Was I wrong to let a stranger"s five-year-old son see me naked? LAUREN LIBBERT asks after being harangued by an outraged mother in a gym changing…


Was I wrong to let a stranger's five-year-old son see me naked LAUREN LIBBERT asks after being harangued by an outraged mother in a gym changing room

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UPDATED:

20:26 GMT, 17 October 2012

The voice was loud, shrill and dripping with condemnation. ‘I don’t know how you can do that,’ the woman snarled as I hoisted up the straps of my swimming costume. ‘It’s disgusting.’

Curious to find out what changing-room shenanigans had provoked this verbal attack, I swung round, amazed to see a 30-something woman glaring in my direction. ‘What Why are you looking at me’ I asked. ‘Is there something wrong’

‘Yes, there is,’ came her reply. ‘You’re getting undressed in front of my son. Why couldn’t you go in the cubicle, rather than parade yourself naked in front of my boy’

Disgusting behaviour Was Lauren wrong to strip off in front of children in a public changing room (posed by model)

Disgusting behaviour Was Lauren wrong to strip off in front of children in a public changing room (posed by model)

My mouth fell open. I was about to take my two sons — aged four and six — swimming, and the three of us had just got changed, as we did every week, in the female changing-room at the gym, in the communal area with lockers and benches especially designated for families.

I can’t have been naked for more than ten seconds before slipping on my swimming costume, and this woman’s son didn’t look any older than mine. Yet there she was, staring at me as if I’d just committed the most heinous of crimes. I asked how old her son was.

‘Five,’ she replied.

I told her she was being ridiculous — this was the female changing-room so I was entitled to undress where I liked.

‘So you’re happy for your boys to see you like that, are you’ she asked, scornfully, clasping her son to her breast (fully-clothed, naturally). ‘I bet you walk around naked at home, too.’

As nature intended: Learning about nudity is part of childhood (posed by models)

As nature intended: Learning about nudity is part of childhood (posed by models)

I have to say, her son looked more embarrassed by her than mentally scarred for life by my nakedness. ‘Actually, yes, I do,’ I said, my anger building.

‘And exactly what’s wrong with that My sons are very young boys, they don’t see the world in the way you seem to be implying, and this is the FEMALE changing-room.’

Afraid I was about to lose my temper and start swearing in front of my children — a much worse crime, I believed, than them seeing my naked body — I grabbed my sons’ hands, dragged them from the changing-room and made a beeline for the pool.

I dived in, and for the next half-an-hour I tried to push the woman’s judgmental, prudish nonsense out of my mind. But her harsh words kept ringing in my ears. Even worse, doubts started to creep in. Had I unwittingly done something I shouldn’t have

Should I have got undressed in a cubicle, away from that little boy’s curious, albeit innocent, eyes

Until then, I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to changing-room etiquette when it came to young children, but perhaps I’d been naive to think there wasn’t an issue.

For me, nudity had never been a problem. I’d grown up in a house with four siblings and parents who undressed in front of each other with no trace of self-consciousness.

A favourite childhood memory involved sitting on the edge of the tub as my mother had a bath, dangling my feet in the water, enjoying a rare moment with her when she was relaxed and not rushing round the kitchen tending to my brother or sisters. Her naked body was just wallpaper.

It was the same with my cousin and my best friend, James. Our mothers were close, and as young children we’d invariably end up finishing our happy play dates with shared bath time, splashing about naked and entirely innocently.

'My sons are so young that their thoughts are pure, unsullied, as yet, by hormones… nudity doesn't equate to sex'

More than 30 years later, it’s not as if I love my body or want to flaunt it or show it off. I’m 41 now, and have conceived, carried and breastfed two children. As a result, my body looks like rather a spent force. Put me in a naturist resort — which a women’s magazine did some years ago for a travel article — and I’m a rabbit caught in headlights, rushing to hide my body behind any available towel.

