Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Siglinde Harfnerstochter (OL) is a 6th C Merovingian housewife from the city of Metz. Her primary interests are cooking, textile arts and bonecarving. Siglinde lives in the canton of Caldrithig, Barony of Skraeling Althing, Kingdom of Ealdormere.
Today was my first day back since the lockdown last winter, and only about the fourth since the start of the pandemic. Swimming is a time of contemplation for me, so here is the list of things I was thinking about today.
It’s great to see everyone! I have missed my pool buddies, and I really enjoyed catching up on work and life news as we changed after practice.
I have forgotten how to do this. The flippers, pull buoy and flutter board are all in the cupboard at home. I nearly went into the water wearing my glasses. When do I take off my mask? I completely missed the rest after that set. Again. Oops.
There are so many people! I don’t know them all. Ack! also, I am really bad at introducing myself to new people, and it’s nice to know that the club is at maximum membership. It will help our little non-profit stay afloat financially. Plus it is a welcome option for people who were struggling to find suitable lane swim times at the city pools.
Swimming with four people in a lane is hard. We aren’t all the same speed and I need to figure out how to work with that again. On the plus side, it is way easier to track my distance, even without a swim watch.
My arm hurts. I really should have mentioned that to the coach before starting. On the other hand, taking it easy in the pool means I can swim five strokes or more without breathing – yay!. But I am a worse kicker than ever because I barely use my legs in open water – boo!
It’s really noisy in here. Enclosed space, 20 swimmers, music on the speaker system… I miss the pond or the river, where I rarely hear anything except the wind and in the waves while swimming.
Pachelbel’s Canon is perfect for swimming, at least at my pace today. Air on a G String works pretty well too. I haven’t felt like singing songs in my head in ages. It was pretty sweet.
I forgot to ask E about how the arm she broke last winter has healed. Obviously it’s better since she doesn’t have the cast, but is she back to all the running and so on? Thank goodness there is another practice next week!
Diane Harper lives and swims with the Ottawa Centre Masters in Ottawa.
Sam recently shared an article on the links between too much time and mental health, with the comment that this was not her problem. My immediate thought was “Ha! I’m willing to test this hypothesis!” The study looked at perceptions of well-being and how that rose or fell depending on the amount of free time, controlling for scenarios such as depression, which might leave a person with too much free time.
The basic result was that the sense of well-being rose with about 2 hours of free time, but dropped if the person had more than about 5 hours of free time. But, what counts as free time matters. The sense of well-being came primarily with productive free time, for meaningful activities such as hobbies, social activities, etc. “Wasted” time (undefined in the article, but for me it means things like doomscrolling, social media, and playing computer games) does not have the same effect.
So what is my takeaway on this? I’m mostly doing okay with making time for things I enjoy. I get enough fitness activities to be healthy. If anything, I need to start paying more attention to possible overuse injuries. Right now, I am dealing with what appears to be swimmers elbow. This may be a perfect time to rebalance my activities a bit, especially since the weather is cooling so I will be swimming outdoors less over the next few months.
My rebalance will probably involve more horse time. My daughter is looking seriously at a younger horse for her own riding, since she likes to jump and Fancy, though still healthy and eager, is 19. Like me, she is getting to an age where we need to pay more attention to the risk of injury.
She is still great for flat work though, which suits me fine. Until now, I have been riding about once a week so that my daughter could get as much time in as possible. However, I will likely increase that to two or even three times a week over the next little while. Will I ever reach the 5-6 rides a week that would be optimal for her? Probably not. That is a big time commitment, and would move this leisure activity into the category of becoming a real chore. Besides, as we continue to age, we are both going to need more recovery time between outings.
And I’ll need that recovery time to do all the other things that are meaningful to me – gardening, elder care, cooking, sewing, spending time at my cottage property, possibly even some home renovations. More and more lately, I have been thinking about retirement. Unlike Sam, I don’t find my job as fulfilling as I once did, and I am definitely not as busy. Time spent on work increasingly feels like something that is crowding out the things I enjoy, and I work hard to cram them all in before or after work. Maybe my sense well-being will will improve if I make more free time.
Hmm… this post has taken a strange turn. How about you readers? Are getting enough free time to make you happy? If not, what might you do to adjust?
Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa (among many other activities).
