fitness · swimming

Swimsuit options: the ethical edition

Last week, Catherine explored different swimsuit options beyond the one-piece/two-piece dilemma and our bloggers talked about their swimwear preferences. But what if, on top of wanting something you feel great in for getting in the water, you also want something that isn’t going to poison the environment even further?  As a swimmer, I’m painfully aware that my sport of choice isn’t exactly light on the planet. All my equipment is, essentially, made from plastic. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that keeping the pools I train in filled with water, clean, and warm is going to have some environmental impact. And last but not least, I have to drive to the pool (where I train is too far to bike and unreachable by public transport from where I am).

So I started looking around for some options that would reduce the environmental footprint of my aquatic exploits at least a little bit. It’s not easy, but it is getting easier.

Last year, I purchased a bikini made from Econyl, a recycled nylon fiber. It’s produced by a small German startup, INASKA Swimwear, that aims to produce bikinis for women who do water sports (rather than for lounging round the beach or pool), so that was huge in my book. They also sell tops and bottoms separately, which is fantastic (one of my main gripes with bikini shopping is that not more companies do this. I always struggle to find bikinis that will fit both my boobs and my bum). The bikinis are made in Europe.

Beach
Bettina in the far-off distance, sporting her ‘ethical’ bikini on a beach in Galicia, Spain. (There are no other pictures of me in swimwear and I was too busy this week to take any).

The bikini itself… fine but not a 100% hit just yet. Especially the bottoms were cut in a way that still makes them feel like they’re about to slip off when you’re swimming fast. But the nice thing about a small startup is that they’re responsive: at the end of last year, they did a customer survey and it seems like I wasn’t the only one who complained – there’s a new model out this year that promises better hold (I haven’t tried it yet, though I’m tempted – but in line with trying to reduce my environmental footprint, I decided not to buy a new bikini this year). I would also add that their bikinis don’t strike me as particularly plus-size friendly, even the new model. Their advertising is certainly geared towards the thin end of the spectrum. And the bikinis aren’t fully recycled fibre (78% I think). I actually don’t know if 100% recycled is technically an option at this point, or whether something is going on with the fibres that would prevent that from happening.

bikini.jpg
Bettina’s teal-coloured sports bikini.

For training suits, the picture doesn’t look an awful lot better, but again here, this is starting to change a bit. Adidas has launched a collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, a campaign seeking to clean the sea of plastic waste. Among other things, they make Parley swimsuits. I own one, though again if you read the small print, it becomes obvious that it’s only partially made from recycled material (and they don’t say how much, at least not that I could find). It gives the whole thing rather a “greenwashing” taste. But other big companies of swimming gear such as Speedo or Arena don’t seem to have caught onto this issue at all yet, so at least Adidas’s move is something? Also in the big-name range, PrAna and Patagonia have some interesting options made at least in part from recycled materials. PrAna in particular offers a wide range in terms of coverage.

Still, if you want ethical swimwear, in many cases you’re going to have to buy from small businesses. Which has the added benefit of being able to support young, often female-owned, companies. Frequently, they spring up from their owners’ passion for water sports and factor in the needs of women who like to be active.

But it is more complicated than being able to just walk into any old sports shop, try something on, and choose between different options. Some of these small companies produce on demand, so you have to measure yourself first to work out your size, order, wait (after all they still have to make it), and hope for the best. They’re also not cheap. And in many cases, their sizing options are more limited. But it’s an exciting scene, and if you’re willing to put in a bit of extra effort, you may well end up with something lovely.

