For my job, I spent 96% of my day not wearing clothes – 3,000 people a week see me in a bathing suit. For most women, bathing suit season is the worst part of the year. Bathing suit season is my everyday. Let me tell you, being an Aquatics Director has done wonders for my self esteem and body image. With swimmers wearing anything from microback suits and jammers, to burqinis, modesty is interpreted very broadly where I work.
A few weeks ago, I was on the pool deck during swim lessons making my rounds and shmoozing with parents. We have over 1,200 swimmers in our program, so I have a lot of swim parents to meet. One mom, a lovely Orthodox Jewish woman from Sharon thanked me for her son’s swim lessons and offered her best wishes with the rest of the year. I asked her if her kid would be continuing, and was surprised and confused to learn that her son, who would be turning 9 soon, would not be able to swim in mixed gendered classes.
Swim Mom noticed my puzzled ignorance and explained that in her faith, when boys and girls are about 9 years old, they can no longer swim together without everyone being wicked super covered up. And in the pool, that’s wicked super annoying. And if you’re not a strong swimmer, wicked super dangerous. I asked her how her son would be able to continue to swim in our secular community pool with male and female members and staff. Male and female staff who work exclusively in swimsuits.
Swim Mom was exceedingly gentle with my stupidity: “He can’t.”
Watching her soon-to-be 9 year old son child swim the last lap of his last swim lesson broke my heart. He was having so much fun! I asked her if I could find a way to make sure he only swam with other boy children, would she consider continuing lessons. She looked at me like I just offered her to pilot a rocket to the moon. She explained that in order for him to keep coming to lessons, we would have to be able to guarantee only male lifeguards and swim instructors, absolutely NO women anywhere ever, and that all windows are covered.
As you can see from this picture, we don’t just have windows, we have WALLS of windows. My office and the hot tub (not in this picture – they are tucked away in the corners) are also walls of windows.
I was partly surprised to hear that a boy couldn’t do something because there would be girls around. Almost every other time, it’s the girls who get the boot. It was weird hearing it the other way around – even though in both situations, boys and girls can’t play together.
Swim Mom looked at me with kind eyes, and resigned herself to the impossibility of her son ever swimming in our pool again.
I, for one, (try really hard to) shirk not in the face of the impossible.
“What if I could make that happen?” I said.
“I can’t ask you to do that,” she said.
I imagine that, having grown up in this area herself, Swim Mom learned to sacrifice secular services in an effort to maintain her religious standards.
For the next week, I talked to anyone who would listen to me about finding a way to make this happen. Have we done this before? Has anyone tried? What would I need? Am I legally allowed to only have male/female staffed swim times? Who needs to approve this?
My senior program director let me ramble through my long list of questions, nodded and yupped all the way through my 1,000 words per minute proposal. “Do it.” That was it. She told me to just do it and find a way to teach these kids to swim.
I called Swim Mom right away. “We can do it. Sunday nights, Boy Child can swim. Will you come back?”
Swim Mom cried and thanked me upside down and sideways. “How did you do it?”
“I have construction paper, masking tape, and 75 lifeguards who need to pay for college. See you on Sunday!”
On Mondays, I teach a private lesson for three Never Swam Before Moms who have kids in my program. I convinced them that, even in their 30s and 40s, they could still learn to swim. And that learning to swim could save their children’s lives. No pressure or anything.
While we worked on kicking, the four of us shared the happenings of our week. I shared my story of Swim Mom and Boy Child and how excited I was to launch a new program for, literally, one child. Swim Mom Pakistan told me that she knows a few Muslim families who would be interested in male and female only swim times. Swim Mom India said she did, too. Swim Mom Syria said she’d be interested in a women’s only swim. My ladies, my favorite part of Monday swim lessons, explained that they never learned to swim because their parents wouldn’t let them swim with men and that teaching girls to swim was never a social priority.
Another Swim Mom, wearing a hijab, was on deck watching her son’s swim lesson. She saw us swimming and after our lesson commented how she’s grateful her kid can learn to swim, because she never had that opportunity.
After my swim with my NSBMs and my weekend with Swim Mom, I was on fire. These moms have young kids who are learning to swim – if parents can’t swim, they can’t keep their kids safe around water. If parents can’t swim, they can’t keep themselves safe around water.
For the last month, I was like a missionary of swim lessons. If I saw a woman wearing a hijab, or dressed in long sleeves and long pants on deck (most parents strip down as much as appropriately possible when on the sticky, hot, and humid pool deck), I sat down next to her and asked her if she knew how to swim. We live in a very Jewish and very Muslim community, so finding swimmers would not be a problem.
After I proposed and promoted this new program that would let everyone swim, I had a moment of feminist doubt. I know that modesty is in the driver’s seat of this conversation and I struggled with promoting, what I believe, is a destructive and unnecessary cultural expectation. An expectation that disproportionally affects women. It affected the 30somethings in my pool who had never once taken a swim lesson.
I believe so strongly in giving these women and girls any chance to learn to swim. Or just play in the pool. But I also believe that women should not be kicked out of the pool because men might see them in a swim suit. These women should not be held accountable for our social expectation that men can’t control themselves.
My activist self was excited about having a sort of social power (my position as the Aquatics Director) and being able to use that power to carve out space that is normally inaccessible to a particular group. However, another part of me was questioning the fact that I also created a space that I would not be able to occupy. But also, this was not about me. At all. This was about sharing what I have with someone who didn’t.
I humbly submit that I know very little about Orthodox Judaism or Islam. I am awkward trying to navigate their culture and religion. I ask weird questions. I give them puzzled looks. I am learning the difference between “they are told they can’t swim together,” and “they choose not to swim together.” I have a lot to learn about my new families. Now, they are not just another Swim Mom on the pool deck. They are new friends, new brothers and sisters who are teaching me about love and compassion and understanding.
At the end of the day, I am grateful that these girls, boys, men, and women are able to learn to swim. That’s really important to me. But I also realize that swimming is just the paper on which we are writing a meaningful social story: out in the world, these men and women can’t share this space with each other.
At the Y, they can share this space with us.
Next up: She and he who swim.