a Big Splash
The Pleasures of Water Aerobics
(With special assistance from Meridith Lawrence)
By Judith Stein
Reprinted from the Spring 1997 issue of Radiance
Judith Stein is a longtime fat activist. To her, fat
is more than a three-letter word!
How We Got There
In October, 1994 Meridith returned from the Oakland NAAFA Feminists
Gathering all charged up about finding a place to swim. I myself had enjoyed the
all-too-rare experience of being one in a bevy of big bathing beauties by the swimming
pool, but it was Meridith's determination to find some way to get into water that got us
to try a water aerobics class.
Meridith learned that our local YWCA offered several kinds of water
aerobics classes, some in the shallow end, others taught mostly in the deep end of the
pool. We liked the idea of the YWCA: its community service orientation, lack of glitz, and
low prices. Still feeling pumped up and brave from our dose of fat feminism, Meridith
signed us both up for our first deep-water aerobics class.
The teacher was a slender, perky, athletic-looking college student named
Lolly. Her friendly welcome definitely helped us: at 250 and 320 pounds we were by far the
fattest women in the class. Strapping on flotation belts, we took the first step (stroke?
kick? dare I say plunge?) into a more physically active life.
That first class was hard. We felt awkward and had trouble
keeping up with Lolly's vigorous pace. But it was fun, too. We climbed out of the pool
feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. We liked the class enough to go back.
After the first few classes, we made a commitment to go once a week.
Some days it was hard to get there: bad days at work, winter weather, rush-hour traffic,
no parking, a cold locker room - we had tons of "good reasons" to skip class.
Some days we stood in our swimsuits in the locker room still debating whether to brave the
waters. But almost always, one of us had the smidgen of enthusiasm needed to get both
of us into the pool.
One immediate and obvious benefit kept us going to class. We left the
pool each time feeling vastly better mentally. We compared notes. Both of us were much
calmer after class. Our new joke was, "Work? What work?" That sense of
tranquility and well-being gets us into the pool even on the nights when we think we can't
bear to drive downtown/find parking/change clothes/get wet (pick your obstacle). Knowing
that we always feel better climbing out of the pool is the most powerful incentive there
is to get us to climb in.
And we have gotten better at the workout! This was an astonishing
accomplishment for each of us, because neither of us had ever been the least bit athletic
before. Water is a friendly medium for big folks. We have an edge in the pool, extra
Gradually, Meridith and I started going to class twice a week after
work. A few months ago, we added the Saturday morning shallow-water workout to our regular
weekend routine. Because we pay only for the classes we attend, we still occasionally
"skip class" to do something else. But now when we skip a class, we miss it. We
each notice more stiffness and more crankiness, both of which are relieved by our next
session in the pool.
How It Feels
Both of us are long-time fat activists. For many years, we have been
lucky to enjoy a constant community of fat women friends: sometimes in organized groups,
other times through personal friendships. And, as girlfriends since 1982, Meridith and I
are each other's comfort and encouragement as allies in a world that wants us to be both
small and miserable.
We approached our very first water aerobics class in a state of mind
both timid and fierce. Expecting an onslaught of weight-loss language, we arrived wearing
our best "don't-mess-with-me" attitudes to ward off the fat phobia we
were sure we would encounter. We were pleasantly surprised when our teacher made no
comments about losing weight during that first class. In fact, all of our teachers have
focused on the workout itself. Our classmates are too busy keeping their heads above water
- literally - to express the self-hatred or fat phobia we had expected. Some have remarked
about being "good" or "bad" in reference to what they have eaten, and
a few women talk about "needing" to lose inches or weight. When it feels okay,
we counter such comments with a gentle size-positive message.
Now, after eighteen months of consistent attendance, both of us have
gotten good at the workouts. We do some exercises differently than our instructors,
because our bodies are different (for example, our stomachs bump into our thighs when we
bend). We have become more comfortable in deep water. Recently, we dropped the flotation
belts because we are now able to keep ourselves vertical in the water using the muscles
and the stamina that regular exercise has helped us develop. We are both much stronger
than when we started.
From time to time we have recruited other friends to join the class.
Some have stayed for a while. Others failed to find the pleasure we take in leaping around
in nine feet of chlorinated water. Although we are still the largest women there, now
we're "old-timers" and enjoy a friendly rapport with most of the other longtime
students. What do they think of these two big fat women in their class? The only comments
we've gotten are that the other students miss our jokes and smart-mouth remarks when we
miss a class.
How to Start
Find a friend to go with you. Starting to exercise is hard on so many
levels that each of us would have quit long ago without the support of the other.
Find a place that feels okay to you. We're both more comfortable in the
shopworn YWCA locker room where we encounter women of all races and ages than we would be
at a glitzy health spa.
Choose an activity that feels fun and allows you to respect your body. I
was forty-two and Meridith thirty-nine when we started. As middle-aged fat women who had
never exercised, we were drawn to a workout in water because it would not injure our
joints. And, for each of us, just being in the water made exercise seem like play.
As women entering and moving through our forties, water aerobics feels
like a new way for us to love ourselves. As we've felt stronger and moved more easily,
each of us has experienced a new sense of "owning" her whole body, all the way
out to the skin. We take up all of the room we need to breathe deeply, to laugh loudly,
and to move through the world with strength and joy. ©
JUDITH STEIN stopped dieting at the age of fifteen in an act of
teenage rebellion. It was one of the smartest things she ever did. She lives in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, with Meredith Lawrence, who, despite having grown up learning to hate
herself, is having one hell of a great life.
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