Not everything the fat body does is for weight loss.
How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
I was 3 years old when I started swimming. I was 14 when I stopped.
I don’t remember the first time I got in a pool, but I do remember the feeling of slipping below the surface for the first time, arms cutting through the water, strong and straight legs propelling me forward.
I felt powerful, forceful, tranquil and meditative, all at once. Any worries I had were the purview of air and land — they couldn’t reach me underwater.
Once I started swimming, I couldn’t stop. I joined the youth swim team at my neighborhood pool, eventually becoming a coach. I swam relay in meets, anchoring the team with a forceful butterfly. I never felt stronger or more powerful than when I swam. So I swam every chance I got.
There was only one problem. I was fat.
I didn’t face some classic bullying scenario, classmates chanting singsong names or openly ridiculing my body. No one commented on my size at the pool.
But when I wasn’t cutting through the sharp, still water, I was adrift in a sea of diet talk, weight loss fixations, and peers who suddenly wondered if they were too fat to pull off that dress or whether their thighs would ever get thinner.
Even swimsuits reminded me that my body couldn’t be
I was a teenage girl, and diet talk was ubiquitous. If I don’t lose this next 5 pounds, I’m never leaving the house. He’s never going to ask me to homecoming — I’m way too fat. I can’t wear that swimsuit. No one wants to see these thighs.
I listened as they spoke, my face flushing red. Everyone, it seemed, found their own bodies to be impossibly fat. And I was fatter than all of them.
Over time, as I entered middle and high school, I became acutely aware that the sight of my body was unacceptable to those around me — especially in a swimsuit. And if my body couldn’t be seen, it undoubtedly couldn’t be moved.
So I stopped swimming regularly.
I didn’t notice the loss immediately. My muscles slowly went slack, slipping from their previous taut readiness. My resting breath shallowed and quickened. A previous sense of calm was replaced with a regularly racing heart and the slow strangulation of constant anxiety.
Even in adulthood, I spent years away from pools and beaches, carefully researching bodies of water before entrusting them with my maligned body. As if someone, somewhere, could guarantee my trip would be free of jeers or stares. As if some fat guardian angel had foreseen my desperation for certainty. They won’t laugh, I promise. I was desperate for a safety the world refused to provide.
I reluctantly looked over the only swimsuits in my size: matronly swim dresses and baggy “shortinis,” designs dripping in embarrassment, relegated to the largest sizes. Even swimsuits reminded me that my body couldn’t be seen.
My body will stay fat, just as it did when I swam for
hours every day. My body will stay fat, just as it always has been. My body
will stay fat, but it will not stay still.
When I did brave beaches and pools, I was met reliably with open stares, sometimes accompanied by whispers, giggles, or open pointing. Unlike my middle school classmates, adults showed much less restraint. What little sense of safety I had left with their indulgent, direct stares.
So I stopped swimming altogether.
Two years ago, after years away from pools and beaches, the fatkini made its debut.
Suddenly, plus-size retailers started making fashion-forward swimsuits: bikinis and one pieces, swim skirts and rash guards. The market was quickly awash in new swimsuits.
Instagram and Facebook were replete with pictures of other women my size wearing racerback suits and two pieces, affectionately termed “fatkinis.” They wore whatever the hell they felt like wearing.
I bought my first fatkini with trepidation. I ordered it online, surreptitiously, knowing well that the judgmental whispers and open stares would follow me from the pool to the mall. When my suit arrived, I waited days before trying it on. I finally put it on at night, alone in my home, away from the windows, as if prying eyes could follow me even on my sleepy residential street.
As soon as I put it on, I felt my posture change, bones more solid and muscles strengthened. I felt the life return to my veins and arteries, remembering its purpose.
The feeling was abrupt and transcendent. Suddenly, inexplicably, I was powerful again.
I never wanted to take my bathing suit off. I lay in bed in my fatkini. I cleaned the house in my fatkini. I had never felt so powerful. I couldn’t take it off, and never wanted to.
This summer, I will swim again.
Not long after that, I started swimming again. I swam on a work trip, opting for a late weeknight swim, when the hotel pool was likely to be empty. My breathing was quick and short when I stepped out onto the concrete, slowing only slightly when I realized the pool was empty.
Diving into the pool was like diving back into my skin. I felt oceans of blood pumping through my heart, life pulsating in every inch of my body. I swam laps, reminding my body of the rhythm of the flip turns it used to know so well.
I swam butterfly and freestyle and breaststroke. I swam laps for a while, and then I just swam, letting my body push against the gentle resistance of the water. I let my body remind me of the joy of its own motion. I let myself remember the strength of the body I’d hidden for so long.
This summer, I will swim again. Again, I’ll emotionally steel myself for cutting responses to the shape of my skin. I’ll practice quick comebacks to defend my right to stay in the place I’ve always felt most at home.
My body will stay fat, just as it did when I swam for hours every day. My body will stay fat, just as it always has been. My body will stay fat, but it will not stay still.
Your Fat Friend writes anonymously about the social realities of life as a very fat person. Her work has been translated into 19 languages and covered around the world. Most recently, Your Fat Friend was a contributor to Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies compilation. Read more of her work on Medium.