Sunday, 10 February 2019


Since whining about injury has become a bit of a default setting for the blog recently, I thought I'd return to a bit of opinionated rambling by way of light relief.

So....recently on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, there was a discussion about the use of the term "bioprene" - a neologism that compounds biology and neoprene to describe body fat specifically in the context of swimming. As a concept, 'Bioprene' serves a number of functions. Firstly, it signals a form of 'natural' swim-enabling body composition (buoyancy / insulation) that stands in direct contrast to neoprene, whose 'artificial' assistive qualities remains a lightning rod for debates about what constitutes authentic marathon swimming. I'm not sure that the use of a term founded on that binary is particularly helpful in smoothing out those battle lines (and I'd make the same argument about the use of 'skins' to describe non-wetsuit swimming - an ugly term that defines swimming by the body's surface rather than its entirety, and makes me cringe every time I hear it). Second, it is a euphemistic attempt to distance swimmers from the social stigma of fatness / body fat by separating it from the embodied self; bioprene is something that can be gained or lost, put on or taken off, just as a wetsuit can, rather than being part of, and inseparable from, who the swimmer is. Third, and relatedly, bioprene operates as an alibi for fatness; as I've written about extensively elsewhere, bioprene is repeatedly articulated in terms of 'heroic fatness' (fatness for a higher purpose) in ways that render body fat forgivable by virtue of its connection to an status-bearing, extreme endurance sport. In a fat-phobic society, fatness and body fat always need to be accounted for, and calling fat bioprene distinguishes it from other, more easily discredited, forms of fatness. And fourth, variable amounts of body fat among swimmers, and the impossibility of reading performance off the fat body, is commonly cited as evidence of a community that is exempt from the fat-phobic prejudices that people with noticeable body fat encounter in as they move through the world. The water, we are told, is a great leveller, but this still leaves those negative assumptions intact outside of swimming; this swimming exceptionalism, while well-intended, does nothing to disrupt the negative assumptions and devastating discrimination that fat people face in their everyday lives (and also ignores the entrenched fat-phobia that is alive and well in the swimming community).

I've never really liked 'bioprene' as a term - it's too euphemistic, and too wedded to the idea that body fat is somehow not part of the body / self. But I also strongly dispute the idea that fat-phobia is rendered obsolete by the accustomed exposure among swimmers to bodies of all shapes and sizes and the awareness that size / composition is no predictor of performance. Every time you observe a fat swimmer and make judgements about their performance, you reproduce assumptions about the bodies of fat people; and every time you are proved wrong by being trounced by a fat swimmer, your surprise reflects those assumptions (and we could say the same about age, or about gender and the repeated (and slightly shocked) acknowledgements that women can out-swim men).  Marathon swimming is always part of the social world rather than an exception to it, and swimming becomes an alibi for fatness when framed as bioprene, rather than a site of fat's radical reframing. It is not enough to conclude that size and age are meaningless indicators of swimming performance without also maintaining the commitment to actively refusing those prejudices. Otherwise, the water is not a great leveller, but rather, a means of obscuring fat-phobia both in swimming and beyond it.

So each to her own, but I don't have bioprene, I have body fat, and I'm fine with that.

Opinionated rambling over....