So many cold water swimmers are non-conformists, but who would have thought of it as a political act? Grace Wright-Arora carried out social research on cold water swimming for her undergraduate dissertation at the University of Bristol. She interviewed outdoor swimmers in London and near Bristol, and found that for many, swimming was a way of resisting norms and structures that confine them in everyday life. Like size-ism, that people have to fit bodily norms dictated to them by health authorities or the fashion industry (strange bedfellows, it seems to me). And linked to that, pool-ism - that you need to have a certain type of body to swim in a pool or run the risk of being judged by others. Or the physical structure of the pool itself, dictating how you can swim –up, then down, then up again, and again and again. Or the political-economic structures that deem it OK to dump raw sewage into rivers.
I learned early in anthropology that wherever three or more people are gathered together there is politics. And more recently as a swimmer, that where there are three or more open water swimmers gathered together, there is often water politics. In Oxford, discussing the latest dumping of raw sewage by Thames Water into our beloved river, is political talk. Resistance – to body shaming, to the physical constraints of a swimming pool – while an individual act, can also be political. Grace wrote her undergraduate thesis on cold water swimming as a form of Foucauldian resistance. French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that where there is power, there is also resistance to it. While there is body shaming in society, and while we are constrained by structures that shape how to act and behave, cold water swimming can be considered to be both political and an act of resistance. Who would have thought it?
Grace Wright-Arora thought it, and wrote it down. A pdf of her thesis is available on this website, here. In London, she interviewed people who swim at the Serpentine Swimming Club and the Hampstead Ponds, while near Bristol she interviewed people who swim at the Clevedon Marine Pool. In this podcast, she describes her own cold water swimming history, what took her to study the often personal politics of cold water swimming, and discusses with me her findings. So much of what she says in the podcast resonates deeply in me, as I am sure it will for you.
Read her dissertation
Listen to the podcast