For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to bodies of water. The weight of my body would try as hard as it could to sink me to the bottom. But my head, barely above water, would fight to keep me afloat no matter what.
Being in the water, where my legs scissor-kicked beneath me and my head bobbed away, reminded me that my body, in all its clumsy glory, had found its safe haven. In the shallow end, all my troubles would melt away. Water was therapeutic and soothing.
I later found out that the “melting” is almost literal. Because water makes you buoyant, it can also take the stress off your joints. And Aquafit is now an activity I recommend to everyone, no matter their age.
I could sink into the blue depths of the pool and get lost in my thoughts. It was a place where I was able to stay calm and focused on the green-blue water that surrounded me. A place where I could just breathe and focus on my body in motion.
It’s true that hydrotherapy has benefits. Research has shown that 1 hour of head-out-of-water immersion in water can actually be therapeutic for your body. More specifically, it can help with pain, bone density, joint mobility, strength, and balance.
But for someone living in a fat body like mine, this feeling can be an awakening.
You may have seen or heard about the viral scene in “Shrill,” a Hulu series based on Lindy West’s best-selling book of the same name. On a cold day in March, I saw that episode, written by Samantha Irby. The protagonist, Annie, attends what many on the internet have called a “fat babe pool party” with her roommate and good friend, Fran.
At first, Annie cautiously circles the pool, observing all the confident fat folks of every shape, size, and background. They’re sharing space and wearing skin-baring bathing suits — and most of all, they are joyful.
For the first time, Annie sees bodies like hers and throws caution to the wind. She jumps into the pool, joining a sea of other fat babes just like her.
We’ve all experienced a moment like Annie’s at some point in our lives: that moment of feeling fully seen, being fully accepted, or letting go of a previous fear. For Annie, it was a bit of a revolution — just as it was for me.
I’d experienced my own fat babe pool party in 2014 at Hanlan’s Point, a clothing-optional beach in Toronto. A local plus-size fashion blogger had organized the event. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I wanted to be surrounded by others just like me. Of course, I packed my one-piece bathing suit just in case.
To get to Hanlan’s Point, I had to take a ferry to Toronto Island, which is surrounded by sand dunes and secluded from the eyes of passersby. When we got there, my fellow fat babes fearlessly stripped down to their bikinis. Some got fully naked and embraced the full beach’s landscape.
It was a moment — not just for me but for everyone. That moment and the positive atmosphere we shared in the water.
We laughed and held space for one another. We shared our stories, both positive and negative. Our bodies jiggled and wiggled. I felt awakened as I stripped down to my bathing suit and somehow felt not so ashamed of my body.
This day became a lightning rod for the rest of my life and demonstrated to me that the water, no matter where it was, always held space for me, no matter my size.
According to The Huffington Post, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance began hosting fat-positive pool parties in the 1970s, during its annual conference.
Thanks to social media and blogging platforms like Tumblr and LiveJournal, the body positivity and fat acceptance movement began to spread. One of the original fat pool parties was Chunky Dunk in Portland, Oregon. And sure enough, other fat-positive pool parties began to sprout up across North America.
I remember when Essie Golden hosted her Golden Confidence pool party in New York City in 2016. I did everything in my power to be there, to be surrounded by other fat babes and embrace their incredible energy. I was so sad when I couldn’t make it.
And while I haven’t heard of any repeated organized gatherings like that one on Hanlan’s Point here in Toronto, I’ve come to realize something: Pool parties aren’t the only places my body feels safe.
My friend decided to invite me to my first water spa in 2014. The spa had a full-on water circuit that included a warm Dead Sea salt pool, a cold plunge pool, an infrared sauna, a hot Epsom salts pool, and a steam room.
Then my friend mentioned that I could go into the waters either with a swimsuit… or naked.
I nervously peeled off my clothes in the locker room, wondering if people would judge me. But when I looked around the spa, I saw women of all shapes and sizes sitting naked and frolicking shame-free on the deck. I decided to, for lack of a better term, take the plunge.
I stepped into the water, the temperature alerting all my senses. Women perched around the pool in twos and threes, chatting in low voices with their bodies confident and nonchalant. I saw round bellies, thick thighs, wide hips, and unapologetic women letting their bones rest.
As I let the temperature of the water wash over me, I felt something I had never felt before. My mind and all the muscles in my body felt at ease and fully relaxed. The whole experience felt tranquil and meditative, better than any yoga class I’d been to.
But the best part: There was no judgment.
In winter 2019, a friend invited me to a body-positive, queer- and trans-inclusive Aquafit class. It was the kind of class I’d seen older women at my old gym going to, so instinctively I wondered, “But aren’t those classes for older women?” I felt a bit like an asshole for asking. I never thought the classes would be for me.
Of course, I was wrong.
The class was on a Saturday morning. We began to move around in the water at an upbeat pace, and I could see our bodies and all the wobbly bits move in unison to the beat of Carly Rae Jepsen. Honestly, it was one of the best days of my life.
I started to laugh at how comfortable I felt but also how shockingly intense the workout was. My friend looked over at me and also laughed. “I told you,” they said.
Once again, I was reminded of how the water can truly be a safe haven not just for me but also for my friends. The buoyancy is a neutral place for our bodies, providing comfort and strength. It wasn’t always this way, but the water is where my fat body can just breathe and focus on my motion.
Throughout my life, there have been so many ways that I’ve found my way to the water. But I never understood why. Whenever I filled out intake forms for therapy, they would ask, “How do you relax?” and I would always write, “In bodies of water.”
It felt strange, but water therapy has been around for centuries. What’s good for the ancient Greeks is good enough for me.
And it can be for you too.
Ama Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. You can follow her on Instagram.