Trying not to care about the hair

I’ve loved swimming ever since I was a kid who visited North Sydney Olympic Pool. And if you’ve never been, you should – it’s right next to the Sydney harbour, almost underneath the Harbour Bridge. It’s a pool where lots of world records have been set by former greats of Australian swimming, whose photos adorn the corridors. And every time I enter the water, I imagine myself as an Olympian, albeit one of those Eric the Eel-style novelty entrants who hails from a country where they don’t have pools.
The best way to get fit, in my view, is by doing laps of a 50m-long pool. No other form of exercise so quickly becomes a question of survival. In my case, the instinct to avoid drowning kicks in after about the first twenty metres. You can push your body harder, I’ve found, by tricking it into thinking that you’re swimming to shore to save your life. And I’m still a little scared of the deep end, which makes me all the more eager to struggle to the safety of the wall.

I returned to the pool on the weekend after months of absence. That first swim back is always a humbling experience. There’s no other form of exercise fit that requires you so publicly to showcase your lack of fitness as a precursor to doing something about it.

After getting changed and looking disappointedly in the mirror, it was with a somewhat heavy heart, not to mention other elements of my physique, that I slouched timidly onto the pool deck. It was a great day for a swim, being unseasonably hot, and my local council pool was crammed with frolicking families. They splashed and screamed as I sidled past – and I don’t think the screams were a reaction to my appearance, although I can’t be sure.

Earlier in the year, I was going to the pool two or three times a week, and had gradually worked up to the point where I could swim a kilometre, albeit with regular pauses to pant more frantically than a husky in the middle of summer.

I’m too embarrassed to admit how many laps I managed – let’s just say that the number of laps was in single figures. I felt humbled. Yet again, I had abandoned my progress towards fitness, forcing myself to start over again. For me, exercising has always been a game of snakes and ladders, only where the ladders have been replaced by even more snakes.

After a few laps, I was standing at the shallow end, lungs desperately trying to oxygenate my exhausted body. I wanted to do another pair of laps, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me. As I was trying to muster the willpower, I looked across to the next lane, where a much buffer gentleman in his 40s or 50s was preparing to take off for his next effortless lap. I smiled at him, my countenance acknowledging that one of us was a fair bit better at this whole swimming lark than the other.

He grinned back and asked me a question. “Did you have to pay extra, mate?”

This confused me. I had been coming to this pool long enough to be familiar with the pricing scheme, and while there are a tempting range of discounts for frequent visitors, I had never heard of any surcharge.

Having neither any clue what he was going on about, nor sufficient breath at my disposal for a detailed follow-up question, I opted to cover my bases with a non-specific “Huh?”.

Smirking, he jabbed a finger in my direction. “Because of the hair!” he said.

I winced. Yes, okay, I am unusually hairy. Yes, this is relatively visible when I am clad in a swimming costume. But no, they do not impose an additional charge for excess body hair.

How would that even work, anyway? Why would an extra charge be required? I’ve racked my brain and I can’t come up with anything. If you’re going to insult me, random sir, please take the time to do it in a way that makes sense.

The pool guy could tell I was somewhat taken aback. He immediately backpedalled. “I’m pretty hairy myself,” he said, untruthfully. Sure, he had a little bit of hair on display, but there was no doubting which of the two of us was better evidence of the theory of evolution.

I smiled back, pretending not to be offended, following the old schoolyard maxim of laughing off slurs so as not to let people know that they’d cut you to the quick.

“I’m sorry, that was inappropriate,” he said.

Yes, yes it was, I thought. But I just smiled more widely and said “Don’t worry about it, mate”.

Ever since I was in high school, I’ve been copping comments about being hairy. In my Year 12 yearbook, more than half the comments from the people with whom I’d spent the past six years referenced it. I thought they might have chosen to remark on my hilarity, or my friendliness, or hey, even my nerdiness – but no, it seemed that when they thought of me, that the first thing that came to mind. Oh, except for the one guy who called me ugly.

For some reason, hairiness is not a taboo topic for personal comments. I’ve always wondered whether people view it as a helpful observation, as though I’d somehow missed the fact that my body has been covered in copious hair since my adolescence. Or perhaps they’re just trying to be funny, which is a difficult comedy challenge when their only audience is me.

Overtly sexist, racist and homophobic comments tend to be taboo nowadays, except perhaps in certain circles within Federal Parliament. But snide remarks about people’s appearance seem to be more socially acceptable – Germaine Greer certainly seemed to think so on Q&A. I’ve made them in the past myself – they can be low-hanging fruit for jokes – but having been on the receiving end has shown me that they’re best avoided.

The hurtful thing comments about your appearance is that they mock a characteristic that you can’t change, and I’m not counting one friend’s intending-to-be-helpful suggestion that I get whole-body electrolysis. Such comments often zero in on the thing we feel most uncomfortable about ourselves, the thing that we are most bothered by when we look in the mirror. Especially if, let’s say, that mirror is at a swimming pool, and you’re wearing a swimming costume.

It would be good if people like me who are blessed with comment-worthy physical characteristics could develop thicker skin, of course. But it would be better, from my perspective, if random strangers could stop making comments about the layer of hair that is atop it.