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IN PRAISE OF SWIMMING; OR
It’s Not Over
’Til the Fat
Lady Swims!

by Timmee Grinham

From Radiance Summer 1998

This summer marked the beginning of a new love affair for me. However, unlike most of my love affairs, this one seems destined to last forever, make me healthier, and bring me only intense joy and self-satisfaction. My new love—the object of my affection, the subject of my obsession—is swimming.

Now, as an Australian who has often traveled to North America, I know the prevailing image of us there is as blonde, bronzed, Aussie surfie types who are practically born swimming and who rarely get out of the water or leave the beach during summer. Sure, we’re all taught to swim well at school, but swimming is a pleasure that, as a fat woman, I had long denied myself.

jumps.jpg ((38k bytes)I can still remember swimming during the hot country summers of my childhood. Each year, my parents would pack up much of the contents of the house into our caravan and drive about an hour out of town to a camping area by a large local river. Weeks on end would be spent swimming and playing in the river all day, fishing, listening to cricket games on the radio, and, at close of day, singing around the campfire with my dad accompanying us on his guitar.

Then there were the visits to the farm managed by my aunt and uncle: days of thrashing about in the dams that surrounded the property, squealing with my dozens of cousins as we tried to push one another off inflatable mattresses, and trying to avoid letting leeches latch onto our tender, sunburned young skin. One of my favorite childhood photos shows me proudly posed in my brand new fuchsia pink bathing suit, hair wet, towel draped over my shoulders, and beaming: I had just clambered out of the river and up the bank.

A later memory: at sixteen, away from my country for the first time, at boarding school in Canada. Rising at 6 every morning, I would stagger through the snow to do twenty-five laps in the school’s twenty-five-meter pool, and then begin the day with an enormous breakfast. I was incredibly strong—I could beat most of the boys at school in wood-splitting and chain-sawing—and very fit—I could hike and ski for miles. I lost a lot of weight that winter—a consequence of all my swimming and hiking and being put on a compulsory diet by the school nurse. But despite the weight loss, and my strength and fitness, I was still fat!

And fat I remained, and fatter I became. As the years of university flew by and my life became increasingly sedentary and cerebrally focused, I lived out the stereotype about fat women. People think we’re fat because we’re lazy and don’t exercise, but really, it’s not that at all. We don’t exercise because we’re fat and afraid of the ridicule we’ll experience if we do try to get out there and get active.

So there I was—just turned twenty-nine and weighing 139 kilos (305 pounds). I’d acquired a swimsuit while attending Fat Gala during a visit to the United States the previous July. (Fat Gala is a fat women’s gathering held a number of times a year across the United States. Most are cosponsored by NAAFA’s feminist caucus.) During the clothing swap, I’d spotted a fabulous blue-and-pink suit in a tropical motif. It had been donated by a fat woman from Hawaii, who told me she had about half a dozen swimsuits and swam every day. I was convinced by my roommates to take it and wear it to the pool party that night. I swam every night at Fat Gala. I luxuriated in the sensation of the water on my skin and the feeling of being a light, agile, buoyant creature. Some of us became daring on the last evening of the Gala: we skinny-dipped and created whirlpools by joining hands and running in circles in the water. But upon my return home, without the safety of Fat Gala, I was once more a fish out of water.

When my eight-year-old niece, Jocelyn, came to visit during our hottest summer on record, she presented me with a unique problem. The extra hot summer had seen me at the beach several evenings, but only under cover of darkness and always cloaked in a sarong. But being an active, vivacious young woman, my niece decided she wanted to swim—every day. And she wanted me in the pool with her!

I watched her for a while. Her small white body thrashed about in the water as she entreated me to join her. It looked so cool and welcoming, so much more comforting and soothing than the ridges of my plastic chair, which stuck to my legs, hot under my burn, making me sweat. So I loosened my sarong and stumbled toward the edge of the pool. I kept one eye on all the nearby bathing beauties sunning their size-8 selves in handkerchief-size swimsuits, terrified that the gaze of every last one of them was on my pendulous behind and belly. Just as I reached the edge of the pool, I dropped the sarong—and jumped in! Oh, the feeling of the water around me, the bliss of floating and frolicking with Jocelyn—of tossing her in the air, of having her dive into the water, of her splashing me—and the ring of our laughter as we teased and joked with each other. We ended up in the shallow end of the “grown-ups” pool, and I was as reluctant as she was to leave at the end of our visit that first day.

Three days after Jocelyn left, I found myself craving the cool embrace of water again. I donned my swimsuit, got in the car, and drove to the outdoor pool. For about a week I went every day for a dabble. At first, I swam one or two lengths of breaststroke each visit. Then I got up to ten. I nearly drowned the first time I tried to do a fifty-meter length of freestyle. But as I persisted, I found my stamina increasing. By the fourth week, I was swimming a full kilometer each visit, in a combination of breaststroke and freestyle.

