Nov 302017

All the revelations about inappropriate sexual behavior among so many of the country’s male entertainment and political figures got me thinking about how even as a swim teacher, where we necessarily had to wear next to nothing, we were still able to behave professionally.

And that reminded me of this post I wrote back in law school in response to a poorly-reasoned decision by Judge Kozinski, where he justified needlessly sexualized dresscodes, inequitably burdensome on women, with a throw-away line rooted in an incorrect assumption about what swim teachers wear.

As someone who taught swimming lessons for over twenty years, including up through law school and even a few years thereafter, I decided I was qualified to write the following post disabuse him, and anyone else, of such a view.

Strategic planning, empathy, tailoring one’s communication appropriately for one’s audience: these are all things that any swimming teacher and litigator must be able to do. Think convincing a jury is tough? Try getting a stubborn four year old to put his face in the water…

It also now seems that my alternate career has prepared me for significant constitutional inquiry as well. Note the question recently posed by Judge Kozinski in the en banc hearing of Jespersen v. Harrah’s:

“What if you employed swim [instructors] and you required they wear bathing suits? … I think it’s probably true that women’s bathing suits are more expensive.”

Well as it happens I can tell him a thing or two about that, having been a swimming teacher every summer (save three) since 1989.

Yes, yes we do wear bathing suits, which, as women, are different than those that men wear. Our anatomy happens to be a bit different, so the garments need to be structured a bit differently as well. It may be true in some instances that because more fabric is involved with women’s suits they may cost more than the equivalent men’s versions. However, this isn’t necessarily true. Why just the other day I just saw a women’s Speedo at Marshall’s for $15, likely cheaper than your typical men’s Speedo at the local sports mart. Prices vary based on where you shop and what you buy more than they necessarily vary by the sex of the intended customer. Furthermore, even some men — particularly on swim teams — are now wearing torso-covering swimsuits. And with the risk of sunburns and skin cancer, there’s a greater impetus for both sexes to cover up more skin. Thus the anatomical differences between men and women have increasingly little bearing on the swimming teacher’s uniform.

But indeed, even where there is a disparity between equivalent men’s and women’s suit prices, the facilities where we work often can absorb it by providing the suits as part of the issued uniform. In fact, I’ve worked at pools where the women got the better end of the deal, getting not only their torso-covering bathing suit but also a set of men’s trunks to use as shorts. (Presumably the men could have gotten a woman’s suit with his uniform grant as well, although unlike women and the swim trunks there is likely little constructive use the men could have put a woman’s suit towards.)

However, those instances, where there was a specific uniform requirement, applied only to employees who were also lifeguards. For people who were just swim instructors and not on-duty lifeguards, they simply needed to wear their own generic bathing suit (in one instance the pool required it to be navy, but there was no other requirement beyond that, save a prohibition on string bikinis). So even if instructors purchase a bathing suit in preparation of the teaching job, they will still have a perfectly usable bathing suit that they can use on any other occasion calling for one. If a female instructor happens to spend more on the suit than a male one, she may also have greater occasion to use it, thus amortizing her cost more favorably than the male colleague might.

In sum, with all due respect to Judge Kozinski, it is a bad analogy to compare the uniform requirements of Harrah’s with the uniform requirements of swim instructors. Not only is the garment-cost issue a red herring, but in Harrah’s the issue was about decorating one’s skin, not covering it up. And in the case of the swimming teacher, both sexes have the same needs in that area: to make sure they are slathered with enough sun cream so as not to burn. Sun cream is exactly the same for both sexes. Now, perhaps a swim facility could also demand that women also wear make-up while they teach. But that would be just as pointless as Harrah’s requiring it for its workers. There’s nothing intrinsic about the activities of teaching stroke mechanics or delivering drinks that requires such an accentuated highlighting of one’s sex. And that’s what make-up’s about: highlighting one’s femininity. (Yes, as Kozinski pointed out there are men who choose to wear make-up as well. But notice in the implicit tone of derision that make-up is still generally viewed as a femininity-enhancing endeavor.)

It is inequitable to require women to highlight their femininity, when men are obviously not under the same obligation. Not only does it amount to an additional financial burden not equivalently born by their male colleagues, but the very requirement by design undermines their equality. It tells women that they are not valued for the things they can do but rather for how they look. And they need to look exactly how society’s hegemonic biases tell them to look: as pretty objects of sexual allure.

No, the swim instruction is a bad analogy to draw. Because even as we instructors all teach in our thin, spandex garments that leave little to the imagination, we stand there as individuals, valued for our talents as teachers and not as sexualized creatures for whom our sex is an operative factor in our employment. For it to be otherwise would be unconstitutional.

Originally posted at De Novo on 6/25/05.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>