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This is a strange one. I have been going to the gym 2-3 times per week for stress management. Before summer, our university made some nice offer for staff to register to the on-campus gym. So, I switched. Compared to my previous gym, I pay less money, it's more modern, and it's more convenient.

Over summer, everything was fine. I usually go at 07:30 and it's quiet. Now that the students are back, I realised that many of my graduate and undergraduate students go at the same time as well.

The showers are sex-segregated, but the problem is that the gym showers are open. Meaning that I'm bound to meet one of my students "butt-naked" in the shower. I've never been conscious about this before and I'm used to using shared showers since I was a kid (camping, sports, etc.). However, I've started thinking that meeting your PhD advisor or first year lecturer naked in the shower might lead to a slightly disturbed dynamics in the Professor-Student relationship.

Am I overthinking this? Should I just pretend I don't see anyone? I've thought of switching back to my old gym or go home to shower, but it would be very invconvenient.

120

I think that if this is a shared student/faculty gym with open showers, there’s an expectation of seeing some of your fellow university goers naked. I wouldn’t worry about it. Your students are adults and this is the norm at the gym.

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    Students can also be very childish (I know, I was one) and can make fun of the OP. I think this is where the question is coming from. Imagine some snickering during a lecture. OP may reasonably think it's about him and be off putting and embarrassing. – camden_kid Sep 28 at 9:42
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    i guess this really depends on your own comfort level. I personally couldn’t care less about students’ opinions about my body, but I can see why it may bother someone. – Spark Sep 28 at 13:40
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You’re not overthinking, you’re just... thinking, and that’s perfectly reasonable. However, neither were the university authorities underthinking it when they decided to set up a gym that’s open to a mixed crowd of students and faculty. Nor were they underthinking things when they wrote the faculty code of conduct (or whatever the equivalent thing is called at your institution) and did not include a prohibition on faculty using a recreational facility used by students.

The reality is that there’s a false premise floating around — a pernicious belief about professors that pops up every now and then and seems hard to shake, even for people who are themselves professors — that professors are some kind of special breed of humans, or a caste of high priests that need to set themselves apart from the rest of society. We’ve seen this come up on this site in questions about professors swimming, using dating apps and doing other completely normal and mundane activities that no other person will ever think of asking for permission to go about doing.

Well, we need to be very clear about this. This belief is completely and utterly false. Professors are ordinary humans and when they are not at work they like to do the exact same activities as everyone else does. They go to the gym, they date, they swim, they eat the same food, shop for the same groceries, etc, and they have naked bodies just like everyone else does, which they sometimes expose in (gender-segregated) showers at local gyms just like everyone else does. Anybody who has a problem with their professor doing those things needs to simply get over it.

I do understand (from experience) that for a professor in a small town you don’t necessarily always want to have a chance of running into your students everywhere you go about your daily life outside of work. If you personally prefer to work out and shower at a gym where that’s not likely to happen, that’s perfectly reasonable and fine. The point is, you should choose which gym you go to based on your own personal preference and convenience, not because of second-guessing how your students might feel about seeing you, or because of feeling hamstrung by some perceived social taboo against professors mingling with the rest of society. If such a taboo ever really existed at all, it was in some long bygone era, and the perception that remains today is simply an anachronistic vestige of those days. We need to let this misguided notion die.

TL;DR: professors are people.

