IN PRAISE OF SWIMMING; OR
Its Not Over
Til the Fat
by Timmee Grinham
From Radiance Summer 1998
summer marked the beginning of a new love affair for me. However, unlike most of my love
affairs, this one seems destined to last forever, make me healthier, and bring me only
intense joy and self-satisfaction. My new lovethe object of my affection, the
subject of my obsessionis swimming.
Now, as an Australian who has often traveled to North
America, I know the prevailing image of us there is as blonde, bronzed, Aussie surfie
types who are practically born swimming and who rarely get out of the water or leave the
beach during summer. Sure, were all taught to swim well at school, but swimming is a
pleasure that, as a fat woman, I had long denied myself.
I can still
remember swimming during the hot country summers of my childhood. Each year, my parents
would pack up much of the contents of the house into our caravan and drive about an hour
out of town to a camping area by a large local river. Weeks on end would be spent swimming
and playing in the river all day, fishing, listening to cricket games on the radio, and,
at close of day, singing around the campfire with my dad accompanying us on his guitar.
Then there were the visits to the farm managed by my
aunt and uncle: days of thrashing about in the dams that surrounded the property,
squealing with my dozens of cousins as we tried to push one another off inflatable
mattresses, and trying to avoid letting leeches latch onto our tender, sunburned young
skin. One of my favorite childhood photos shows me proudly posed in my brand new fuchsia
pink bathing suit, hair wet, towel draped over my shoulders, and beaming: I had just
clambered out of the river and up the bank.
A later memory: at sixteen, away from my country for the
first time, at boarding school in Canada. Rising at 6 every morning, I would stagger
through the snow to do twenty-five laps in the schools twenty-five-meter pool, and
then begin the day with an enormous breakfast. I was incredibly strongI could beat
most of the boys at school in wood-splitting and chain-sawingand very fitI
could hike and ski for miles. I lost a lot of weight that wintera consequence of all
my swimming and hiking and being put on a compulsory diet by the school nurse. But despite
the weight loss, and my strength and fitness, I was still fat!
And fat I remained, and fatter I became. As the years of
university flew by and my life became increasingly sedentary and cerebrally focused, I
lived out the stereotype about fat women. People think were fat because were
lazy and dont exercise, but really, its not that at all. We dont
exercise because were fat and afraid of the ridicule well experience if we do
try to get out there and get active.
So there I wasjust turned twenty-nine and weighing
139 kilos (305 pounds). Id acquired a swimsuit while attending Fat Gala during a
visit to the United States the previous July. (Fat Gala is a fat womens gathering
held a number of times a year across the United States. Most are cosponsored by
NAAFAs feminist caucus.) During the clothing swap, Id spotted a fabulous
blue-and-pink suit in a tropical motif. It had been donated by a fat woman from Hawaii,
who told me she had about half a dozen swimsuits and swam every day. I was convinced by my
roommates to take it and wear it to the pool party that night. I swam every night at Fat
Gala. I luxuriated in the sensation of the water on my skin and the feeling of being a
light, agile, buoyant creature. Some of us became daring on the last evening of the Gala:
we skinny-dipped and created whirlpools by joining hands and running in circles in the
water. But upon my return home, without the safety of Fat Gala, I was once more a fish out
When my eight-year-old niece, Jocelyn, came to visit
during our hottest summer on record, she presented me with a unique problem. The extra hot
summer had seen me at the beach several evenings, but only under cover of darkness and
always cloaked in a sarong. But being an active, vivacious young woman, my niece decided
she wanted to swimevery day. And she wanted me in the pool with her!
I watched her for a while. Her small white body thrashed
about in the water as she entreated me to join her. It looked so cool and welcoming, so
much more comforting and soothing than the ridges of my plastic chair, which stuck to my
legs, hot under my burn, making me sweat. So I loosened my sarong and stumbled toward the
edge of the pool. I kept one eye on all the nearby bathing beauties sunning their size-8
selves in handkerchief-size swimsuits, terrified that the gaze of every last one of them
was on my pendulous behind and belly. Just as I reached the edge of the pool, I dropped
the sarongand jumped in! Oh, the feeling of the water around me, the bliss of
floating and frolicking with Jocelynof tossing her in the air, of having her dive
into the water, of her splashing meand the ring of our laughter as we teased and
joked with each other. We ended up in the shallow end of the grown-ups pool,
and I was as reluctant as she was to leave at the end of our visit that first day.
Three days after Jocelyn left, I found myself craving
the cool embrace of water again. I donned my swimsuit, got in the car, and drove to the
outdoor pool. For about a week I went every day for a dabble. At first, I swam one or two
lengths of breaststroke each visit. Then I got up to ten. I nearly drowned the first time
I tried to do a fifty-meter length of freestyle. But as I persisted, I found my stamina
increasing. By the fourth week, I was swimming a full kilometer each visit, in a
combination of breaststroke and freestyle.
An enormous confidence boost came one morning when I
pulled up at the end of a lap to find a lovely (thin) woman in her late thirties smiling
at me. As I went to turn around and start back toward the other end, she said to me,
Youre a good, strong swimmer. I nearly levitated out of the pool with
joy, and walked about two feet off the ground for the next week!
