I had a really bad experience today.
I was bullied and insulted out of a lap lane at my local Y by an adult woman. She was not a child or a teenager; she was at least 30 years old. She was aggressive and confrontational; she pursued me into the adjoining lane after I left the lane I’d been swimming in.
This is what happened:
I got to my Y at 10 o’clock this morning. It was practically empty, because this was the first Sunday of the summer schedule; very few people were aware that the large pool had opened an hour earlier than usual.
There were only about ten people swimming, mostly in the shallow end, when I got there. The three lap lanes were empty. There was one young female lifeguard. There was no music. It was blissfully quiet. I thought it would be a perfect day to swim laps, at least until the pool got more crowded as we got closer to the regular opening time of 11AM.
I breaststroked out to the deep end, and asked the lifeguard if the lap lanes were open to swimmers wanting to use them. She said they were, and so, after warming up with a few more laps, I made my way across the deep end of the fast and intermediate lanes. The slow lane (the one I use) is the one against the far wall, across the the full width of the pool.
It was empty, and it was bliss. I swam several full sets of laps (breast/elementary back/free/back). As I was just past midway through a backstroke lap, my hand brushed against the shoulder of an elderly gentleman who had just joined me in the slow lane, and who was swimming freestyle in the opposite direction. I see Peter almost every Sunday; we often open the pool together. I apologized for brushing against him and we each continued swimming, him toward the deep end, me toward the shallow end. I passed the line of flags; in my peripheral vision, I could almost see the ladder at the pool’s end. My right hand brushed against another body; I righted myself, being almost at the wall, and turned to see a woman in a black swimsuit, black cap, and dark goggles, glaring at me.
The intermediate lane and fast lane were still empty of swimmers; the open swim area still had only about ten people in it, mostly in the shallow end.
“So sorry”, I said.
“WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING” she stormed. “JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE SWIMMING BACKWARDS DOESN’T MEAN YOU DON’T WATCH”.
“Um, I was in my lane, and I don’t have eyes on top of my head. You could have moved out of the way, since you clearly saw me.”
“Don’t be smart with me” she said.
Then, she VERY LOUDLY called me “fat”.
I told her that she should just leave me alone. There was plenty of room to swim, and she didn’t have to be where I already was.
I moved to the empty intermediate lane; breaststroked out to the deep end, elementary backstroked to the shallow end, where I was met by my abuser, who had pursued me into my new lane, bent on continuing the confrontation.
She told me I was “slow” and that I “didn’t belong” in the lap lane. She said “Go swim in the open area, go take care of yourself, you’re too fat to swim here.”
I swam to the deep end, and called over to the lifeguard.
I told her what had happened; that the bully had been aggressive, had called me “fat”, and that in response to her behavior, I’d moved out of the lane I was in, and she had pursued me and continued to insult me.
I said I didn’t think that was appropriate behavior for a place like the Y. I’m a dues-paying member. I have a right to swim without being aggressively pursued and insulted.
I told the lifeguard how I had come to the Y to learn how to swim after not being in the water at all for the last thirty-five years. I told her how I worked my way through beginner and intermediate swim, and that I swam laps four days a week, and how I was the swimming program’s damn poster child or should be.
I was so upset that I was practically in tears.
I was five years old again, inside.
I felt exactly the way I had so many years ago, when I was bullied and pursued the same way by kids my own age for the same reasons and with the same epithets.
The bully approached; the lifeguard said she’d speak to her. She told the bully to stay in the slow lane, and told me I could stay in the intermediate lane. She told the bully to stay away from me.
That was the extent of what the lifeguard did.
Was it enough?
The bully continued swimming in the slow lane, using a kickboard, along with Peter, who is also a slow swimmer. I continued swimming in the intermediate lane, alone with my thoughts.
These are my thoughts:
Why is fat prejudice still an acceptable prejudice?
Why isn’t it treated the same way as other forms of prejudice?
If I were a black woman, and the bully had called me “nigger”, would she still have been allowed to stay and swim?
How about if I were Latina, and she’d called me a “spic”?
How about if I were Asian, like 90% of the people who use my Y, and she’d called me a “chink”?
I joined the Y to improve my health through swimming.
I went from not knowing how to swim to swimming laps four times a week for at least an hour in the last six months.
I average five to six hours of laps every week.
I’ve lost eighteen pounds since I started in January.
No one except my husband will ever know what it took for me for finally get out of my studio and into a swimming pool.
My bully doesn’t know any of this about me.
Because when she looked at me, all she saw was a 222 lb. woman with very big thighs.
I think she thought that was the only important thing about me.
I think my very presence was distasteful to her.
She doesn’t know that I’m an artist and a writer.
She doesn’t know that I sang lead at church for many years, and that I sang solo at each of my sisters’ weddings.
She doesn’t know that I have been happily married to the love of my life for thirty-four years.
She doesn’t know that I was one of the best students in my high school graduating class, or that I missed being salutatorian by .75 of a percentage point because I had cut gym so often it affected my marks.
She doesn’t know that two years ago, I spent four days looking for my missing elderly father.
She doesn’t know that I’ve had to rebuild my life several times over.
She doesn’t know that swimming is one of my lifelines now.
All she knows is that I am fat, and I was in her way, and so it was okay to bully and insult me, loudly and repeatedly, in a public place.
Because calling someone “fat” is not the same as calling someone “nigger” or “spic” or “chink”.
Because fat prejudice is the one prejudice that’s still okay to express out loud.
That’s why the kids who bullied Karen Klein, the Bus Monitor, thought it was okay to talk to her the way they did.
No one’s going to start an Indiegogo fund for every fat person who has ever been bullied for their weight. And while money is certainly very nice (and I did contribute to Karen’s vacation fund), what would be nicer would be to live in a world where my worth as a human being is not gauged by the number on my scale.
So, are you prejudiced?
ARE YOU SURE?
What’s the first thing that goes through your mind when you see someone who is chunky, or overweight, or fat, or obese, or as big as a whale?
Do you see the person? or do you see the weight?
Is he or she less of a person to you, because of his or her size?
Why do you feel that way?
Do you think those thoughts and feelings are valid, or are they based on mindless prejudice?
Are some types of prejudice more acceptable than others?
Is any kind of prejudice acceptable?
Why or why not?
What would you have done if you were me?
What would you have done if you were the lifeguard?
I really want to know.
I really want the Y to know, too. I’ll be sending the link to this blogpost to the Executive Director, the Membership Director and the Aquatics Director.
Thank you, in advance, for sharing your thoughts.