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    I think those questions are perfectly reasonable. Professors are known among their students, in a high position of power and assumed to be somewhat intelligent/maybe an example for their students. Students often gossip about professors. While professors should not ask for "permission" for such things, they should think about what consequences their actions could have. – User Sep 27 at 15:44
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    Two examples which are related I think and happen too often: (1) A teacher appears in their Facebook picture with a bikini and this becomes a huge public scandal. (2) Someone in a small neighborhood does not adhere to local customs (i.e. has too much/too less flowers on his balcony), leading to severe reprimanding in the neighborhood. In both cases, your points apply: The actors are no special bread and should be allowed to act like they want, but they seemingly face consequences. – User Sep 27 at 15:47
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    Okay, sorry, maybe I misunderstood but I don't think your TLDR is entirely correct: Professors should be treated like everyone else, but sadly, this is not always the case. And sadly, when this is not a case, a professor should think before about what consequences they might face. – User Sep 27 at 15:55
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    Please don't take any offence from my comments, I do think your answer is a good one. However, I think it's easy to interpret the meaning from your TLDR differently than the literal meaning: Literally, it is a very obvious statement which does not answer the question. If somebody would write an answer which could be is a summarized with the literal meaning of "Professors are people" (I think a TLDR is a summary?), i think this would be a spam answer. So, I do think it is easy to interpret it as "Professors are allowed to behave like all other people", intended or not. – User Sep 27 at 16:19
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    @User thanks for your comment. You do have a good point that I meant something a bit stronger than the literal meaning of “professors are people”, and in fact “professors are allowed to behave like all other people”, although it doesn’t completey capture what I was saying, comes fairly close. And I’m even willing to stand behind that statement as something that I believe is generally true, with the understanding that it’s only an approximate summary of my more detailed views and isn’t meant to be taken as a universal, absolute truth for which no exceptions could ever be found. – Dan Romik Sep 28 at 7:19
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As a student, I would find it mildly uncomfortable to see a person in power over me naked, (especially if you have a different gender than me), more so if I didn't expect to see someone I know there (in big schools, I might expect to be completely anonymous). However, while this might be an embarrassing moment, I wouldn't (and no other serious person would) hold it against you that you use that gym. So, I would advise you to not overthink this and carry on as usual, but do not make the naked moment more awkward than necessary (i.e. don't start a conversation about research while naked).

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    I like particularly the last advise. I wouldn't start any conversation while naked in the shower. However, it reminded me of an Emeritus professor in the school when I was doing my PhD. Every time you would happen to be peeing in the men's stalls next to him, he would ask "So, how is your research going". I was going to the upper floor toilets when he was at the school to avoid this :) – electrique Sep 27 at 15:17
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    Good answer, but the first parenthetical remark about different genders seems distracting - how is that relevant to OP’s scenario? – Dan Romik Sep 27 at 15:31
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    @DanRomik: Because I honestly don:t know whether or not the showers in the question are mixed genders and I do think this would add more akwardness. – User Sep 27 at 15:50
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    @User no kidding! Well, kudos for being careful not to make any assumptions (I wish more people had that habit), but OP is in the UK so I think it’s safe to assume the showers aren’t mixed gender. – Dan Romik Sep 27 at 15:56
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    My experience with Finland is that mixed-gender saunas aren't unheard of at universities. It's a pretty relaxed environment when everyone's naked. – pipe Sep 27 at 17:56
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Even though, as a graduate student myself, seeing one of my supervisors in the shower would be a little odd, one of the things about being a graduate student is that we are [generally] mature and intelligent. It may be awkward, but the awkwardness can be reduced in two ways.

  1. What time you go: you already go quite early in the morning. The earlier the better, you are much less likely to see students the earlier you attend. Also think about what days of the week you go. On the other hand, you may want to avoid 'planning' like this because it makes too much of a meal of the situation. If that is the case:

  2. How you handle it: when I was at school our showers were totally open and there was no hiding. The teachers used to shower with us regularly. Even though these days this may be looked on as a little odd, back then I thought little of it because they just didn't seem to care, and also, after sports where would they shower anyway? I would suggest that your students' state of mind in the situation will be largely down to your attitude. If you just get on with it and fearlessly shower like any other man would, then there will be much less awkwardness than if you skulked to the shower and looked embarrassed.

Lastly, the very fact that you're going to the gym at all will be met with an iota of extra respect from your students.

6

Definitely overthinking it I reckon. I think your anxiety over nudity is far more self-induced rather than of actual concern for students and colleagues. Being nude is not sexual despite the media sexualizing everything. Nudism is a good example of this. Nudity does not change dynamics of the relationship.

Sexual interest and sexualized behaviour is far more significant than nudity. I remember seeing a couple of studies where the impact of involuntary indicators of interest such as pupillary dilation, flush skin etc was more significant than the lipstick, short skirt, etc. I can't seem to find the studies now but the principal seem helpful.

