Swimming for Social Change: Sarah Peck’s Birthday Swim

At 5:00 am on Saturday, September 22, 2012, when most Americans were still sleeping, writer and designer Sarah Peck climbed into a boat making its way to Alcatraz. Less than two hours later, Peck slipped into the frigid water and began swimming steadily from Alcatraz to San Francisco. An early morning swim in 55-degree water might seem like an unusual way to celebrate one’s 29th birthday. To make the event more memorable, Peck swam the distance wearing nothing but a swim cap. Why?

Sarah Peck swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco, September 2012. Photo from her blog, It Starts With.

She embarked on the swim to raise money for charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Several major nonprofits sponsor marathon runs, walks, or swimming races to generate funds for charity. Swim Across America coordinates a swim across the San Francisco Bay to raise money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment.

The difference is, most swimmers undertaking the 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco for charity (or any reason) wear wetsuits—the water temperature in the Bay hovers around 55 degrees.

Why did Peck swim nude in frigid, murky water? To make a point. After learning that 800 million human beings on the planet don’t have access to clean water Peck committed herself to making a difference. She set a goal of raising $29,000 to bring safe water to others.

Sarah Peck’s pledge, August 1, 2012. Photo from It Starts With.

Peck publicized the idea on her blog, It Starts With, boldly asking readers to forgo a bottle of wine or a take-out meal to donate to the cause of clean water. She reasoned that if 1000 people donated $29, she’d reach her goal. “It will be freezing. I will be very, very cold. But a little cold and a little bay muck is nothing compared to the lives lived on other countries in this world.” She promised that if she raised $29,000, she would embark on the swim wearing nothing but her birthday suit. And she did it.

In a nation where clean, cold water–often enhanced with vitamins–is available at nearly every corner convenience store, it is difficult to imagine having to walk five miles for potable water as some individuals must. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, diseases associated with unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions caused by lack of clean water kill more people worldwide annually than all forms of violence–even war. Young children are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by unsafe water. Sarah Peck swam to help change that.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie’s Images, ltd., London.

Though she may not have realized it, Peck is following in the footsteps of other extraordinary women from past decades who used a passion for swimming to raise money to help others in need. Mercedes Gleitze, an eighteen-year-old typist in London, became the first woman swimmer to attract front page headlines in American newspapers when she announced her intent to attempt to swim the English Channel in 1922 (more on Gleitze to follow in subsequent posts).

American journalists reported favorably on Gleitze as the “beautiful London stenographer” in the “scanty swimsuit” who saved her money and tried seven times over five years before successfully swimming the English Channel in 1927. Like Peck 80 years later, Gleitze dedicated the money she raised from swimming to improving living conditions for others. Gleitze, a fascinating woman, swam dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Cook Straits of New Zealand and the Dardanelles to raise funds to help the destitute in London.

Though Gleitze earned celebrity status among her contemporaries, she’s been largely forgotten, even by historians, today. Maybe Sarah Peck, who followed Gleitze’s example of swimming to raise money to help others, will help change that.

Peck modestly acknowledged that her swim wouldn’t secure clean water for 800 million people. But her accomplishment of raising nearly $30,000 from over 400 people–in only three months–proves that working together, like-minded people can make a positive difference in the world. “Swim for it.”

Swimwear to Shape Bodies and Minds?

Retro swimsuit styles are resurfacing. Are past cultural attitudes about women being revived as well?

The 2013 line of Lisa Blue Swimwear modeled during the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week, Miami Beach, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

At the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week showcasing 2013 styles, Lisa Burke–designing for the Australian brand Lisa Blue–was one of several prominent designers who drew inspiration from patterns and styles of 1950s and 1960s.