As my summer dance classes come to an end, I am reflecting on why I dance. It’s certainly not because I’m any good at it! And while dancers generally love to perform in public, as an adult student, I don’t perform in shows. It isn’t even because ballet gives me flexibility. It’s the exact opposite, in fact; ballet demands flexibility rather than contributing to it. Dancers spend a lot of time stretching so they can do the movements (I don’t stretch nearly enough, and it shows in my technique).
For me, dance is hard work. I am not strong or graceful. But the most difficult is the memory work. My summer dance teacher has new variations of every exercise each class. That means an average of ten different patterns of movement for about sixteen bars of music every night, before we move away from the barre and do short routines in the centre. Throughout, I am making my feet go one way while my arms (and sometimes my head) are doing something quite different. That is a lot of exercise for my brain as well as my body, and it is what makes dance so wonderful as I age.
According to a widely-cited 21 year study of people 75 or older published in the New England Journal of Medicine (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa022252), the only physical activity that appears to provide protection against dementia is dance. The study doesn’t explore what it is about dance that is so effective, but one of my former teachers swears that it is the combination of movement with memory work that helps build new neural pathways and keep our brains young. Every time I reach the end of class, I quietly celebrate the fact that I have fought off cognitive decline for another week, along with osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. Dance: all by itself, it is the anti-decline-from-aging trifecta.
The heat waves this summer are making think about my fitness activities and how to do better. First, how to do better about staying active in the heat, but also how to do fitness better to minimize my contribution to climate change.
Staying active – I am lucky enough to live near an old quarry and an outdoor swimming pool I can walk or bike to every day. For me, both are great ways to exercise and stay cool. I can go to the quarry early enough in the day that I don’t even worry about sunscreen, which is good because it is in a conservation area and most sunscreens are harmful to water creatures.
Beyond that, it gets trickier. It’s too hot to ride my horse by the time I am done work most days, and she lives too far away for me to contemplate a ride before work. I still do my Zoom ballet classes, and there are video options for yoga, HIIT, pilates, various dance forms etc.
But how to do fitness better? One of the biggest pieces may be travel to do activities. At the Tokyo Olympics, there were lots of measures to minimize the carbon footprint, but COVID turned out to be the game changer. Without spectators to feed, house, and entertain, the carbon emissions dropped an estimated 12%. The carbon emissions from all the airline travel for fans to get to Tokyo appears to be on top of that.
That is something I have started discussing with my swim buddies. We meet about once a week at a beach that is relatively central for all of us. But all but one of us drives a car to get there. Public transit isn’t really a viable option given the times we swim and the awful cross-town bus service. I try to minimize my impact by combining that swim with other errands in that part of town, plus grocery shopping on the way home. It does have us questioning whether we will go further south for cold water swims as we have done in the past. And of course, we will all be back at the indoor pools once our swim clubs start up again in the fall; not exactly a low-carbon activity.
Biking is also an option that I want to explore more. Right now, I use it mostly for short commutes to do errands, but lately it has been too hot even for that. I joke that learning to ride a horse would help me survive an apocalypse, at the same time as driving to her barn in the country contributes to that apocalypse. Could I bike, then swim (or ride my horse), then bike home? Probably not, at least not yet. The spirit is willing but the legs are weak. Maybe in a couple of years, once there is a decent train service where I can bring my bike and just cycle the last few kilometres.
I understand the desire to travel in order to do interesting sports; I am currently living vicariously through Cate as she cycles her way around Bulgaria. I thoroughly enjoy all the posts about cycling in Prince Edward County or along the Guelph to Goderich trail, or canoeing in places like Algonquin Park. My bucket list has included a trip to Peru so I can hike to Machu Picchu for decades, and more recently I have dreamed of a swim trek through Croatia. Or even a trip back to British Columbia, which has so many sports options, including canoeing along the Sunshine Coast like these two women.
Then there are all the gear questions. Microfibres, miracle knits, water-resistant clothing versus old-school linen and leather. Most days it doesn’t seem like much of a choice. I won’t give up my comfy streamlined bathing suits or goggles and caps, but I can at least limit my purchases to essentials. Just this week I reluctantly threw out a suit I have worn for a decade because the latest repairs were giving me sores when I swam. I have started looking for companies that sell gear made from recycled plastics. So far I haven’t found a swimsuit I love, but I do have gorgeous comfy leggings that get a lot of use.
I wish I had some snappy conclusion, but this is a complicated issue. Getting out and being active allows us to both notice what is happening in our environment, and to be more resilient to its negative effects. At the same time, I live in a city with Canadian winters, so it is hard to do all the things I would like without getting into a car. I am not brave enough for winter cycling. I could focus on more seasonal sports such as cross-country skiing along the nearby river, and give up pool swimming, but that would mean giving up on both friends and an activity where I feel strong.
