11 October 2011

Disrupting fat narratives through Synchronised Swimming

A temporary change of pace...

I was into synchronised swimming when I was 11 or 12 or so. I really loved to swim anyway and used to spend hours at Hereford Baths with anyone who would go with me, and also by myself. I don't know how I met my friend Mary Anne but she was already part of the synchro group there and she encouraged me to come too.

The group was pretty small and we'd meet once a week or so in the diving pool at the Baths to practise figures and try and earn proficiency badges. The more skilled swimmers would practise their routines. Sometimes we'd all practise group routines, which we'd map out first on land in the Club Room, walking it through, using our arms to approximate leg movements. I remember a very dynamic sequence choreographed to the theme song from Hawaii-5-0, its exoticism was preposterous in the prosaic nature of our surroundings. We were encouraged to take part in competitions, I remember travelling to ancient swimming halls in cities near by, never really doing very well.

One year, possibly 1980 or 1981, the swimming pool decided to stage a water pantomime, Cinderella in fact. For those who don't know, a pantomime is a theatrical show produced in the Xmas holidays, typically featuring a set of conventions that can be traced back to Restoration theatre and Commedia dell'Arte. The Hereford Baths' water pantomime was just someone's weird idea. There was no scenery, the costumes were minimal, as was the plot, but there was a Dame, a Principle Boy and Girl, a bit of singing, some slapstick, and lots of swimming routines featuring the synchro club. I was in the chorus.

I'm right in the middle of the second row from the front

I'm remembering all this today because I've been thinking about how my identity as a fat person has developed over the years. By the time I was 11 or 12 years old my weight was already problematised in my family; I had been dieted sporadically from around seven or eight, called names, and had attention drawn to the size of my tummy. By the time I went through puberty my identity as a fat girl had solidified. My body was surveilled for fat during Physical Education sessions at school, I was being marked out as different by my schoolmates too, who also called me fat names. I was different, by this time I'd had many experiences that would make me different to my peers, but these invisible differences were less meaningful to others, instead my difference was coded through my chubby young body.

I could develop any number of these threads at this point, but I'll leave my puberty, family, school and classmates behind and come back to the swimming which is interesting to me not just because of its extreme kitsch, but also because it both supported and disrupted a gendered fat spoiled identity.

All the synchronised swimmers were girls, the oldest and best swimmers were about 16 years old. They were really powerful swimmers, very strong and athletic, and yet all I can remember about them are narratives about their perceived femininity. There was a lot of talk about make-up, tits, swimsuits, and their bodies were always there being watched and admired. They were the ones the younger swimmers aspired to, including me. I'm really struck by the whiteness of the people in the photograph above, and I'm reminded of how people in that world were generally lower class, and how synchro may have been an attempt to generate respectable feminine identities. Despite this, the leads in the water pantomime were played by two friends who interpreted Cinderella and the Prince through romanticised butch-femme synchro duets (jeez, no wonder I turned queer). I suppose what I'm getting at is that I can't dismiss this early experience of girl sport as entirely about feminine governmentality.

Synchro reinforced the problematic nature of my body. At the synchro club as well as elsewhere it was noted that I was too big, I didn't win medals, I was mediocre, I was not elegant. I compared myself to other swimmers and found myself lacking and I was frustrated by the many moves that I did not have the strength or flexibility to perform. At the same time I felt very free in the water. I loved swimming in the deep, chilly diving pool, all that deep blue liquid space around me, performing moves called Dolphin, Marlin, Swordfish, Tub, sculling this way and that. I still feel the lack and frustration of my body, but many of the physical skills I learned in the club have stayed with me, and to this day some of my greatest embodied pleasures involve swimming and water.

Perhaps most of all, these memories of doing synchro and becoming fat help me disrupt the narrative I've internalised of the fat and lazy kid. I was a very active kid, and I was still fat. The things They say I'm supposed to believe about myself just aren't true. This makes me want to disrupt and complicate those restrictive narratives even more, including the counter-narratives of perfect healthist fat poster children.

One last thing, it just occurred to me that these early experiences made it possible for things that came later, they helped me build a sense of my body's capabilities that developed into self-expression, survival, activism, sexuality, and which inform my politics and worldview somewhat profoundly. I can see a link between synchro and punk, synchro and feminism! It's so funny that the latter can feed off the former. It helps me understand how important those early embodied experiences are in terms of building confidence and agency. I'm pretty certain that Hereford's synchro team was not explicitly an incubator for the future fat activists of the UK, which is why I also doubt that those things can be taught. There's a danger of hammering it out of young people, it can't be taught by rote, that spark can't be institutionalised, they have to find embodied freedom and agency in their own way, and even then it won't be straightforward.


Emerald said...

Interesting to hear about other people's formative experiences. For me, ballet classes at age 13-14 had much the same significance. I loved dancing, but I was deemed 'huge' for a ballerina (I was a UK 14 at the time), mocked by other dancers at school, and finally humiliated when the teacher in our class decided two of us 'weren't ready' for the grade exams - me, and another girl who was older and fatter than I was. It happened twice over, until we'd both gone down a couple of ISTD grades and were dancing with 8 year olds (so no more pointe classes)...but since I was also doing tap, I still saw all the same girls from the higher grade in tap class. The snickering got so bad (including comments from one girl's appalling stage mother) that I eventually left.

It all made me feel upset and humiliated at the time, but these days it just makes me angry. Nobody should be treated that way for doing a physical activity they love at a larger-than-'acceptable' size. And I'd be dancing again in a heartbeat if I could find a body-accepting class. (I Morris danced for a while - nobody gives a damn what size you are under tatters and facepaint - but I still yearn for ballet.)

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

What a sad story. I'm sorry that happened. There must be fat ballet classes out there somewhere.

alice said...

*Wonderful* post. And while I believe I'd still say that even if I hadn't done synchro for ~ 6 years as a kid, that history absolutely influenced the speed with which I clicked through from my RSS feed once I saw the title!

I hadn't thought about it in terms of FA, strangely - I truly lucked out in that we were a very low-key club, and being the only one in the state, we were pretty much left to ourselves aside from occasional competitions/exhibitions. While I was always aware of being fatter than almost all of the other girls, it wasn't something that our coaches ever remarked upon, and was something that I saw as being more of 'my' issue (and my mother's) than something that was brought up for public comment.

Considering how vibrant my shame and fat hatred were, I'm actually kind of amazed that spending every Saturday morning in a bathing suit was so drama-free. Personally, I think that the action of pursuing something that I inherently loved, *and* where I was subverting certain expectations normalized opposition to society in a way that other, more abstract conversations, never did.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

That's great! I'm glad your experiences were so good.