Swimming as a Transgressive Activity

Last week’s post on the lack of athletic swimsuit options for larger swimmers prompted one friend to comment “I always feel like the message is, you shouldn’t exist .” Yes I should! And I am not alone in pushing back against those who think otherwise.

In an article on how burqini bans prevent Muslim women from enjoying the health benefits of swimming, I found this: “A woman playing a sport and using her body for her own pleasure and power is transgressive. Historically, a woman doing this, especially if it falls into public space, has been met with resistance. Violent, verbal, all forms of resistance.” – Victoria Jackson, sports historian and clinical assistant lecturer of history at Arizona State University.

In Hydromania, an essay by Robin Jarvis, we have “In the eighteenth century, cold water bathing, largely for medicinal purposes, became increasingly popular, and this trend was accelerated and transformed by the Romantic cult of wild nature. Swimming was now deemed productive of a range of bodily, mental, and spiritual pleasures; at the same time, it was a source of anxiety on multiple grounds and held a transgressive potential.” I’m guessing the transgressions related to the activities reported in Victorian-era Ramsgate, a seaside resort in England, where, according to a local journalist quoted in The New Yorker, “the men gambol about in a complete state of nature, and the ladies frolic in very questionable bathing garments within a few yards of them.”

Who could resist mentioning the Subversive Sirens, a diverse group of synchronized swimmers with their aim of promoting body positivity? ( They won gold at the Gay Games in 2018.

Seven women of various sizes and skin tones, all in black bathing suits
Subversive Sirens team members, left to right: Jae Hyun Shim, Serita Colette, Signe Harriday, Zoe Hollomon, Tana Hargest, Suzy Messerole, Nicki McCracken. (photo credit: Mike Levad)

Roger Deakin, and his book Waterlog, are widely credited with the current upsurge in open water swimming, which is transgressive in that many open water swimmers push back against privatization of waterways and water access, environmental degradation, and government overreach in regulating swimming activities.

I see this in my local swimming environment, where an association of swimmers has been formed to negotiate access to a popular lake; open-water swimming has been a popular activity in that government-owned park for decades, but some of the cottage owners are pushing to remove their rights. So far, we have managed to secure swimming “lanes” marked by buoys in two areas, with anyone swimming outside those lanes required to stay within 30 metres of the shore. All must wear a swim float and bright cap. The last two are not bad things, but weren’t really necessary until one cottager decided to bring in a speedboat and use it recklessly.

I have chosen to stay away from that lake for now, because the reduced hours combined with more limited swimming areas make it a less viable option to get in longer swims on a schedule that works for me. Instead, I swim in the river, where there are three marinas and several spots for seadoo launches. Last year, that river spot was mostly for me and a few friends. This year, there are many more individuals, plus swim club training groups and even a water polo team. As I do my laps from the beach to the nearest marina to a channel marker and back, I wonder what the sailboat owners think about all those swimmers taking up what was formerly their exclusive space.

Sunrise photo of a river and beach, with birds on shore and in the water, and two swimmers in the distance

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

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