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.

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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