On the face of it, unisex changing rooms sound like a spectacularly bad idea. I can’t think of many things I’d like to do less than perform that embarrassing hopping around dance in an attempt to hoist myself into slightly-too-tight J Brands while trying to find someone who can locate a bigger size in front of fellow shoppers who are unlikely to sympathise with the fact that nature issued me ample hips.
Yet gender-neutral changing spaces are seemingly where we’re headed when it comes both to fashion and fitness. Primark has just brought them in, in branches in Kent and in East Sussex, following claims of unfair treatment by transgender customers, and they’re already a common fixture in leisure centres, where families change together. Even the bright shiny new Body By Simone London fitness studio in Primrose Hill opened earlier this year with just a unisex changing room.
I feel a touch awkward about being naked or partially clothed in front of scores of other people
Having read a report in the Times that nine out of ten sexual complaints from changing rooms in public pools and leisure centres stemmed from incidents in unisex facilities (despite the fact that they made up less than half the provision), I can’t think what would induce anyone to back them.
I feel a touch awkward about being naked or partially clothed in front of scores of other people – even if only surrounded by women. Imagining other sexes sauntering around naked is a complication I don’t need. I suspect it’s equally daunting for people who are non-binary or transgender. Or others who, like me, are simply a little more reserved.
I don’t especially love undressing in front of friends and family, bar my partner. As I often travel with family and friends, this has become a source of some angst for me, particularly when snazzy hotels decide that design concepts should trump privacy in the bathrooms. Last year, I went to stay in Vienna with my mum and sister and our bathroom had a central shower housed in frosted glass, which left me feeling extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of showering. In the end, I washed only once over the long weekend as quickly as possible while they ate their breakfast. I decided that being a bit grotty was preferable to lathering up in plain view of my family.
Changing rooms should be places of privacy, whether they’re designed for one and all or segmented into male and female. And that thought made me reconsider my initial response to the news that more clothes shops and gyms intend on rolling out gender-neutral ones. I realised I had no issue whatever with unisex loos, provided they’re clean and the doors are lockable. So surely the same logic should apply to changing rooms?
I put this question to my friend and fellow journalist Rebecca Reid over dinner. She vociferously agreed that it hardly mattered who might be changing next to you, but what does matter is that space offers privacy to those of us who crave it. This means a lockable door rather than a flimsy curtain, none of those odd little gaps in the frame, and ample room to manoeuvre without spilling out of the changing room in your bra and pants.
Rebecca added another point: lighting. Yes, this isn’t really an issue surrounding gender-neutral changing rooms, but if we’re putting in requests for ways in which changing rooms can be more comfortable, surely lighting that’s a little less ‘interrogation room’ can enter the equation? Given that many people utterly dread changing room mirrors whether anyone else is present or not, this seems worth mentioning.
Ultimately, it comes down to execution. Give me changing rooms that are nicely lit, private and afford me the space to shimmy into - or out of - my clothes with ease, and I couldn’t care less who else is there. In fact, if it means there won’t be anyone feeling awkward about which gender they might fit into and will reduce the often wanton waste of empty male or female changing rooms as a queue forms outside whichever is more popular at any given hour, I’m all for them.