Today Fat Yoga, Tomorrow Fat Kayaking? Some thoughts on Kayaking While Fat, Safe Spaces, and Inclusiveness

Sam’s recent post on fat yoga raised some thorny questions for me this week (which, for philosophers, is pretty much a sign of “Mission Accomplished”, so thanks, Sam!) Honestly, I’m not even yet sure what these questions are yet. So it seemed like the best thing to do was to start writing, and see what came from it.

This blog has spent a lot of airtime talking about these issues, with respect to size, age, (dis)ability, etc. For instance, Sam has written that doing physical activity while fat means overcoming a cornucopia of obstacles, from condescension and fat-shaming to problems finding right-sized clothing and gear. Tracy has posted about how our concepts of fitness get associated with particular body norms which excludes older, larger-sized and differently abled people.   If you’re interested in these topics, search their archives, and you’ll find loads of thought-provoking posts from them and their guest bloggers.

Some things I read this week made me start thinking about what seems to be to be a point of tension between creating dedicated spaces for fat activity and creating inclusive spaces, building norms and structures for size acceptance.

For this blog, I wanted to offer some thoughts I had when I read about Sam’s position on fat yoga for her.

 “Bottom line: I’m comfortable running/biking/swimming with people of all different shapes but give me yoga with people close to my size please!”

I totally get this. Yoga is an activity with a variety of levels. Tennis, soccer and squash, on the other hand, are sports where it’s less likely that people of vastly different levels play together. So Sam’s interest, it seems, is REALLY about finding a class that happens to cater to people who aren’t very flexible in ways that make yoga positions more difficult or painful or flat-out not possible. And I am so with her on this. I mean really:

Although I wouldn’t mind learning how to do this:

I know, I know, there are lots of you out there who do this, and it’s big fun for you, so no disrespect intended here.

But her comment reminded me of when I was learning how to do sea kayaking, about 15 years ago. I took a variety of intro to sea kayaking classes—some held at a lake, some in a river, and some in the ocean. Technical note: Sea kayaks are quite different from river kayaks. They are longer, narrower, and are designed to go straight. Some of them have rudders, and they look like this:

River kayaks are shorter, are flat on the bottom, with no rudder, and are designed to turn and maneuver easily. They look like this:

When I decided to learn to sea kayak, I had to deal with my fears that I was simply too large to do this. In my first course, we had to wear wetsuits, which were provided for us. I was completely stressed out and embarrassed at the prospect of trying on wetsuits (not a fun prospect for anyone) and not finding one to fit me. In the end I used a men’s one, which fit, but I was embarrassed and angry that there were no women’s sizes for me. And I’m pretty sure that people much larger than I was would be completely excluded because 1) the company didn’t stock sizes much larger than the one I used; and 2) it’s hard to find large-sized wetsuits for women. Looking this up online, there are wetsuits for large and tall men, but not so easily found for women (probably this blog’s readers know about where to find them, but you do have to look, and they are expensive).

My next worry was about fitting into the cockpit of the boat. You’re supposed to fit snugly, but not too snugly, in a sea kayak. The fit needs to be snug, as you use your hips in the course of paddling; otherwise, your upper body gets too tired. But the fit can’t be too snug, as you need to be able to exit the boat in case your kayak turns over. They call this a “wet exit”—one of my favorite sports euphemisms.

It turns out this is less scary than one might think; you pretty much just pop out of the boat once it turns over. And courses practice this a lot—hence the wetsuits. I found it was easy getting out of the boat underwater—who knew?

But then there’s the business of getting back in the boat while in deep water—this requires detailed instruction and a lot of practice. I was also afraid I couldn’t do this. I don’t have great upper body strength, and I have a lot of weight to haul out of the water. Finally, once I’m out of the water and on the back deck of the boat, I have to maneuver myself oh-so-carefully to get back in the cockpit without disturbing the boat and falling back into the water again. This is not easy. Luckily we had help—to learn what’s called an assisted rescue, we had instructors and other students. They taught us a bunch of techniques for using two boats, two sets of paddles and two persons to get one person back in the cockpit. These women don’t seem to be minding the process at all:

So, what happened to my worries? Well, the instructors found a boat to fit me (turns out they make boats with a variety of different widths and different sized cockpits), a wetsuit I could wear (albeit a men’s one that was too long, but hey), and I was able to learn some techniques to get back into the boat from deep water. I even learned how to do a solo rescue—get myself back on the boat by myself (after about 25 tries…) Still– yay!

However, not everyone was so lucky. There was a woman in one class who was larger than I was, and who was visibly anxious about all the things I mentioned. And things went poorly for her. The instructors for this particular course (a one-day class on a lake) were clearly unskilled at teaching someone who was anxious and in particular anxious about her size. Their response was to segregate her from the rest of us, which exacerbated her anxieties and distress. When it came to learning the assisted rescue, they didn’t pair her with one of the other students. Instead, two of them used a technique used to put an injured paddler back in a boat, called the scoop technique.   This can be used even if a paddler is unconscious.

Right. So, the take-home message for her was that there was no way for her to get back in the boat under her own power; she had to be rendered motionless and passive to get back in her own kayak. I was furious about what I saw, and talked to the instructors afterwards. They never got what I was saying. I also didn’t get a chance to talk to her, as she left immediately.

Obviously, the moral of this particular story is: educate instructors so they are made aware of how it feels to be a larger-sized person in this context, and also how to teach students of all sizes. This is not impossible—there are loads of techniques, there’s specialized equipment, etc.

But I wonder: can we say anything general about when it’s good to have all-sizes-respected classes, and when it’s good to have large-sizes-only classes for some activity? Are some sports or activity classes better for the former, and others better for the latter? Of course we can and should have both, but it’s not clear to me if some sports or circumstances favor one or the other.  I had hoped to come up with some answers. However, at least the question is out there, and I’ll be thinking on it. In the meantime, blog readers, what are your thoughts and experiences? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

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