Is swimming sexy or sexist?

By Megan Armitage

I have a t-shirt in my wardrobe that says ‘I swim because I’m too sexy for a sport that requires clothing’ on the back. And honestly, it’s just never sat right with me. I keep it because it reminds me of my first ever social with my swimming club at University. But, along with the memories of dancing and dress-up, those words also evoke a sense of uncomforting pain. What if I don’t swim for sex appeal? What if I don’t want to be viewed as a sex object every time I compete? Swimming is a form of exercise, it’s a sport; swimming isn’t supposed to be sexy.

A sport that caters for all genders within meets, the issue of sexism in swimming has long been ignored and forgotten. However, there is evidently still a gender gap. With body image concerns, stories of weighing in on poolside before each practice, and a significant lack of female coaches, sexism in swimming is not talked about enough.

One of the most obvious forms of sexism in swimming is the previous Olympic schedule. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be the first time that women are allowed to swim the 1500m Freestyle. Stemming from the absurd belief that women couldn’t swim that far, the inclusion is long overdue. Previously, women could only swim the 800m and men the 1500m. The International Olympic Committee have finally decided to bring equality into the programme by adding both the men’s 800 and women’s 1500 to the schedule and allowing for further distance opportunities.

You needn’t look far to realise how ridiculous the prior exclusion of the event was. USA superstar Katie Ledecky is the world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800- and 1500m Freestyle events. Not only that, but in 2017, at 20 years old, Ledecky’s 1500m time was 20 seconds faster than the men’s Olympic trials cut. If Ledecky could swim and possibly beat most men at the Olympics, why was the event not possible? It might have something to do with the internal fear that a woman might just be better than a man at something. It’s astounding how long it has taken to recognise that women are just as capable as men in and out of the water.

📸: Katie Ledecky

Approximately only 10% of coaching positions in professional UK sport are held by women. With Adam Peaty’s coach Mel Marshall breaking the ranks and becoming recognised as one of the greatest swimming coaches of current times, her position is proof that women can excel in coaching. In 2020, Marshall was selected to head a new leadership programme aiming to double women’s coaching in UK sport by Paris 2024. The initiative focuses on addressing the poor number of women working in high-performance coaching roles in the UK. Furthermore, it will elevate the overall inclusion of women in all sport, not just swimming.

One of the largest issues surrounding sexism in swimming is the myth of the ‘swimmer’s body’. Training up to 20 hours a week for some elite competitors, a swimmer can usually be spotted for their large shoulders and impressive physique. It’s commonplace knowledge that swimmer’s look good. But no one talks about the effects of that on women’s (and men’s for that matter) mental health. In an interview with US Olympian Caroline Burckle, I was suddenly brought to recognise that the issues I encountered growing up as a female competitive swimmer were more common than I thought.

I remember my school’s annual swimming gala, where students competed in a handful of events to win the title. I was constantly confused when my friends didn’t want to take part because they didn’t want to be seen in a swimming costume in front of the whole school. It seemed ridiculous to me, someone who lived in a swimming costume most days, that anyone would care. I was told that I wouldn’t understand as I had a ‘swimmer’s body’ and therefore looked good in a costume. At 13 years old, and indeed now, being considered ‘sexy’ in the sport I loved was definitely not on my mind. It is a belief that must be eradicated within all levels of the sport, from young club swimmers to professional athletes.

But I was stuck within my own toxic paradox. As little as I wanted to be considered the ‘sexy’ swimmer, the myth of the ‘swimmer’s body’ had been implemented into my brain. I began to believe that without the big shoulders and gym routines, I couldn’t be classed as a swimmer. It didn’t matter how much I was in the pool each week, if I didn’t look the part, it wasn’t real.

The most shocking realisation I’ve recently confronted is the treatment of young swimmers during their period. I often found myself getting into arguments with my male coach on behalf of 13-year-olds that had no idea how to deal with their first periods at swimming. From needing the toilet during a long session to crying when a boy in the group notices that a girl has her tampon string showing. With the increased male demographic, coaches should be aware of the changes that young girls are going through. Learning how to deal with your period is hard enough without having time capped toilet breaks and an angry coach just outside the changing rooms shouting at you for being late.

In light of the NCAA Women’s Basketball debate and Molly Hensley-Clancy’s Washington Post article on discrimination against Women’s Softball, sexism in swimming must be held accountable. At both professional and club level, there is an unspoken argument that must not be kept silent. Just because swimming is a sport that allows men and women to compete at the same competitions, does not mean that all is equal. Sexism in swimming is not just a gender issue but a global issue.

- Megan Armitage

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