In addition to the aforementioned INASKA Swimwear, I’ve done a bit of research for options on both sides of the Atlantic. Once you start looking, there are TONNES of ethical swimwear companies out there. I tried focussing on those geared towards more active behaviour in the water. One thing that struck me was that this seems to be a bit of a Euro-centric endeavour. I found more European than North American-based brands (and a lot of Australian ones) that matched my ethical-and-activity-friendly search criterion. There were loads of US and Canada-based ethical brands that make bikinis and one-piece suits in the “cute but not for sporty swimming or movement” range. Without further ado, here are some options, in no particular order:

  • Finisterre (UK-based) – swim and surf gear made partially from Econyl, and they donate 10% of the price to Surfers Against Sewage). Cool stuff, but comes at a price.
  • Davy J (UK-based) – also made from recycled fishing nets (also Econyl, I think). I’m not totally sure their stuff will really stay on (the tops seem a bit low cut), but they claim it will.
  • Josea Surfwear (Germany-based) – bikinis and one-piece suits designed for active women and produced in Hamburg, Germany. I’ve heard great things about their stuff, but their collection is a bit… changeable. I’d had my eyes on a pair of boyshort bottoms that have now suddenly disappeared from the shop. Also, no detailed information about the materials they use, only that they’re “sustainable”. I’d want to know more.
  • Greenswimmers (Germany-based) – I had really high hopes for these guys after reading in a swimming magazine that they were going to start producing swimsuits for women this March. The men’s trunks had received rave reviews, and the preview of the women’s suit was also great. But alas, no swimsuits in sight, and it’s now July. I wrote to them at some point and they said they were still planning on launching them but had some internal issues. The website hasn’t changed since early this year (they still promise the swimsuits for March), so I’m starting to wonder if the whole enterprise hasn’t gone South. Sad times 😦
  • Beefcake Swimwear (US-based) – already mentioned in Catherine’s post for the cool options they provide, this company doesn’t say anything about using environmentally friendly or recycled materials, but they are female-owned and make their suits in the US, so at least that’s fewer production miles and fair wages. It’s a great start.
  • Loka (Canada/Australia-based) – also using Econyl, Loka makes different options, at least some of which look like they might withstand sporty behaviour (like this one).
  • Rubymoon (UK-based) – multi-sports wear that transitions from the water to the yoga mat or the gym. They re-invest all their profits into women-owned micro businesses.
  • Mymarini (Germany-based) – many of their models are in the less practical range, but there are some options that would be quite good for water-based activities.
fitness · swimming

Beyond the one-piece/two-piece dilemma: swimsuit options we’re loving

Hi everyone– in the Northern Hemisphere it’s high summer, which means (among other things), fun in and around water. Swimming, sailing, paddleboarding, kayaking, body surfing, picnicking, splashing and frolicking– for me summer is all about the water.

Which gives rise to the eternal question:  what to wear?

These days, there’s a dizzying array of interesting types of swimwear.  We have soooo moved beyond the tank suit/bikini dichotomy, along with market restrictions on sizes and varieties. Some of our bloggers posted sites with really diverse options, so we thought we’d share them with y’all.

There are some fantastic options for those who want gender-neutral swimwear here.  A couple of my favs are below:

 

 

If you’re interested in bikini looks for all size women, check out this site; it features looks and links to sites selling glamorous and sexy and fun fatkini looks for larger sized women. Here are a few sneak peeks:

 

 

And then there’s the buttkini.  It’s exactly what you think– a two-piece that shows off the derriere in all its glory.  Check them out here (I don’t think Facebook lets us show these in a post, which is of course silly…)

Let me put in a plug for Beefcake swimwear, which has THE SUIT I want– the one on the left, called the ordinary. The one on the right is the dreamboat.  They’re current out of stock but may have more in July.

 

 

If you are looking for more coverage, there are suits out there for you.  Burkinis provide full head-to-toe coverage, and were invented by Aheda Zanetti, a Muslim Australian who wanted to design sports and swimwear for Muslim girls and women that were functional and also comported with their religious practices. You can read more about Aheda Zanetti here.  Now lots of companies make burkinis– here are a few pictures:

 

When I was in Australia a few years ago, I went snorkeling and diving off the Great Barrier Reef.  We were required to wear stinger suits, which are adult-sized onesies that look a bit like burkinis.  Some have a hood, and they even have hand coverings so to avoid being stung by the tiny but potentially deadly box jellyfish (also called stingers).