The 2013 bathing suits resemble those worn by pinup girls of the past–with a twist. Some manufacturers are designing swimsuits from high-tech compression fabrics to shape and enhance “feminine silhouettes.” Curvallure, the latest line by the American brand Jantzen, utilizes Lycra® Beauty–a fabric engineered to provide the “newest evolution of shaping” in its full body control swimwear. Jantzen’s new shaping suits feature built-in push-up bras–to enhance cup sizes up to DD–and slimming panels to compress the rest of the body. Jantzen officials claim that new suits provide “what confident women of today want from their swimwear”–presumably more cleavage, flatter stomachs, smaller bums.

Aesthetically–as a fan of 1950s fashions–the revived swimsuit styles appeal to me. As a woman who loves to swim but feels increasing self-conscious of jiggling as she ages, the compressing suits intrigue me. But beneath intrigue lurks concern and mild uneasiness: Are these new slimming suits so different from the constrictive girdles of the past? Does the return to retro fashion reflect a revival of previous conservative attitudes about women’s place in society?

A global consumer swimwear study commissioned by INVISTA, a corporation whose brands cover products ranging from polymers and chemical intermediates to fibers and fabrics–like Lycra and Spandex–revealed that in addition to comfort and shaping performance, women want “more emotional satisfaction from their swimwear.”

Emotional satisfaction–from swimsuits? Really?

Purchasing swimwear from socially responsible companies might produce a feeling of satisfaction. Some swimsuit brands contribute financially to environmental protection: the Australian company, Lisa Blue, for instance, donates 25% of net profits to protecting dolphins and whales. Others promote their commitment to sustainability. The small Pennsylvania-based company Aqua Green manufactures fashionable “Eco Swim” bathing suits made from Repreve, a brand of high-quality yarn engineered from 100% recycled materials. Haute couture designer Linda Loudermilk created a luxury eco swimwear line made entirely from compostable material.

But the emphasis of mainstream, multi-million dollar corporations, like Jantzen, on designing swimsuits from technologically-engineered shaping material suggests that swimwear conglomerates equate women’s “emotional satisfaction” not with philanthropy but with body image. And not just any body image–but a slimmer version of the traditional bombshell idealized in the post-WWII era.

Consider this image featured in Jantzen’s 2013 new collection catalog.

Featured swimsuit from Jantzen’s 2013 collection.

The model, sporting Jantzen’s signature classic red, is positioned in paradise with erect palm fronds silhouetted against a background of sparkling blue seas. A breeze lifts her long blond hair as she caresses a classical statue with a near orgasmic look on her face. What is the underlying message here? That her ecstasy is induced from wearing the Jantzen swimsuit?

Historically, Jantzen commissioned artists to illustrate eye-catching advertising campaigns that visually associated its swimsuits with a desirable lifestyle and often featured women as centerpieces for visual consumption. Consider the similarities between Jantzen’s 2013 image and this ad of Jantzen’s Red Diving Girl, illustrated by C. Coles Phillips in 1921.

Jantzen advertisement illustrated by C. Coles Phillips, Life magazine, 1921.

Like the 2013 image, this ad situates a young woman in the foreground, with swimsuit hugging her slim but curvaceous figure. Jantzen’s trademarked Red Diving Girl presents herself to the viewer as she scans the horizon for something–or someone. In the background, among balustrades with lush plants that suggest tropical luxury, a swimsuit-clad man surveys the Diving Girl from behind. The text notes, “moments of relaxation between swims–yours, if you wear a Jantzen.”

While the 1921 ad notes the suit’s functionality as swimwear–“no loose skirts or ‘trappings’ to impede swimming”–the 2013 ads present the swimsuit as a means of showcasing the female body. The woman is posed passively and seductively–a sexual object. The video Jantzen uses to showcase its 2013 collection features closeups of a pouting blond’s mid section reminiscent of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue. What message does it send when swimwear companies eroticize women in swimsuits–especially when their customers are real women whose body types don’t resemble the model’s?

