Men fear man boobs and cankles just like women fear cellulite and back fat, says swimming instructor Sydne Didier.
Every morning of the week, a different man comes to my house at his appointed time. Keith is my 7 o’clock on Monday mornings, Otto is my 9. Brian comes on Thursdays, and James on Tuesdays.
From our first meeting, we are barely clothed. I stand before them in an unflattering bit of lycra regardless of how cold I am, how bloated I feel, or how much that particular swimsuit gives me a wedgie. Often, I have forgotten to shave the day before.
The men are similarly exposed, shirtless and sometimes hairy. Our imperfections are completely visible to one another. My cellulite and their love handles. The occasional pimple. The unclipped toenails. Pale winter New England skin.
I am a woman in my 40’s, the men in their teens through their 50’s.
Our bodies are never perfect.
I teach private swimming lessons at my indoor home pool. Just my student and me. Alone. Together. And practically naked.
From the beginning, my lessons have attracted a wide variety of students. Some have no swimming ability at all. Others are already competitive endurance athletes. Many are fearful and I have spent hours assuring new clients that it’s safe to put their faces in the water.
No matter their swimming ability, all lessons share one simple fact: Swimming requires wearing a swimsuit.
My lessons often begin with an acknowledgement of how strange this is and sometimes, I say to my new students “I know it’s completely weird that we don’t know each other and are now undressed together.”
Their nervous laughter eases the awkwardness of the intimacy that comes with my type of lessons. Rather than the anonymity of the YMCA, where the pool holds swimmers at all levels, lessons with me mean full disclosure of abilities and full admission of fears and reluctance. It means telling me that they can’t tread water, or that they are afraid they will sink.
It means they must trust me to hold the secrets of their bodies.
Often, men start their lessons in board shorts, fabric ballooning around them, too self-conscious to wear a proper lap swim suit. The pre-teen boys I teach are the same. They arrive in shorts with huge pockets, water filling them and spilling out through grommeted holes, the same suits they will wear when building castles at the beach.
I give them instructions on what kind of suit to buy, tell them how differently they will move through the water, and gently encourage them to feel safe with me. I tell them that the right suit will help them feel like a swimmer.
Eventually, they come to their lesson without hesitation, appropriately attired. And their new confidence shows in their swimming. But this needs time and I do not rush them.
It takes a certain kind of man to take physical instruction from a woman and in that way, the men I teach are unique. They are open and without machismo energy or they would not choose to learn from me.
Sometimes, I need to touch them. I am always careful to ask first. I might hold their stomach so they can feel their body position in the water and learn to balance, feeling their core engage. I ask them to relax their legs and to let me hold their ankles and kick for them, helping them to build their muscle memory. Swimming requires relaxing your body, releasing the tension that comes as we try to power our way through the water instead of working with the element we have entered. This is not an easy lesson and letting go of control is hard.
Sometimes, I stand behind them on deck, moving their arms for them and asking them to rotate their hips, the two of us air swimming together like we are doing a goofy poolside dance.
My touch is clinical, like a swim doctor, but I wonder how their their partners or wives would feel to imagine me alone with their loved one, holding them as they float or standing behind them close enough to hug.
When I was younger, the idea that I would have spent my days this way would have horrified me. Terrified me. Made me feel nauseous with anxiety. Then, I wore clothes several sizes too large and at summer camp, was lauded for my ability to change my entire outfit beneath a towel without exposing one inch of skin.
When I was 26, something changed. On a whim, I signed up for a beginning swimming class. On my first day, I again wrapped myself in a towel, covered my body as best as possible, went to the pool and slipped into the water at the last second.
The class was my gateway drug and soon, I went to hour after hour of open lap swim. I joined a swim team, competed in triathlons, and started to participate in longer open water swims. I started to burn through at least a suit a month from logging so many hours in the water. Sometimes, I didn’t even remember to bring a towel. The water made everything better.
My feelings about my body changed. I felt powerful. I had become a swimmer, an athlete, a woman who wore a bathing suit without thinking about it.
I’d be lying if I said that I am always happy with my body. That’s never going to be true. But now, my body is more than something to be hidden and my strength is something to be proud of.
That’s the feeling I want to give those men, and women, who come to my house each week, and it’s part of what inspired me to start instructing.
As a woman, I understand my female clients. I know my judgment of my body and the ways I scrutinize and chastise myself in front of the mirror. I know the ways women can be competitive with one another when it comes to our bodies.
When I started teaching, I knew it was part of my job to assure my female clients that I don’t care about stretch marks or the way their thighs look, that I am not measuring their body against mine and they don’t have to either. Instead, I help them to learn about their strength, and explain how swimming is not about how they look but their relationship with the water.
I remember one woman who was surprised that I was in a swimsuit too. “I’m asking you to be vulnerable here,” I explained to her, “How can I do that if I’m standing on the deck in sweats and a t-shirt?” And she agreed that having me similarly exposed made her feel more relaxed.
Learning to work with men, however, required realizing that they needed the same kind of reassurance. They also need to know that my pool is a safe place. They fear man boobs and cankles just like women fear cellulite and back fat, and teaching men has reminded me that we are all filled with uncertainties about our bodies.
Like my female students, men spend part of their first lesson on caveats about their bodies.
“I’ve been working on cutting out carbs so I can lose some of this.”
“My legs have always been too skinny. I think that’s why they don’t float.”
“I need to lift more so I can get some upper body strength.”
I let them talk. I let them share the inner monologue we all carry with us. I listen while they reveal their feelings about their near nakedness. Then, we slip into the water and start to swim.
Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a memoir about her family experience with international adoption from South Korea. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.