creative life, and looking amazing whilst doing so. She spends twenty minutes wafting around in a minuscule black thong and matching bra (MATCHING, that’s how classy this girl is), then slips on a mini-dress and dances out the door. To be honest with you, I can’t really describe what Gretchen looks like, because why would I look at her when Regina’s around?

Regina and Gretchen have been training together for some time – maybe a year – and they’re tight friends. Regina knows quite a lot about gymming and can talk at length about the properties of various protein shakes (“I want one for girls but like most of them have sooo many carbs!”) and HIIT classes. Gretchen agrees vigorously with everything said.

Sometimes the talk turns to popular culture. “Like, I haven’t read a book in fucking years, but Gone Girl was like such an easy read.” Gretchen nods. “Mmm, yeah, totally agree.” Regina expounds on the merits of Benedict Cumberbatch and ‘Sherlock’, which is literally filmed in the area where she literally works, and Gretchen’s like, “Wow, yeah, he’s so hot.” One morning, Gretchen is nervous about a big meeting. “Babe, you’re gonna be amazing,” Regina soothes. “Just, like, be totally cool.” Gretchen beams.

Then, the other day, Regina actually turned her attention to me, advising me on how to do a certain move correctly.  Back in the changing room, she asks how it went. For a second I’m confused. Is she talking to me?

“Uh, yeah, much better,” I mumble, suddenly conscious of my greying M+S knickers.

“Good. I don’t know why your trainer didn’t tell you that. And has he done the fat measurement on you yet? Like measuring every bit of your body?”

I shake my head. Ignorance is bliss, I think.

“Oh my God, he’s a slacker. I’m going to ask him to do it for you. No, I’m going to tell him!” She slings her voluminous black handbag over her shoulder. “Have a great day!”

It’s not just to me that Regina turns her attentions. There are two Australian girls who come on a Wednesday. They clamour to tell her about their love lives. “So, I had some topless photos of him on my phone? And then my boyfriend was like so angry about it? And now he won’t even speak to me?” Regina shakes her head. “That’s like such total bullshit behaviour. It’s like one little topless photo. Seriously, you can do better.”

Regina is the motivational picture pinned to our metaphorical fridges. If we work our asses off on the elliptical, we might one day be a step closer to being her.

The foam on the inside of my Clarks own-brand trainers is breaking off. Each morning, I slip them into my battered old rucksack, attempt to flatten the ever-expanding mass of frizz that is my freshly-dried hair, and head for the door. I open it, and the changing room is momentarily filled with the strains of ‘Princess of China’ (played five times an hour, for some inexplicable reason). I look back at the grey space, now empty.

The men seriously don’t know what they’re missing.


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