Nothing to hide
Living on an island, it seems a shame not to use the sea that surrounds us as a free natural resource. Swimming can be relaxing, fun and keep you fit, so why do so many women and girls shun it out of fear and embarrassment about how they look in bathers? In the wake of International Women’s Day, local sports coach and mental health ambassador Laura Fry decided to examine the issue
NOT so long ago, I came across an article that quoted statistics on levels of inactivity among women.
Research in 2015 conducted by Sport England revealed that half a million women had quit swimming in the previous decade for fear of how they look.
At first I was saddened, in part because I’m not sure much will have changed in the years since, but also because I have just finished reading Jenny Landreth’s Swell: A Waterbiography. The book is a tale of swimming suffragettes, full of inspiring, giggle-worthy tales of women who fought incredibly hard for access to bathing pools and beaches. I couldn’t quite believe that so many generations later, women are choosing to quit swimming for fear of judgement and body embarrassment.
But then I remembered the gap in my swimming ‘career’ – it’s not a career, but I do swim – and with International Women’s Day falling yesterday, it’s time we had a discussion about women and swimming.
My story is quite common, I’ve learned. At the age of 15, one of my older sisters latched onto something that became a running sibling joke – you know, the ones that start off as a bit of a giggle and over time gather plots, subplots and characters until you’re not actually sure what you were laughing at in the first place.
Apparently, the sight of me in bathers was vomit inducing, and could easily result in an evacuation of our local pool. I too found the joke pretty funny, particularly because my sister used to bring the feelings of repulsiveness to life with sounds, facial expressions and occasional full-body convulsions. But something in this standard younger-sibling-bullying stuck with me. I stopped swimming through my late teens and early 20s as the fear of exposing my ‘gross’ body to the pool became too much.
Fortunately, I got over it when living in London, thanks to the draw of a stunning outdoor Olympic-sized pool. Anonymity combined with the eclectic mix of body shapes, ages and abilities helped position it in my mind as a non-intimidating environment. I was able to keep swimming through my 20s and 30s but nevertheless, still find the walk to poolside in bathers mildly stressful.
After reading the online article, I shared it on Facebook to see what other women thought and had experienced.
Ali, 48, described never really being a swimmer because of her levels of self-consciousness. Now, as a mother of three teenagers, she says: ‘I feel so guilty that I didn’t take my three children swimming more when they were kids because I was too embarrassed.’
Mel, aged 41, ‘spent 10 years not wearing a swimsuit or shorts because I wasn’t “beach body ready”’.
Both stories were familiar to many others.
As grown women living in Guernsey, however, we’re very fortunate. Community fitness groups and projects such as Try A Tri Guernsey, 30 Bays in 30 Days, as well as swim groups like Guernsey Swim Adventures, are providing more inclusive access to the joy of swimming, particularly in the open water.
More and more women, and men, are experiencing the mental and physical benefits of cold water immersion, swimming in nature and endurance sports, and can do so with groups who pride themselves on being non-judgemental. We even have a beautifully inspiring ‘Sea Donkey’ film to watch.
For teenagers, though, it’s a different story. Visit any secondary school PE department in Guernsey, and the UK, and you’ll hear stories of girls and boys aged 13 and over doing all they can to avoid getting into a swimsuit. Notes from parents and ‘forgotten’ kits help some pupils sit on the benches, fully clothed.
Others, particularly girls, choose to swim in T-shirts to cover up.
Teenage girls also have to deal with periods, which can be a hugely stressful experience for many. Add that to having to wear bathers and it’s easy to see why many girls shy away from swimming.
Some girls have told me they don’t like swimming in school because they aren’t able to straighten their hair afterwards. More than vanity, not being able to straighten ‘problem hair’ for some teens exposes them to hurtful banter.
Why is this an issue? Does it matter if girls give up swimming?
Yes, is the short answer. Swimming is a skill that not only helps to save a life, keeps us active, fit and healthy in a low impact way, but on an island, it opens up the world around us.
In childhood, swimming is play, it develops coordination, balance, control. In young people it develops confidence, strength, flexibility and cardio-vascular function. As adults we maintain and enhance all of these skills, and learn to appreciate it as a mindful activity – something that requires you to think of nothing other than rhythmically moving every limb of your body. It’s the perfect antidote to our busy, sedentary lives.
While campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and the #fitnotskinny movement on social media have paved the way for more positive attitudes towards exercising for girls and women, still many teenage girls don’t yet have the wisdom to know that no one looks good in bathers. They don’t yet know that even the people who do look good in bathers believe they don’t look good in bathers.
Instead, many believe the world is just like the one they see on-screen, and that exposing the reality of being different means their life will be over.
There’s no easy answer to helping more girls to keep swimming, or, indeed, start swimming. It’s clear from the women I’ve spoken to that many girls will adopt similar attitudes to being active as their mothers or female role models.
‘My biggest regret is that my gorgeous daughter now copies me and won’t walk around the beach unless covered up,’ says Ali.
Swimming suffragettes fought hard for women’s access to the water so perhaps as women in 2019, showing our daughters, younger sisters and nieces that swimming is about the freedom, the joy and fun, not about how you look, is a good place to start.