FOR MANY OF US, SWIMMING CAN BE A DAUNTING EXPERIENCE, ONE WHERE INSECURITIES, BOTH OLD AND NEW CAN SURFACE. FOR OTHERS, THE POOL IS THE PLACE WHERE WE GET IN AND ‘SLOG’ OUT OUR SETS AS A MATTER OF TRAINING OBLIGATION.
AND THEN THERE ARE SOME OF US FOR WHOM SWIMMING TAKES ON A WHOLE DIFFERENT SIGNIFICANCE – WHERE THE POOL BECOMES A PLACE OF PEACE, STRENGTH AND SOLITUDE.
Lindsey Averill, co-creator of Fattitude the Movie, shares how swimming went from being an activity once faced with dread, to one in which she found solace – and discovered she was really good at.
WARNING: this piece discusses pregnancy loss and associated experiences personal to the Author.
Regularly, I’ll be somewhere where someone or a group of someones will start talking about the need to get fit and then they’ll look to me for camaraderie, assuming that because I am 5’6’’ and 215lbs, fitness and I have never met. They’re so wrong. This 215lb girl is a fish. I swim three or four miles a week – which is 180 to 240 laps in a 25-yard pool.
I wasn’t always a swimmer. Here’s the thing, I am a body image activist and the co-creator of the body-positive film Fattitude and so I know both first hand and academically that being a fat woman means that the whole world is telling you that your body isn’t good enough. Everywhere you turn there are messages that fatness and health cannot exist in the same space. Fat people in the media are either invisible, miserable, or a punch line – and their thin counterparts are seen being fit, finding love and achieving endless success. So, we as fat women learn to hide and fight our bodies rather than embrace and care for them.
Swimming is not a sport for a closeted fatty. Swimming requires a bathing suit – the closeted fatty’s nemesis. I remember pool parties in the summer when I was a kid. I remember dreading them, dieting and panicking about what people would say when they saw me in a bathing suit. I remember the lure of the bikini and its unattainable glory. I remember feeling that all I was allowed were matronly suits with ruching and dark colors. I also remember loving the water – but only really feeling happy in the pool surrounded by my nearest and dearest.
Admittedly, as a fat kid athletics in general were a struggle – because peers and physical education teachers were always making assumptions about the capabilities of my fat body, so it took me well into adulthood to realize that I enjoy using my body – sweating, breathing hard, pushing and pulling my muscles. (Get your mind out of the gutter :)). I think I was well into my twenties when I started to get it that my fat body could be athletic.
I went to a gym and signed up to work out with a trainer – the owner or said gym. I worked out with him for a few months, and yet even though I knew I had more endurance and muscle tone, I assumed I wasn’t all that powerful. I figured that at best I was an average client. And then the gym owner was planning a vacation, so he introduced me to the employee that would be training me while he was away, and he started the introduction by saying, “This is Lindsey – make no assumptions and don’t go easy on her; she super strong and she can take it.” Um what? As the conversation went on it became clear that he thought I was a badass. It was a tiny moment, but it was the start of a much bigger realization – that I could be fit, even if I wasn’t thin.
“It was a tiny moment, but it was the start of a much bigger realization – that I could be fit, even if I wasn’t thin.”
For the next few years on and off I trained with a number of different people in a number of different gyms. I was athletic, good at fitness and proud of it. But I didn’t really enjoy it. I found that I had to have a trainer because my financial obligation was the only thing that got me through the door. I also still failed to even consider the possibility of swimming for exercise because as an adult I didn’t swim much. And, I bathing suited, like, never.
My relationship with bathing suits was healed by my participation in the body positive and
fat acceptance movements. It didn’t happen overnight. It took bravery and a whole lot of looking at pictures of other fat women in bathing suits and fatkinis/bikinis for me to realize that fat bodies look fine. And in fatkinis they look F-I-N-E, fine. Once I was back in a bathing suit, I remembered I loved the pool. I loved the feeling of the water, the muffled sounds and calm cool caress. I went to the pool – to hang out, not to exercise, just to be. I put my body out there to be seen and it was no big deal.
And, then I had something bad happen to me. I miscarried and I lost a lot of blood, too much blood and wasn’t myself. I was hurting in my mind, sad and angry at my body for not being good enough or strong enough to make a healthy baby, and physically I felt weak for the first time in forever. I was too weak go to the gym. I was too weak to do anything really – but I could still go to the pool, just to be.
“Once I was back in a bathing suit, I remembered I loved the pool. I loved the feeling of the water, the muffled sounds and calm cool caress.”
So I swam. I swam in the pool at my apartment complex, surrounded by people, families splashing, old ladies water walking, college kids sunning, anyone and everyone. At first I could only swim eight laps. And then eight became ten and ten became thirty and thirty became eighty-five and then a hundred. Swimming was like a salve. It was meditative and invigorating at the same time. I didn’t need to pay anyone to get me there. I craved it. When I was swimming I was peaceful. In the pool I remembered that my body was strong – and powerful and that I was joyful and not defined by my fertility or the children I will and will not have.
Now, like I said earlier, I’m a swimmer and a good one. I’ve worked with a swim coach but mostly I’m there because I love it. I’m fast and powerful and in the pool I’m as close to naked as I get in public and I am proud of my body – what it can do and how it looks.
Last week, like always, I was in the pool doing my thing and a six-foot tall muscular dude was in lane next to me. This was the kind of guy that no one assumes unfit, a broad chested muscular guy who clearly works out – his body fat was low and his six pack was chiseled. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to him. I was swimming – focused on my drills – but somewhere in the back of my mind I was conscious of the fact that he often paused at the end of his lane to catch his breath and that I had lapped him more than once.
At the end of my swims I often do four laps with a kickboard – just to cool down – and basically it’s the first time during my whole swim that my face is above the water for more than a breath. As I was kicking by the guy stopped me with a wave, “You’re a beast,” he said. I tilted my head and he clarified, “I mean you are so fast and you never take a break. You’ve been swimming since you were a kid, right?”
Nope. But I do now.
Lindsey’s Gear Bag:
Swimsuits: Speedo Sculpture Solid swimsuits are durable and comfortable, even with a larger bust.
Swim Cap: Tyr cap for long hair is what I wear, two of them if you want to stay mostly dry. I also like Speedo swim caps but I’ve found that the TYR is more durable
Hair Care: Malibu C Swimmer’s Wellness (Shampoo and Conditioner) is all natural and keeps your hair from drying out. Dearmorganic Oil leave in treatment keeps my hair soft and shiny.
Goggles: I think this is super personal and I’m still looking. Current favorite is Speedo Bullet Mirrored Goggle Elastomeric. Pros: No leakage Cons: a little too tight.
Swim Accessory: Kickboard!!!