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Making 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 buoyance.

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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