The media bombards us with images of super models who represent the ideal woman’s body. Most women can never attain that impossible ideal naturally. But starting with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue each February, magazines, network news and blogs feature strategies, new diets and exercise programs promising to tone muscle, shrink cellulite and help women to be “jiggle free” in their bathing suits. Americans face a very serious cultural problem of obesity but offer these articles emphasize not health but “looking sexy” in a swimsuit. Even websites like WebMD offer women–not men–tips on how to prepare physically and psychologically–for swimsuit season.

In our culture, the diet and beauty industries profit enormously from  reinforcing women’s physical insecurities. Each year advertisers promote new creams, pills, foods, and constricting shape wear to help women conform–literally–to an idealized vision of physical perfection. Advertisements create a hyper-awareness of women’s bodies prompting feelings of inadequacy and shame in those whose appearance deviates from the ideal.

From the start, Jantzen’s advertising campaigns for women’s swimwear underscored female sexuality and depicted an idealized lifestyle–one in which consumption of products produced happiness. The swimsuit looks attractive on the beautiful model and the model appears so joyous or sexy—that must somehow translate to the consumer. We expect this from advertising.

But such sexually-charged advertising coupled with the use of restrictive fabric to control women’s bodies is troubling as it correlates to larger issues of controlling women in our culture. In America, as the presidential election draws near, some politicians have uttered shocking remarks about women. In August, Missouri’s Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin uttered the now infamous line: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In mid-September, when interviewing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who may enter the gubernatorial race, the Chicago Sun-Times asked whether she could serve as governor and still raise her kids. Outraged by the sexist question, “Name it. Change it.” has launched a petition against the Sun-Times.

What does this have to do with new swimwear styles? On the surface, it may appear to have little connection. But in the past, fashion trends correlate directly to women’s social role. It prompts the question: does the return to retro fashions and prominent use of technology to shape women’s bodies reflect a deeper desire to control women culturally?

Can a Swimsuit Build Confidence in Men? The Long and Short of Styles (Part 1)

One sweltering July day in 1940, a group of young swimmers in South Boston staggered out of the surf. While lounging on the beach some lowered the swimsuit straps from their shoulders, rolling their tops to their waistlines to bask in sunshine.

Police promptly arrested them for indecent exposure. From 1910 through the 1920s, women’s swimwear altered drastically–from long full woolen dresses to tight one-piece suits–but conservatives reluctantly accepted the change and police frequently arrested young women for violating public decency laws (more on that to come).

Advertisement for men’s and women’s swimwear, Vogue, 1930.

But the swimmers arrested for being topless in 1940 were men. Surprised?

Today, we expect men to swim in some type of suit bottom–full trunks, fitted trunks, jammers, mini Speedo briefs, or high tech new compression suits (more on that to follow). Whatever the style of swimsuit, Americans accept that men will swim and sunbath topless. But, in the scope of history, our culture sanctioned shirtless swimming for men a relatively short time ago.

Los Angeles rescinded its ordinance against shirtless swimsuits in 1929 and the Vogue ad illustrates how men rolled the tops of one-piece suits to expose their backs and chests. But most US cities retained and enforced rules prohibiting men from being topless in public—even lying face down on the beach.

Pattern for men’s swimsuit, Utopia Yarn Book, circa 1910. Courtesy Peggy, Iva Rose Reproductions.

Initially in America, men–like women–wore heavy swimsuits made from wool or flannel—materials known to insulate from cold. Most women sewed or knitted swimsuits for themselves and their families from patterns published in magazines. A typical men’s swimsuit required six hanks of yarn–more than many  contemporary sweaters.

In 1913, members of the Portland (Oregon) Rowing Club complained to John A. Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, the owners of the Portland Knitting Company (PKC), that their homemade suits felt too heavy and fitted poorly. They inquired if PKC could create a snug and stretchy swimsuit–mimicking the one-piece suits worn by Olympians and serious competitive swimmers like Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels.

