Sunday, 10 February 2013

The things we don't discuss...

I've written quite a bit recently about things that get discussed a lot within the swimming community; for example, what counts as 'real' swimming is an old chestnut, as is the complicated topic of fat. But I've also been thinking about what we don't talk about....or at least, what gets talked about very quietly among female swimmers, but rarely in public: menstruation.

A couple of years ago, I was on one of the Swimtrek long-distance training camps, and we were having some (important) fun during the infamous "3 P's" seminar, during which we discussed the practical necessities of managing bodily functions (Piss, Pooh and Puke). It was a graphic and light-hearted discussion that recognised the important reality that many swims founder on the handling of these most basic of bodily functions. As the seminar drew to a close, a female swimmer (one of only a handful in a largely male group) asked: "What about periods?" You could have cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife; eyes fell to the floor; people squirmed uncomfortably. The seminar leader rose splendidly to the occasion, and some of the women in the room chipped in with experience and advice. A joke about sharks scenting blood lightened the mood and all was well; and in future camps, the seminar morphed into "the 4 P's" to incorporate this important bodily aspect of swimming.

But I've never forgotten that instant collective reaction in the room to the female swimmer's question - one of mixed disgust and embarrassment at the unexpected airing of a topic that women are expected (and expect each other) to keep to themselves. There's nothing particular to swimming about this - after all, the advertising of what are euphemistically called "feminine hygiene products" is based entirely on the extent to which the product hides menstruation (rendered blue, and never red, in product demonstrations), enabling women to dance around in tight white trousers to their hearts' content. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a lot of the (quiet) talk among women on the issue of menstruation and swimming is also about concealment - for example, how to cope with it while changing on a public beach, especially given the fairly widely accepted wisdom that it is not a healthy practice to wear products like tampons during long swims.

But I think that there are a wider set of discussions that I certainly know I would appreciate being aired more publicly about the ways in which menstruation both affects, and is affected by, swimming - both positive and negatively. I suffer from a gynaecological disorder called endometriosis which can cause severe pain, as well as a hormonal imbalance that makes my cycle at times extremely unpredictable. I am unwilling to take any hormonal medications (including those that many use to postpone menstruation in order to avoid a big swim or other important event); nor, by the way, did I opt to follow the advice of my socially-inept consultant who suggested that I should have a baby to "straighten things out for a bit".  Instead, I manage my health through a series of dietary and herbal therapies, plus over-the-counter painkillers when necessary. But even though I experience the very occasional days when pain prevents me from swimming (and hope upon hope that this never coincides with a big swim day), I have also noticed a significant pattern of improvement in the months following a big swim. Indeed, after each of my long swims, I have experienced 4-6 months of predictable and pain free menstruation. Even my hardest training doesn't have the same effect - only the very long swims. Periods are often seen as an obstacle to swimming or at best, a nuisance, but it is perhaps not surprising that such an intense bodily experience as a long swim will impact upon the body's hormonal and metabolic functions in all kinds of unpredictable and potentially positive ways.

More recently for me, the early stages of the menopause have begun to enter the picture (and the menopause is, of course, another aspect of women's bodies that tends to be discussed negatively or not at all). With it, I noticed last summer a new unpredictability in my tolerance for cold, and I've since met a couple of other women who, anecdotally, reported a similar problem. In my case, this has proved amenable to herbal interventions for now, but I have no idea how this will manifest itself as the process of bodily change continues...or indeed, how my swimming will impact upon that process.

In short, then, menstruating is just one part of (some) women's lives, but one which tends to be bathed in secrecy and silence (in public settings, at least). Indeed, I have been stewing on this post for a while, unsure about whether to raise the topic at all or how comfortable I was discussing my own body publicly in this context. Nevertheless, I regularly receive queries from female swimmers on this issue, many of whom are wary of raising those questions in more male-dominated public spaces and forums, and it is clear that there is enormous variation in the ways that menstruation both affects, and is affected by, swimming.

I suspect that we have a lot to learn from each other about this.

Friday, 8 February 2013

What I'd like to be doing right now....

It's been a bit of a week. Work has been busy and more than a little frustrating; the weather has been various versions of wet and cold; and I've been ill - nothing serious, but an ongoing, niggly viral thing that's left me wiped out and kept me out of the pool. All work and no play.