Do you ever think about how your sports affect the environment? What are you doing to adapt as the world gets hotter and the weather more unpredictable? What trade-offs are you willing to make and what is too important to give up?
I have spent a lot of time being angry about misogynistic decisions in the lead-up to the Olympics. I’m not done, but I need to enjoy some of the good news.
The German women’s gymnastics team and their unitards, chosen to push back against the sexualization of women gymnasts.
The Norwegian women’s handball team’s fine for wearing shorts instead of skimpy bikini bottoms will be paid by the Norwegian Handball Federation. The European Handball Federation, which imposed the fine, has acknowledged the media blowback and will be donating the fine amount to a foundation that promotes equality for women and girls in sport. Pink offered to pay the fine and her involvement significantly increased attention to the issue. I anticipate this rule will change, eventually.
Oksana Chusovitina, the 46 year old Uzbek eight-time Olympic gymnast (gold in Barcelona and silver in Beijing, plus eleven world championship medals), retired after she narrowly failed to reach the finals. She was cheered by fellow competitors who rushed to embrace her and acknowledge her impact for breaking stereotypes about the sport.
The Canadian women’s softball team, which won its first medal (bronze). Softball has not been part of the Olympics since 2008, and four of the women were on that team and have continued playing for the past 13 years. That is dedication!
Maude Charron, who trained as an acrobat and then competed in crossfit before taking up weightlifting and competing in her first competition in 2015. Her gold medal in weightlifting is a high-profile demonstration that you can take up different sports, learn new things later in life, and be successful.
Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay, the synchronized divers who barely missed the podium despite McKay’s badly injured foot. Benfeito carried McKay out of the press conference after their last dive. This picture speaks volumes about team spirit to me.
Of the almost 11,000 Olympic athletes in Tokyo almost 49% are women, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), marking the first “gender-balanced” games in its history. At the Paralympics, at least 40.5% of athletes will be women. New competitions have been added, both mixed gender and specifically for women. There are also new sports, with a requirement that there be equal representation. Women’s sports are being given better timeslots and media coverage. And the head of broadcasting has committed to “sport appeal, not sex appeal”, by avoiding close-ups on on parts of the body.
But there is still a lot to do:
better funding for female athletes from recreational through elite levels;
better marketing of women’s sports;
an end to sexist uniform/pregnancy/maternity policies;
uniform policies that are culturally insensitive and disproportionately affect women (hijabs, modest uniforms, swim caps); and
changes at the IOC itself. That organization has never had anywhere near equal female representation on its board or among its committee members, there has never been a female head, and some of the men on the IOC have undermined its promises of commitment to equality.
Now I’m getting grumpy again, so I am going to close by celebrating the widespread condemnation of the nasty sexist things leading up to the Olympics and remembering that comedy can be a tool for change, starting with The Kloons, and their YouTube video “If Men Had to Wear Women’s Beach Volleyball Uniforms”. You can watch it here:
I did it! I had set a goal for myself of doing a 10k, or marathon swim, this summer. I fell somewhat behind on adding distance each week, but I was doing decent weekly totals. I had experimented with drinks and snacks, and had a good idea of what I would need. My best swim buddy had told me a few years ago that if I could swim 5 or 6 k, I could do 10, and knew I had that solid base of conditioning. Then I got scared.
Why? This was my own personal goal with no expectations of speed or fundraising or any other external pressures. Except that I was afraid I would fail in front of the friends who have been so supportive about doing this. Last week, I told one friend that I might just go and do it at my local pond when no-one was paying attention. So this week, that is exactly what I did.
On Thursday I rode my bike to the pond, and coated as much of my back and shoulders as I could reach with diaper rash cream. It looks ridiculous but it is better for the environment than sunscreen. Then I laid out four bottles of various liquids (tea, a juice, honey and water mixture, and plain water) plus a packaged of golf ball-sized energy bites and a banana on the rocks at the edge of the beach, convinced myself to stop hyperventilating and started to swim.
I went around and around in circles 29 times before the pond closed at 2 pm. I stopped about every 2 loops for a drink, and every kilometre or two for an energy ball. I ate my banana after loop 14, which was my estimated half-way point. It took 5 hours and 23 minutes, but I swam 10.5 km. Most was freestyle, but I did switch to breaststroke from time to time to rest my shoulders and back.
