body image · fitness

Fat Scuba Diving—Reflections on weight stigma 40 miles out on a coral reef

Fat stigma is pervasive in sports. I wrote a while back about fat kayaking and Samantha has written about Big women on bikes and also fat yoga. Tracy wrote about fitness and fatness through running here. What is our message? Despite fat stigma, we can be athletes, a fit and competent (or even superior) sports participants and be fat at the same time.

Weight matters in different ways depending on what sport you’re doing. It’s an advantage for me going downhill on a bike and creating my own defensive space on a squash court. It doesn’t seem to affect my balance or weight shifts on cross country skis or for partner dancing. And it does hamper my speed and raise my heart rate going up a steep hill, either on foot or on two wheels.

But who knew that people might think that weight would be an issue underwater? Really? My experience is just the opposite. I feel buoyant in the water, able to swim and glide, almost weightless under the water, able to maneuver easily. Like this.


When I went out on the Great Barrier Reef a couple of weeks ago (I blogged enthusiastically about it here) I did have some size-related worries about snorkeling or diving. We had to wear stinger suits to protect us against the life-threatening sting of the box jellyfish—here’s me in one of them below.

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I was worried about fitting into one, but it turned out they had them in a bunch of sizes, and the one they gave me was actually a bit big on me. So once I got over that hurdle, I felt like the rest would be easy.

But then I looked at their safety information card for snorkeling and scuba. Here it is:


I noticed that it included a chart that depicted snorkeling risks by weight. Here it is:


There was also a chart that depictured snorkeling risks by age. It’s here:


As soon as I saw these, I thought, “they totally made this up.” It turns out that some public health researchers, at a conference in Cairns, were also on the boat, and I pointed it out to them. They agreed—they didn’t think there was any reason to think snorkeling would be more risky for folks with BMIs over 30, or for folks over 40 years old.

However, I was curious to see if there was actual information about this anywhere. Of course there is. I did some cyber-poking around and found a study on scuba and snorkeling drowning deaths in New Zealand. In the study, the mean age was 34 years old. Also, less than 10% of the drowning deaths from scuba and snorkeling were people over 50 years old. So age may not be not much of a risk factor in this study.

What about weight? In coroners’ reports, weight was not mentioned as a variable. And in a table looking at health factors potentially contributing to the 184 deaths in the study, “gross obesity” (not defined there) was listed for only 3 deaths. One gender note on this study: women constituted only 11% of the diving/snorkeling fatalities.

So, overall, I would say that my risk, as a healthy, fat, 53-year-old woman who is a good swimmer, was pretty low. But until I explained to the diving staff on the boat that I was indeed: a) a good swimmer; b) super-comfortable in the water in general; and c) a regular active sports participant, they were cautious and condescending about my signing up for the recreational dive.

When they fitted us out with our gear (vest, tank, regulator, other doo-dads), the diving instructor gave the two other folks weight belts. One of the other two people diving was a burly male fire fighter who I’m certain outweighed me. But I wasn’t given a weight belt. She just put a few lead weights in my vest pocket, pointing out that I didn’t need the weight belt, suggesting that I needed less weight than the other two divers.

This seemed intuitively wrong to me. I hadn’t had any instruction other than the few minutes they spent putting our equipment on at the back deck of the boat. But I know that diving weights are really important, as they help you regulate your buoyancy to be able to orient yourself underwater and also control your movement more easily.

And of course the instructor was wrong. As soon as I got in the water and deflated the air in my vest, heading down under water, I had all sorts of problems with being too buoyant. The instructor had to fetch more weight from the boat and come down to me and put more in the vest. This happened not once, but TWICE—on each of my dives that day, despite my repeated requests for a weight belt. Maybe this was simply bad instruction and poor preparation on her part, but I also think that preconceived notions about fat divers played a role here.

I did some looking around online about weight and diving and risk. I found a few opinion pieces claiming that obese divers (BMI>30) had a higher risk of decompression sickness.  However, when you look at data on diving-related deaths here in detail, BMI doesn’t play a causal role.

After these two recreational dives in Australia, I decided that I’d like to get PADI certified so I can dive with confidence, knowledge, more control and more pleasure. And knowledge and experience will provide me with ways to fight fat stigma wherever I go, even underwater.  And I can’t wait to see more of this, too.

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14 thoughts on “Fat Scuba Diving—Reflections on weight stigma 40 miles out on a coral reef

  1. First of all, I’m in awe that you even went scuba diving. The very thought gives me anxiety! But wow, I’m surprised (you’d think I would cease being surprised at this stuff) that they would think the firefighter needed a weight belt and you didn’t. It’s common knowledge that women in general are more buoyant than men precisely because of body composition. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their experience and competence as instructors (or group leaders, or whatever they are). Good luck with your certification! Enjoy!

    1. Thanks for the nice comments! And of course it was totally dumb that the instructor would have such views about buoyancy; it was all part of a not-confidence-inspiring instructor. But it didn’t deter me, as the magical atmosphere 10 meters under the surface is a big draw. However, you can see a lot from the surface, so I hope you get a chance to snorkel when you’re in the Bahamas over break.

