Photo by Carlos Lujan/Europa Press via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Unfit for women

Gender neutral spaces can be alienating, not inclusive

Single sex fitting rooms. I understood the desire for them, but I felt no pressing need for them for my own safety or modesty. Having spent most of my youth as an actor, I was used to doing a “quick change” on the side of the stage — stripping down to bare skin and underwear to tug on your next costume. It’s dark. No one stares. If someone catches a flash of you in your smalls, they move on. No one has the time to get randy. This is to say, I’m a robust kind of gal — if someone catches a mistaken glance of me whilst I am changing, I’m not going to clutch my pearls.

Yet, when I found myself trying on graduation dresses in a room full of men, I became suddenly aware of my femininity. The experience was unnerving, uncomfortable and frankly, a little frightening.

I froze, suddenly and intensely aware that I was naked

The sign on the wall outside said “Gender-neutral fitting room”. I hesitated but reminded myself there was more privacy here than on the wings of a stage. At first, I didn’t take much notice of who else was in there. All the curtains were closed bar one. It wasn’t until the person in the cubicle next to me cleared their throat that I realised: there’s a man in here. I froze, suddenly and intensely aware that I was naked. I reminded myself that this is a unisex space, even whilst the other half of my brain told me to put my trousers back on. I clamped down on my instinct and continued to shimmy into the dress I had picked out. Even as I did, my ears pricked up to the voices around me. There was the man who had cleared his throat, another on the phone, two guys passing banter in the hall.

They were all men.

I tried to brush it off, but I could feel myself hurrying up. Standing there in your underwear, hearing big, fighting-age men bantering away when there is only an unfastened curtain between you … I remembered the shop attendant had also been male, and my limbs began to jitter. None of those men meant me any harm. They probably didn’t even know I was in there. But would that male shop assistant turn a blind eye if one of the men did decide he was going to chance his luck on me?

Right or wrong, that’s where my head went.

I no longer felt good in what I was trying on. The clothes looked good, but I was distracted. I was alert to the vulnerable position I was in, and I couldn’t switch that warning light off. I discarded the dresses and left. I felt exposed and embarrassed. As I walked away, I realised more than being frightened, I felt betrayed.

The female fitting room is a communal space. Women and girls often step out of their cubicles in their new outfits to ask their friends or the other women present for their opinions. There is also a female attendant to help with zips and sizing or measuring your more intimate areas. This can be an awkward experience. “Am I showing too much?” or “Does my bum look big in this?” With other women, though, all looking a bit odd or frumpy or tartish, this inherent awkwardness can be made fun: it’s a space for a bit of silliness!

As a girl, I loved trying on a new outfit, doing a bit of a twirl, and having the older women nearby tell me I looked lovely. It seems superficial, silly even, but when you’re twelve or thirteen and hate your new developing body, it is soothing to have older women, who have already been through the change, compliment you and tell you you’re still pretty. You get a confidence boost from the praise, from the affirmation that, yes, everything is as it should be. To this end, these dressing spaces are sacred spaces — a temple of Vesta.

Men also expressed their distaste for ‘gender neutral’ changing areas

There’s no male presence, except perhaps for a tortured husband wilting in a chair by the entrance. I can’t help lamenting — even resenting — the loss of this communal female space, this exclusively female activity. More than ever, I can understand the fears and frustrations of mothers who object to “gender neutral” changing spaces. I would no longer let my teenage daughters go shopping on their own. It’s not because all men are dangerous. It’s because those few men who are ill-intentioned are not always readily identifiable, and it’s not easy to speak out or act against them in the heat of panic.

Being of the 21st century, at the first instance of a bizarre or unsettling experience, I took to Twitter. I have a modest following and only expected my friends to lament along with me for five minutes. The tweet became much bigger than that. It had around 200,000 views in the space of a few hours and over 20,000 engagements, meaning 1 in 10 liked, shared or commented. Almost every comment was the same: “me, too”.

Women expressed their “indignation” at the loss of same-sex spaces. Many reported feeling “unsafe” when using unisex dressing rooms and described the change as “depressing” and a “loss”. Men also expressed their distaste for “gender neutral” changing areas: “I don’t want women to … think I’m there for any dodgy reason,” said one, with another describing how “I found myself rushing to get out of there in order not to make anyone else uncomfortable”.

There is a small constituency (as I anticipated) who labelled my concerns as “transphobic”, as if I should keep my fears to myself for the sake of diversity. This is despite my making no mention of trans people, and no trans persons being involved. As hard as it is to believe in this polarised era, it is possible to have sympathy for those who feel uncomfortable in the sex they were born in whilst also being concerned about the security and the dignity of women and girls. To point out the need for one is not to accuse the other of being predators. The outrage should be directed at those who co-opt LGBTQ identities to abuse others. It should not be levelled at those who wish to preserve themselves and their children from those abusers.

It cannot be overlooked that the desegregation of sexed-based spaces has come about from a drive to be “inclusive”. It seems, however, in the effort to include everyone, everyone has instead been excluded. “Gender neutral” changing spaces have alienated many and satisfied none. It’s time for a change.

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