I felt great! I could have gone further, had there been more time. 12 km felt completely within my abilities. My strokes were still regular, smooth, and strong. I was sore, but not in great pain.
So what’s next? I may try another 10 in the river, with friends, now that I don’t have the fear of failure. I may just do shorter swims and shift my focus to a cycling goal.
Or I may go back to my Alice Dearing and FINA watch. The Olympics have started. The women’s marathon swim is scheduled for August 3rd. Will FINA allow Dearing to wear the Soul Cap after banning it because “there is no demand”? What will she use instead? I have been checking for updates daily, but there is still no word on this.
FINA has reportedly apologized for the exclusion and invited Soul Cap to reapply for approval in September. Too late #FINA. Dearing and other athletes with voluminous hair that grows up should be able to use a #Soulcap now, rather than caps designed for Caucasian hair. If you really were concerned about inclusion, you would use the opportunity of the Olympics to encourage Black swimmers, by allowing a cap designed for their needs.
Not the fear that open water swimmers might feel about sharks, jellyfish, tides, weeds, or snapping turtles. This is the fear that open water swimmers might have too much fun. Or start a lawsuit. Or something. It is rapidly becoming a trend and I am not happy.
First up, Walden Pond, the idyllic home of philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Last week, state legislators in Massachusetts banned open water swimming there, as part of an effort to address water safety following a spate of drownings across the state. Of note, I could not find reports of any drownings at Walden Pond itself. Thankfully, as of July 9, open water swimmers will be allowed back in, only at times when there are no lifeguards on duty, and only if using a swim float (which most already do).
Then we have the Cam, where people have been swimming at least since the time of the poet Byron in the early 1800s. Technically, Grantchester Meadows, the access area, is owned by King’s College Cambridge, but they are managed by the local council as public space. King’s College abruptly put up no swimming signs last week, as they said their legal advice was that “use at own risk” was insufficient. Again, no evidence of actual drownings. Following another outcry and 18,000 signature petition (known as the peasants’ revolt) the decision was reviewed but the ban will stay.
A spokesperson for the university stated “We have every wish to temper the language of ‘no swimming’ to a less prohibitive form of words, but feel unable to do so without the express support of the [district and parish] councils and their health and safety officers. We hope they will be willing to co-operate on this and bring the ‘ban’ to end.” But it will not officially reinstate swimming unless its insurers agree the college is not liable should anyone be injured while swimming. Meanwhile, there are no plans for lifeguards, patrols, or any of the normal provisions to increase water safety.
The Hampstead Ponds near London are former water reservoirs, originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are three separate swimming ponds: for women, men and mixed. Access to ponds has been cost-free since at least the 1920s; though a fee had been charged since 2005, payment was not enforced. Last year, a mandatory payment system was put in place, and prices more than doubled (and were subsequently raised again).
Some free swims were still available, but times did not align with when low cost public transit was available, which meant those with mobility issues or low incomes could not benefit. According to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA), the ladies’ pond had historically provided a sanctuary for women and girls, including those with disabilities, victims of violence and abuse, and those from faith groups that demand modesty, but the new charging system was proving exclusionary for many people. Even before the most recent price rise this year, the KLPA conducted a survey of 600 swimmers and that found the charges had affected affordability for 58% of them. As a result, more than half now swim less often and 25% can no longer afford to swim at all.
Closer to home, several lakes managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC) and used by open water swimmers for many years are now under new rules that limit the ability of open water swimmers to train. At Meech Lake, the most popular spot, parking hours have been shortened, and swimmers must either swim along lanes marked by buoys, or within 30 metres of the shore. This seems to be counterproductive, since one of the main issues noise complaints – until now, most swimmers have preferred to stay nearer the centre of the lake). Swimmers must wear a colourful cap and a float, which most already do.
The conflict arose because of complaints by homeowners about noise and traffic on the main lake late at night. I can’t speak for all swimmers, but all those I know prefer to swim early in the day, so I suspect swimmers are getting the blame for other partiers. But really, it seems to be boiling down to the NCC’s unwillingness to uphold its mandate of protecting the ecology of the area. Why are all these new monster homes and powerboats being allowed? What will it take to stop power boats from traveling at speed through the designated swim lanes? So far, complaints to the NCC, supported by photos and videos, have not been effective. But there is an active alliance of open water swimmers on Facebook that is working hard to make the best of the situation.