In addition to protecting you from death, the stinger suit has another advantage, which is that you don’t need to apply sunscreen (except a bit to your face).  Sunscreen has been shown to be destructive to coral reefs, so wearing a stinger suit is a twofer– good for you, and good for the ocean environment. I like the idea of wearing one for ocean swimming, as I get sunburned very easily and would feel more relaxed if I didn’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen (except for my face, which is fine). Here’s a pic of me before diving in one:

Me in a blue stinger suit with a blue and yellow hood, before scuba diving.
Me in a blue stinger suit with a blue and yellow hood, before scuba diving.

I’ve since learned that there are many prettier ones than this one– the operator joked that we all looked like Teletubbies, which was pretty much correct. Here is a great example of stinger suits gone wild, as made by an Australian company:

A quartet of brightly patterned full body stinger suits with hoods: black and red animal print, pastel circular print, blue reptilian print, and purply geometric pattern.
A quartet of brightly patterned full body stinger suits with hoods: black and red animal print, pastel circular print, blue reptilian print, and purply geometric pattern.

No doubt I’ve missed some new styles of cool, beautiful, functional, funky or otherwise excellent swimwear.  So tell us, readers:  what do you like or not like in swimsuits?  Do any of these options look appealing to you? Tell us what you think.

 

fitness · swimming · training

Thanks, Coach! Thoughts on Drills, Good Form and the Importance of Mixing it Up (Guest Post)

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.

I had an epiphany in the pool last week. I finally figured out what was wrong with my kick! And as anyone who has struggled with mastering an athletic or other skill knows, nothing beats the sweet satisfaction that comes when you suddenly get it and never look back.

This underscored for me why regular technique check-ups are an essential part of a good training regimen and highlighted the critical role that coaches can play in that process.

Spring is a time of renewal for me. After the relentless pace of the academic year, I need time to recover, to recharge and then to reflect on the big picture and set goals for the coming year. Part of this process is to take a look at those things that tend to turn over year on year unless we think consciously about them, such as course content, teaching methods, service activities, volunteering, kids’ activities, finances and … fitness and health!

Over the years, I have found the refreshing change of format from indoor to outdoor swimming is a great time to check in with where I am at with my training.

First, in addition to being outside, I also go from swimming at night to swimming at sunrise. There is something about the early light of a summer morning (I swim at 6 am), with its promise of day ahead that fills me with inspiration.

Next, unlike the rest of the year where, aside from open Sunday practices, we swim twice a week at a set time with the same swimmers, we can swim as often as we like in the summer and choose from 15 different practice times. Since lane composition on any given day or time is rarely the same, this adds an element of spontaneity and fun to practice. Training with different swimmers gives us a chance to break out of old patterns and habits (like who leads the lane, who is “best” at this or that stroke etc). I also love being able to reconnect with friends who swim at other times during the year and to meet new people.

Finally, our canny coaches take advantage of the more relaxed summer mood and the different swimmer combinations to mix it up in our workouts too.

The switch in training focus was obvious last week when the theme was “Skills and Drills”. Not everyone was thrilled, however. Many Masters swimmers swim to stay fit and it is natural to focus on speed and endurance. But as we grind through thousands of meters a year, even the best technique degrades. These slippages are subtle but over time they have an effect. For older swimmers particularly, bad habits can increase the risk of injury, but attention to technique is also an important element of performance improvement. Getting faster or stronger is not just about pushing the heart and lungs, it is about moving as efficiently as possible in the water.

Since swimming movements are complex, it is impossible to think of everything at once. Working on technique usually requires breaking a stroke down into its components (kick, pull, catch, breathing, rotation, turns and so on) and focusing on one element at a time, often in a progression of connected steps that are brought together at the end.

For my part, I love doing drills because I always learn (or re-learn) something and I enjoy sensing the subtle variations in movement that typically ensue. Most of the time drills are useful to reign in sloppy form or to undo entrenched habits. But every now and then, a drill brings about a shift that transforms your technique. And that is what happened to me last week as we worked on flutter kick, the weakest component of my freestyle and backstroke.