And in response, I've developed what I can only describe as a craving for a long, sea swim. I can think of nothing more delicious than a day of nothing but swimming in warm, clear water. I don't mean just an hour's dip and paddle, but a good 6 hours or more - enough time to hit that zoned-out state that is the perfect gift of the long swim.

That's what I'd like to be doing right now.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Has anyone seen the 'real' swimmers?

The marathon swimming community has been having one of its periodical kerfuffles over 'real' swimming and its public representations.

It started with some media reports about US swimmer, Brittany King, who completed an English Channel swim in 2012 with the aid of a wetsuit and fins. An article in Shape magazine set out King's version of the story - she was aiming to swim it by usual Channel rules with the CSA, but suffered from the cold and finished the swim in a wetsuit. "Meet the Woman who Swam the English Channel", declared the headline - a red rag to a bull for the Channel swimming community, for whom 'swimming the English Channel' has a very specific meaning. Some corrections were added by Nick Adams in the comments section of the article: he points out that she swam with the CS&PF rather than the CSA; and that she was also wearing fins. Other comments protested the misleading nature of the article, and the debate was taken up vociferously in the marathon swimmers' forums, ranging across issues of misrepresentation in swimming, the boundaries of authenticity in marathon swimming, and even the old chestnut, CSA / CS&PF relations.

In many ways, I think that these debates display both the best and the worst of marathon swimming. They show the absolute passion of the sport and the desire for the honest representation of it. But I also think that the desire to preserve the 'specialness' of non-wetsuit marathon swimming can make the community (a) take a small number of slightly self-deluded individuals too seriously (see also my earlier post on Diana Nyad), and (b) force people into an unnecessarily derisive stance regarding other kinds of swimming.

In the debates that followed the reports of King's swim, a great deal of concern was expressed about the need to educate the media and the public about what 'real' Channel swimming is. While I think it's absolutely right to correct blatant factual errors in media reports, it's also important to think about the media product and its audience. Shape magazine is a fluffy bit of nonsense whose primary motive is to teach women that their bodies are never good enough and that appearance should be privileged over performance or well-being. If Channel swimming needs defending as a sport (which I don't think it does - it seems to be doing fine), then I doubt that this kind of superficial, misogynistic tat poses much of a threat.

And to be honest, I imagine that for most people not involved with the sport, the difference between a wetsuit and a non-wetsuit swim is utterly irrelevant and most would have no difficulty in seeing a wetsuit Channel swim as a Channel swim. In this sense, and at the risk of igniting all kinds of fury, I suspect that the struggle for definition that is going on within Channel swimming does not even register as a dividing line for most outside of marathon swimming - not because they need to be educated about the sport, but because the debate is too arcane to be important. These internal authenticity disputes characterise almost all specialist activities. Did you know that people who pick mushrooms with the goal of trying to identify and classify them look down on people who pick them to eat them? Or that people who collect dolls for display look down on people who allow children to play with collectable dolls? Or that the quilt-making world is riven between those who hand-sew and those who use machines? (and that the cat has now been set among the pigeons by not knowing how to classify quilts made by machines that have a setting that looks just like hand-sewing). These are all fairly arcane debates (from outside) that are hotly fought from within, and I imagine to most of those outside of swimming, the wetsuit / non-wetsuit debate appears very similar. And I think that Brittany King understands this much as she understands that the use of fins is a completely different kettle of fish in terms of popular perception, which is presumably why this aspect of her swim is never mentioned in her media articles while the wetsuit is.

I have very little time for people who fudge or lie about their swims: it's daft and pointless. But I also baulk at any attempts to police who should be allowed to swim where and how, or who should be able to call themselves what. This is firstly because it's only swimming and I'm just not clear what is at stake here that would warrant such an exclusive approach. Someone swimming the Channel in a wetsuit in no way stops me from swimming it without a wetsuit. And secondly, I think that the snootiness about wetsuit swimming that is evident in the marathon swimming community is utterly (but inadvertently) complicit in the mis-representations that crop up from time to time. If you treat wetsuit swimming as something shameful that has to be 'confessed' and derided as a non-achievement, then you make it a million times harder not only for wetsuit swimmers to be clear about the conditions of their swims, but also to take pleasure in what they have done. And especially this latter just seems a shame and quite unnecessary.