Updated: Mar 15
We can never really be fully aware of how much we influence each other’s lives. This is a story of how two swimmers in last year’s Swim Oxford 4K Lock-to-Lock swim inadvertently helped to turn around the life of one of my clients.
Whether we like to admit it or not, what we look like and how we present ourselves plays a part in how we are received and perceived. Body image, for women especially, has been an issue forever, with society making unrealistic demands of how we should look.
Finally, through endless campaigning, highlighting and debating, women’s bodies are starting to be represented in a more healthy and realistic way. Some television adverts and a few magazines occasionally use models whose body shapes, sizes, height and width, bust and waist sizes are not the images we’re used to seeing.
Slowly, we’re seeing reflected back at us something that looks ‘more like me’! (Though I still have issues with the phrase ‘plus sized-models’, as if a very slim or thin frame is still the expected norm.) But the impact of the unrealistic body images, images that still dominate in the media, lives on – and it has a profound effect on us. In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve often met young men and young women who have issues related to self-esteem and body image. I work in secondary education, where concerns about body image are rife. Young people and teenagers, whose bodies are changing and developing, often believe that if they are fit, if their body is beautiful, they will be accepted and desired. This is a long and complicated journey in our emotional lives, and too often, it stays with us as we grow up. One story highlights this for me in such a perfect way.
In the depths of last year, in my consulting room in a secondary school in Oxfordshire, I found myself talking with a client about how life had got in the way of her involvement with sport. Mothers, often used to giving themselves totally to their families, can find it very difficult to regain their sense of themselves in their bodies and in their fitness. This particular woman was struggling to get back into any sort of physical activity after several years of mental health issues and other health problems which had led to weight problems.
As a child, she had been a county swimmer, competing at a national level. She was very keen to swim again, but the sheer idea of getting back into swimming was shaming. There were no sessions in the pool she felt she could attend. The idea of putting a swimming costume, even in front of her closest of friends, caused her a great sense of distress. It felt too revealing. For a few weeks, we discussed the pros and cons of the different ways to overcome this huge hurdle – and then I was reminded about some fantastic swimmers in the 4K Lock-to-Lock last year, 2021…
I have had the privilege to support the many Lock-to-lock swimmers in achieving their goals. I am not a wild swimmer myself (I prefer a pool for my swimming!), but I love the jubilation in the tea tent post-swim. Everyone involved, not just the swimmers, but also the support staff and café staff, gets such a high. It’s part of what keeps me coming back every year and providing cakes for the celebrations – the swims provide such a great sense of achievement, whoever you are.
The courage of the two Lock-to-Lock swimmers I had remembered was inspiring – although they were completely unaware their power. To themselves, they were just two friends supporting each other to complete a wild swimming event.
There was one particular photograph of this pair that I had in my mind. A photograph that captured their friendship, confidence, collaboration and positive self-esteem, and I wanted this young woman, who desperately wanted to start swimming again, to see them. Unconventionally, I decided to share the image that I think is so powerful and freeing. I took the photo in the following week.
The picture shows two women walking side-by-side in the countryside with their swimming costumes on, having completed the 4K Lock-to-lock event. My client and I admired them, feeling moved and inspired by their attitude in the photo. And this is how these two women influenced my client: the very next week, she started swimming again. She went to a pool with her teenage daughter. “Thank you,” she told me when we next met. “It feels great. And thank you for helping me to show my girl how to be proud of who she is.”
Debbie Lee, Psychotherapist
You know what’s great about open-water swimming? Yes, it’s fabulous exercise; you get an unbelievable spiritual connection to the water and the world around you; you sometimes get a peek of the beautiful poppy fields from the water, spot the odd kingfisher on the riverbank, and even sneak a cheeky wee in the water!
All great, all part of the enormous list of reasons why open-water swimming is fantastic – but there is one more most resplendent thing that open water swimming does: it allows you to be a ‘rebel’. It allows you to ‘stick it to the man’. To show that being yourself is okay, and you won’t bow to any archaic pre-conceived ideas society may have of how you should look, swim, walk, talk or lead your life.
Life can be tough, both physically and mentally. Being trapped by the anxiety or even shame of non-conformity can be crippling. It can stop you achieving your goals. But let me tell you, whatever your perceived ideas of yourself, the open water doesn’t care – it simply does not care. Not only does the open water not care, the tribe that you find yourself stood next to getting dressed in warm clothes (that sometimes have seen better days) don’t care. The person so covered up in clothes to keep warm that you wouldn’t recognise them on the street doesn’t care. The person stood there with a hot water bottle slowly slipping down their legs simply doesn’t care.
Open water swimming accommodates all types of swimmers, from those wishing to improve on their speed, to bimblers, to stroke enthusiasts, to wannabe manatees – all are of equal stature in the water. It’s about acceptance, support, and connection to achieve your aspirations without judgement or question.
Personally, I am super proud to be an open water swimmer and I will never stop being an advocate of the plus-sized person in the sport. I will gladly help anyone who wants to give it a go or get back to the water – because nobody has the right to tell you can’t. During training for my channel swim, I experienced comments that were not so complimentary, and I was even told that I shouldn’t do it as I was going to drown. No-one has the right to say that you don’t swim the correct way or you don’t have the right shape body or you aren’t fast enough. I am proud to be a middle-class, menopausal, widening-midriff mermaid and find it most satisfying to say when I’m told I can’t do something – “Hold my Beer!”
Support systems create an environment for networks that thrive – like the mycelial networks that connect the subsoil environments, passing valuable nutrients from one tree to another. This is the perfect metaphor for the wild-swimming community.
Take the informal swimming group that I am part of. It has a wide range of swimmers from different age groups and backgrounds, not to mention swimming abilities. As we swim through the seasons, at different times, and in different conditions, each swimmer steps into the limelight for their own unique reason. Some can handle the cold, some are fast swimmers, and some can swim long distances. Some swim with their head up and name the flora and the fauna. Some have the skill to make us all laugh – again and again and again.
Every one of us is loved and celebrated. It’s an amazing honour to be part of this group, to feel so accepted by everyone. We all feel the same. All insecurities about body shape, swimming ability or social skills just float away. Just as Emma says when she describes her ‘tribe’, there is such kinship in the open water, where all potential barriers drift away, and we just get on with supporting each other through whatever challenges weather, river or lake offer us.
This kinship is something we knew that we wanted to hold onto when we set up the Swim Oxford events, and hearing Debbie’s story gave us a huge feeling of triumph. To know that our events felt welcoming to all swimmers – but then to learn that our swimmers had inspired someone to take such a positive step in their lives…
Long live the wild swimmer!
Darrin Roles, Swim Oxford director