And just down the street from my house, we have the Pond. It has always been an elitist spot. When I first started swimming there, I was questioned about how long I had lived in the area. It was nice to be able to say “25 years”, but it would have been nicer to have known about this closely guarded secret much earlier. I found out about it because my son hung out with the rich kids and mentioned it. It only became popular after a local blogger spilled the beans.
The swimming hours are from 7am to 2pm, supposedly because it is a conservation area. But really, turtles and herons can’t tell time. It is more about keeping out potentially rowdy teenagers who don’t wake up before noon.
Now, thanks to complaints about overcrowding, one or two Bylaw officers are at the beach every single day, to keep the numbers down to 10 in the changing area and 10 on the beach. I just love seeing my tax dollars at work (insert sarcasm emoji here).
As one of my friends said, “In every one of these cases, the increased access to information has in many ways just underscored how actively shitty so many people are.” Keep on shining a light on inequity and fight on for access to public swimming spaces, my friends!
Last week, FINA (the world governing body for swimming) rejected an application by Soul Cap to have their caps authorized for the Olympics. The reason given was that they do not conform to the natural form of the head and no athletes “need caps of such size”. Really? The application was brought forward because Alice Dearing, a UK swimmer and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, had just qualified for the Olympics. She has natural hair and swims using a Soul Cap to accommodate her hair.
Soul Caps were developed after the two founders decided to take swimming lessons as adults and discovered there was a big demand for caps that accommodate Black hair. Black hair tends to be more easily damaged by chlorine, it is more voluminous because it is curly, and many wear styles associated with their heritage, such as braids and dreadlocks.
Historically, there has been a lot of systemic discrimination against Black swimmers, and larger caps such as Soul Caps are just one small piece of getting kids (and adults) into the water and learning a sport that can literally save their lives. But they aren’t just for recreational and learn-to-swim programs; they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Let me repeat that FINA: they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Claiming that there is no demand is simply nonsense.
FINA’s ruling has sparked a huge backlash in the swimming community and the media. There have been petitions, many critical articles, and much commentary on social media. The good news is that FINA seems to be backing down. It has promised to review the ruling, but there are only three weeks left until the competitions begin. I’ll be watching closely.
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.”
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.
A couple of weeks ago, this question came up as some of my friends and I were swimming. None of us are particularly large, but definitely at the top end of size ranges for most manufacturers (40-42 European, or 14-16 Canadian). Often, it is a luxury to be able to pick a suit because you like the colours rather than madly clicking away to get it in your shopping cart before someone else does. Supplies are extremely limited even though we are pretty sure there is a huge demographic (pun intended) that swimsuit companies are missing out on.
We want actual swimming suits because we are athletes. The roundest in our group is also the fastest and, around the age of 60, she completed SCAR. That’s a four-lake challenge over four days, for a total of 40 miles swum.
I put the question out to medium-larger swimmers who identify as women on Did You Swim Today, a very popular Facebook group for swimmers from around the world. I asked for their favourite suppliers of suits suitable for more athletic swimming, with a preference for companies worldwide or shipping to Canada.
Most of the answers were for brands I already knew, with maximum sizes being 40-42. A few people commented about specific challenges even in those sizes, such as having a longer torso than average. Others noted that options for fun prints disappear in the larger sizes, with most offerings being in plain blue or black.
Many commented on the difficulties of finding a suit to accommodate larger busts. One company was suggested because it does three versions of its suits, to accommodate a broader range of bust sizes. But expensive and maybe not really for athletic swimmers.
There were a few other interesting suggestions, though I’m not convinced that they offer the flat seams and snug fit with no chafing that I would require. One was for a company that has a unique fabric capable of stretching (and returning to its original size) to accommodate life changes including pregnancy. Another does bespoke suits catering to women above UK size 14, at fairly accessible prices but in only one style.
The last word goes to a contributor from Australia: At size 18-20 Australia (14-16 Can) it’s rare for companies to even stock suits in my size (and I can’t afford to order from overseas – shipping is a killer). If I do find something it’s plain black and I suspect not so much a ‘swimmers’ suit as something a more mature swimmer would like (ie lots of coverage, low leg cut, wide straps). It’s so annoying not being able to choose from the same range as my smaller friends. I compete in half Ironmen – I may not be the fastest but I’m definitely fit under my extra layers. Don’t get me started on trying to find a swimming wetsuit (I’ve so far managed to avoid needing one). I’m sure the demand is there – but it’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available…
That last point bears repeating. It’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available.