When I was about four years old, my parents signed me up for swim lessons. Their biggest hope for me was that I would be able to tread water and make it to land. However, that first lesson set me on a 15 year-long journey into the competitive swimming world, full of crazy practice hours and fancy racing suits.
Throughout my years as a swimmer, I encountered many highs. Between being the top 15 in the nation at the young age of 12 to having the opportunity to swim competitively for my college for a year and a half, I had plenty of joyous moments. I recall some of those days fondly and often find myself itching for an opportunity to go for a swim.
Despite all the wonderful moments, swimming also brought a tide of pain and discomfort. It created expectations and standards in my head that continue to destroy my expectations of what my body should do and what it should look like.
The root of the problem, in my case, is that the western expectation of what a female body ‘should’ look like is skinny, fit, and somewhat fragile. Women are still expected to be subordinate, which must be shown through their bodies.
However, if you are a swimmer, this is impossible. Swimmers have to be strong enough to get through hours of grueling practice. Male identifying swimmers face their own set of prejudices. Female identifying swimmers face judgment for their wide (strong) shoulders or flat (kick-ass) chests.
I remember going shopping with friends at a young age, right before puberty hit, and trying to find a leather jacket. When I spotted a rack of jackets, I ran over, rifling through the sizes to find mine. I pulled out the six, and to my dismay, I could barely get my arms into it. I figured it was a fluke, and maybe I just had to go one size up, but soon found myself with the biggest size, unable to get in.
My friends made jokes, commenting on our wide shoulders. However, we were all blushing furiously, shame creeping into our eyes as we passed the jacket around, hoping someone would fit. For years, that memory haunted me. The jacket became a reminder of every passing joke made at my expense because of my shoulders. It was made more painful by the fatphobia I carried deep within me but refused to acknowledge. This memory made me dismiss the power of my shoulders and rather see them as a symbol of masculinity. They were a part of my body that would forever betray me in my dreams of being feminine and dainty.
But leather jackets weren’t the only marks of a lack of feminine grace – at meets, we had to wear knee skins. They are odious skin-tight suits that took at least 30 minutes to put on. These suits are meant to decrease drag and give a split millisecond edge but tend to be universally disliked. I recall putting my suit on with friends. All of us crowded into the locker rooms and encouraging each other to put them on without ripping them. The comments that were thrown around were nothing less than horrifying.
‘Think skinny thoughts’
When my friends and I were about 13, we came up with a catch phrase that would help us put on our suits quickly.
“Think skinny thoughts.”
We would chant this phrase as a group, prodding each other to suck in our bellies or somehow flatten our boobs. We were working to squeeze into the impossibly small suit. This phrase spread to other teams, and at championship meets, we heard it repeated throughout the endless locker rooms.
It never sat quite right for me, but I never said anything. Once you got the suit on, it was always too tight and squeezed your thighs to a painful degree. There were days you’d take the suit off and see the red marks on your legs from where the suit was squeezing.
No matter how skinny I tried to imagine myself, my lower body was never going to shrink. Instead, it was shoved into the fragile material with careful hands, taking up to an hour. I hated my lower body for so long because it didn’t fit as my friend’s outfit did.
Breaking tech suits
Breaking one of these knee skins, honestly, is quite easy. If you just tug at it hard enough, and at the right angle, the suit comes apart. Unfortunately, the suits are sold for the average price of $400. Breaking one can mean a hard financial blow for your family.
When I was 11, a new and updated version of the suit came out. I did not need to buy the new one yet. But most of my friends got their hands on it. Unfortunately, the suit had a major flaw. The glue that held the components together was so flimsy that it broke for four girls on the first day of the meet, the first time they tried to put it on.
Suit sizing and misconceptions
The first thought that many other people and I had was that these girls had gained weight. They bought the same size they always wore, but somehow, they couldn’t get the suit on their body. Regrettably, I remember feeling gleeful about it. Two of the girls were much faster than me, and I felt like I finally had an edge on them. I was in a smaller suit size, and mine hadn’t broken – I must be smaller than them. My narrow-minded thoughts didn’t give me space to think that skinny meant nothing. My speed and strength were not linked to a weight on a scale or the size of my suit. None of our worths were linked to that. But flaunting the fact that you were wearing the smallest size suit gave you bragging rights, which I took full advantage of.
Even after all those difficult practices and grueling hours in the gym, I was still trying to fit the mold of a ‘girl.’ Even on the pool deck, where the most important thing was the time in which you could finish your race, I was comparing suit sizes and hoping I was small and dainty in a way that was ‘acceptable.’
Can we change?
Many will argue that knee skins are an integral part of the sport. Sports performance is enhanced to the degree that has never been seen. And yet, what if that enhancement is coming at the price of little girls looking with dismay at their growing and changing body because it refuses to stay a child?
Although this is not a completely universal experience, I am not alone in the self-hate rooted in tech suits. I look back with shame on the things that flitted through my mind during my swim career. I had so much growth to do and no support around me to do it.
The swimming world I was immersed in did not care for fun – it only cared about ensuring that I was faster the next time I dove in for a race, no matter the mental or physical acrobatics that would require of me. Even now, almost three years after closing the book on this aspect of my life, I find myself unraveling the strings that tie me to it. The hate that I loaded on my body during this time will be with me for a long time, and my body image will be inextricably tied to it for as long as I let it fester.