Friday, November 16, 2012

body politics at the pool: an old bird goes swimming

Remember how I got all fired up about body image after watching Miss Representation? I posted my fat roll on the internet; I railed against misogynistic media moguls; I stood my ground: forty-something; pudgy, and proud? Remember that?

I went to the rec center to swim yesterday evening.  Because I tutor after school, I usually workout in the mornings when everyone else is at the office.  That means I take yoga with people who need instructions like: “Don’t cross the midline on this if you’ve had a hip replacement!”  

Old folks.  I just love ‘em.  Not only because I’ll be one soon, but because they have a certain humor and humility about them.  Also, they understand that a fully functioning body is a thing to be revered, but not necessarily looked at.  When I do yoga or swim with them, no one judges my ass.  If pressed to express some kind of interest, they’d only make a functional inquiry like: "Can you still sit on it?"  Who wouldn’t want to hang out with folks like that?

However, when I entered the locker room at 5:30 last night, I discovered the lovely old folks had taken flight.  In their stead, a ginormous gaggle of high school girls greeted me; their swim team apparel flung like exploded feathers in a great mess about the place.  As they chirped and primped en masse, I marveled at the crowd of them.

I think I’m a typically modest person.  I fall somewhere between the lady who needs a private dressing room and the lady who blow-dries her hair wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy flip-flops and bright red toenail polish.  But I love my body, remember?  So I found a smidge of a spot where I could put my bag and began to unpack and undress.  I tried to blend into the crowd around me, but I couldn't help it, a song from my childhood began to play in my head.

So true.  One of these things just doesn't belong!  I may as well have been wearing that hat with the twirly thing spinning on top. I slithered into my suit as fast as I could and got the heck out of there, seeking the cover of water.

But it didn’t end there.  Apparently, I'd missed the flyer that announced "beautiful hour" at the pool.  Usually, I could find all of my old-folk friends in the deep end doing water aerobics to Rock Around the Clock.  Instead, as I came up for a breath, I noticed a whole crowd of 20-somethings gathering on deck.  They appeared to be looking for a place to swim.  Weren't they supposed to be at happy hour somewhere? To my chagrin, a hot young guy ventured over and got in my lane.  Really?

I suppose now is as good a time as any to remind you that this is the season of armpit hair.  Sigh.  I haven’t shaved my legs in more than ten years, but every summer, I succumb to suburbia’s poolside imperative for shaven pits.  I just can’t take the pressure.  Once the summer pool closes, however, the razor goes away.  I’m not a very hairy person, but after two full months of growth, trust me, there’s enough there to note.   Plus, my very tight swim suit has gotten even tighter over the past year, so parts of me clamor to get out of it as I lumber across the pool.  This is no fashion show.

Wondering if I'd have the guts to do backstroke, I pretended to clean my goggles so I could check out my new friend.  He was brown, muscular, and sort of beautiful in the water.  He had a sun tattooed on his shoulder and some kind of mesmerizing bird across his shoulder blades.  I realized, as I forced myself back to my workout, that aside from my very sweet niece, I almost never spend time with 20-somethings.  My house regularly bulges with young men--but they are teenagers.  When I look at them I see boys, and you can bet that when they look at me, they see an old hag.  And that feels exactly like it’s supposed to.

But this guy was no boy.  When he finally started to swim, I thought I might save face on technique.  I followed him with a surreptitious eye, hopeful that he’d turn out to be a flailer in a fancy suit, but alas, he had a smooth stroke and an intense flip turn—an ex-swim team type for sure.  

I can’t compete with that!  Even if I could do a flip turn, no way was I going to tip myself over, like a duck diving for fish, and show my padded backside to everyone on deck! 

So what to do? 

Well.  I think you already know.

Just keep swimming.

Yup.  Just keep swimming.  And try not to look quite so freaked out as Dory while you do it.  Oh.  And try not to think about her buddy, the whale:

You'll be pleased to know that eventually, I got into my workout and forgot about Mr. Beautiful with his svelte body and his trendy tattoos.  When I finished, I heaved the bulk of my sodden self out of the water, shook myself dry (right down to my padded tail feather) and waddled walked, unvanquished, to the locker room. 

The moral of the story?  Of course, all of us middle-aged folks can and should love our bodies.  But a word to the wise: it's a hell of a lot easier to pull that off if you can steer clear of beautiful-hour at the pool.


  1. "one of these things is not like the other" had me spitting out my tea!

    it's so challenging not to compare. we are taught from such a young age to compete. really trying to relearn this.

    for me lately, one area has also been hair, though not the underarm type, the gray type frosting across my temples. i'm not dying, i mean dyeing. :) why should i? why is it "sophisticated for men" and shaggy and old for women. eduardo is encouraging me. we'll see. there will certainly be an interesting 2-colored transition phase as it grows out! so i've been too much noticing everyone else's hair lately. and the point is, to just be myself. just keep swimming. thanks for the reminder!

    1. yes - the hair dye imperative really bugs me. i've wanted to write about this for a while. it's so wierd if you think about it. if you look around, there aren't any people with gray hair - it seems you have to be nearly 80 before folks decide it's time to quit with the dye. think of all the money you'll save! i can't wait for you to make gray cool!

    2. thanks for "rooting" for me. we will see!

  2. Deb, I love your sense of humor. That's the best attitude in such situations. You're an inspiration! (Though, I wouldn't call you an "old bird!") :)

    1. maybe not - but "middle bird" doesn't have any kind of ring to it. and i'm certainly not a spring chicken! :)

  3. This post made me laugh so hard - it should be the back page editorial piece for the Post Magazine, as should so many of your posts. So funny. I sing the one of these things is.not like the other song quite often (seems to be a thrme) but had never seen that video! It's just one of those songs that was ingrained in my memory from childhood but I had forgotten the context was even Sesame Street...
    thank you for that reminder on aging gracefully and humbly - as I think about the portrait KJ once made of me with my three signature horizontal lines (she later learned the new vocabulary word "wrinkle") across my forbead. What would we do without humor? Thank you for more than my daily dose :)

    1. if you google the song, you can see the old version - you'll recognize the lady who always sang it--nostalgia.

      wrinkles in the portrait is hilarious. but how great for her to draw them as part of you to be captured and remembered--her beautiful mom :)