Swimming is a popular, benefit-rich activity, but there are social and structural barriers which can make swimming in the city an impossibility for many.
This winter, Friends of Sherbrook Pool (FOSP) and Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA) are responding to this issue by hosting two free, one-time, low-barrier swim nights aimed at accommodating and celebrating all bodies.
Rune Breckon, one of the co-organizers from SNA, hopes the events will build a sense of belonging for anyone who may feel unsafe, uncomfortable or body-conscious in swimming facilities due to unjust social norms, expectations and gender roles.
“We want folks to know that everyone’s bodies, boundaries, capacities, experiences, feelings, mobility aids and/or devices, names and/or pronouns will be honoured.”
The first swim night, The All Bodies Swim, is open to “anyone who has experienced any kind of barrier to swimming,” Breckon says.
For the organizers, removing barriers means creating a space specifically catered to reducing as much as possible the daily aggressions marginalized people face in their lives.
For example, unwanted staring can be a small but dehumanizing aspect of living in an othered body. In addition to asking participants to refrain from such invasions of privacy, the small-scale nature of the event is intended to protect the swimmers’ well-being by surrounding them with a supportive community.
“It’s really powerful to be in a space with similarly experienced folks,” Breckon says.
Breckon says they are most excited about how these community-specific swim nights will give people a space to celebrate who they are.
The following event, The Trans, Non-Binary and Two-Spirit Swim, is a space specifically for those titular communities.
“I’ve had some trouble since coming out as trans in finding a place to go swimming that I can actually get into,” Bryce Byron, a member of FOSP, explains. “I’ve gone to pools where the only access to the swimming facility is by going through the men’s locker room or the women’s locker room.”
These physical structures which restrict access – such as stairs, narrow seats and gendered washrooms – evidence how marginalized people are excluded from or silenced in the designing of our public spaces.
And if these spaces can be accessed, discomfort and body-shaming often await on the other side.
Byron says zhe is excited to enjoy swimming without having to worry about expectations of what you “should” look like to go swimming.
“I’m excited to swim with a bunch of other people and not feel judged,” Byron says.
The exciting quality these two events posses is the promise of moving beyond the bare minimum of making a space accessible – to making it desirable. More than a space where we can be, this sounds like a place I want to be.
Because typically, in order to carve out space for ourselves, underserved communities are forced to argue our cases, prove our need, display our pain and convince the keyholders to let us in.
But on these two nights, the doors are being thrown open. Through consultation and the work of self-advocates, care has been taken to include and celebrate every body. At Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool, we might just see ourselves reflected in the water.
Mandalyn Unger is a writer and organizer turning over ideas about sustainability, community and radical empathy.
All Bodies Swim Night takes place on Feb. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. Trans, Non-Binary and Two-Spirit Swim Night will take place on March 9 from 8 to 10 p.m. Both events will be held at Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool at 381 Sherbrook St. The building is fully wheelchair accessible and features a chair lift. Change rooms will be gender-neutral.