Olympic medalists Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels with E. J. Giannini, manager of New York Athletic Club, 1904. Section of photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Both swimmers were legendary sports figures and heroes of the era. After the 1908 Games, Daniels held the highest number of Olympic medals won by an American in swimming until Mark Spitz in 1972. Young men idolized him and hoped to imitate him–if not in swimming, at least in style and confidence.

Zehntbauer and Jantzen developed a one-piece suit knitted with lighter-weight wool in a tight rib stitch that provided elasticity, allowing the suit mold to the body and conform to movement. The suits became popular locally–men reported swimming faster which bolstered confidence–so PKC expanded sales nationwide. In 1918, the company changed its name to Janzten and began manufacturing new form-fitting swimsuits for women as well.

Men continued to wear one-piece swimsuits throughout the 1920s. But Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller helped to forever alter styles of men’s swimwear and social norms in the 1930s. Following his Olympic career, Weissmuller starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. In 1932 he began a long career starring as Tarzan in Hollywood films. He also became the celebrity endorser for B.V.D. swimwear.

Seen as an icon of masculine virility, Weissmuller was wildly popular with women who flocked to see his films and stare appreciatively at his muscular physique. Men, too, favored his films. The primitive and powerful masculinity Tarzan embodied reinforced traditional gender roles—reassuring to a society in flux.

B.V.D. featured Weismsuller in a series of advertisements for their new trunks with the tagline: “B.V.D. swimsuits… improve your stroke . . .and your morale!”  The trunks, called “Samoan briefs,” didn’t sell well instantly, perhaps because laws prohibited men from wearing the trunks in public.

Johnny Weissmuller posed with fellow actor, George O’Brien, circa 1935. Photo from Brian’s Drive in Theater.

But advertising research revealed that men wanted to copy Weissmuller’s style and swagger. The average man might never resemble him physically, but he could purchase a B.V.D. swimsuit and–ads insinuated–purchase a piece of confidence by boldly sporting the new style. Realizing that conservatives needed to be persuaded to accept the suit, B.V.D. ads underscored Weissmuller’s athleticism to help legitimize its new trunks. Ads stressed that trunks “were designed under the supervision of no less an expert than Johnny Weismuller. They have an exactness of fit and proportion that makes for speedy, effortless swimming.” As Weissmuller’s fame spread, so did cultural acceptance of the standalone trunks—especially in California.

Outside of Hollywood, men continued to be arrested for wearing shirtless suits on public beaches. In Boston, New York and Chicago, women often complained in editorials about the new shirtless trunks for men. Curiously, women weren’t affronted by male nudity but by the appearance of men’s bodies. Accustomed to seeing Johnny Weissmuller’s smooth, tanned chest and lean, muscular physique, women criticized that real men were “anything but handsome with their hairy spindle-shank legs” and chests.

When New York’s municipal beaches allowed shirtless bathing for the first time in 1936, the decision provoked heated protest from women’s groups who told reporters they “had no desire to gaze upon hairy chested men.”  As a culture, we tend to think of beauty standards as applying primarily to women, but as the protests vocalized by groups of women in cities across the US reveal, men are not exempt. And as the publicity photo of Weissmuller and O’Brien illustrates, Hollywood highlighted male physicality and sexuality. However, as a whole, cultural norms do not condition men to associate their self-worth with their appearance.

Steve at Conneaut Lake, PA, 1956.

Beauty pageants like Miss America and Hollywood’s bathing beauty films fused the cultural association between swimsuits and beauty for women by presenting women as docile objects to be admired or evaluated. Hollywood films like the Tarzan series, in contrast, subtly associated the exposure of men’s bodies with heroism, action, and masculine power.

This is not to say that men don’t suffer from insecurity about their bodies but to suggest that advertising and popular films historically used swimsuits to reinforce traditional gender roles. Bathing suit-clad women became passive pinups whereas men in swimming trunks symbolized strength. By the end of the 1940s, the American public embraced shirtless swimming for men. As a young man, my grandfather sported swim trunks at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1956, reflecting a cultural norm. Even the playful pose–flexing his biceps–reflects a larger association between swimsuits and confident action for men.

