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Swimming Has A Sizeism Problem

Written By: Dr. Tiffany Monique Quash

As coaches, swimmers, and spectators in our sport, we have an idea of what a swimmer should look like and make assumptions about the ideal result of peak fitness. In fact, every 4 years the world has the opportunity to discuss every athletic body during the Olympics and athletic competitions before (and after) this amazing event. However, such concepts of physical fitness and physical activity are products of Western perceptions of white beauty and competence. In a recent article published in the Washington Post by Carly Stern, “Why BMI is a flawed health standard, especially for people of color”, the author writes:

Some say that assumptions, practices and policies based on BMI adversely affect Americans of color by shaping the diagnoses they receive, treatment they access and stigma they may face. And, they say, the measure’s very origin is racially problematic.

Stern also provides readers with a quick reminder that BMI was developed “by Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, who sought to measure the height and weight of the “average” man based on a sample of White, European men. He saw this average as an ideal”. The problem with this measurement is that 1) the world is not the same as 200 years ago and 2) such measurement is not culturally inclusive.

As conversations continue to focus on race relations and understanding how our sport can meet the needs of swimmers from marginalized communities, an area that is overlooked is sizeism. The sport of swimming has a sizeism problem. The goal of this piece is to:

  • define and identify examples of sizeism

  • examine how sizeism intersects with race in our sport

  • invite you to read about a personal experience related to this topic

  • and discuss methods to dismantle sizeism and fat shaming for ourselves.

As a point of emphasis, it is important to state that words can reflect and impact the lived experience. It is important to understand that this piece is not meant to address how one sees themselves, but how others (particularly the swimming world) see an individual.

Defining Sizeism

Christine A. Smith (2019) defines sizeism as “oppression based on body size”. It is one’s attitude or belief about another’s body. Smith (2019) also states “[t]he dominant Western beauty standard is thin, White, young, able-bodied, and assumed to be heterosexual, Christian, and wealthy enough to access the products necessary to maintain her beauty”. Though Smith’s (2019) quote focuses on beauty, the same language is reflected in how we see Black and Brown Womxn in our swimming community.

To better grasp the intersections of sizeism and race, Smith (2019) quotes E. K. Daufin (2015), who notes that “everything good is associated with a slim body, including intelligence, sexiness, health, fitness, beauty, grace, attractiveness, self-control and other positive attributes” (p. 165). Though the 2015 text may seem dated, there is continued emphasis on what Black and Brown Womxn Athletes (and at times coaches) should look like in movement. Overall, it is the idea of one saying that a swimmer has the following characteristics:

  • Broad shoulders

  • Height

  • Able-Bodied

  • Muscular (but only in certain places for gender-specific bodies)

  • Race = White

  • A certain bodyweight

I invite you to further understand what is sizeism by reading:

and watch:

Personal Experience

I would never describe myself as someone who felt pressured into having that “swimmer look”. I knew from a very young age that I would never have that “look” because I started puberty at the age of 10. This meant that I had my period and breasts before many of my teammates and the “swimmer look” for someone who looked like me did not include me. When I swam, I often felt pressured to wear:

  • smaller straps on swimsuits (larger straps were not for serious swimmers)

  • latex caps meant you are willing to go through at least 4 a season (even though the cap did not fit my hair)

As a coach, I felt that I had to prove that I was a competitive swimmer because I am:

  • not tall (I often describe myself as 5’2, but wannabe 5’3)

  • not as small as my colleagues

  • do not have small breasts

  • am not record holder

When I swam, it was always a surprise that I could effectively and efficiently perform all four strokes. Anytime I stated, “I am a swim coach” or “I was a competitive swimmer”, I could see (and feel) a person’s eyes looking over my body.

The memory of gawking eyes reminds me of Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman of South Africa. Baartman was an enslaved Khoisa womxn from South Africa during the 1650s. Her life included being used as a spectacle for Europeans. For more information, please visit this link. Reading this story and remembering that feeling, reminded me of how my capability of swimming and competence as a coach were constantly questioned. Saying that swimming has a sizeism problem means that the world of swimming is a sport that forcefully conforms the bodies of “non-ideal” athletes into an ideology that is not for their bodies. The coded language that is used to describe the bodies of Black and Brown Womxn continues to be problematic and is reinforced by our colleagues. Consider listening to Naji Ali’s podcast, Crossing The Lane Lines, episode “The Forgotten: The Unacknowledged Black Female Swim Coach”. This episode discusses how people openly discuss the body of Black Womxn.

The perception of womxn’s bodies in the sport of swimming is often reliant upon a lens that is not culturally or body inclusive. In a 2022 study completed by Saemi Lee, Juliana Leedman, and Malayna B. Bernstein, the authors stated that “women student-athletes of color are not merely passive recipients of dominant (white) culture but, in different ways, active agents negotiating their status as athletes, women, and people of color within white normative contexts”. The keyword for this article and this Streamline Teams series is INTERSECTIONALITY (Crenshaw, K, 1989). Please refer to the reference section for additional information on intersectionality and previous blog posts.

How to dismantle our thought process of sizeism

The discussion of race and how others perceive another’s body is not a new concept. What may be a different approach to this conversation is how the experiences of Black and Brown swimmers are related to sizeism and/or fat shaming. The description of one’s body is often a topic of discussion during the Olympics, amongst coaches, and swimmers. One might think, “how else should we discuss a person’s body?”. My automatic response is, “Not at all!”. A more well-rounded response can be not to comment on any of the above characteristics and to focus on one’s training program, how the swimmer changed their technique from previous performances, etc. rather than be critical of their body. Note that sizeism also impacts men! Like the other -isms, men can be impacted by sizeism. I cannot personally contribute to this conversation about such lived experience, but I invite you to read:

I know there is much to contemplate and grasp in what was outlined in this blog. My challenge to you is the next time you are either at home or outside, take note of your thoughts about people and how you perceive them because of their size. Push yourself through this thought process and ask yourself, “Why did I make that assumption about that person?” and keep asking yourself “Why?”

References *websites are hyperlinked

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black, feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 138–167.

Dauphin, E.-K. (2015). Black women in fat activism. In R. Chastain (Ed.), The politics of size: Perspectives from the Fat Acceptance Movement (Vol. 1, pp. 163–186). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Lee, S., Leedeman, J., & Bernstein, M. B. (2022). Negotiating white normativity in sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1-23.

Smith, C. A. (2019). Intersectionality and sizeism: Implications for mental health practitioners. Women & Therapy, 42(1-2), 59-78.

Tiffany Monique Quash, Ph.D. is a research methodologist specializing in qualitative and survey methodology with the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University. Dr. Quash has a background in narrative inquiry, phenomenology, and case study methodologies. She is interested in the intentional use of de/colonizing language when addressing aquatic accomplishments and barriers centered on the experiences of Black Womxn in swimming. Outside of her research, Dr. Quash was a Head Swim Coach, Director of Developmental, and Assistant Swim Coach for high schools and USA Swim teams on the east coast, west coast, and the mid-west. Outside of her role as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director for Streamline Teams, Dr. Quash continues her work with theInternational Water Safety Foundation Research Team. The International Water Safety Foundation is a non-profit organization that raises drowning awareness while bringing basic swimming, water safety, and safe rescue skills to children.

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