An enormous confidence boost came one morning when I pulled up at the end of a lap to find a lovely (thin) woman in her late thirties smiling at me. As I went to turn around and start back toward the other end, she said to me, “You’re a good, strong swimmer.” I nearly levitated out of the pool with joy, and walked about two feet off the ground for the next week!

I reached a true milestone when for the first time I was able to swim fast enough to move out of the slow-swimmers lane and into the medium-pace lane. I had become a “real” swimmer at last! One day several months later, I coaxed my partner—a sports-mad cricket and football player half my size and several years younger—into the pool. I found I could easily out swim her!

Each morning I would arrive home after swimming, smiling sublimely and glowing as if some secret joy lit me from within. Years of fatphobia, years without even owning a bathing suit, had managed to cloud from my mind the knowledge that water is my natural element. I sometimes wonder if we hot-headed, fire sign Sagittarians need the coolness of water to temper our frenetic pace, to get us back on an even keel.

At the end of each swim, I would still dash from the pool to quickly cover my body with a towel, and then I’d pull on my clothes over my wet swimsuit. I wasn't taking it off in front of anyone, for love or money! But I found that as my confidence grew, I began to make a more leisurely transit from the nearby chairs to the pool itself. The much-dreaded insults never came, and I found myself chatting with other “regulars” and happily sitting longer to savor the warmth of the sun on my bare legs and arms after the swim each morning.

As cooler weather approached, I found myself confronted with a dilemma: it was getting far too cold to put my clothes back on over my wet swimsuit. I might even have to disrobe in the change rooms and take a shower! In public! Mortified by the prospect, but unwilling to give up my addictive newfound pleasure, I braced myself for my first morning of public nakedness at the local pool. Rushing from the shower back to my locker, I kept myself (mostly) covered with the largest towel I could find and managed most of the time to not allow any offensive fat to show. I was the largest person I had ever seen swimming at the pool, and I wasn’t about to become a spectacle.

It’s now eight months since I began, and I’m still swimming. These days, I wander around the changing rooms quite happily naked. I dry myself publicly, like all the other women, with their enormous diversity and range of body sizes and shapes. I am still the largest woman I have ever seen swim there, but these days I don’t care. The emotional peace and physical benefits I get from swimming far outweigh any trepidation I feel. I’ve lost nothing and gained so much in my quest to not believe the message that my body is not made to be seen uncovered in public. I walk around the pool contentedly in just my swimsuit, with my large thighs rubbing together, my cellulite-covered bumpy arms, and my big belly pushing out the front of my costume.

I love the feel of newfound muscles: the fact that when I flex my biceps, there’s a hard lump of muscle to feel there now, beneath the (still substantial) layer of fat; that my thighs and calves are so strong I can lift virtually anything; that my back doesn’t ache anymore; that I can walk quickly and for a long time. That I can out swim many people I know. That every time the topic of my swimming comes up, people are absolutely amazed that someone as fat as me swims a kilometer a day. That I can swim as fast and as far as several of the regular lap-swimmers at my pool who are less than half my size.

And despite all this, I am still very fat—too fat to find a company in Australia that makes proper lap-swimming suits of chlorine-resistant fabric in my size. I’ve had to retire my lovely floral Hawaiian swimsuit, because it just couldn’t handle being dunked in chlorine five mornings a week. A big hurdle materialized when I went to a “real” swimwear store to attempt to buy a chlorine-resistant swimsuit, only to find they weren’t available in my size. To my pleasant surprise, the ladies serving in the store were as outraged as I was about this discovery. They even promised to lobby any swimwear makers visiting their store to try to get this problem rectified. As one of the lades said, swimsuit manufacturers seem to assume that fat women don’t (can’t?) swim—that we just want to lie around in the water like water lilies! For that, they’re happy to make a variety of pretty “bathing costumes." But proper swimming suits? Why would a fat woman want one of those?

But, determined, as I was to continue on my trajectory of becoming a “real” swimmer, I decided to have a swimsuit made especially for me. Damn the cost: I was worth it! My next goal is to earn a lifesaving qualification, something I could never have dreamed of before, because, to me, being fat always equaled being different. Now I’m just normal at the pool. The lifeguard knows my name, and so do many of the other regulars.

I see fat mothers at the pool with their children, watching from the sidelines as thin mothers frolic and play with their kids in the water. I sometimes see them glance at me as I plough up and down the pool, the water bubbling about me as I slice through it with my arms. I wonder if it’s envy I see in their eyes. And I hold a secret hope that my presence, that the really fat lady in the pool, may encourage them one day to drop their sarongs by the side of the pool and dive in just as I did.

And I see young fat girls, with their lovely round faces and bellies, playing with their thinner friends in the water. I thank whatever force is responsible for this most beautiful of substances—water—which makes us fatties so much more buoyant and graceful than our thinner sisters. I hope these young fat girls never give up swimming as I did, are never conned out of their natural right to feel like the most fluid of dancers as they bob about in that enchanting liquid.

TIMMEE GRINHAM is a postgraduate student writing a dissertation on fat bodies, feminism, and beauty. She keeps sane by swimming and tending her garden at home in Melbourne, Australia.

 

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