Making a Big Splash (1997)

Title (as given to the record by the creator):  Making a Big Splash
Date(s) of creation:  Spring 1997
Creator / author / publisher:  Judith Stein
Physical description:  A black and white scan of Judith’s writing, typed on a typewriter. In the upper right hand corner of the first page, handwritten in purple ink is “Radiance Magazine Spring 1997.” This writing is 5 pages in length. 
Reference #:  JudithStein-MakingABigSplash
Links: [ PDF ] [ Edited version in Spring 1997 Radiance ]

Making a Big Splash:
The Pleasures of Water Aerobics

By Judith Stein with special assistance from Meridith Lawrence

How We Got There

In October, 1994 Meridith returned from the Oakland NAAFA Feminists Gathering all charged up about finding a place to swim. I myself had enjoyed the all-too-rare experience of being one in a bevy of big bathing beauties by the swimming pool, but it was Meridith’s determination to find some way to get into water that got us to try a water aerobics class.

Meridith learned that our local YWCA offered several kinds of water aerobics classes, some in the shallow end, others taught mostly in the deep end of the pool. We liked the idea of the YWCA: its community service orientation, lack of glitz, and low prices were all attractive to us. Still feeling pumped up and brave from our dose of fat feminism, we wnt to our first water aerobics class later that month. 

The teacher was a slender, perky, athletic-looking college student named Lolly. Her friendly welcome definitely helped us: at 250 and 320 pounds we were by far the fattest women in the class. Strapping on flotation belts, we took the first step (stroke? kick? dare I say plunge?) into a more physically active life.

That first class was hard. We felt awkward and had trouble keeping up with Lolly’s vigorous pace. But it was fun, too – we climbed out of the pool feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. We liked the class enough to say we’d try it again.

After the first few classes we made a commitment to go once a week. Some days it was harder to get there than others – bad days at work, winter weather, rush-hour traffic, no parking, a cold locker room — we had tons of “good reasons” to contemplate skipping class. Some days we stood in our swimsuits in the locker room still debating whether to go – usually one of us had the smidgen of enthusiasm needed to get both of us into the pool.

There was one immediate and obvious benefit that kept us going to class – each of us left the pool feeling vastly better mentally. We were so much calmer after class; our new joke was, “Work? What work?” Within a few months we realized that this calm came from the class: no matter how we felt on the way into the pool, we always felt better coming out. Now, it’s that sense of tranquility and well-being that gets us into the pool even on the nights when we’re sure  we can’t bear to drive downtown/ find parking/ change clothes/ get wet (pick your obstacle). Knowing that we always feel better climbing out of the pool is the most powerful incentive there is to get us to climb in.

And we have gotten better at the workout! This was an astonishing accomplishment for each of us since neither of us had been the least bit athletic in our lives as fat girls and women. Water is a friendly medium for fat women – we are extra buoyant because we are fat. 

Gradually, we started going to class twice a week after work, and a few months ago we added the Saturday morning shallow-water workout to our regular weekend routine. Since we only pay for the classes we attend, we still occasionally “skip class” to do something else. Now, when we skip a class, we miss it. We each notice more stiffness and more crankiness, both of which are relieved by our next session.

How Does It Feel

Both of us are long-term fat activists and life-long fat women. For many years we have been lucky to enjoy a constant panorama of fat women friends and community –: sometimes in organized groups, other times through personal friendships. And, as lovers (since 1982), we are each other’s constant ally against a world that wants us to be both small and miserable.

The first time we went to class we were both timid and fierce. Expecting an onslaught of weight-loss language, we arrived wearing our best don’t- fuck with me” attitudes to ward off the fat phobia we were sure we would encounter. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that our teacher made no comments about losing weight or losing fat during that first class. In fact, all of our teachers have focussed on the workout itself with virtually no references to losing either weigh or inches. Most of the time our classmates have been too busy literally keeping their heads above water to express much of the self-hatred or fat phobia we expected. There have been some remarks about being good or bad related to what people have eaten, and a few women talk about “needing” to lose inches or weight, but these comments are relatively infrequent. When it feels OK, we counter such comments with some gentle fat positive message.

Now, after eighteen months of consistent attendance, both of us have gotten good at the workouts. There are some exercises that we do differently than our thin instructors because our bodies are different –  our stomachs bump into our thighs when we bend. Both of us are now more comfortable in deep water; recently, we dropped the flotation belts and keep ourselves vertical in the water by our own muscles and stamina. We are both much stronger than when we started; we have better wind. Water aerobics has become a most enjoyable way to work off the stress we each accumulate in our jobs. The benefits to our mental health are at least as pronounced as the physical benefits. 

From time to time we have recruited other fat friends to join the classes. Some have stayed a while, others fail to find the charms we find in leaping around in nine feet of chlorinated water. While we are still the fattest women who come to the class, we’re “old-timers” now, with a friendly rapport with most of the other long-time students. What do they think of these two big fat women in their class? The only comments we’ve gotten are that the other students miss our jokes and smart-mouth remarks when we miss a class.

How to Start

Find a friend to go with you. Starting to exercise is hard on so many levels that each of us would have quit long ago without the support of the other.

Find a place that feels OK to you. We’re both more comfortable in the shop-worn YW locker room where we encounter women of all races and ages than we would be at a glitzy health spa.

Find something that feels fun and respects your body. Judith was 42 and Meridith 39 when we started – as middle-aged fat women who had never exercised we were drawn to a workout in water because it would not injure our joints. And even though wew do many exercises from standard land-based aerobics (jumping jacks, cross-country ski, bicep and tricep curls), for each of us, being in the water made the exercise seem like play.

As women entering and moving through our forties, water aerobics feels like a new way for us to love ourselves. Since we feel stronger and move more easily, each of us “owns” our whole body, all the way out to the skin. We take up all of the room we need to breathe big, to laugh loudly, and to move through the world with strength and joy. 

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