Poem #7: Marilyn Nelson's Women's Locker Room
Logline: “Women’s Locker Room” is a timely exploration of a woman’s self-image based on social expectations about her as an African-American and as a woman.
Women's Locker Room
The splat of bare feet on wet tile breaks the incredible luck of my being alone in here. I snatch a stingy towel and sidle into the shower. I'm already soaped by the time a white hand turns the neighboring knob. I recognize the arm as one that had flashed for many rapid laps while I dogpaddled at the shallow end. I dart an appraising glance: She arches down to wash a lifted heel, and is beautiful. As she straightens, I look into her eyes.
For an instant I remember human sacrifice: The female explorer led skyward, her blonde tresses loose on her neck; the drums of our pulses grew louder; I raised the obsidian knife. Vi0lets bloomed in the clefts of the stairs.
I could freeze her name in an ice cube, bottle the dirt from her footsteps with potent graveyard dust. I could gather the combings from her hairbrush to burn with her fingernail clippings, I could feed her Iago powder. Childhood taunts, branded ears, a thousand insults swirl through my memory like headlines in a city vacant lot.
I jump, grimace, divide like an amoeba into twin rages that stomp around with their lips stuck out, then come suddenly face to face. They see each other and know that they are mean mamas. Then I bust out laughing and let the woman live.
Why This Poem
When I discussed the previous poem, Snodgrass’s “Lying Awake,” I described it as having the saddest ending of any poem I’ve ever read. However, Marilyn Nelson’s “Women’s Locker Room” has one of the most joyous endings I have ever read, which makes it a strange and wonderous anomaly.
Over the years, my students have one consistent complaint about the poems we discuss in class: they are depressing. When they enter the class, their idea of good poetry is something that celebrates spring or romantic love or humanity getting along. While I have nothing against joyous poems about children romping in a field or the sweet mysteries of flowers blooming, they do not generally offer much insight into our daily struggles. They are like comparing mundane vacation photos to the complex and startling works of Diane Arbus. Great literature doesn’t just move us, it moves us in a direction that changes our trajectory through life. It can be a slight nudge or a massive shove, but we are somehow different. The poetry of celebration is often just an affirmation of what we want to hear, like pulling a Snuggy up to our chin while watching a Hallmark movie. Nothing has changed; we are the same with no new insights into the world or our place in it.
This is when students echo Paul McCartney: “What’s wrong with writing silly love songs?” Nothing at all. Just like there’s nothing wrong with eating candy. But when we’re sick, we don’t turn to candy to cure us. Upbeat writing can make us feel temporarily better, but great literature has healing properties that can cure ailments. The best explanation of that idea is in Alan Bennett’s exceptional play and movie The History Boys. In this passage, the English high school boys question their teacher, Hector, about the study of poetry:
TIMMS: Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.
HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
HECTOR: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying. Smile! We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
That’s the dilemma for students: most of the great poetry we teach is about things they haven’t yet experienced so they prefer the upbeat, sarcastic, and generally obvious works they can relate to. But Hector’s point is that these poems are preparing you for those experiences that might shake you to the core when they happen. The poem will then offer illumination in those times of darkness. Hector’s glorious line, “We’re making your deathbeds here, boys” is wonderfully optimistic. It reflects on the core of all literature, philosophy, and religion: whether we will have a “good death” or a “bad death.” Good Death is coming to the end of our lives knowing we lived a life rich with love, kindness, and compassion—that we became the person we wanted to. The Bad Death is coming to the end of life realizing we have lived a selfish, alienating life, becoming the kind of person our younger selves vowed never to become. The ending of every tragedy is when the protagonist realizes they have lived the “wrong” life.
“Women’s Locker Room” is that rare poem that delves into the dark oppressiveness of negative body image, racial disparity, and bullying, yet ends with the narrator finding an internal balance that brings her joy. That’s tricky to pull off convincingly, but Nelson does it.
