Last updated: May 01, 2006

Remember the Sex and the City episode when the famous foursome meet at a day spa for some R&R, only to learn that Charlotte (read Health's interview with Sex and the City star Kristin Davis) is unable to shed her towel in the steam room? She's convinced that other women are staring at her thighs. But after her confidence is bolstered by a body-image pep talk from Carrie, Charlotte returns to the spa, nervously unwraps her towel, enters the steam room, and bares all. Just as her anxiety is about to reach a fever pitch, validation comes in the form of another woman's voice: "I'd kill for your breasts."



That woman's envy and Charlotte's own certainty that her thighs don't measure up explain the problem of women's body image perfectly. No matter where we go in life, we convince ourselves that someone else is skinnier, prettier, sexier—or cellulite-free. We rarely realize just how beautiful we are.

I know this because I have witnessed more naked women up close and personal than the average adult male sees in his lifetime. From gazing at gazongas to poring over pedicures, I have immersed myself in the locker room of my gym, scribbling notes, eavesdropping, stealing glances, and, when the situation called for it, just downright staring.

In the locker room, bodily obsessions and emotional vulnerability are reflected in the mirror and on the scale. I've taken note of the insults women hurl at themselves like drunken baseball fans. And I've realized that every body part and every owner has a story to tell and a lesson we can share, from the women with immaculate bodies who change in the bathroom stalls to avoid imagined scrutiny to the heavier women who stroll around naked without a care; from breast implants and mastectomy scars to bellies swollen from pregnancy and bottoms sagging from old age.

The beauty of the breast
When you take a few hours to study real women's breasts (as covertly as possible, mind you—getting caught is about as fun as seeing flashing red-and-blue lights in your rearview mirror), they exhibit a snowflake-like quality. No two pair are alike, and every duo is dazzling. While those that stand at attention signify youth and the promise of a long future, those that swing low bear the signs of infusing life into children, of fighting gravity for decades and, though losing the battle, winning the war. From perky to pendulous, barely A to DD, breasts tell a story.

I consider my upper half my better half. Size 36B, my breasts are perky and ski-sloped, the left one a tad more ample than the right. My areolas are peachy-pink; my nipples an almost exact match to my lips. But I still compare myself to the endless array of breasts I'm exposed to on a daily basis. I can fluctuate easily between wishing I had Debra Messing's barely dipping cleavage to Pamela Anderson's cavernous mountains in a heart-beat, depending on the night, occasion, or weather. We always want what we haven't got.

Instead of forever denouncing your breasts as too big or too small, try to appreciate their distinctiveness: They are a natural, beautiful part of our bodies that all too often get disrespected—or ignored by other women for fear the observer will be thought of as freaky or (gasp!) a lesbian. In my opinion, it's better to be an open, enlightened pseudo-bisexual than inhibited and uneducated. Look ... just don't touch. And remember: Variety is the spice of life. If we were all 34Bs (or 5-foot-5, or redheaded, or had the same exact voice), the world would be a pretty boring place.


Getting steamed up
Wetness of unknown origin freaks me out. So it seems counterintuitive that, unlike Charlotte, I would love the steam room so much. After all, it's just a hot box filled with other people's sweat, their perspiration emanating through their pores, sliding off their skin, and ultimately condensing.

And yet, on some days as I leave work and head to the gym, all I can think about is my post-workout trip to the steam room. How good it will feel as I open the door and that steamy blast of 100-plus-degree air hits my face, instantly curling the hairs around my forehead and making me squint.

I had the privilege of introducing my dear friend Diane to the steam room. She had never really considered it, for both trichological and psychological reasons (she has a touch of claustrophobia). But she adored it. "I love that feeling of sweating," Diane says. "It feels cleansing. It feels like you're doing something good for yourself. You kind of get addicted."

