A British man is due to appear in an Australian court on Monday, accused of photographing 49 women as they undressed in fitting rooms. In a world saturated with CCTV and phone cameras, can we ever really rely on privacy when we need to undress? Research suggests that, more often than not, we undress with the expectation that we are being watched.
Fitting rooms are awkwardly private and public at the same time. They are filled with strangers, and yet designated as spaces for the very private act of undressing. In most cases, there is only a flexible, temporary barrier between ourselves and other shoppers. When we strip naked in these vulnerable, exposed spaces, we can only hope that no one is looking too closely at the gap between the curtains.
Undressing in a semi-public space such as a gym changing room makes us conscious of how our gestures affect the appearance of our bodies. In order to exchange one garment for another, we have to contort ourselves into all sorts of unattractive shapes. The fear that we might be seen, or worse, photographed, in these ungraceful poses, arises from a shift in our perception of our body. In these moments, we are hyperaware that our bodies are not only "lived in" by ourselves, but also observed by others. This self-consciousness leads us to carefully choreograph our undressing: towels are knotted under armpits as makeshift curtains; bras are pulled out through shirt sleeves; and underpants are pulled off through the leg holes of swimwear.
This affects men too. A study by Donn Short identified that "informal policing" occurs in men's locker rooms. Men of today are more likely than previous generations to try to conceal their bodies under a towel or robe while they are undressing for the gym. This, Short argues, is an emerging practice, resulting from shifting "codes of masculinity" that acknowledge the homosexual and homophobic gaze.
Product designers recognize the need for alternatives to these awkwardly choreographed gestures. Dennis Caco and April Estrada's "Undress" is perhaps the most widely publicized solution, marketed primarily at women with active lifestyles as a "dress system" for women who are forced to change out of their sportswear in public spaces. Surfers and swimmers can also buy products including elongated ponchos that function as mobile changing rooms, shrouding the body as the wearer removes a swimsuit.
Undressing has long been an activity that is awkwardly public and private at the same time. Though it is typically carried out in private spaces, those spaces have historically been populated not only by the individual who is undressing, but also other participants and observers, including family and domestic servants. For women in the West, it is only since the end of the Victorian era that undressing has been possible in private, when new front-busk fastening enabled women to tighten and untighten their corsets without assistance. When undressing became a solitary act, the presence of an observer in the dressing room took on new significance.
Tongue-in-cheek domestic advice from the 1930s advised women to always undress as if they were being watched, even when in their own home. Life magazine published an article that outlined the most "graceful method" of removing one's clothes, asserting that it was a wife's duty to undress in an "artful" manner. A short exploitation film by Dwain Esper, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937), went one step further, suggesting that even single women should be prepared that a Peeping Tom with a long-lens camera could be watching them at any moment. The film advised that a woman should always undress gracefully, just in case she is being watched.
Even when we are home alone, mirrors make us conscious of how our gestures might look to an observer. There is almost always a mirror on the wall of the bathroom and bedroom - the two rooms where we are most likely to undress. Mirrors become substitutes for observers, allowing us to watch ourselves as if the eyes gazing back at us belong to someone else. Revelations that phone and webcams can be switched on remotely might make us constantly conscious of undressing as a performance rather than a private act.
Read more in Acts of Undressing.