To be continued.

A Class of Their Own

Have you heard of Jacqueline Freney? The answers I received varied. “Is she a writer?” “Was she the one married to that French diplomat?” “Is she an internet hacker?” While several thought her name sounded familiar, no one–in my admittedly very unscientific poll of a few dozen friends and acquaintances–knew for sure.

My amazing sister, knowing me well enough to intuit that such a pointed question must be related to my research, probably refrained from rolling her eyes as she texted back, “I don’t know, is she a swimmer?”

Jacqueline Freney in the women’s SM7 200m individual medley, Aquatics Centre in East London (World News Australia AAP)

Yes. Jacqueline Freney is a swimmer. The 20-year old Australian won her sixth gold medal in six days, swimming in the Aquatics Centre in East London this summer (and she may very well win an additional medal on the final day).

Why have many Americans not heard of her—besides the fact that she is not an American athlete? Because Jacqueline Freney is swimming in the Paralympic Games and those Games, which started on August 29, 2012, have received scant media attention in America.

In 2008, many criticized the American Olympic Committee for discriminatory actions by providing less financial assistance, smaller training stipends, and fewer free health benefits to Paralympic athletes compared to athletes in other Olympic sports. At the time, New York Times writer Alan Schwarz wrote a thorough and thoughtful exposé on the inequitable treatment of Paralympic athletes. Ironically, four years later, not only do the financial benefits remain uneven, news coverage has fallen off as well. Since the Games began last week, only one article about them has appeared in the Times. Freney’s name appears nowhere in the paper–for either the 2008 or 2012 Paralympic Games. No wonder few Americans have heard of her.

Freney’s story is compelling. Born with cerebral palsy diplegia, which restricts the movement of legs and lower body–making coordination and balance especially challenging–Freney was only two when doctors informed her parents that she would spend her life in a wheelchair.  Undaunted, by physicians’ predictions, Freney’s family taught her to swim. Her father, Michael, and grandfather, Peter, who were themselves competitive swimmers and coaches with access to swimming pools, coached her. Freney credits the two for exerting the most influence in her swimming career.

Freney won her sixth gold medal in women’s S7 50m freestyle. With one more day to go in the 2012 Paralympic swimming competition, she stands poised to surpass the record set by fellow Australian, Siobhan Paton, who won six gold medals at the Sydney Paralympics. Just behind Freney in the women’s S7 100m freestyle final were American swimmer, Cortney Jordan, who won the silver medal and Ukrainian swimmer, Ani Palian, who took bronze.

Unlike athletes in other sports, before competing, all Paralympians undergo a physical assessment by international classifiers who are tasked with ensuring that the athletes are competing at similar ability levels. Swimmers with physical disabilities are classified according to several factors including strength, coordination, range of movement, and limb length. Swimmers have 3 classifications based on visual impairment and 10 classifications based on physical impairment–the latter ranging from S1 to S10. Swimmers in class S1 have the greatest impairment while those at S10 have the least. In S7, the class in which Freney and Jordan compete, paralysis on one side of the body is common.

Cortney Jordan, like Freney, is 20, and was also born with cerebral palsy–a form that prevents her from feeling on her left side. She began swimming as physical therapy and competed in the Paralympics in Bejing in 2008, winning four medals: one gold, two silver, and a bronze. A resident of Nevada, when interviewed by the Nevada Sun about her disability and swimming before the 2008 Games, Jordan explained, “It kind of feels like I’m complete in the water, so it’s nice.”

Swimming, in many ways, is democratizing. Once submerged in water, physical distinctions–from sexual characteristics to hairstyles to impairments–are temporarily obscured. For many, water also helps–temporarily–diminish chronic pain. In this way, swimming is incredibly freeing. If only the equalizing effects provided by water could extend on land and these athletes could receive equal recognition, assistance and treatment.