I reached a true milestone when for the first time I was
able to swim fast enough to move out of the slow-swimmers lane and into the medium-pace
lane. I had become a real swimmer at last! One day several months later, I
coaxed my partnera sports-mad cricket and football player half my size and several
years youngerinto the pool. I found I could easily out swim her!
Each morning I would arrive home after swimming, smiling
sublimely and glowing as if some secret joy lit me from within. Years of fatphobia, years
without even owning a bathing suit, had managed to cloud from my mind the knowledge that
water is my natural element. I sometimes wonder if we hot-headed, fire sign Sagittarians
need the coolness of water to temper our frenetic pace, to get us back on an even keel.
At the end of each swim, I would still dash from the
pool to quickly cover my body with a towel, and then Id pull on my clothes over my
wet swimsuit. I wasn't taking it off in front of anyone, for love or money! But I found
that as my confidence grew, I began to make a more leisurely transit from the nearby
chairs to the pool itself. The much-dreaded insults never came, and I found myself
chatting with other regulars and happily sitting longer to savor the warmth of
the sun on my bare legs and arms after the swim each morning.
As cooler weather approached, I found myself confronted
with a dilemma: it was getting far too cold to put my clothes back on over my wet
swimsuit. I might even have to disrobe in the change rooms and take a shower! In public!
Mortified by the prospect, but unwilling to give up my addictive newfound pleasure, I
braced myself for my first morning of public nakedness at the local pool. Rushing from the
shower back to my locker, I kept myself (mostly) covered with the largest towel I could
find and managed most of the time to not allow any offensive fat to show. I was the
largest person I had ever seen swimming at the pool, and I wasnt about to become a
Its now eight months since I began, and Im
still swimming. These days, I wander around the changing rooms quite happily naked. I dry
myself publicly, like all the other women, with their enormous diversity and range of body
sizes and shapes. I am still the largest woman I have ever seen swim there, but these days
I dont care. The emotional peace and physical benefits I get from swimming far
outweigh any trepidation I feel. Ive lost nothing and gained so much in my quest to
not believe the message that my body is not made to be seen uncovered in public. I walk
around the pool contentedly in just my swimsuit, with my large thighs rubbing together, my
cellulite-covered bumpy arms, and my big belly pushing out the front of my costume.
I love the feel of newfound muscles: the fact that when
I flex my biceps, theres a hard lump of muscle to feel there now, beneath the (still
substantial) layer of fat; that my thighs and calves are so strong I can lift virtually
anything; that my back doesnt ache anymore; that I can walk quickly and for a long
time. That I can out swim many people I know. That every time the topic of my swimming
comes up, people are absolutely amazed that someone as fat as me swims a kilometer a day.
That I can swim as fast and as far as several of the regular lap-swimmers at my pool who
are less than half my size.
And despite all this, I am still very fattoo fat
to find a company in Australia that makes proper lap-swimming suits of chlorine-resistant
fabric in my size. Ive had to retire my lovely floral Hawaiian swimsuit, because it
just couldnt handle being dunked in chlorine five mornings a week. A big hurdle
materialized when I went to a real swimwear store to attempt to buy a
chlorine-resistant swimsuit, only to find they werent available in my size. To my
pleasant surprise, the ladies serving in the store were as outraged as I was about this
discovery. They even promised to lobby any swimwear makers visiting their store to try to
get this problem rectified. As one of the lades said, swimsuit manufacturers seem to
assume that fat women dont (cant?) swimthat we just want to lie around
in the water like water lilies! For that, theyre happy to make a variety of pretty
bathing costumes." But proper swimming suits? Why would a fat woman want one of
But, determined, as I was to continue on my trajectory
of becoming a real swimmer, I decided to have a swimsuit made especially for
me. Damn the cost: I was worth it! My next goal is to earn a lifesaving qualification,
something I could never have dreamed of before, because, to me, being fat always equaled
being different. Now Im just normal at the pool. The lifeguard knows my name, and so
do many of the other regulars.
I see fat mothers at the pool with their children,
watching from the sidelines as thin mothers frolic and play with their kids in the water.
I sometimes see them glance at me as I plough up and down the pool, the water bubbling
about me as I slice through it with my arms. I wonder if its envy I see in their
eyes. And I hold a secret hope that my presence, that the really fat lady in the pool, may
encourage them one day to drop their sarongs by the side of the pool and dive in just as I
And I see young fat girls, with their lovely round faces
and bellies, playing with their thinner friends in the water. I thank whatever force is
responsible for this most beautiful of substanceswaterwhich makes us fatties
so much more buoyant and graceful than our thinner sisters. I hope these young fat girls
never give up swimming as I did, are never conned out of their natural right to feel like
the most fluid of dancers as they bob about in that enchanting liquid. �
is a postgraduate student writing a dissertation on fat bodies, feminism, and beauty. She
keeps sane by swimming and tending her garden at home in Melbourne, Australia.