Swimming a long way slowly: marathon swimming and the transformation of the body

Dr Karen Throsby will demonstrate her (auto)ethnographic approach by drawing on her current research concerning marathon swimmers, and the embodiment of social inequalities.


Marathon swimming is a minority sport, which involves swimming long distances – often over 10 or more hours – in open water without any external assistance.

The process of becoming a marathon swimmer demands the acquisition of a wide range of techniques of the body, which in turn transform not only what the body is able to do, but also the nature of the body itself and the ways in which the aquatic world is perceived through the body.

Drawing on extensive (auto)ethnographic research that documented my own process of becoming a marathon swimmer alongside the study of the social worlds and practices of marathon swimming communities, this paper explores these processes of embodied transformation as a platform for thinking about the ways in which social inequalities are written onto the body in the process of embodied becoming.

Focusing on the gendering of marathon swimming, the paper argues that the (potentially) status-bearing transformations of the marathon swimming body highlight important questions about what ‘counts’ as the good body in contemporary society, and who is excluded.

Speaker biography

Karen Throsby is an associate professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, where she is also director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (CIGS). Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, technology, health and the body, and she has explored these issues across a number of sites including the new reproductive technologies, the surgical management of obesity, endurance sport and most recently, sugar.

She is the author of When IVF Fails: Feminism, Infertility and the Negotiation of Normality (Palgrave 2004) and Immersion: Marathon Swimming, Embodiment and Identity (MUP 2016). Her current project – Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar – is funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.

Location details

Room 1.14
Liberty Building
University of Leeds

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