Art: MRCokeley Design
How HBO?s ?Euphoria? tackled a fear that many men have
Aug 27, 20197 min read
In the second episode of Euphoria, HBO?s new drama about naughty teenagers, hunky football player Nate, played by Jacob Elordi, is shown fully clothed in the middle of a boisterous locker room filled with his naked teammates and their exposed penises.
While the other bros wag their dicks about in slow motion, Nate looks straight ahead, desperate not to be caught staring at a flailing phallus. ?He hated how casual his teammates were about being naked,? the show?s narrator, Zendaya?s Rue, says of Nate. ?He made a concerted effort to always maintain eye contact? Every now and then he?d forget, and accidentally catch a glimpse of someone?s penis.?
I?ve never felt so seen.
I too have had a contentious relationship with locker room nudity. If you?re an American male under the age of 35, chances are you did as well, or probably still do. It?s no coincidence that the word describing a constant fear of nudity is, after all, gymnophobia.
My gymnophobia began in sixth grade when I was told by my father, the athletic director of my school district, I had to change clothes before gym class in front of my peers. I seethed with resentment. Didn?t he know I had to shield my little-boy body from scrutiny at all costs? While everyone else seemed to be growing like trees, sprouting razor-thin mustaches, and developing bushes of pubes (or so I imagined), if you put me in a wig, I was a dead ringer for that pint-sized definition of 90?s femininity, Polly Pocket.
It was the end of 1999. Everyone else was waiting to see if Y2K would kill the world?s computers once the Ball finally dropped, but I could only think about the balls dropping between my thighs. Thus, I concocted a foolproof plan to avoid disrobing in the locker room. I?d wear athletic shorts underneath my perfectly pleated school khakis, and before gym class began, drop my drawers faster than a Broadway chorus boy in a quick change and bolt out of the locker room. I kept up this charade up throughout high school. If I lingered among changing males, I thought I?d accidentally look at someone the wrong way, be seen as the faggot I knew I was, and meet my untimely demise ? social or otherwise.
As a result, the only naked male bodies I saw until adulthood were mostly on film and all related to sex. These bodies included Kevin Bacon?s at the end of Wild Things (yowza), my father?s when I accidentally walked in on him and my mom once (yuck), and gay porn (yum).
I managed to escape locker room nudity until I moved to New York City for my post-collegiate career. Going to the gym in my new home, however, provided a host of unforeseen challenges. Most notably, it necessitated on-site changing and showering. I quickly mastered the art of towel changing. This magic trick, I soon learned, is practiced ubiquitously in male locker rooms across America. Even in adulthood, I was like a chaste Catholic school girl in the changing room. My towel becomes a pleated skirt as I slip off undergarments like a clumsy burlesque performer. The act is done with my back to an empty audience, desperate to protect my body?s most vulnerable bits from someone who isn?t actually watching.
Why are young men still so reticent to show skin in a culture that shares so much?
There are those, like Euphoria?s Nate, who avert eye contact in the hopes their feigned disinterest in cock will mask their true penile preoccupation. If their eyes are windows into a queer soul, they make sure to use blackout curtains while disrobing around men. Then there?s the self-obsessed heterosexual character who fears a gay man?s lust-filled gaze. Pompously assuming he?s worthy of sexual attention, he?s terrified homosexuals will eat him with their irises. The Golden Globe for Most Insidious Gymnophobe goes to the man who initially seems unabashed by flashing his booty. Only after unrobing, he shows his true colors by slapping asses, snapping towels, and making crude gay jokes as a means to mask his underlying insecurities.
Unlike these self-conscious archetypes is The Grandpa, who struts around locker rooms without worry. He droops and dangles as he walks the length of a locker room floor with the carelessness of a runway model. He chats openly about the day?s banalities and actually takes time to dry before putting on his clothes. He?s a soldier of manhood with an unsheathed trouser snake, standing unapologetically nude with his arms akimbo. But this character?s sitcom will soon be canceled. Young men don?t act this way.
