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From the Outside, In (Part 1)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I had a great run last night and I even made it to bed at a decent hour, but my body would not hear of hitting the pool this morning. I'm frustrated because I really wanted to swim at least one more time before the weekend--when I'll be traveling--but I'll be just fine. But a few posts on the Swimming for Cardio team (go team!) made me think about my childhood and one of the events that drastically changed how I looked at myself. And I realized that sharing that series of events might be rather good for me as I am working to right that image in my head.

That I deal with some kind/form/element of body dysmorphia is far from unusual for a 20-something American kid/girl/woman. I have not been diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, but I have had several very sharp breaks between how I think I look and how I actually look--and what I look like/think I look like actually has to do with how healthy I am and who I am. Intellectually, I understand that I'm in the overweight BMI category, that I'm actually about average weight or below for American women, and that "I'm not doing too bad." But emotionally . . . well that's the reason I'm writing.


I grew up in Florida, and like most kids, I was swimming by myself at a pretty young age. By 10, lessons were unnecessary, so my mom signed me up for the swim team. This was no for-fun rec team either. The complex I swam in regularly trained Olympians (I saw a few from a distance), and we local kids had access to the same facilities that kept them in shape. So the coaches they hired tended to take us seriously, and in turn, they expected us to take them seriously.

Being a competitor at heart, I had no problem pushing myself to swim the way they wanted me to swim. I loved the hardest events (fearless flyer, all the way!), and over the two-or-so years that I competed, I got rather good. But this story isn't about lost Olympic dreams.

See, "rather good" was just good enough for the head coach (I'll just call him "Coach") to actually notice me and actually notice that I wasn't as good as he thought an 11-year-old should be. I had lots of one-on-one time with assistant coaches that meant my form was getting to be impeccable, but I was struggling in a few events and was not shaping up to be a successful all-around swimmer. And that wasn't acceptable to Coach. So being the stereotypical, aggressive, loud, insensitive man that he was, he decided I needed to learn a lesson that would stick with me till today.

He asked me to bring an old belt to practice the next day--an extremely odd request, but one that was easy enough to comply with. When our workout was done, he stopped me before I got out of the pool and told me to swim another 50 as fast as I could. I did.

"Now put this on." He had the belt in one hand and a ten pound dumbbell in the others. Completely confused, I did. "Now swim another 50."

I was horrified. The weight was slipping and sliding in the belt and I was in the deep end (and I mean DEEP. They trained SCUBA divers in that end of the pool. It was so dark on the bottom it scared me.)

"I'm going to drop the weight," I said in a bit of a panic.

"Then you'll have to swim down there and pick it up," he sneered. "Get moving!"

So I tried, fighting the water and my fear of the deep end and the weight around my waist the whole way there and back. The time clock had absolutely no mercy. But I managed to cross the length of the pool and return without dropping it. I was panting and relieved.

"Gimme the weight," he said. I happily did. "50. Again. Now."

I didn't hesitate. I powered through the water and made it back in less time than my first sprint. He smiled sweetly. I was suspicious.

"Now see how much better you get without that weight on you?"

I didn't put two-and-two together for a moment.

"Should I get a drag suit?" I asked. "It'd help---"

"You need to go on a diet, kid."

The world stopped.

"But I'm eleven."

"And plenty old enough to stop snacking yourself into being fat. Starting today, you eat no junk food. Ever. No sugars. No chips. No Goldfish crackers. No whole milk. You'll lose that extra weight before you know it."

I was mortified. Everyone could hear. I protested again based on my age, that I was about to go through another growth spurt (I'd been achy enough and my mom had said she was sure of it). But he just got louder. And by the time I made it to the showers, I *felt* fat.

I did work on not eating ANY junk food for quite some time. It wasn't a huge change, really. My mom just didn't buy the stuff regularly. So I just stopped asking. She was proud that I was taking an interest in my health. I was proud that Coach never brought it up again.

When I eventually quit the next year--for so so so many reasons--I had no love left for competitive swimming. He'd eventually emotionally beaten it out of me. And anyway, I'd figured, ballet was becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life. I needed to focus, I rationalized, or I won't ever be good at either. So I picked ballet and avoided the two-a-day practices of high school and "swimmer's shoulders" and everything I saw as problematic about continuing to swim.

And Coach--well, he happened to have a pretty interesting criminal case brought against him. One that banned him from pool decks in the US for life. When I heard years later, I felt vindicated. What did he know anyway?

But though I always maintained that he was in the wrong for telling me to diet at eleven, I could never shake that little voice in my head that told me he was right about my weight. He'd started something that I'm still fighting to reverse: a view of myself dependent on other people's perceptions. A view of myself from the outside, in.

Getting back in the pool regularly has made me think about that a lot. In a desperate moment my first day back at the pool, I tried to use his logic to keep myself moving. "If I lose the weight, this will be so much easier! I'll be faster!" It sunk my motivation like a dumbbell in the deep end. It may have been true, but it got my head into a big bad funk. The next swim, I just focused on the water. "The more I fight the water, the more I fight myself. Swim right first; worry about weight on dry ground." THEN it clicked.

I have bigger challenges in the pool than my weight right now. Breathing rhythm, heart rate, endurance, strength, flip turns, just waking up in the morning. Being a good swimmer for ME has nothing to do with my weight and everything to do with forgiveness and a truce with myself.

And I bet you anything *that's* what's going to help me lose this weight.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    This is so inspirational. I definitely think that introspection is one of the biggest parts of actually healthily and productively losing weight. Thanks for sharing!
    1889 days ago
    That's a bad bad bad coach. Sorry that happened to you. Here is how I think about my fat in the pool: it helps me float. I see woman bigger than me swim faster than me, so I think other factors influence your swim more. Since my fat helps me float, I feel more comfortable trying new things in the pool, even the deep pool, because I am sink proof.
    1892 days ago
    Thanks for sharing
    1892 days ago
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