  2. I’ve never wanted to go scuba diving (irrational fear of deep water…or pretty much any water), but it looks like you had a lot of fun and proved your instructor wrong. Good luck on future dives!

  3. That’s great Catherine for your scuba diving forays.

    Hope you take the instructor/company to task with some evidence and articles.

    Stay safe and avoid the bends.

    1. Hi Jean– you make a good point; they won’t change their policies if someone doesn’t inform them. I will do just that. Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Your instructor’s attitudes to fat people and her lack of a basic understanding of the function of weights caused you to have an unnecessarily frustrating and difficult first dive. I am sorry. That’s terrible.

    Dive weights have nothing to do with total body weight: they are there to increase your density to roughly that of the water surrounding you. Fat is not very dense, so fatter people and most women typically need more weights than slender people and most men respectively. (Most divers at least need some weight, because the wetsuit itself is buoyant, as is the tank towards the end of the dive, and everyone is more buoyant in salt water.) Your instructor didn’t have a good grasp of this really basic dive principle and was substituting fat stigma. Yet another way fat stigma is harmful: even in situations where body fat is directly relevant, it caused a trained person to make exactly the wrong recommendation.

    From another feminist diver in Sydney (albeit a bit lapsed due to having young kids): enjoy your certification course! I hope many fun and correctly weighted dives are in your future!

    (Note: I am a PADI certified Advanced Open Water diver with 110 dives experience. This is not a lot of dive education or experience by the standards of good dive masters or instructors, but it’s more than enough to call out this basic failure of the instructor.)

    1. I should acknowledge that this is mostly a less succinct version of Tracy I’s comment earlier. I did see it, I just found this frustrating enough to want to denounce it myself too!

    2. Hi Mary– thanks for your knowledgeable comments. And I hope you can get back under the water once the kids’ schedules allow… Have you been to Gordon’s Bay for snorkeling or scuba? I had planned to check out the underwater nature trail there last weekend, but ended up going with friends to Little Bay instead (near La Perouse) for swimming and hanging out. Once I get my certification and am back Down Under (sometime next year) I’ll definitely try it out.

      And thanks a lot for the validation and encouragement– getting some good instruction will make the experience safer and more fun in lots of ways!

      1. I haven’t done anything in Gordon’s Bay — it certainly looks nice from the cliffs! Most of my shore diving has been Shelly Beach near Manly and otherwise it’s almost all been boats. Magic Point off Maroubra was a favourite when I was diving a lot!

  5. I wrote about this over on my blog, too:

    Diving is an inherently risky activity, and while divers understand that each diver is ultimately responsible for their own safety, dive outfits are also eager to shed culpability in the event of an accident– and “unfit diver” is a way to deflect blame. But fat is not necessarily unfit.

    Add me to the list of people surprised at your instructor’s lack of knowledge about body composition and buoyancy. My last dive I went down in a 2 mil full wetsuit, and it took me 16lb of lead on my belt to get to neutral! But now you know. 🙂 (In your dive log, keep track of how much weight you needed, the water conditions and what you wore and it will be easier to adjust.) Also you need to be able to get your weights off fast in the event of an emergency ascent– weights should have a quick release, not be stuck in your pockets.

    Have fun getting certified! Looking forward to reading about it.

    1. Hi G– I read your blog post, and geez louise, they really think a BMI of >30 is a risk for diving? Argh. I did some research, and there’s all kinds of evidence to suggest that’s totally false. From the articles I cited above, it looks like most divers/snorkelers who get in trouble do so because they panic, run out of air, or get stuck somewhere they shouldn’t be. There were a few cases of people getting heart attacks (which may or may not be weight-related in some remotely causal sense), but most of the deaths were 1) male; and 2) people in their 30s; and 3) people who made mistakes and/or were poorly supervised. Well, forewarned is forearmed. And I am indeed looking forward to getting certified and diving somewhere warm and blue soon!

  6. Glad that you are enjoying all Australia has to offer, condescension notwithstanding. I suspect you are right about lack of evidence for diving risk, but I’m not sure the numbers you provide support that argument. Women making up only 11% of deaths is not compelling if women go on 50% of dives, but like many things scuba diving may be a gendered activity with low participation by women. This is a job for odds ratios – because if women make up only 5% of all dives, then 11% of deaths would show increased risk for women over men.

    1. Hi Another Catherine– yes, you are definitely right about that, and I thought about it after I had already posted the blog. It would take more research to see what the absolute and relative risks are for female divers. But for weight-related risk, in a bigger study I looked at, BMI just wasn’t an issue. It’s not a simple story, either, as it may be the case that a lower % of divers have BMI>30. But in one table, out of 186 deaths studied, there were 3 deaths in which weight was mentioned as a factor (in a speculative way, as the death was from cardiac event). Thanks for keeping me honest here… 🙂

  7. Thanks for the article. I want to get SCUBA certified. I’m worried that my weight will be an issue. this story helped, thanks.

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