Living by fat numbers: Exposure and effect of corporealism in a sporting culture? Stories from three Australian swimmers

Year: 2010

Author: McMahon, Jenny, Penney, Dawn

Type of paper: Refereed paper

This presentation is based on doctoral research which investigates the bodily experiences of myself (McMahon) and two other former swimmers. The focus of this study is to explore the exposure and effect of ‘living by fat numbers’ which first occurred for myself and the two other swimmers within the sporting culture of Australian swimming. This research has two distinctive sections. The first section articulates the stories of experiences of ‘living by fat numbers’ as adolescents within the sporting culture of Australian swimming, striving to achieve corporeal perfection with the intention of enhancing our competitive performance. The second section explores the bodily experiences of the same three participants as adult women, some 10-30 years after being immersed in the Australian swimming culture. This section examines whether myself and the two other participants are still ‘living by fat numbers’, the discourses through which this occurs, and ways in which we can be seen to have challenged the discourses and practices which we experienced as adolescents. The research utilises ‘relational analysis’ (Kirk, 1999) and by ‘connecting the dots’ (Klein, 2000) seeks to explore whether ‘living by fat numbers’ and practices of corporeality as adolescents has had an ‘effect’ on long term wellbeing. The aims of this research project were to articulate the intrinsic and extrinsic ‘living by fat number’ practices experienced by three participants, all of whom participated in the culture of Australian swimming as adolescents, and the subsequent effect of those practices on them, as adolescents and also in post-career, some 10-30 years later. Narrative ethnography (also used by Tedlock, 1991) and autoethnography were found to provide us [myself and the other two participants] with the appropriate space to reveal our knowing and detail our lived experiences in the elite and amateur sporting culture of Australian swimming. The choice and development of the research methodologies related primarily to four considerations which were considered to be imperative in this research: To foreground the swimmers’ voice and the body’s voice in the research; To achieve and maintain highly collaborative relations throughout the research process; To enable the reader to take on and read from the positions and perspectives of the participants, vicariously sharing in their experiences as three adolescent elite swimmers and as 30-40 year old women; and To ensure that the research process had purpose for the participants, with specific recognition that there may be emancipatory potential in this work. In writing associated with this research, stories from the participants are fore grounded as primary data. The stories presented reveal acts of corporeality which led the three participants to ‘live by fat numbers’ as adolescents. These stories also highlight the stress associated with ‘living by fat numbers’ as adolescent girls which subsequently led to self surveillance (Foucault, 1977). The second section highlights that some 10-30 years on from their adolescent experiences and participation in the cultural context of Australian swimming, all three swimmers continue to ‘live by fat numbers’ outside of the context and discourse to which they were first introduced to it. ‘Living by fat numbers’ continues to pervade each of the three participants at meal times and in everyday body practices. Thus, the data is presented as signalling a link between the exposure and effect for these three participants. It is impossible to ignore the interplay between the body, power and knowledge and the effects that culture have on the body and selves both in the short term and long term. Further examination of the effects of a corporeal approach to the body by looking at the obsessive body practices of contemporary culture and in particular the micro-culture of Australian swimming, is undoubtedly needed.