6

I agree with everyone that says you're overthinking it. The gyms at UT Austin have separate locker rooms for faculty (at least partly) for this reason. I'm surprised your school doesn't.

There are signs up in all the locker rooms that cellphones are prohibited, and yet, there is always someone with their cellphone out. There is potential that a disgruntled student might make a video of a professor showering and distribute it.

Additionally, professors might have some potentially physically embarrassing things (scars, adult diapers, hernia belts) which they would not want disclosed.

3

I think this is pretty much down to the policy at each university. Similarily here in the U.K., even in secondary schools we have such policies. My advice would be to check on those.

  • What kind of policies? In the UK university in which I worked the staff was welcome to use the sports centre and it was welcome to join the student sport clubs. Arguably, I was just a postdoc, so the students didn't really care, I was just 10-15 y older, not their prof, but I am not aware of any policy that would prevent teaching staff joining as well. In some clubs (judo) the profesors played an important role. I didnjt notice any separate changing rooms or showers. – Vladimir F Sep 28 at 9:23
  • I am in a UK university and there is no such policy for the gym. Could you point what you mean? – electrique Sep 28 at 17:28
  • If there is no policy, then it's not an issue. Period. If I am being honest, I'd not be surprised. As what the OP is asking, it should be common sense. – CasperYC Sep 28 at 18:38
  • If it's explicitly allowed, then there is a policy to allow it, regardless of whether there's a document somewhere with "Staff Showering Policy" written at the top :-) "No policy" would only be the case if it had literally never occurred to anyone that employees might use the gym, and the whole hierarchy of the university gets blindsided when someone does... – Steve Jessop Sep 29 at 18:22
0

If you're feeling uncomfortable/unsure enough about it that you have to ask, then yes, there is a problem. Not a problem that means that you shouldn't use them if you decide you want to, but a problem in that the facilities in the way they're offered create uncomfortable or outright unsafe situations for some students and faculty in a way that unfairly impacts their access. As I noted in comments on Dan Romik's answer, the university was

underthinking when they skimped a few dollars on partitions for the showers. Even if you're just thinking in monetary terms and not the wellbeing of your students and faculty using the gym, the lawsuit from a single bad incident will cost hundreds if not thousands of times as much as properly partitioning the showers would have.

Such incidents might include harassment in the showers themselves, photography and distribution or threat to distribute photos, harassment in the form of later making remarks/rumors about the size or shape of someone's genitals, discrimination complaints based on certain people (e.g. those with history of assault, or those attracted to same gender, or ...) feeling unsafe or unwelcome to make equal use of the facilities, etc. etc. etc.

At the very least, if you do choose to use such facilities, as a person in a position of power over some of the other students you might meet naked there, you need to be aware of these dynamics and ensure that you're not doing anything that could make them worse.

If it were me, I would complain to the appropriate administrator about these issues and decline to use the facilities unless/until partitioned or fully private shower spaces were available.

On a final note, I've seen a lot of sentiment in comments/answers that this is a matter of what's appropriate in local culture. That's bollocks. Yes, in some places there's a general awareness of all of the concerns I described above (and probably others I missed), along with efforts to mitigate them, and in other places people are expected to just "toughen up" or "deal with it". That doesn't mean both are equally valid. There is no cultural context in which nobody could possibly feel unsafe or uncomfortable in this situation (even if most people don't), so there's no cultural context in which it's just fine. There are just cultural contexts where the majority of people don't care that it's not fine for others.

  • Regarding culture, it's one of those irregular nouns. "I/we have a rational response to a situation that is potentially uncomfortable for some people", "you have a taboo", "he/she/they have a superstition". Even if your conviction is correct that e.g. nude sauna-ing in Finland isn't fine because it restricts access, I don't think the different approach has anything to do with "toughening up" and "dealing with it". – Steve Jessop Sep 30 at 14:12
0

If the gym showers have curtains (or doors) you can slide them to block the view while you are showering. In addition, outside the showers you can use the towel to cover your private parts to reduce the exposure.

protected by Massimo Ortolano Sep 28 at 10:31

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