At first, Diane used three towels: one wrapped around her hair, one around her body, and one to lie down on. But as she's grown more at ease, she's come to recognize that steam roomies aren't there to judge. Nobody cares and, besides, who can see through all that steam? "There's large, small, skinny, fat," Diane says. "You realize nobody's looking at you, and you're like, 'Why am I leaving early because I'm uncomfortably hot when I could stay later and just take my towel off?'" So she'll take it off and maybe lay it across her lap, napkin-like, for propriety's sake.

Much like wearing all black or having a nice faux tan, glistening with steam-room sweat does wonders for a woman's body. You seem slimmer, and your muscles are highlighted in all the right places. Face it: You just look sexy.

Pride & pregnancy
One morning as I was dressing to work out, I noticed a gaggle of bobbing bellies assembling in the locker room. I ditched my elliptical-machine plans and followed the group down to a studio. Ooh—Pilates for preggers! These women were delighted to share their stories, explaining pregnancy's true impact on body image. But when I heard somebody shout sarcastically from the corner, "The truth? They can't handle the truth!" I knew the truth might hurt.

As it turns out, pregnancy can kick up a wide array of body-image-related responses, from self-loving to self-loathing. I have seen women lovingly massage cocoa butter into their burgeoning bellies, dreamy smiles spread wide across their faces. I've also seen treadmill queens smear the thick lotion across their stomachs as they point out the most minute of markings to their friends, complaining about what "this baby" is already doing to their bodies.

It doesn't take a psychology degree to see that for women with body-image issues, pregnancy can be a state fraught with concern. To wit: A New York magazine cover story, "The Perfect Pregnancy," focused on women battling the psychological effects of weight gain during pregnancy. The story outed women who spoke of actually wishing for more morning sickness, or of ladies who wore their low maternal weight gain like a Girl Scout badge. And in a society in which maternity mannequins cry out for a pepperoni pizza, in which magazine ads scream, "Motherhood ... It's hot!" and actresses pose for Playboy as their newborns snooze off-camera, can we blame them?

But for just as many women, pregnancy can be a respite from and sometimes the closest thing to a cure for body-image concerns. Some view it as a time to finally let down their guard and succumb to their cravings—and to give their hardworking bodies a bit of respect. I've-been-there-too smiles from other women in the locker room can go a long way toward easing weight-gain worries. And that sense of camaraderie sometimes sends a woman with baby on board off to the showers, flashing some extra tummy along with her pride.

Wisdom at last
I often hear women complain about the old ladies in my gym who walk around completely naked with their boobs down by their waists and their stomachs hanging out. My peers say they don't want to see that. Well, guess what, baby: Like it or not, you're looking into a powerful mirror. So I'll take the wrinkles, and the wisdom, any day.

Older women, in my experience, tend to shed their self-consciousness with age. I try to let their freedom rub off on me, or at least sink in via osmosis. Like caterpillars having spent their fair share of time working away in the cocoon of life, going through so many experiences and transitions, these mature women have finally emerged, comfortable and confident. Why shouldn't they be? They have given birth and survived disease. Often they have outlived husbands and, in some cases, children. They have fought for equal rights in work and education. These women have accumulated more wisdom than we have in our entire body-image-obsessed, toned-to-the-hilt selves. Typically, they have boatloads to offer us in the way of lessons of self-acceptance. Contrary to popular thought, they are the butterflies of the locker room—not the young ladies flitting about in their low-slung gym shorts and shrunken baby tees.

This is not to say that all older women in the locker room are wrinkled and drooping. Some have great genes, some never had children, some had plastic surgery or Botox. And some just work their butts off, plain and simple, to win the war against gravity. In any case, I have never seen a woman over the age of 60 scurry off into a bathroom stall to change or quickly scan the room before dropping her towel and pulling on her underwear—be it granny-style or G-string. There's no need. These women are beautiful just as they are. And they know it.

From the book Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image, and Re-imagining the "Perfect" Body by Leslie Goldman. Copyright © 2006. Published and reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.