Friday, 21 October 2011

Swimfit - when is weight loss talk not about weight loss?

So, further to my concerns about the Swimfit use of the "pinch an inch" image on the Shape Up and Tone section of their website, I wrote the following e-mail to their complaints address:

"I am writing to complain about the problematic image used to illustrate the 'Shape up and tone" section of your front page, and then again, for the "how does your sport compare?" box. The image shows a very slim torso, with the flesh being pinched =, presumably to evaluate fatness. The "pinch an inch" test has long been discredited as offering any meaningful information, especially when conducted by untrained individuals. It is healthy to have pinchable flesh on the body, and it is disappointing that the website is so flagrantly focusing on cosmetic issues while purporting to be promoting health and well-being.

I am an experience and passionately involved long distance open water swimmer (English Channel 2010, Catalina Channel 2011) as well as a sociologist researching long distance open water swimming and its relation to what constitutes the "fit body" (among other aspects). In my view, your website needs to be very clear that weight in itself (and especially having pinchable flesh around the torso) is in no way a predictable measure for health. This is an incredibly impoverished view of what swimming has to offer, and presents the view that less body fat is always better."

To their credit, they got back to me pretty quickly, but the reply was frankly baffling:

"Hi Karen,
The website shows this picture for the Shape Up & Tone programme, which is not any suggestion about weight. it is simply to tone your body whatever shape it may be. None of our programmes have mention of weight they are simply to encourage people into the water, get them swimming and enjoy themselves while following our programmes. The Shape Up & tone programme encourages strengthening of more muscle groups to tone the body but has no mention of loss of weight. Of course, if someone writes to us asking how to lose weight with swimming we can help them but that is not the aim of the programme".

If we set aside for a moment the ways in which words like "toning" and "shape up" are codes for weight loss, what's most striking about the reply is the extraordinary claim that none of the programmes mention weight / weight loss. Take, for example, this extract (my highlights added) from the front page of the Shape Up and Tone section of the website:

"Shape Up and Tone is for you if you are seeking to bring about some changes in the way you look or considering using swimming as part of a weight management programme.

This may be maintaining your current weight but achieving a more toned appearance or as part of a weight loss programme. And there are some great reasons why you should be swimming to achieve this.
Did you know even a gentle swim can burn over 200kcal in half an hour and a fast front crawl can burn as many calories as an 8mph run? True.
And the because water is about 800 times denser than air, you can work harder, and burn more calories, in a pool than out of it? Again true."

Not only does the text slip easily between mention of "toning" and direct reference to weight / weight management / weight loss, but also, the only "great reasons" that are offered for using swimming both concern calorie burning (an obvious reference to weight loss). If the strengthening of muscle groups is the goal of the programme (as the Swimfit representative suggests), then a "great reason" to do it would be evidence of improved muscle strength and its effects in people following such a programme. The number of calories presumed to be burned tells us nothing about this. I can only return to my original conclusion that the section is actually about weight management....which brings me back to the image as fundamentally, and problematically, about weight. It is frankly disingenuous to say that the programme doesn't mention or refer to weight, since it evidently does so, both implicitly and explicitly.

And while I'm on a roll....let's take a moment to think about the "Choosing the right swimwear" section (also in the Shape Up and Tone section. There's a section each for men and women, each with lists of body shapes and parts matched to style advice about what shape of costume to choose to distract the onlooker's eye from flaws and draw it towards more "appealing characteristics". I'll save my comparison of the male and female advice sections for another day, but suffice to say that the women are given more possible problems to worry about, and the advice is more elaborately oriented to very specific body parts, rather than "builds", as is the case predominantly for the men. But anyway....my real objection is this....The section for "pear shape" women begins: "A pear shape has often been a plague for women, but it no longer needs to be." A plague? Really? Women are on the receiving end of plenty of devastating problems - domestic violence, lack of reproductive freedom, unequal pay, sexism - but plagued by a body shape? Only in the eyes of those who prioritise how women look over what they can do could this sentence make sense. As soon as you focus on "flaws", you make them matter; as soon as you offer advice about how to hide them, you make it difficult for women to feel anything other than ashamed of their bodies. If the Swimfit programme is about getting people into the water, rather then teaching women to surveille and discipline their bodies for public consumption, then why does this section not simply say, "It doesn't matter what you wear - as long as the costume is comfortable, you're good to go!"?

Phew. Glad I got that off my chest.

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