Patriarchy in the Pool

Slow Guy
His body, suspended and lopsided, tilts and sends shoots of bubbles either side. His trunk rolls at a different pace to his legs, which lag behind and act as brakes to his front half. His head rotates upwards as more bubbles are pushed into the water, bobbing around, clinging to a hand and then dancing up to the surface. His legs go slack and sway, like the movements of a doll shaken in a dog’s mouth, played in slow motion. His hands move stubbily, searching for (but not finding) an elegant arc. At the surface he slaps and sucks the air, but underneath all is quiet – just the gentle fizz of bubbles against my face and the irregular motion of wavelets that reach me.

I have a lot of time to think about patriarchy when I’m swimming in my local pool. Sometimes it’s when I’m stuck behind Slow Guy, amazed that he can struggle and pummel the water so much with so little forward movement. I try swimming with just my arms, pulling my motionless legs slowly behind me, pondering the forces that play on him as he reaches the end, fails to notice he’s holding everyone up, and turns to complete another length inefficiently.

Sneak In Front Guy
He waits at one end, quietly observing the lane. He works on the correct positioning of his goggles, takes a sip of water from a sports bottle, sometimes does some stretches. He settles so that he seems completely still, a groyne which bears its tide mark. Then, just as I’m nearing the end and preparing to turn, Sneak In Front Guy flies away in a funnel of water and swims off, slightly slower than me, a hand’s breadth ahead.

There’s a lane etiquette that seems written and upheld almost exclusively by women. It involves observing the swimmers before getting in, choosing your lane to match your speed, noticing if anyone is close behind you and – if someone behind is faster – pausing at one end so that they can overtake. Sometimes men use this etiquette too, and sometimes women break it, but it’s rare.

Overtaking Guy
His body is equipped with a watch and timer and he always does a neat underwater turn at each end, sleek as an otter, head over heels. He has a beautiful front crawl which is at its most efficient when he’s under a length behind me. He sprints at the overtake, pushing waves of water diagonally across the lane, then seems to relax and slow until he spots another person to pass up ahead.

Patriarchy is a force on the women in the pool too, causing us to position ourselves as overly submissive. We make a show of our lack of speed, using slower strokes, or ostentatiously allow slower people to pass us to set a good example. Either that or it pushes us into sudden bursts of competition, racing others with violent jerks of our legs, or it leaves us to froth quietly, imagining the water around us boiling with suppressed anger.

After an unsatisfactory length pursued by Overtaking Guy, I froth. The entire pool evaporates and all the swimmers drop to the ground, gyrating their hands and legs in positions that seemed natural just a few moments ago. They look around at each other, suddenly embarrassed by their tight, lycra hides and aware not only of the differences between their bodies but also their uncomfortable similarities. They remove their goggles, dust themselves off (though they are perfectly clean) and, with the assistance of a confused lifeguard, struggle their way out of the pool.

They march one by one to the showers before looking down and realising that they are already perfectly dry. Some decide to shower anyway, others frown and head to their lockers, noticing the dry rustle that replaces the usual slapping noise under their feet. They all leave separately, having covered themselves with cotton, polyester and wool mixes, shod themselves and arranged their steam-dried hair. It’s only when they arrive home that they wonder what strange event could have suddenly evaporated the pool, and whether it will ever happen again.