Centre for Health, Technologies and Social Practice

It’s not fat, it’s bioprene: marathon swimming and heroic fatness

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA), Oxford University

13 November, 2014

Photo Credit: steffo photography via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: steffo photography via Compfight cc

Marathon swimming often involves the purposeful gain of body fat for the insulation that it provides against the cold water. This paper asked how swimmers negotiate the tension between marathon swimming’s prizing of body fat as a performance advantage and normative ideals of sporting embodiment as lean and muscular. I argued that swimmers manage this tension through the construction of ‘heroic fatness’, through which swimming fat is framed as an undesirable but necessary act of bodily discipline and sacrifice in the service of the swimming endeavor. This is matched with the assumption that once the swimming is over, the purposefully gained fat can be successfully lost and a normative sporting identity restored. I argued that this effectively renders the fat ‘fake’, enabling swimmers to distance themselves from the negative character traits that conventionally attach to fat bodies. As one male swimmer noted: “The fat is okay, because it’s not who I am”.

Heroic fat is constructed by drawing two key distinctions. The first of these is between purposefully acquired swimming fat and the derogated fat of those who are presumed to have ‘let themselves go’. “He’d make a good marathon swimmer” joked a participant at a training camp, pointing derisively at a man on the beach, stomach pouring over the waistband of his shorts. It’s a familiar joke that relies upon collective understanding that the fat of the swimmer and non-swimmer may be materially similar, but are symbolically different. The second distinction is between wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers. The use of neoprene, particularly by triathletes, is continually contrasted against the marathon swimmers’ reliance upon what has come to be called bioprene – purposefully gained swimming fat that is morally distinct from both pathologised fatness and neoprene.

But heroic fatness both produces and relies upon exclusions and contradictions. Among (some) groups of men, purposefully gained body fat became a source of heroic status within the homosocial group. My fieldnotes record incidences of men naming their growing stomachs (“It’s time to feed Norman…”), or grabbing the fattened stomach into a fold and opening and closing it like a mouth, demanding food (“Feed me, feed me”). To all intents and purposes, they are playing at being fat, whilst being protected from its negative attributions by their cultural and physical capital as athletes, prospective Channel swimmer, and as men. But I never saw women engaging in this kind of physical comedy. Female weight gain is not a route to homosocial status or belonging in the way that it can be for (some) men; there is nothing heroic about it, and it’s not funny. Instead, for the female swimmers, swimming fat was expressed more commonly through the language of criminality, with a pending swim serving as an ‘alibi’ or a ‘get out of jail free card’ for fatness, rather than a heroic endeavour.

Those who were already fat at the start of the training process were also excluded from the protections of heroic fatness since being fat and getting fat (and by implication then lean again) are distinct. As a male friend who identified as life-long fat and I watched a group of young men slapping and wobbling their newly acquired heroic fat, he whispered: “It makes you wonder what they must think of me”. The playfulness of heroic fatness is always at the expense of ‘real’ fatness.

From this we can see that the prizing of body fat in marathon swimming simultaneously challenges conventional norms of lean sporting embodiment and reproduces and intensifies those same values. As such, even while seeming to disregard norms of body size and composition, marathon swimming speaks directly to those values in ways that challenge how we think about whose bodies count, and in what ways

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