Changing rooms are hot, chemical-smelling chambers of liberation, and I miss them

I miss changing rooms. Not the TV programme, though I believe that is making a return, but actual changing rooms. As far as coronavirus goes, they must be contenders for the ideal petri dish, and so have understandably become a casualty of the pandemic.

I realise that the idea of changing rooms as a delight might surprise those for whom the prelude to gym and swim sessions looms large with the unwelcome promise of an abandoned verruca plaster, or those traumatised from school PE underachievements. But I think of changing rooms as little sweltering, chemical-smelling temples to community. I love how small talk with strangers can be excruciating in so many settings, and yet somehow seems to glide along seamlessly when standing naked. That is the changing room’s power and magic.

I love the feeling of anticipatory adrenaline when stuffing one’s locker before a gym session; zips clanging against the metal interior. I love being stretched out on the benches afterwards, silently acknowledging your fellow endorphin-high, red-faced travellers. How showers at the gym always feel so smug and cheating, as if the energy saved from showering at home would be noticeable on a monthly bill.

In a world in which so much judgment and focus is attached to body image – either because it’s the age-old industrial complex of self-hatred, or the new player in town, body positivity (which can sometimes feel like being held at gunpoint and forced not just to accept that one foot is bigger than the other, but to adore that fact) – the changing room is the antithesis. Nobody cares. This might not be the case for the young, but with a slathering of age, the changing room soon enough becomes a tiled chamber of liberation.

There need to be swimming facilities attached for the full changing room experience, because there’s something very pleasing about the range of swimwear one sees. It is like bird-spotting as everyone emerges in their different faux-waterfowl plumages. Baywatch-red; jazzy multicolours; demure black. Then there are the hats.

One of the lesser discussed aspects of the pandemic is sharing. So much of sharing depends on touch, and closeness, and the mandated removal of both means there is scant opportunity to share. Even after gyms, pools and sports pitches open, it will probably be a long time before hairbrushes are borrowed; shampoo offered. How I long for the camaraderie of the changing room; almost as much as the exercise itself. I wait excitedly for the day I can once again help someone find their locker key.