Q & A With The Padded Lillies

Lillies in formation
Photography by Peter Stern.

How did the Padded Lillies originate? And for what purpose?

The Padded Lillies were formed as an offshoot of the Making Waves swim for women of size, which has been going on in the Bay Area now for going on 20 years. A group of women organized to rent a local indoor pool for 2 hours on Sunday mornings for a swim open to large women only. (We do invite our smaller women friends and relatives once a month.)

I (Shirley) had been going to the swim for three or four years when I met Timnah, and one day, she and I were swimming laps and watching a group of women doing water aerobics and suddenly it struck me—synchro swim for fat women!!! I told Timnah, who had a little experience with synchronized swimming from school, and who thought she might be able to work up some choreography after doing a bit of research. However, before it came to that, another fat swimmer, Margaret, heard the idea and introduced us to Diane Tulley, a medallist in aquatic arts, who heads Golden Gate Synchrony, coaching kids in learning synchro swim and putting on recitals at the Albany Pool, which is currently Making Waves’ home pool.

We spread the word that we were going to try synchro swim, and Diane came to Making Waves one Sunday to meet with a group of fat, prospective synchro swimmers. She taught us a few moves, including a star—which is a kind of spectacular thing for brand new synchro swimmers to accomplish! We were all so delighted—laughing and being applauded by the other swimmers, that we decided this sport was for us. Diane choreographed our first piece for us to perform in her next water show, and “Broadway Babes” was born.

It was a fairly long and difficult piece, made up of excerpts from “Chorus Line” and other Broadway show tunes, and involved a prop—plastic top hats which of course were the very devil to manipulate—they came off during some of the moves and promptly sunk, requiring rapid underwater excavation to retrieve. We learned the routine though, and practiced arduously, and the Padded Lillies troupe (we’ve been as many as ten), performed our first synchro swim number in the fall show that year, wearing gorgeous (waterproof) gold lame vests and bowties (designed by Lily Heather and executed by a team of Lillies in a sewing extravaganza that trashed my house) -- and those darned top hats! We totally didn’t suck, and the audience was so receptive, that we were hooked.

Since then, we’ve added another more campy piece, “Ode on a Lily Pond,” an abbreviated version of which we performed on “The Tonight Show.” We have ideas for a lot of new routines, including one featuring belly dance, and some deepwater choreography. Our next show is scheduled for September, where we hope to perform a new piece to “Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick” from “Gypsy.”

Our purpose? Why, fun, of course! And exercise... and since we’re pretty much all size activists, getting out the message that fat women in bathing suits are hot, and can get out there and do whatever they like!

Do any members of the Padded Lillies find it difficult to maintain a positive attitude about the group and its activities in such an “anti-fat” world? And if so, what do you do to revive positive energy?

Shirley: Actually, I think being a Padded Lily in and of itself helps to maintain a positive attitude. We enjoy what we do and enjoy the reaction we get from people who see us perform and I think all of that helps us to stay positive and enthusiastic.

Trish: No, just the usual growing pains you’d expect when dealing with a group of independent women

During the formation of the Padded Lillies did you realize that you would become spokespeople for size-acceptance?

We always knew that what we were doing was a political act—in fact, just about any time an oppressed group breaks the mold and refuses to be held back by stereotypes and bias, they become activists and spokespersons for their group.

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