On Goggles

Been thinking lately about goggles. Goggles as mask, as status symbol. As protection. Goggles as a way of seeing, but also a way of obscuring; goggles that fog, that leak, that let the outside in. Flipping through Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I often do when I’m at an impasse with my own writing, I came across this passage:

“By 1988, when I was swimming seriously, minimal Swedish goggles had arrived in southern Ontario. These were molded plastic eyepiece that fit securely into the eye socket, without any rubber or foam lining the rims. […] There was a coach who sold Swedish goggles poolside at Ontario meets for $12. I bought two, a red pair and a brown pair that came, unassembled, in narrow ziplock bags. […] These goggles marked a step up in my swimming career, from okay to good. It was the beginning of my loyalty to equipment, to rituals and patterns. These goggles are a Masonic handshake. Even now, if I see other swimmers using them, I know they know.” (2012: 247-248)

It reminded me a little of the research participant who talked about the development of her identity as a swimmer, and the markers of this (relatively new) identity:

“I’ll find it impossible to swim without goggles and a hat. Even when I'm just going for a – you know, whatever, not really swimming. And that's a real shift to ‘becoming a swimmer!’, as opposed to being someone who swims sometimes.…[…] That’s been a profound change in my life over the last four years, three years, I suppose. That’s been the biggest thing that came out of swimming. People I've met recently think of me as sporty. Which is just hilarious!”

It reminded me too that everything we wear at the pool is saying something to someone. Saying something to ourselves: I am a serious swimmer, I sometimes imagine my own get-up is announcing, even though in the grand scheme of serious I’m not even on the scale. Still, I choose my costumes not only according to how they fit and how they feel but also according to how I think they will be perceived by others. I remember when I first started swimming regularly I would watch the fast-lane swimmers, the girls particularly, in their deliciously ugly suits: loud patterns, thin straps, open backs. It was like a uniform. 


A year or two ago I needed a new pair of goggles while I was in California, so I stopped by a speciality shop in Orange County and told the woman I needed a new pair of goggles but I could never find a pair I really loved. She asked me where I swam - outdoors, indoors? I said indoors, in England, where it’s dark half the time, and she handed me a pair of orange Speedos and promised they’d brighten up my swims. And she was right. They completely changed the tenor of the early-morning winter pool. Now I have to order them specially from the US, but it’s worth it.


From fieldnotes:

My goggles get hopelessly fogged now; during the warm up it felt a bit like swimming through a heavily-misted lake at morning, as if the fog was clinging to the water and I could almost discern shapes ahead of me – the swimmer in front, who disappeared entirely from view if she was more than five or ten metres ahead. It's truly like being in one’s own world. (June 2014)

For my last lap, I've noticed, I like to make sure my goggles are unfogged before beginning so there is always a sense of clarity at the end of the swim. (July 2014)

New goggles, fresh from America, so clear! A bit tight, as they always are before they form to your face, but so nice to actually see through the water. It won’t last, so I have to enjoy it while I can. Enjoyed the patterns of light on the floor of the pool, and noticing things – cracks in the tiles, things floating around, the bodies of swimmers several lanes to my right – that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Certainly a contrast to the fuzzy world of last week! (July 2014)

My goggles are exceptionally foggy – I found myself wondering if it’s to do with going in the evening, perhaps the air is warmer, steams them up more – and then ruminating a little on how I used to hate that but now I can sort of feel my way around. You just start to know your body in this space, in relation to other bodies. Almost intuitively. But there’s also something really special about that crystal-clear view of the pool, the way it opens up, seems to widen. (February 2015)