Though I am very good swimmer, the relative ineffectiveness of my kick has been an endless source of frustration. As a runner, I have a lot of leg muscle and power on the pavement but in the water my torso, shoulders and arms do most of the work. Kick sets are my nightmare – moving my legs faster and harder never seems to make a difference to my speed while exhausting the muscles after a very short time. Given this, I was not relishing last Tuesday’s workout focused on kick and flip turns. My lack of enthusiasm however, was no match for my amazing coach.

Our primary coach this summer is one of the founders of our club who was, until a few years ago, the head coach of our youth competitive teams. This shows in her style of coaching, which is very relaxed and understated. Rather than emphasizing straight up effort (something kids hate, but which many Masters swimmers delight in), she keeps you busy with sets that integrate unusual drills (with names like alligator breath), designed to work on correct form in the water.

Do not get me wrong, many of these drills are in fact very hard work, but not in the usual “grind it out” way that we typically associate with effort. Rather, this kind of focus on form is taxing because isolating weak or difficult parts of the stroke takes us out of our comfort zone and requires concentration, something that is hard to sustain as physical exertion increases.

Great coaches know that to get swimmers to make changes to their strokes, they have to be creative – and sly. Under the guise of working one item, say, kick, they will design a drill that passively works on another skill, like body position in the water. Done well, leaving some of the drill work to occur naturally, without drawing attention to it directly, allows swimmers to approach the drill without preconceived ideas about what should happen. This creates the mental space for them to just experience the water, something that provides invaluable physical feedback on what the body is – or is not – doing.

So what happened last Tuesday? We did a lot of kick, but the focus was on tightening the glutes, not on leg movement. Using the large muscles of the glutes is essential for a strong kick, but it is easier said than done. Part of the problem is getting the amount of muscle engagement right. At first, I tightened the muscles as hard as I could, with little noticeable effect. When I mentioned this to my coach, she said: “Relax. You’re trying too hard. Let up a bit. Experiment with it.” I persevered, but the sweet spot remained elusive.

Then we worked on flip turns and my mind focused on hitting the wall correctly with my toes. What my coach did not mention is that turns help your kick because you must release the glutes to initiate the turn. It provides a break in the muscle effort that also allows for subtle recalibration before reengaging the muscle after the turn. Midway through the set I came off the wall and – bingo! – felt a surge of power as my glutes engaged at the just the right level.

All of a sudden the kicking felt, well, not pleasant, but like it was making a difference, not just to the forward motion of my stroke but also to keeping my body horizontal at the surface of the water. I was astounded at the change – I have been swimming since I was a toddler, and noticeable improvements are pretty rare.

It goes without saying that I will need to continue to focus on my glutes for a while until it becomes an unconscious part of my stroke – practice makes permanent, as they say. I am also curious to see whether the perception of fluidity I have now will translate into faster times.

Even if it does not, however, with each practice my kick feels easier and more natural, which is reward enough.

Thanks, Coach!

Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.

accessibility · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · swimming

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

Back in December I wrote a post about being naked in public, three ways: in new “universal” change rooms in pools in my city of Hamilton, Ontario; in the same kinds of spaces (with WAY more cubicles and tight corners) in London, England; and in a public spa and thermal bath complex in Konstanz, Germany (few cubicles; lots of comfy nudity).

My questions in that post revolved around etiquette, protocol, expectation, and the cultural labour these spaces appear to be doing towards supporting inclusive, body-positive community (whether or not they are actually doing that labour).

Today, for the first time in a while, I returned to one of the facilities here in Hamilton that have converted to M/F/U change spaces; I was overbooked and had to skip my usual Friday swim (which happens at an older facility not yet renovated to include a gender-neutral room).

