The ‘F’ Word

Each week at a Melbourne swimming pool, fat girls from all walks of life are donning their floral swimming caps to scull, dive and flip their way past perceptions of what bigger bodies are capable of. These ladies are members of the Melbourne chapter of the ‘Aquaporkos’, a national organization of fat, femme synchronized swimmers.

Kelli Jean Drinkwater, a model, performer and fat activist, founded the Aquaporkos in Sydney four years ago. A self-confessed mermaid, Drinkwater combined her love of camp synchronized swimming videos as a child with a drive to continue the conversation around fat politics, and create a platform for women to be “Fat, Fierce and Aquatic”.

Drinkwater’s interest in fat activism began at art school over a decade ago. As a photography student, she noted that the images surrounding her did not represent her body, nor how she wanted to perceive herself. She began to model for her own photography as an exploration of fat representation and body politics. Her biggest motivation was creating positive images of bigger bodies. Her work eventually brought her to London, where she spent a decade modeling and collaborating with a number of fashion designers to recreate the image of bigger bodies as powerful, fierce and sexy. Drinkwater returned to Australia to continue the conversation surrounding fat politics, and it was then that Aquaporko was born.

Fat synchronised swimming has existed since the 90s, beginning with a group called the Padded Lilies in Oakland, California. The group was founded by fat activist Shirley Sheffield in 1997, and today stands by the principles of “synchronised swimming, body-acceptance, fat-empowerment and fitness at any size”. The group knew that their formation was a political act from the start by refusing to be held back by stereotypes and bias about the capabilities and accepted activities for bigger bodies. The Padded Lilies, and their messages of size-acceptance and empowerment achieved significant fame throughout the US, and their legacy can be seen in the Aquaporkos in Australia today.

Jackie Wykes is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in Fat Studies, and also the founder of the Melbourne chapter of the Aquaporkos. She was inspired after hearing Drinkwater speak at the first Australian Fat Studies conference at Macquarie University in 2010. According to Wykes, “Aquaporko is intrinsically political. It’s about visibility – a group of fat women in flowery bathing caps doing synchronised kicks in the pool is pretty unmissable. It’s also about movement and strength and physical skill and learning that our bodies – which we’re told over and over again are weak and flawed and pathetic – are actually capable. That we can do things that are physically difficult, and that we can do them in a way that is beautiful and elegant and fun and wonderful.”

Wykes is right. Synchronised swimming demands strength, endurance, grace, flexibility and exceptional breath control. While the Porkos are far from being selected for Rio 2014, their routines would prove extremely challenging for most, regardless of size. Even the simplest of moves (such as The Boost, where you propel yourself head first out of the water without touching the bottom) require a significant amount of physical strength to accomplish. Drinkwater states that all of the Porkos have noticed improvements in their strength, stamina and flexibility. The key realization for most, however, is that their fat bodies are capable of things that they and others thought impossible to achieve, dispelling myths that “all fat people are lazy” and providing a key embodiment of what fat activism is all about.

The mental health benefits of Aquaporko cannot be understated. Drinkwater states that it is an “incredibly invaluable thing for a lot of members to be able to gain confidence from being en masse and able to walk out to the pool with a lot of other fat girls…[to] have a lot of fun and enjoy themselves and their bodies and not be ashamed”. It allows members to have fun while reclaiming a space that is traditionally isolating and traumatizing for fat bodies. For many, it was the first time they had worn swimwear in years.

In 2012, the Melbourne chapter of the Aquaporkos began preparing for their first public performance. It was this move that inspired Drinkwater to being filming her first documentary – ‘Aquaporko!- – recently premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival. The film follows the Melbourne Porkos as they prepare for their debut, documenting both the group and personal journeys of many of the members. The film won the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, and is now gearing up for an international festival tour.

Drinkwater is astonished at the overwhelmingly positive response to the film. She believes that a key point of interest for many is the film’s agenda of reopening the discussion of fat politics. Though not without its critics, Drinkwater believes that the film provides a counter viewpoint to discussions of “fatness”. She argues, “we live in a world where we are dominated by this particular idea of beauty and health that is nowhere near people’s reality. People are excited and refreshed by the critical eye on what motivates the weight loss and diet industry and the social representation of acceptable bodies. ”

In a time where the discussion of fat bodies in Australia is heavily weighted towards health issues and obesity, groups such as the Aquaporkos provide a refreshing alternative view – and as Drinkwater states, “fat politics really affects everyone, regardless of their size. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have personal hang-ups about their size, or what they look like. We all have interesting relationship with their body, which means that everyone is able to contribute to the conversation”.

For information about screenings of Aquaporko! Visit www.aquaporkofilm.com.