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Henry Rabinowitz

In Defense of the Group Shower

It’s the early morning, at the start of my junior year at Sharon, a boarding school in eastern Connecticut that I’d been sent to the year before. Light clips into my room through slatted blinds. I roll out of bed and amble over to the hook beside my door, where my towel hangs limply. Last year, with all the other sophomores, I would take that towel with me to the single shower on the third floor, where the sophomores live. There was a line for it every morning and every night, and the double vanity across from it, crusted with dried spit-out toothpaste and clipped beard hair from the few of us that shaved, was packed at those times, too.

I take the towel off the hook and wrap it around me. I study how the towel hangs past my knees, how I have to tug it to its limit to go all the way around my waist. I don’t like how it looks—I don’t like how the stretch marks near the bottom of my stomach look like a handful of parallel scars, like a set of racing stripes—but I get myself to step out of my room anyway.

I head to the staircase that will take me to the dorm’s basement. Down there, there isn’t a lone shower, nor two or three. Instead, there’s a windowless, tiled room, half the size of one of my classrooms, with twelve shower heads, each placed a few feet from one another, without any divisions or curtains to separate them. When I get there, all of the juniors and seniors in my dorm will be there, showering, sleepy-eyed, steaming up the entrance to the room so fully that, from the end of the hall, you won’t be able to see anyone’s body.

I walk down the staircase to the basement behind two other classmates, also dressed in nothing but their towels. I imagine the moment where I’ll have to unwrap the towel, hang it on a hook, and join my peers, nude—feeling scared. So scared.

Through my life, men’s issues with eating and body image have been largely undiscussed. In the online spaces I frequent—Instagram, Facebook—I only ever hear about men’s negative relationships with food and their body when an athlete posts a photo of themselves at or when leaving the gym. Even in that context, though, it’s not the athletes who talk about it. It’s other men in the comment sections who talk about it; specifically, by bandying about accusations of body dysmorphia, to antagonize the athletes and to soften the edges of their own insecurities.

I have always been overweight. When I was a boy, I’d clean my plate and then ask what’s for dessert. I took solace in food: at Thanksgiving, I got to enjoy that otherworldly gift called stuffing; at Charlie Brown’s, a chain restaurant in northern New Jersey where I grew up, I would skip to the salad bar to gather a small plate of—what else?—bacon bits and mini chocolate chips to enjoy with my chicken tenders. I looked forward to these occasions, knowing they’d be a highlight of my week.

But, like so many other boys—and girls, of course—I learned that this love for food wasn’t something to be lauded. In addition to the culture at large, my dad taught me this well enough, albeit indirectly. He was mildly overweight (if at all) through my childhood, and he could not stop reprimanding himself for it. After a dinner out, he would rave of how delicious the food was and how awful he feels for having eaten so much of it. Following this was, reliably, an announcement that he would diet—yet, he was always in a state of mid-diet. Even right now, on the kitchen counter in my parents’ house is a white plastic scale, half the size of a dinner plate, that my dad uses to weigh all his foods to make sure he doesn’t take in any more than his diet allows. When he wants a glass of wine, he’ll pour it into a measuring cup and then weigh it so he knows exactly how many calories he’s taking in.

I grew up knowing that my body was not as it should be—not as good as it could be, like I was failing it somehow. The same was true for my older brother, who was as heavy as I was, and who was put on a diet at an early age. I remember seeing The South Beach Diet and The Atkin’s Diet in my kitchen—the bright holographic covers, the large, sparkling text—and I remember seeing him in private moments, lying on the couch, holding the bottom of his stomach, which fell an inch past his waist, with a look of derision, of helplessness. Why are you here? his expression said. Why can’t you go somewhere else?

I’d done the same thing myself: holding onto flabbier corners of my body, mystified with how they got there. I knew getting rid of them meant eating less or eating healthier, but I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I came up with a common cure: I wore baggy shirts, baggy shorts. I had big, comfy hoodies. I hid myself, as best I could.

This worked for a while. But then, I came to Sharon and was introduced to the group shower. And in the group shower, I learned, there’s nowhere to hide.

Under the pretense of looking for a friend, I’d been to the group shower the year before I started using it. I wanted to see it, to mentally prepare myself for when I’d have to use it. When I went down there, I saw upperclassmen showering as if showering alone, not looking at one another; tired after an afternoon of sports, dreading the evening of studying to come. They had plugs of Skoal tucked into their lips, and they spat their juices into the drains at their feet. Their bodies, on the whole, were thinner than mine.

And their cocks: such variety. Different sizes, shapes, colors. Some were uncircumcised—which I’d never seen before—and others weren’t. I was clothed at the time, so couldn’t measure myself to them in a way my seventeen-year-old mind was compelled to. See, by this time in my adolescence, I’d wholly absorbed that edict that inevitably disrupts men’s relationship with their bodies: that the size of a man’s cock is a physical manifestation of his manhood; that if it’s smaller, he is less of a man, and if it’s bigger, he is more of a man. I’d been so taken by that edict that by then, in the years before I came to Sharon, I feared walking naked across my bedroom at home with the blinds up—not for fear that I’d flash someone on the sidewalk of my quiet suburban street, but for fear that these two girls I knew from school—who, through nothing that they’d done outside of being pretty, had found their way into my internal life—might potentially see my cock through the window on a stroll and think that it was small.