To my surprise, when I swanned toward the universal change room entryway, I found this:

fullsizeoutput_1046

(A sign, posted on a green cinder-block wall, that reads: “Change in dressing cubicle only; clothing or bathing suit myst be worn at all times outside dressing cubicle.” The images on the sign include a green circle around a woman’s body clad in a one-piece swim suit and a man’s body clad in swim shorts; and a red circle with a strike-through against the images of the same bodies, with one-piece and shorts off to the side. Note: I snapped this photo from the change-room threshold, which is barrier-free and opens onto the lobby. I made sure no bodies were nearby in order to respect the “no photography in change rooms” rule.)

I stopped for a minute, a bit gobsmacked. New sign; aggressive sign.

NO NUDITY! DO NOT EXIT THE CUBICLES NUDE! THIS IS A GENDER NEUTRAL SPACE!

OK, so that’s not exactly what the sign said. But it might as well have.

locker-room-etiquette-sign-s2-1269

I googled “gender-neutral change room etiquette” and this list of do’s and don’ts turned up. It is haranguing: be neat, tidy, and for god’s sake cover up your freaking horrific human of a body; don’t be lazy, slow, or glowery. Get the fuck out ASAP. Sounds familiar.)

I’m trained as a literature scholar and a scholar of theatre and performance; that means I read cultural texts for their nuances, for a living, and try to make sense of what they aim to accomplish amongst actual, human lives.

My pool’s universal change-room sign said the following to me.

The bright blue that backgrounds “Change in dressing cubicle ONLY” sets that text off in sharp relief. All-caps for ONLY is scolding typography, as though to say: DO NOT DARE LEAVE YOUR CUBICLE NAKED! It is fairly patronizing and deeply shaming.

The images are workmanlike and designed to be read across languages and cultural contexts (more or less; only North American Christianity could, if you ask me, dream up such a blatantly unsexy way to render human nudity). The communication is meant to cross language barriers because there are lots of immigrants in our community (I witnessed one Chinese-language speaker interacting with a lifeguard this afternoon, for example), and the sign is obviously in part, if not primarily, targeted at them.

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

The sign makes no mention of the showers – my personal favourite part of locker-room-sanctioned nudity – but we can guess the implied protocol.

What to make of this?

Well, on a purely pragmatic level, I’ll tell you what I made of it in the split second it took me to decide what to do with my body upon encountering this sign.

I realized I could be my nude and joyous post-swimming self only in the women’s change room, so I went there.

And here’s the rub, the sad bit, the loss: I had to choose between body-positive feelings, and the gender-neutral change room.

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

gnr

(Another image that popped up in my google search. It reads, in a plain, sans-serif font: “A gender-neutral restroom designation means this restroom is safe for transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer people, as well as people of all gender identities and expressions. If you choose to use this restroom, you are aware that it is a safe space. Please refrain from gender policing… If you are uncomfortable using a gender-neutral restroom, please use any of the other restrooms, as this is your privilege.” NOW THIS SIGN I CAN SUPER GET BEHIND.)

I thought a lot about the change-room sign incident after I left the pool. I thought, too, about the several FFI community members who fed back about my original post and noted they would not be super comfortable nude in mixed spaces.

I realized that my biggest problem with the sign wasn’t the message it was (sort of, maybe, clumsily?) trying to communicate.

The problem was with language, and its intention.

The sign is trying, I think, to say this: DO NOT GET NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU NAKED. ALSO: DO NOT GET NAKED AGGRESSIVELY.

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

But the language also, therefore, assumes predation, assumes a lack of tact and generosity on the part of body-positive users; it assumes that all bodies in the space share a sense of nudity-as-shame, nudity-as-aggression. Which isn’t true.

So in the car on the way to my next gig, I started thinking about how I might phrase some similar caution in a more welcoming, dare I say body-positive-positive, way.

I came up with this:

This change room is a gender-neutral, body-positive space that welcomes people of all identifications.

Please use the space in a way that respects the privacy and comfort level of others around you.

Thank you!

(I’m not sure about imagery. I’d love suggestions!)

The language I’m proposing states what I hope are the deep intentions behind the creation of the space: it’s for everyone, care-fully. I think that’s the idea behind gender-neutral spaces in Hamilton-area pools; I’m not sure, though. (My sense from the sign I encountered today is that they might be souped-up “family” change rooms. Sigh.)