Internalized homophobia isn?t the only reason we fear nudity. Psychoanalyst Dr. Vanessa Sinclair says, ?When you think of the phallus in a metaphorical sense?it?s more about who has the power, who has the answer, who has what everyone is looking for. The reality, of course, is that no one has it. No one has the answer or the power, ultimately. They only do when others believe they do. As long as you are not fully exposed, you can keep people thinking that you have it.? Is it possible that 21st-century towel-changers never get naked in front of other men because they don?t want to be exposed for their lack of power?
The penis is equated with a man?s self-worth, and exposing it to the world is a dangerous and vulnerable act.
We are, after all, obsessed with dicks. The Power Thesaurus counts 517 synonyms for the word. Cock is an inextricable part of our lives. But for an appendage so small, we expect so much. The male sex organ isn?t merely something we describe scientifically. The host of words we use ? machine, mickey, one-eyed monster, schlong, pee-pee ? call to mind masculinity, virility, and weakness. We venerate men for large endowments and chastise those with less exemplary stats. The penis is equated with a man?s self-worth, and exposing it to the world is a dangerous and vulnerable act.
None of this Millennial gymnophobia is innate. It represents a cultural shift that began in the 1990s and changed the landscape of modern American locker rooms. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the antigay military policy Don?t Ask, Don?t Tell. Commander Craig Quigley, a spokesperson for the Navy at the time, said ?Homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous,? and if they were present in group showers, heterosexuals would have ?an uncomfortable feeling of someone watching.? DADT effectively barred homosexuals, or at least ones living out and proud, from service.
In 1994, the ACLU threatened to sue a high school in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania over its mandatory shower policy. Desperate to avoid a lawsuit, the district decided to drop their shower requirement. Schools around the country took note, and in 1996, the New York Times reported that shower-free gym classes were becoming the new norm. Kids still got sweaty, but rather than lather post-gym, they?d cake on deodorant for the rest of the day. An eighteen-year-old quoted in the article said ?Standing around together naked? Oh no, man ? people would feel really uncomfortable about that.?
By the time I entered middle school in 1999, the tiled rooms meant for group showers were obsolete. They?d been relegated to the same dark corners as telephone booths ? forgotten places drunk people illegally use as public toilets. For Millennials and Centennials, the days of showering together are history.
Maybe this isn?t so bad. My father, who began teaching physical education in public schools in the 1970s, notes the cases of harassment, bullying, and general discomfort felt by students when group showers were common. I?m glad I didn?t have to deal with the trauma in 1999, and I?m thrilled young people don?t have to deal with it now. I wonder, though, if this lack of nudity is truly helping our youth. If we?re never forced to deal with the reality of our nude bodies, their mystery and shame become an insidious mold. I?m ready to take out the Clorox and get to work, but locker rooms are now built on a foundation of toxic gymnophobia and we need more than a bottle of bleach to fix the problem. We need to normalize nudity where we see it most ? on-screen.
HBO became my generation?s penis pioneer in 1997 when Oz, a drama about inmates at a correctional facility, televised full-frontal male nudity. The premium cable network has been the leading purveyor of dick cinematography ever since, with copious amounts of cock on countless shows ? most recently, Euphoria. One might assume Americans would be a little less gun shy with this much exposure to peckers in popular culture, but one trip to the gym teaches us otherwise. Thankfully, Euphoria?s graphic locker room shot of 21 penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors (the most ever seen in one tv episode) is at the forefront of changing the paradigm.
After Euphoria?s second episode aired, Esquire published an article entitled Euphoria?s 30 Penises Scene Was Pointlessly Gratuitous When It Didn?t Have to Be (note the exaggeration in number). I whole-heartedly disagree. In a culture where talking about dicks is commonplace but showing penises is gratuitous, our dick problem is much larger than a few inches. Euphoria made viewers uncomfortable, titillated, and even disgusted by what they saw on screen: the things we?re too afraid to show and see ourselves. I applaud HBO for forcing us to reckon with a dozen pecks of pickles. I wish more tv shows and movies would follow suit so we could see the male form as more than an object worthy of shame or sexualization; to understand that a pecker isn?t powerful ? it?s as ordinary as an elbow.
Let?s demystify the dick together. I know it?s uncomfortable changing underneath that towel. I know the nagging voice of shame, however loud, is annoying to hear. Fuck it. Walk to the shower naked. Next time you?re in the locker room, be part of the change you wish to see in America?s gymnophobic world.