I’ve just come back from a music festival. It’s not my first and I’m not averse to camping so I accept that its part of the experience to have no quiet at night, and to use toilets that smell so bad that you have to hold your breath and listen to the guy in the next door cubicle retch every morning. These are the things you put up with for a small number of days in order to enjoy the exhilarating highs of live music played outside to a crowd of thousands.
But this time I wasn’t prepared for the showers.
I was prepared for them to be cold, to lack water pressure, to have to queue for an hour to get one and to stand in a shower tray with one very gross plaster floating about and a plughole that wouldn’t drain.
I was not prepared for them to be communal.
So on Friday morning I tripped along merrily, shampoo, razor and towel in hand, walked straight in (lucky me) and was confronted by no cubicles but rows of showers. Rows of showers populated by either
A) beautiful 19 year olds with slippy long legs and hard flat stomachs, all bikini-clad
B) older ladies, fatter ladies and less aesthetically pleasing ladies, who were all fully naked.
I dithered. I did not bring a bikini or swimwear of any sort with me. I was in my pyjamas which meant I had knickers with me but nothing else. What was I going to do?
A) go back to my tent, find a bra, come back and wash in my underwear like a slightly less youthful but in my head no less attractive version of the teenage girls?
B) adopt the ‘we’re all in it together’ philosophy and strip off entirely?
C) take a feminist view that the perfect bikini girls were just one version of ‘beauty’ as a cultural construct, and that I, with the cellulite on my thighs and saggy bottom, pudgy tummy and fat knees, am another, and get it all out proudly to display as I shower?
D) accept that I am now in the older/fatter/uglier category and join my fellow women in their unself-conscious naked abandon?
E) keep my knickers on, squash my arms down over my boobs, find a shower in a corner, face the wall and get in and out as quickly as possible making as little eye contact as I could?
I went for E) plumping for something between young and nubile and old and saggy. I’m thirty so I should be under no illusions.
Dithering over, I stripped off, and gripping my shampoo for comfort, got in a shower, pushed the button for water and… Nothing.
I tried again. Still nothing. ‘Is this one broken?’ I asked the girl next to me, hugging myself for decency. ‘No, the water’s just stopped.’
Gah! All that faffing about what I was going to do meant I’d got in just at the wrong time.
We stood and waited. And waited. And waited. For about ten minutes, and in that time I tried hard not to think about the cellulite on my thighs and my saggy bottom, my pudgy tummy and fat knees, or the fact that my bikini line needed some attention, that I’ve got grey hairs sticking out of my head at the front, that no matter how many times
I pluck them out chin hairs like an old lady’s keep sprouting out of my jaw and neck, and all the other hundred million faults my brain suddenly turned to. I wasn’t aware I could list so many.
To distract myself I started to look around but everyone I looked at, even the older, fatter and uglier, seemed to be a celebration of all that was beautiful while I failed to enumerate the good about myself in my head.
Eventually I persauded myself that this impromptu bout of physical self-loathing, on a level I’ve not felt since I was a teenager, must be going on the minds of every woman in that room at that moment, and for the beautiful teenagers, perhaps every single moment.
I wished my feminist thing had won that battle of the mind mind but sometimes years of media conditioning wins the day.
Finally and at last
The water came on.
Only a trickle but the absolute relief that the ordeal was almost over was palpable, as we all turned and leaned into the shower walls like people at prayer to get as much water into our hair, and to get clean as fast as we could, to make good our escape and leave the scene and everything it made us feel behind.
I am not dead, and as Kanye West once sang, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And I don’t hate myself. I just prefer myself, and other people, with their clothes on.