It also places the responsibility for fair use on a community of users, acting together in everyone’s best interests. (This is called democracy, btw. At least to me.)

Are you alone in the space? Go nuts! You do you! Get naked, sing ABBA. Rock on.

Is someone in the space with you who seems more modest, shy? Perhaps calibrate your ostentation to remember that they also share this space, and that your ostentation might be taking up more than its fair share of that space, for them.

Is someone in the space with you who might be nervous about your presence? That’s ok – they are here because they have trust and faith. Be you, but not aggressively. Instead, assert your good will toward that person.

Is someone in the space with you who might think you are unnerved by them? That’s ok – it’s part of the process of becoming a community. Be you, welcomingly.

This is just one shot – my shot – at a better way to say what needs to be made clear in gender-neutral spaces: some protocol for what to do once you’re inside, but not in a way that assumes a normative sense of embodiment, nor that assumes body-as-shame.

Do you have examples of, or suggestions for, gender-neutral change-room etiquette? I’d love to hear!

Yours swimmingly,

Kim

fitness · swimming · training

Bettina has a new swim team – finally!

I owe my passion for swimming to my mother. She never learned how to swim as a child (though she did when she was in her late 40s and became quite an avid swimmer), so made sure I learned at the tender age of about five. I was terrified of water getting in my ears. When it came to having to jump in, I always stood at the back of the queue hoping that my turn would never come. But I did learn, and eventually the water in my ears didn’t bother me any more.

SwimKitBettina
Bettina’s kit – swim suit, goggles, cap and pull buoy.

Then, in primary school, my mum realised I had rather poor posture, so she stuck me in the local swimming club to make sure I got back strengthening exercise. Since then, on and off, I’ve been swimming regularly. I was a competitive swimmer until I was about 14 (though I was never super fast), which was when our coach quit. In the small town I grew up in, they didn’t find a new person to replace him, and that was when I made my first contact with lifesaving, because we had the option to join a local team, and some of us did. I took my first lifeguard qualification when I was 15 and even “worked” at a local open air pool one summer. Our payment was a season ticket in exchange for the hours we put in, and a bit of pocket money. I was hooked. I loved the idea of combining sports with something socially meaningful.

At 17, I moved to the UK. My school had an intense social service programme, and one option was lifeguarding. I qualified as a beach lifeguard. We spent an amazing August patrolling a beach – who knew Wales could be so sunny! After high school, I didn’t join a team for many years. At university, I swam with the university life saving club a few times, but somehow never managed to requalify. I kept on swimming more or less regularly though.

LifesavingCertBettina
Bettina’s lifesaving certificate.

Fast forward about 15 years – one day I was doing my laps at the local open air pool when I noticed a bunch of people in swim caps of the German Lifesaving Association (sorry, no English website) in the lane next to me. Something clicked – I suddenly wished I was with them and part of a team again. They really looked like they were having fun. I approached the coach and asked if I could do a trial session. I loved it! I requalified as a lifeguard and over time even swam a couple of competitions with my team.

If you’re now wondering what a lifesaving competition looks like, let me tell you that it is very, very cool and direct you to the following video of the 2014 world championships:

Then, just over a year ago, I moved to a different city. I tried the local lifesaving club once and it wasn’t a good fit for me. They do fantastic work with swimming classes and lifesaving training for kids, but the adults hardly swim (how much swimming a team will do depends a lot on their local focus and demographic). So I was on my own again.

Then we bought a car. And a colleague had told me that her daughter swam with the lifesaving club in a neighbouring town – with my own four wheels, this was suddenly within reach. On Tuesday, I decided to give it a shot – and it was brilliant! They train in a primary school pool, so it’s tiny (16m lanes are a fun thing when trying to calculate distances), but the team is exactly my jam! It’s a gender and age group mix I like, they seem very nice, and they swim decent distances. On Tuesday we did 3,500m and on Friday, 2,600m – there were lots of drills in the Friday session.