What This Poem Means to Me
Why does a poem about the tribulations of being a black woman resonate so much with a white male? For the same reason a 500-year-old painting by an Italian-born bastard peasant (Da Vinci) can make a school kid from New Jersey stare agape. Or a 400-year-old play from the son of an English glove maker (Shakespeare) can bring tears to the eyes of people in every country in the world. Art links all of our experiences and the best art reaches deep into our shared emotions for universal insights. Love. Loss. Grief. Loneliness. Pain. They are the same across time and geography.
Most of us have been bullied as children. Even bullies. And that experience preys on our childhood insecurities and fears on not fitting in. That fear doesn’t abate as we get older, which is why most religions have a form of shunning (to completely ignore a person as a form of punishment for breaking their rules). In one sect, a person and their family can be shunned for reporting sexual abuse.
Bullying becomes even more ominous when it is systemic to society. Racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrants, anti-religions, and other mass bullying becomes ingrained in our institutions to the extent that it punishes people daily for just being who they are. Worse, because it restricts access to opportunities available to others who belong to “approved” groups, it continues a cycle of lost hope. This can lead to a person believing they deserve the abuse.
I was raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a rabidly Christian town. My parents owned Obstfeld’s Jewish Delicatessen, with a huge Star of David on their sign. As a result, I was in fistfights from the time I was five until I graduated from high school. Our store was firebombed, bullets were shot through the windows, and swastikas were painted on the door. On my first day of high school, a former friend called me a dirty Jew and we fought in front of an assembly of the entire school. We both got suspended. The irony for me is that I wasn’t really a Jew. I had never believed in a god and had only attended synagogue because I was forced to. I had stopped even that at thirteen, following my bar-mitzvah (which was basically an advertisement for my parents’ restaurant’s catering services). Despite that technicality, I still called myself a Jew because of the movie Gentlemen’s Agreement (in which journalist Gregory Peck goes undercover as a Jew to learn about anti-Semitism). In the movie, someone asks a renowned professor why, if he’s an avowed atheist, he still calls himself a Jew. To which he replies: “Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus, it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.” Antisemitism is on the rise—again—and so it still seems like a betrayal to not stand with others being persecuted. It’s basically an “I am Spartacus” moment. (Here’s a movie clip for those who don’t get the reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKCmyiljKo0.)
So, when I first read “Women’s Locker Room,” I felt all the old animosities bubbling up. But Nelson’s poem evolves from initial reactions of anger and revenge to a more enlightened and mature place of self-awareness that I found affecting.
All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem
Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946) writes poetry and children’s literature. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and former poet laureate of Connecticut. She is the winner of numerous writing awards and fellowships, including the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal.
Women’s Locker Room (title)
So much in this simple title!!! Let’s start with the salacious: the title seems like a simple description of the poem’s setting. Innocent enough. But America has a pop culture fascination with the girls’ locker room as seen in many, many teen movies from Porky’s to Carrie. In Porky’s, it just fulfills the high school boy’s prurient fantasy of peeking in to see naked girls. In Carrie, it’s a place of vulnerability to be judged and humiliated. These two things are actually tied together because she is judged based on how well she fulfills the accepted cultural norm of what a girl should look like (hair, face, body shape) and how she should behave. Here’s a cartoon that illustrates some of this:
I’m also interested in the word “locker.” While it literally refers to the locker where members keep their clothes and valuables, it also suggests that there are insecurities that one keeps locked inside oneself. Especially in this most intimate and revealing of settings.
Finally, “locker” suggests that women can be locked into the narrow stereotypical role of how they should look. Gazing at other women and judging oneself based on how well others meet the accepted standard and you don’t is seriously confining and self-destructive. Ironically, some studies conclude that men and women both feel equal body dissatisfaction, but that women have more opportunities to judge themselves and exhibit more “body surveillance” (comparing themselves to other women), therefore suffer more body shame which has a greater impact on their self-confidence and happiness.
In her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes one of the most profound observations in literature:
"Along with romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. She forgot lust and simple caring for. She regarded love as possessive mating, and romance as the goal of the spirit. It would be for her a well-spring from which she would draw the most destructive emotions, deceiving the lover, and seeking to imprison the beloved, curtailing freedom in every way."
