Wednesday, 24 August 2016

143. The communal changing room

I used to quite like communal changing rooms in swimming pools.

Rooms marked Women. Put a bunch of naked females together and that's what they are, WOMEN, simple and straightforward. Ladies is for places where females can be discreet, like toilets and one-person shower cubicles. 

Women can shower with abandon, but should ladies leave their dress on...?
Stripped of the clothing that could have given you clues about who they aim to be, women in communal showers are sisters. The older they are, the more sisterly they become. It's the young and sleek ones with the skimpy bottom-baring bikinis who are the most anxious to cover their nakedness beneath complicated towel arrangements whilst trying to get their pants back on. They keep themselves to themselves. But once the flesh expands and wrinkles and heads southward, most women (at least the ones that get up in the early morning to clock up a few lanes in the pool) seem happy enough to let it all hang out whilst merrily chatting about this and that.

Such acceptance of women's bodies, whatever their shape or size, has always appealed to me.

But my local swimming pool doesn't have communal changing rooms, and I had got used to being a lady.

Female patients are ladies.

I've got a stack of correspondence to prove it, as nowadays you get copied in when doctors send each other letters about you. I'm quite a nice lady, apparently.

"Dear GP, I reviewed this very pleasant 50 year old lady today in clinic..."
"Thank you for referring this nice lady..."
"Dear GP, I saw this lovely lady..."

Etc etc. (Would they ever write, "I wish you hadn't referred this grumpy gentleman"?)

I have sometimes wondered to what extent my theoretical embracing of the we-all-accept-our-bodies-and-let-it-all-hang-out philosophy would hold up. It's all good and well in the privacy of my own home, but baring my non-breast in public is yet another hurdle. You'd have thought that two years post-mastectomy, most hurdles have been taken, but this was one I had yet to jump. 

I jumped yesterday, when I went to Brockwell Lido in Brixton.

There they were, the showering women, merrily displaying the effects of childbearing and decades worth of gravity. I've seen most things in such changing rooms. Old, not-so-old, wobbly, large, skinny, missing limb. But come to think of it, never a missing breast, or even a fake breast. Do women not swim in lidos after breast cancer? Is it against the etiquette?

It took a bit of deep breathing and talking to myself, but in the end, I just stripped off like everyone else. For many reasons.

Practicality. (I mean, who keeps on their pants when showering at home? Exactly.)
Not drawing attention to myself. (Trying to wriggle beneath a towel would do precisely that.)
Principle. (Repeat after me: I. ACCEPT. MYSELF. THE. WAY. I. AM.)
Setting an example to other women, who might one day face these issues themselves. (Don't worry! There is life after a mastectomy!)

And, fundamentally, freedom. Who cares, and all that.

The thing is, after all that emotional effort, I don't think anybody noticed.

I dressed my bottom half first and left my bra till last, just to make the point. Come on sisters, I'm making a statement here! But it seemed that I was making the point to myself and myself alone.

It was almost disappointing.

Monday, 22 August 2016

142. In a tight spot

With my growing enthusiasm for sea swimming comes the thought that perhaps a thicker layer would be a good idea.

I've got gloves and socks to stop my extremities falling off, but some extra core warmth might allow me to stay in the water a little longer. At least, it might stop my kidneys from shriveling with cold and me shriveling with them.

An internet search leads to the arrival of a kind of sleeveless costume made of wetsuit material. I like the idea of sleeveless. I've got a long-legs-long-arms affair for winter months, but the joy of summer swimming is the feeling of flowing water.

It's no good. Too baggy around the crotch; too tight across the shoulder. Another make perhaps, or another size? I puzzle over the "check your size" charts. Nothing measures up to my measurements, so I ring up one of the wetsuit suppliers who claim to be able to advise customers with non-standard shapes.

The woman on the phone is equally puzzled.

Her computer tells her that with my height, I need a size 16. I almost laugh. "SIXTEEN?! Are you sure? I usually take a size 12, or 14 at the most."

Hips? Hm. Waist? Hm. Chest? Hmmm.... Yes, she agrees that the size 16 expects rather more filling in those areas.

"What bra cup size are you?" she asks, perhaps hoping for the DD cup that would satisfy her charts.

Well, there's a question. "Uhm..." I mumble something about A and B cups, adding "but I've only got one of those."

Sometimes, you stumble across unexpected hazards like this. She is as taken aback by my answer as I am by her question. Soon, she gives up.

"It's probably best," she decides, "to go to a shop and try them on."

I locate a wetsuit shop in central London and hop on my bike.

The shop's sale assistants are all young, fit-looking and male. I explain my quest. Short legs, no sleeves, like to feel the water but must keep my core warm, etc. They don't have such a garment, but perhaps I could try on a vest and shorts? Good idea.

"They should be as tight as possible," young Mr Fitness instructs. "Try a size 10 or 12. I'll just be round the corner if you need any help."

I can just about squeeze my way into the size 12 vest. It feels quite nice, but Mr Fitness is not impressed. "I can see some room at the back!" he says. Yes, he's right. (I can also see some room on the right side of my chest, but he just points out the roomy back. Perhaps he hasn't noticed.) Why not try a size 10?

There are no zips or other fastenings. I need to take my glasses off in order to get in. Once I've peeled down the waist, I admire the vest's breast-banishing tightness. No cold water slopping around empty spaces in this thing. 

I emerge from the changing room to show Mr Fitness. "Yes," he approves, "that's better."

But oh dear. How to get out of the wretched thing?

There I am, quite literally helpless in the changing cubicle. I've managed to pull the vest up above my winking wonky chest, but no further. In the mirror, I can just see my red face looking anxiously over the rim of the inside-out garment that is now wrapped around my neck, holding me tight, trapping my arms against my ears. No amount of tugging or contortions will release me from its grip. I can't pull it back down either. Several minutes later, my chest is weeping tears of sweat. If keeping you warm is this garment's main purpose, it is Mission Accomplished.

But what to do? Can I ask Mr Fitness to help pull, hoping he'll ignore my somewhat unconventional appearance? There's not quite the same ambiance here as in the Mastectomy Bra Shop, where an understanding woman shop assistant remained within discreet earshot of the changing cubicles. In this large wetsuit shop, I'll have to wander out of the cubicle and into the racks of sporty clothing to catch Mr Fitness' attention. My current bare-chested hands-up appearance would not do much for sales.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Finally, with a desperate tug, I manage to free half an arm. Then a whole arm. Then my head. Then, easier at last, another arm.

I go home with a proper shortie. And just in case you're interested: size 10 was OK, but in order to banish all empty spaces, I have ended up with an unprecedented size 8. Perhaps I should ring that woman back and tell her.

Yes, it has sleeves. But gloriously, it also has a zip.