I couldn’t be more happy I gave this a shot. Before I went, I’d been worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up – I’m not all that fast and thought they might be super hard core. In true impostor syndrome fashion, I can really get up in my head about things like this. But it was perfect! So I have a new team and will be training with them about twice a week. Watch this space for more!

body image · fitness · Guest Post · stereotypes · swimming

Learning to Swim and Loving My Body in the Process (Guest Post)

Although I never learned to swim, my whole life I’ve had dreams in which I can swim and I love those dreams and the feeling they give me. Recently, I met a new friend, about my age, and when she asked me if I wanted to go to the spa, and the whirlpool, and the pool, I found myself saying yes. Because I did want to go. I’d wanted to go for decades and had only ever gone to a spa one other time, just after I turned 50.

There’s something about your 50s – it’s like you start over. You look at all the baggage you’ve been hauling around since your 20s and ask yourself what it’s for. As it turns out, most of it doesn’t even belong to you, and a lot of it is stuff nobody needs.

Among my baggage was the idea that I needed to avoid pools because I have an unruly body that doesn’t look ‘good’ in a bathing suit. I knew this to be true because I’d had constant reminders that my body was somehow inappropriate.

In all fairness, had JLo or the Kardashians been the beauty standard during my teens, I might have received more positive attention for what became, by 13 or so, my big hips and big butt and small waist, but among my age group I was merely an aberration.

I could hear snickers when I got up to write at the blackboard in class. I lived in mortal fear of gym and of any social activities that might involve sports or a pool because I would have to expose my body in shorts or, my greatest horror, in a bathing suit.

Although by my early 20s I’d developed a way of dressing to pretty much camouflage what I suspected was my aberrant body, there’s nowhere to hide anything in a bathing suit. The very thought of wearing one filled me with anxiety and humiliation.

As I got older, I became the classic example of the woman to whom people would ‘you would be beautiful IF ONLY you lost x number of pounds.” The amounts varied, since my weight varied and, of course, ‘thin’ ideals were changeable. Sometimes it was 20, sometimes 40, sometimes 60 pounds.

I hope the world has changed and that young women don’t go through this anymore and Irealize I should have told every single person who felt free to comment to go fly a kite, and sometimes I did. My aunts said it, even my mom said it. There was me, and then there was beautiful/acceptable and, to get there, I would basically have to alter my body type.

As I struggled to articulate all of this to my new spa friend, she said ‘if you want a bikini body then just put your body in a bikini.’ This sounded suspiciously wise to me – I was certain I was missing something. I put on my bathing suit.

I loved the whirlpool. When I balked a bit at the pool and said I couldn’t swim, she just shrugged and said it didn’t matter – I didn’t have to swim to go in the pool. I’d never thought of it that way. I gave myself permission to go in the pool. After all, I was already in bathing suit, and what could be harder than that?

And then she said maybe I should try to float, still hanging onto the side of course. I immediately said I couldn’t float and that I had scientific proof of this from my many failed childhood attempts. In my particular case, I said emphatically, it was impossible. Sometimes we believe things for so long that we don’t realize they’re ridiculous and sometimes the way you can tell is the way your friend looks at you when you say them.

She said that instead of thinking about the water as something threatening, maybe I could think of it as something that was there to support me. The water would help me – the water wanted me to float. I didn’t really have to do anything. That was interesting to me. It would be particularly helpful, she added, if I didn’t think about it too much. That made me laugh since I’d had a psychiatrist in my 20s who spent a lot of time teaching me that thinking is different from feeling.

The sensation I felt, the first time I full-body floated, still holding onto the side of the pool, is still hard to describe. It was very emotional – suddenly, the body that I felt had betrayed me on so many occasions, the body I spent a lot of my life exasperated with and pointedly ignoring, was both weightless and present. I could feel the water surrounding me and holding me up. I became aware of my arms and legs and hips as wonderful, positive things, floating there in the water. Maybe even beautiful. I had the feeling that I had in my dreams. It was not a thinking feeling, but just feeling. So, for the last month or so, I’ve been working in the water to learn to actually swim – I feel I’m almost there but I’m not in any hurry.