I’m pretty sure I quoted that passage when talking about some previous poem on this blog, but the destructive power of our narrow ideals of physical beauty is directly addressed in this poem. The women’s locker room is a place where that ideal can be enshrined because women judge and compare themselves and each other, often finding flaws that can be crushing. It is a standard used to control women: sure, you’re a successful lawyer/doctor/business exec but you’re still fat/skinny/small breasted/homely. Unworthy. Of success. Of admiration. Of love.
Clearly some women—consciously and unconsciously—continue to perpetuate the idea that their value is in their looks. During the pandemic, my wife and I binged on every season of The Amazing Race (allowing us to still travel the world vicariously). In almost every season, a pair of attractive, young blondes are featured (often referred to as “The Blondes”). And every season they introduce themselves with the same mantra: “We know we’re attractive and will be using that to flirt our way to winning.” Another setback for women trying to bury the destructive ideal of physical beauty. It’s not that people won’t be attracted to someone’s physical features—that’s a mixture of chemistry and social programming—but we can stop worshipping it, fetishizing it, prioritizing it.
For many years I took students on a study abroad semester in England. One of the most surprising things my students noticed was that when we watched British TV dramas, the actors weren’t all “attractive.” The women and men protagonists often looked like average people. They had a hard time understanding this casting choice.
The splat of bare feet on wet tile breaks the incredible luck of my being alone in here.
“Splat” is such an intrusive sound. To start with this sound is like an alarm clock getting our attention.
The narrator considers it “incredible luck” to be alone in the locker room because then she can’t be judged. This quickly establishes her insecurities about her body.
I snatch a stingy towel and sidle into the shower. I'm already soaped
The “stingy towel” indicates that she finds the towel too small to cover her body, suggesting she thinks she’s too large. The word “sidle” tells us she’s sneaking into the shower, embarrassed to be seen.
by the time a white hand turns the neighboring knob.
The new info here is the “white hand,” telling us not just that the intruder is white, but that the narrator is not (or she wouldn’t have mentioned it).
I recognize the arm as one that had flashed for many rapid laps while I dogpaddled at the shallow end.
These lines are meant to compare the intruder with the narrator. While the intruder’s arms had “flashed” for “many rapid laps”—indicating she’s physically fit—the narrator had dogpaddled at the shallow end because she’s not as athletic as the intruder.
I dart an appraising glance: She arches down to wash a lifted heel, and is beautiful.
This image of the intruder arching down to wash a lifted heel is like a statue, and sensual ideal of female beauty. An ideal the narrator realizes she doesn’t meet.
As she straightens, I look into her eyes.
For an instant I remember human sacrifice: The female explorer led skyward, her blonde tresses loose on her neck;
“I remember human sacrifice” is her transitioning into a cultural memory, not personal one, of her ethnic ancestry. It’s not clear whether it is a specific ethnicity or just a general idea of tribal behavior. What’s interesting is the playfulness of this dark “memory”: it’s not realistic but more like a movie version, something out of Indiana Jones. In reality, how many blonde, female explorers were there? And by the time they were exploring, human sacrifice would long have been abandoned. Mentioning the “blonde tresses loose on her neck” is a sensual detail, referencing back to the athletic intruder into the locker room. The explorer is also an intruder into the land and culture that is not hers.
the drums of our pulses grew louder; I raised the obsidian knife. Violets bloomed in the clefts of the stairs.
Drumbeats are a convention of many jungle movies (and even Westerns) in which the “infernal drumbeats” comes from the distance to signify the natives will soon attack. Here the drumming comes from their quickening pulses, which includes the narrator, who places herself among the natives. But now she is in a position of power over the beautiful blonde intruder. She raises the obsidian (volcanic glass) knife as if she is the chief or religious leader ready to sacrifice this woman.
Altars used for sacrifice often had small gutters built in the stairs for the blood to run off. Perhaps the blood feeds the violets that bloom in the clefts/gutters of the stairs. Therefore, sacrificing unwanted intruders makes their culture bloom.
I could freeze her name in an ice cube, bottle the dirt from her footsteps with potent graveyard dust. I could gather the combings from her hairbrush to burn with her fingernail clippings,
Here she recites other tribal type voodoo-ish rituals that could be used to punish the intruder.
I could feed her Iago powder.
