Swim, Swam, Swan
The body remembers
I stand by my front door with car keys in hand, flip flops on my feet, panic in my heart.
“Let me get this right: I’m taking this gigantic menopausal body,” I wave my hand like a Price is Right model to denote ALL of this jelly, “and I am going to strip down to a swimsuit, in front of strangers, and I am going to get into a swimming pool?”
“That does seem to be your plan, yes,” says my husband with his signature combination of bemusement and inscrutability.
“I see. Well. Here I go.”
Twenty years have passed since I last went to a public swimming pool. Maybe more. On this day, I’m headed to what is called a fat swim. I heard about this on various social media platforms and “fat swim” was the exact search term I used.
My local pool has a cute colloquial name they use, a clever euphemism that might imply that we’re whales but maybe doesn’t mean that. Or isn’t supposed to, anyway.
I have just been calling it a fat swim. My husband refuses to use that term, but I am comfortable with it. It’s okay. I am fat. Have been most of my life, save for a few years where a raging eating disorder kept me at a more normal weight. Nothing about it was normal. Quite honestly, at nine years in recovery I am far more normal at this abnormal weight.
So I flip and I flop to the pool and then to the front desk to pay my entry and am told that fat swim is cancelled for the day. They weren’t sure why, just that it was cancelled. Crestfallen, I say “thank you” and walk away, thinking that I worked up all of this courage for nothing.
Halfway to my car, I stop. Wait a minute. I came here to swim. I did half the hard work in just buying a bathing suit and getting out the front door. I didn’t want to waste this rare moment of confidence.
I walk back inside to the front desk and I say “can I just swim anyway?” and they say “Sure!” and seven dollars later, I’m in the door and I am doing this.
Am I really doing this?
To say that swimming and I have a colorful history is an accurate statement. I didn’t take to swimming easily. As a dutiful parent my mom made sure that all three of her children took swimming lessons. My older brother and sister passed the courses with no issues.
For me, something didn’t quite click. I loved being in the water but the rigor of actually swimming was hard. I was intimidated. Enrolled in beginning swim lessons, I failed the course completion. Then I took beginning lessons at another pool and failed again.
Frustrated, my mom found a woman who taught small classes in her own backyard, and her kindness and attention were just the thing I needed.
After gaining confidence from the private lessons, my mom took me back to regular lessons. She was intent on my getting a Red Cross certification in swimming. With some coercion and a heavy negotiation for a reward consisting of: 1) a Star Wars t-shirt and 2) a diary with a lock and key, I went back to the big pool, took the lessons, and did in fact pass the final test. I was a swimmer.
I went on to take the intermediate and advanced courses and passed them as well. Turns out I was a pretty strong swimmer and I grew so comfortable in the water that for a short while I was on swim team and competed against local swimmers from other pools.
I was pretty good at the breaststroke. I excelled at the backstroke. I was not terrible at the butterfly, an event no one wanted to participate in so the competition was light and winning ribbons was easy.
But time moves on and I grew up. Puberty hit and with it came curves and hair and bumps and shame. All of the thoughts and insecurities. I am not good enough. I am not pretty enough. I am not thin enough.
I will never be thin enough.
Where once I laid out by the pool in a bathing suit with baby oil slathered on my skin, now I began to hide. I used to wear shorts and then I didn’t wear shorts for a very long time. I used to own swimsuits but they were all given away with the rest of the clothes that no longer fit as I got bigger and fatter and more ashamed.
I learned to be invisible. To hold back. To not take up space. To dress in a way to hide. To drink water when I was hungry. To worship at the alter of “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!”
With time, and therapy, and the gentle and supportive love of my inscrutable partner, I learned to cage the demons that rage in my brain when I look in a mirror or eat food. My birthright, handed down from mother to child. A disease that can never be cured, only quieted.
And so what I contemplated now, this swimming at a public pool, was akin to dancing to the beat of a klaxon in front a cage that barely contains a sleeping beast.
In the locker room, women in various stages of undress are either heading to or coming out of the pool. I will always admire but never understand the fearless person who can be fully nude in the locker room while going about their business. My stomach tenses as I keep my eyes glued to the floor and take deep breaths.
The smell of chlorine brings memories. By rote I peel off clothes down to my swimsuit underneath, a two piece tankini. I rinse off in the shower and I let my my mind stay blank as I walk out to the pool. I set my towel and flip flops off to one side and whisper to myself, “can I really do this?”
The most shallow lane was empty and after more than twenty years on dry land, I slip into the water with more confidence than I feel. The liquid embraces me and holds me gently. Just standing in the water is already such a victory that even a week ago I could not have conceived it possible.
Once in the water, I am not sure what to do. I feel awkward. I feel nervous. I feel exposed. So I start walking. Just walking. From one end of the lane to the other. My heavy legs move with ease through the water.
Exercise is so freighted for me. I have a hard time, I’m uncoordinated, I get overheated, I sweat a lot and my endurance is awful. I get sad at how out of shape I am and I give up.
After walking back and forth for several laps, I warm up and calm down and I want to try to swim a lap. Can I even remember how?
So strange how the body remembers when it wants to. I push off from the wall and my arms slot into the right position for the crawl and my chubby legs kick, kick, kick and I swim the length of the Olympic sized pool with no trouble.
My self-esteem shoots up. Out of breath, I try walking again and then swimming again. My body feels light and buoyant. I feel strong. I never feel strong.
Then I try a breaststroke, once my favorite, and stop with a “nope.” My hips stiffened by both time and excessive pandemic sitting are not ready to frog kick. Something to work on.
Elation is the best word to describe how I feel as I swim. Soon, a woman approaches and asks if she can share the swim lane. “I am not really swimming, mostly water walking,” I say because I am scared that she is some pro lap swimmer who will be distracted by my splashing about.
“Yeah, me too,” she says easing her stiff joints into the water while muttering, “Menopause is such a bitch.”
I know then that we are going to be friends. Turns out, she also came for the cancelled fat swim and then decided to just swim. She says, “Let’s walk together” and for the first time since March 2020, I meet a new person. I talk to a stranger.
We agree in that moment that we were fat and we were swimming, therefore, it was an official Fat Swim.
Memories of childhood days spent at the public pool are dear to me. We’d go swimming in the afternoon heat of an Albuquerque summer and splash and tan and play. Then my dad would meet us later when he finished work and we’d have dinner.
So much of that came back to me after my first fat swim. Returning home feeling enormously happy and satisfied, I tell my partner that my family used to get burgers and fries after a hard day swimming. To honor that memory, we order and I demolish a cheeseburger with zero guilt.
And I savor the rediscovery of my joy. It was living at the bottom of a public swimming pool.
I can’t wait to go back
Karen Fayeth was born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller. From her New Mexico roots she is constantly evolving through global experience. Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Currently, she is working on a collection of her many short stories titled, “A Delicate Pain”.