Tag Archives: fat

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.

 

Brown Fat

This is a repost with some very slight edits because of a request. I first came across the mentions of Brown Fat in early 2010. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published the first peer reviewed scientific papers on Brown Adipose Tissue in 2009. The research was undertaken due to the great concerns over growing obesity levels. Should it be possible to easily trigger brown fat growth then overall calorific consumption would increase and help combat weight issues.

Repost:

“I’ve been doing a bit of reading on some new research papers on body fat (adipose tissue).

Most (almost all) of the fat in our bodies is white fat. Fat stores energy and acts as an insulator. White fat specifically, which could be up to 25% of body weight, does not generate heat.

Until last year, brown fat was only thought to occur in infants because they can’t shiver and that it disappears in adults because we can shiver and don’t need it.

However new research papers in 2009 showed some very good news for OW swimmers (though swimming wasn’t mentioned in the papers).

Most of the initial interest in this seems to be around using brown fat to act as a calorie burner to reduce adult obesity. Pity they didn’t test some OW swimmers who’d be willing to act as serious cold guinea pigs.

Apparently 20 to 80% of adults have some brown fat tissue (and women more than men). This is good news because brown fat, unlike white fat, also acts an energy generating source. It has mitochondria and can generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate*), which is the main source for metabolism, as well as acting as an insulator. (BTW, brown fat cells are only about 50% the size of white fat cells which is more good news).

So that’s good news.
Even better: Guess how you activate the growth of brown fat in the adult human body?

Exposure to cold…Yes , that simple. In case I read, they were able to stimulate it by a few short ( < 30 minutes) periods in a cold-food freezer.

PET scans showed brown fat increases around primarily the neck and upper thorax after exposure to cold for a few hours.

So when one thinks about the old stories of getting acclimated to cold by repeated exposure, it appears this process may have been activated.

(This also finally explains for me how to reconcile the whole 2nd Law of Thermodynamics with energy loss in the human body changing with acclimation, which I always thought bogus. I guess I can pull my open question from Wolfram-Alpha.)

It also explains (along of course with a rare nice sunny warm day) why I could do a fairly comfortable 40 minutes today in 8.3 degree Celsius water when 2 years I was only starting swimming without a suit around this time of year.

All this is my psychopathology. Telling me something will get you no-where, I need to understand. I’m not good at “just accept it”.

*(Ernest Maglicho has a great chapter on the energy system in “Swimming Fastest”).

Story on brown fat

6 Research papers

Brown fat vs. white fat

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on some new research papers on body fat (adipose tissue).

Most (almost all) of the fat in our bodies is white fat. Fat stores energy and acts as an insulator. White fat specifically, which could be up to 25% of body weight, does not generate heat.

Until last year, brown fat was only thought to occur in infants because they can’t shiver and that it disappears in adults because we can shiver and don’t need it.

However new research papers in 2009 showed some very good news for OW swimmers.

Most of the initial interest in this seems to be around using brown fat to act as a calorie burner to reduce adult obesity. Pity they didn’t test some OW swimmers who’d be willing to act as serious cold guinea pigs.

Apparently 20 to 80% of adults have some brown fat tissue (and women more than men). This is good news because brown fat, unlike white fat, also acts an energy generating source. It has mitochondria and can generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate*), which is the main source for metabolism, as well as acting as an insulator. (BTW, brown fat cells are only about 50% the size of white fat cells which is more good news).

So that’s good news.
Even better: Guess how you activate the growth of brown fat in the adult human body?

Exposure to cold…

PET scans showed brown fat increases around primarily the neck and upper thorax after exposure to cold for a few hours.

So when one thinks about the old stories of getting acclimated to cold by repeated exposure, it appears this process may have been activated.

(This also finally explains for me how to reconcile the whole 2nd Law of Thermodynamics with energy loss in the human body changing with acclimation, which I always thought bogus. I guess I can pull my open question from Wolfram-Alpha.)

It also explains (along of course with a rare nice sunny warm day) why I could do a fairly comfortable 40 minutes today in 8.3 degree Celsius water when 2 years I was only starting swimming without a suit around this time of year.

All this is my psychopathology. Telling me something will get you no-where, I need to understand. I’m not good at “just accept it”.

*(Ernest Maglicho has a great chapter on the energy system in “Swimming Fastest”).

Story on brown fat

6 Research papers