Guest Article: Dr. Karen Throsby, on the complicated issue of fat amongst Channel swimmers

It’s with great delight that I have this thought-provoking article from Dr. Karen Throsby. If you are a Channel swimmer you are most certain to know Karen or at the very least know of her.

Karen is a Sociology lecturer and researcher in Warwick College in the UK. I first met Karen in 2010 at the Sandycove distance week where she’d come to train for her (successful) English Channel attempt that year. In 2011 she completed the Catalina Channel and this year will tackle MIMS to complete the Triple Crown AND will also return to the Channel, making her part of the smaller group of swimmers who return to that battlefield. Karen once uttered what because one of my favourite swim sayings: “All I have to do today is swim” on any day with a long training session or even swim.

Apart from this, and apart from her excellent blog, one of my favourites, and apart from her research website, what also makes Karen so important and even vital for our global community, is that she is the prime (only?) sociological researcher of Channel Swimmers. She recently published her first research paper, “Becoming a Channel Swimmer“. Don’t let the title “research paper) put you off, it’s a fantastic and accessible-to-all read that I highly recommend for anyone who’s ever wondered about their own body image, and she’s working on a book on Channel Swimming that will be required reading for swimmers, organisers, writers, family, friends and even those with indirect interest in the deeper and personal and sociological aspects of our pursuits.

I’ve written a couple of posts related to weight or body image amongst open water swimmers. One linking pictures of the different types of bodies amongst various professional athletes remains quite popular, always attracting views. Another was on the difference between the presentation of images of swimsuit models versus what we ordinary swimmers actually tend to look like. And only recently I lost deliberately lost weight myself, the first time I ever set out to so do, (and am paying a swimming price for it). Karen’s blog is one of my favourites and I’d previously asked her for a guest post. As you can imagine, she is somewhat short of free time. But recently, after I’d already read her research paper, she was the author of what are my favourite-ever posts on marathonswimmers.org on the same subject, that for me would have been worth setting up the forum if nothing else had ever been written there. So I badgered asked her again, and this time she acquiesced.

*

I was standing on the beach in Dover, chatting with friends while preparing
for another 6 hour swim. We watched a group of young male swimmers noisily
slapping and wobbling the newly-rounded belly of one of them – the result of
purposeful weight gain to insulate against the cold. Playing along, he grabbed
his soft stomach fat and folded it into an improvised mouth. “Feed me, feed me,”
demanded the stomach-mouth. As we watched the young men fat-slapping
and joking, my friend – a man who sees himself as unambiguously fat – leaned
quietly over to me and said: “It makes you wonder what they must think of me”.
(fieldnotes, June 2010)

***

Channel swimmers talk about body fat a lot.

When I first stumbled into the marathon swimming world, I (mis)took this
for acceptance, even celebration, of a bodily property that is otherwise utterly
derogated in everyday life. But on closer inspection, I came to see this fat talk as
a much more complicated and contradictory mix of acceptance, celebration and
fat-phobia. We can see this, for example, in the physical comedy of the young
male swimmers. Their slapping and jiggling of body fat is intended to evoke
disgust, whilst simultaneously relying on a shared understanding that their fat
is not real fat, with all its negative connotations. It reminds me of lean actors
dressed up in fat suits, or gaining weight for a role, usually to comic effect. It’s
funny because we know they are not really fat, but it is also inevitably funny
at the expense of those who are fat. As with my friend on the beach, then, not
everyone can join in the fun.

And this is why Channel swimmers talk about body fat a lot: because the
purposeful maintaining / gaining of body fat is a socially precarious act in a
society where fat is routinely treated as disgusting, unattractive and as the
manifestation of the moral failure to exercise self-control. This precariousness is
reflected in playful banter of the young men on the beach, or the forum and blog
discussions about how much weight gain is enough, but not too much. It explains
why people describe using their upcoming Channel swim as their “get out jail
free card”, or their “alibi” for fatness. As a female swimmer who had transitioned
from the pool to the open water told me, she constantly reminded people she
was training to swim the Channel “so they didn’t think I’d just got fat”.

My point here is not that I think these defensive responses to fat are vain or
foolish. Bodies are complicated things to manage, the pressures are very real
and feeling ashamed about feeling ashamed is more paralysis than politics. But
I think that the Channel swimming community as a whole is missing a trick here
and falling in line with a dominant story of fatness that simply doesn’t make
sense. After all, what greater challenge to the equation of fat with ill-health
and laziness could there be than Channel swimming? And what if, instead of
reproducing those moral judgements about fatness, we actively refused them both
for ourselves and others? And what if we were to be collectively shocked that our
bodies – that any bodies – would need an alibi?

In the current context, it is perhaps inevitable that Channel swimmers talk about
fat a lot; but how we talk about it, and who is excluded by that talk, is not. This, I
think, is an opportunity for inclusion that collectively we are missing.

 

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6 thoughts on “Guest Article: Dr. Karen Throsby, on the complicated issue of fat amongst Channel swimmers”

  1. Karen is a rock star of the highest order and really helped to uncover the murky world of long distance swimming to make the impossible become possible for mere mortals. Her best blog I read was ’10 things about long distance swimming I wished I’d known at the beginning’ – really was a godsend for me before a Gozo week.

    M

  2. Very interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve never been exactly “skinny” and this always had a negative impact on my pool swimming, but it hasn’t really held me back in terms of long distance, open water swimming and has even been an advantage at times. I think we are starting to become more aware now that, while fat is sometimes an advantage in Channel swimming, its absence is not necessarily a disadvantage (I’m referring here to many “skinny” people who have swum the English Channel more recently).

  3. Hi Owen
    You’re absolutely right, of course, that people’s response to cold is very idiosyncratic and that fat gain doesn’t map cleanly onto the picture in terms of cold tolerance. But I also think that underlying many of these discussions in the wider community is an assumption that we should swim at the lowest fat level possible – i.e. with “enough” fat, but not too much. It is this inherent resistance to fat, per se, that I find fascinating in a sport that is so strongly associated with it.
    Kx

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