Public nudity is not — and never will be — my thing. In my own home, however, I’m very comfortable naked.

I don’t cook dinner or weed the garden in the buff, but I’m happy to put on my make-up half-dressed and I always sleep naked in the summer, not thinking twice about giving my sons cuddles when they clamber into our bed.

Of course, they’re curious. They see that my body’s different from theirs so they often point and ask questions.

But they’re so young that their thoughts are pure, unsullied, as yet, by hormones. As I see it, learning about the human body is a healthy part of childhood. Nudity doesn’t equate to sex, and for anyone to suggest otherwise makes me rail with disbelief.

I want my boys to grow up feeling happy and confident in their own skin, whether they’re clothed or not, and until they start squirming at the sight of my wrinkled flesh, I’ll be stripping off quite happily. Of course, this carefree attitude has got me into trouble on a number of occasions, not least when my sister-in-law caught me once on a midnight sprint to the bathroom.

Nudity not a problem: Lauren will happily walk around naked at home (posed by model)

Nudity not a problem: Lauren will happily walk around naked at home (posed by model)

We stood on the landing, frozen, her eyes desperately trying not to look anywhere below my neck.
I think I apologised, bleary-eyed, and we went our separate ways, but it was just a blip — it certainly didn’t make me rethink my habit of nocturnal nudity.

Sensing I may be swimming against the tide with my relaxed attitude to nakedness, I asked the manager at the gym’s front desk on our way out that day what the age limit was for boys and girls in opposite-sex changing areas. He told me it was eight.

I told him what had happened in the changing room, and asked him who he thought was in the wrong.

‘She was,’ he said, decisively. ‘It’s a family changing area and they’re children. She shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.’

My husband agreed, as did most of my close friends, one of whom grew up in Norway, where mixed-sex saunas are not unusual. She said: ‘We were naked all the time as children and loved it!’

She then insisted I point the woman out next time we were at the gym together so she could dance around her naked and shock her into never setting foot inside that changing-room again.

The consensus was that it was the woman herself who had the issue with my nudity, not her son, and changing-room etiquette should not dictate that adults cover up in front of children — and certainly not ones as young as five or six.

'If you grow up thinking your body is something shameful and to be hidden, you'll pass that down to your children'

I did find a few dissenters, though. One regular gym-goer made the point that she always dresses and undresses in the cubicle so as to be sensitive to others, and also because some boys mature faster than others.

Another mother with two daughters explained how her husband always took their girls into a cubicle in the men’s changing-rooms, wanting to protect them from prying eyes.

I began to feel this was a wider issue, encompassing a bigger grey area than I’d thought.

There was talk of using towels for modesty in front of children, and some grumbles about certain women taking great pleasure in wandering round the changing-rooms stark naked and making people, with or without children, feel uncomfortable.

In my opinion, this sort of exhibitionist behaviour — especially when the woman in question is size eight, toned and has exceptionally perky breasts — should be held in check, not to protect small boys, but because it’s downright irritating to the rest of us.

Parenting expert Sue Atkins says we all have our own value system that we pass down to our children. ‘If you grow up thinking your body is something shameful and to be hidden, you’ll pass that down to your children,’ she says.

‘You need to be guided by your own conscience and what feels natural to you.’

So was I wrong to do what I did ‘Absolutely not,’ says Atkins. ‘You were just two people with different opinions and experiences.’

As a former deputy head-teacher, Atkins believes there is a cut-off point when children start to feel self-conscious about their bodies and notice the difference between the sexes.

However, she says, that happens when they’re a few years older than five.

‘In my experience, it can start at around ten years old but the cues tend to come from the children themselves,’ she explains.

‘When they start shutting doors and wanting privacy, that’s the time you have to take notice.’
There’s certainly none of that going on in our house yet.

Until there is, I’ll be taking my children swimming and getting undressed, as always, in the family changing area.

I won’t let other people’s body hang-ups influence the way my children grow up, nor how they view their naked selves.