Iago is the character in Shakespeare’s Othello who betrays Othello, tricking him into killing his own wife out of misplaced jealousy. There are a lot of racial nuances to this play: Othello is black, but he’s such a powerful warrior and leader that the all-white Venetians need him as an ally. Othello marries a senator’s white daughter, which is both an act of love and a power play to demonstrate his position. However, when he starts playing politics and appoints an incompetent white man as his second in command, overlooking Iago, who is his friend and has been through many battles with him, Iago feels betrayed and sets about ruining Othello.
Childhood taunts, branded ears, a thousand insults swirl through my memory like headlines in a city vacant lot.
Here the narrator makes the connection between the standard of beauty the white woman represents and the racist taunts and insults she endured as a child. I really like the image of them swirling through her memory like newspapers in a vacant lot. I also like the phrase “branded ears” to show how the taunts forever marred her, the words burning as deeply as a branding iron.
I jump, grimace, divide like an amoeba into twin rages that stomp around with their lips stuck out, then come suddenly face to face. They see each other and know that they are mean mamas.
This is where the poem’s tone shifts from the harsh pain of being bullied to this cartoonish image. She says he divides “like an amoeba,” which is an interesting play on the previous mentioned ideals of beauty and sexuality. As an amoeba, she removes sex (and therefore attraction) from the equation and divides herself.
We expect when she divides that the two halves will represent opposites: the id versus superego, the angel on the shoulder versus the devil on the shoulder, etc. But these are “twin rages” that do the exact same thing: stomp around with their lips stuck out (which might be considered a parody of how black women have often been portrayed in movies and TV shows).
The question is: why are there two if they are basically the same? When they look at each other, they both see the same thing: they are “mean mamas.” Again, why two? Is the narrator looking at the image of herself that she conjured as the high priestess of her people while that image looks at who she is today? Is one the marginalization of being black while the other is the marginalization of being a woman? When they look at each other do they both recognize a power within that comes from being both those things? I’m leaning toward this latter interpretation.
Then I bust out laughing and let the woman live.
Note: Some of my students interpret “let the woman live” literally, believing that the narrator is actually contemplating killing the woman and now has decided not to kill her. I wonder if that in itself reveals an unconscious racial bias perpetuated by our culture. Do they think she’s more capable of murder because she’s black? Or more prone? Or more justified?
I love this unexpected twist. Most poems would have ended emphasizing the pain of her experience. But Nelson chooses to have her narrator learn from the experience and even become somewhat unburdened by it. The playfulness of “let the woman live” actually has two meanings: on one hand she’s accepting who she is and embracing that rather than judging herself harshly. Therefore, she can abandon her fantasy of killing the woman who represents her torment. On the other hand, she is letting herself live by ignoring the artificial standards of beauty (and the worth to society that comes with beauty).
Also in these lines is the acknowledgement that the intruder is also locked into the ideal of beauty, and that her many laps in the pool may be in desperate pursuit of maintaining the image expected of her. Both women in the locker room are locked into roles have been thrust on them, forever playing a part they didn’t pick nor necessarily want. But when the narrator says “I bust out laughing,” the words “bust out” suggest her escape from those confines. She is now laughing rather than cowering behind a stingy towel.
I don’t usually refer to the author’s comments about their poem because they can’t always be trusted. And a poem needs to stand on its own without any nudging from the author. But in this case, I’m including something Nelson said in an interview because I think it’s a nice insight for writers about the process of discovering what your poem is about as you write it.
Nelson on writing “Women’s Locker Room”: “Sometimes I don’t even know where a poem is going until ten or twenty drafts in. It turns out to be part of the writing process, finding out what the poem wants to grow into. I had a writing experience once with my former husband. I was writing a poem, and it was a serious poem about a black woman’s rage. I showed him this poem, and he said “I know that you think this is a serious poem, but I think it’s funny.” Oh, I was so mad. I worked on about five or six more drafts, trying to make it sound angry, and each time he looked at it, he said, “I still think it’s funny.” And finally I decided to allow it to be funny, and it’s one of the funniest poems I’ve written. People laugh every time I read it. But I didn’t know that.”