When it came time for me to use the group shower, I feared my classmates would think the same thing about it, too; that they’d all prove themselves more man than me. My cock was something that I could effortlessly hide in public, and even when I used the shower on the third floor, I could hide it, too, by wrapping myself in a towel before I opened the curtain. But in the group shower, I couldn’t. Theoretically, I could cup my hand around my cock to hide it, but doing so seemed even more shameful; to admit, however tacitly, that I was ashamed of my body would only exacerbate the shame.

Then, finally, at the start of my junior year, I took the plunge: I went down and used the group shower. And later that evening, I did, too. And the following morning. And the morning after that.

It’s surprising, in retrospect, to think of how quickly my relationship with the group shower—and with my body—changed. Almost immediately, my friends and many of the other boys who feared showering together developed a we-are-in-this-together mindset: We’d knock on one another’s rooms in the morning, already dressed in nothing but a towel, holding our toiletries, and we’d walk downstairs together. One at a time, we’d take our spot beneath a shower-head, we’d hurry through our shower, and we’d run back upstairs to privacy. We were silent throughout it all.

But there’s only so long you can stand in a room full of your friends and classmates before you start talking. Yet, this, too, was a slow evolution. At first, if someone spoke to me, I’d respond meekly, shortly. I kept my eyes to the wall, and I kept my hands in feverish motion, lathering up my body, to make it harder for anyone else to see. My heart was in my throat, and when I peeked to look at my classmates, it was only to see if they were looking at me.

Soon, though, I turned to the center of the group shower. My closest friend, Brian, who’d come to Sharon by way of Manhattan, had asked me a question, and I turned to look at him. It was natural to turn in this situation, but it still felt like some grand reveal. Here, everyone, is me, my turn was saying. This is my body. This is what I carry around. I stood there looking at him, with a slightly open stance and kept my hands moving up and across my arms, even though I’d already cleaned them. I maintained steady eye contact, never looking at his body, and never looking at mine.

Naturally, Brian nor anyone else said anything about my body when I made that turn. And later that night, when I was showering and found myself in another conversation and turned to another friend, nobody commented on my body. This, of course, didn’t wholly erode my self-consciousness, but I felt it lessen. I could now trust that my body wasn’t so awful that it would be called out for its awfulness on sight.

By the winter of my junior year, I discovered that the group shower, like food, could be a reprieve, an opportunity for celebration and pleasure. My friends and I would knock on each other’s doors to invite them to shower as we had at the start of the year, yet this time, it wasn’t an invitation to shoulder a burden, but to enjoy each other company’s. Sometimes, we’d bring a soccer ball down and kick it across the tiled floor as we shampooed our hair or shaved our mustaches. We’d bring a couple of plastic chairs down from wherever we might find them and sit under the hot water, our eyes closed, our postures rounded. We’d grow wrinkled and red together, stopping only when we had to go grab dinner or do some homework. In the group shower, we could let go. We could relax.

The more time I spent in the group shower, too, the less remarkable nudity became. My body, rather than being the center of my focus when naked with my friends, became a part of the background that didn’t require explaining. The stretch marks I’d worried over proved unremarkable, as did my innie-belly button and my back acne, which I’d also been self-conscious of. The same was true with my cock. Nobody ever complimented it—some boys did compliment others—but nobody ever made fun of it, either. There wasn’t any attention drawn to it at all, which, in my estimation, was what was most helpful. It showed me that there was nothing special about my cock, and that there was nothing wrong with it. It was not inherently a representation of my manhood or anything with metaphoric weight. It was simply mine, my cock, and that was alright.

Although this essay is titled “In Defense of The Group Shower,” I do not endorse Sharon’s use of the group shower. There should’ve been the option of showering in private for those upperclassmen who didn’t feel comfortable showering in front of others. Also, the group shower was not a panacea for all of my worries about how my body might be perceived by others. It would not, for instance, fully prepare me for the nerves and self-consciousness that would overtake me when I was naked with a woman. That happened the summer after I graduated from Sharon, with someone who I met on Tinder and who I immediately fell for. She’d seen me shirtless before we had sex, but never entirely naked; making that transition—slipping my pants off in the living room of her parents’ house—required a vulnerability and trust that the group shower didn’t demand.

Still, I can’t deny the benefits that presenting my naked body to others in the group shower had. It was a form of exposure therapy, a space to experiment: could I talk about my feelings with someone while we were both naked? could I rest a brotherly hand on someone’s shoulder while naked? These questions and the experiments that followed allowed me to test the limits of my body and my self-expression. In the basement of my dorm—that drafty, brick building—I could see what it was like to be me. All of me.

About the Author

Henry Rabinowitz is a practicing psychotherapist in New Jersey. He holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University-Newark.

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