The sensations that come with moving my body in the water are new, and exhilarating, and have started to feel natural. I love every minute of finding my balance, letting go of the ledge, working out how to propel myself, bobbing along in my very elementary way, perfectly quiet and peaceful. Well, not perfectly quiet. Sometimes I giggle. Out loud. I move my arms and my legs and the water responds to me. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel my body is perfect.

Sally is an art historian, professor, department chair, Italophile, film buff, heavy metal AND country music enthusiast, and fitness newbie.

fitness · swimming

Meet our newest Fit is Feminist Issue regular blogger, Bettina!

Following my first post, I’m excited to return on a monthly regular schedule! Sam asked me to make this post an introductory one, so here goes.

My name is Bettina, I’m 33 and from Germany. I live in Heidelberg, a university town south of Frankfurt, with my scientist husband, who is originally from the Basque Country. I always joke that we’re here because of him, not because of me, and it’s true – I would’ve happily stayed abroad after finishing university. As it turned out, I ended up earning my PhD in Political Science back in Germany, having spent the last two years of high school and most of my undergraduate years in the UK, plus a year in Spain.

While working towards my PhD, I realised I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career. Slowly but surely, I moved into research management. Three jobs later, I am Senior Project Coordinator at a European research funding and enabling organization in a field that has nothing to do with my own – the life sciences – and loving it.

Fitness has always been a part of my life, but not to the degree it is now. When I was in primary school, my mother got worried about my bad posture and put me in the local swimming club. With short interruptions, I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. It’s my meditation, my favourite way of clearing my head after a long day. I love doing laps in the pool. Lots of people find it boring, I find my zen in the back-and-forth.

I’ve tried lots of other sports, many of them water-related. I love surfing and kayaking, but since there are no large enough bodies of water close to home, these are currently not often on the sports menu (sigh). Being outside is always good, so hiking is another favourite. I’ve done lots of yoga, which nowadays happens mostly at home, right after getting up in the morning, with Youtube tutorials.

Fitness has taken on another dimension for me over the past year though: a year ago to the day, I was diagnosed with Auto-Immune Haemolytic Anemia (AIHA), a condition where your immune system breaks down your red blood cells. Many things can trigger AIHA; in my case it was probably the flu. It’s pretty serious but treatable, and I’m in remission now.

But while I was in treatment, exercise became a way of feeling like I had some control over what was happening to me, full of all sorts of medicine and shocked as I was by this experience that was entirely outside both my control and my comfort zone. Incidentally, exercise is also a pretty good barometer for a relapse, which can happen at any time (or not – there’s a large suspense factor with this condition): one of the first things to go is your stamina, which was also how I started noticing I was sick in the first place when I could no longer keep up with my swim mates.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve started running much more regularly in addition to swimming twice a week if I can. Having been a rather reluctant and irregular runner before, I’ve done a 10k and an 8k since last September. I’ve also taken up a new sport, bouldering, which is different from anything I’d ever done, and which I love for its community spirit (Lynette recently wrote about it here and here). And it’s so empowering when you’ve figured out a tough route!

Empowerment is also where fitness and feminism intersect for me. Both are, in a way, about feeling strong and being entitled to that, no matter who you are or what gender you identify as.

There’s still a lot to fight for in terms of feminist fitness. Athletes who are not straight males continue to be on the receiving end of everything ranging from condescending advice to discrimination and hatred. We’re overlooked, spoken over, not taken seriously, judged for our looks rather than our athletic achievements, objectified, and ridiculed.

Feminism in fitness, to me, is about considering how a feminist lens can change our thinking about fitness and what a “fit woman” looks like. It’s about what the needs of women practicing sports are and how they’re different from those of male athletes. It’s about what we can do to make women of all ages, shapes, and abilities feel welcome in the world of sports and encourage them to discover it.

Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK
Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK