Strong is the new skinny

The prospect of not hearing about desirable thigh-gaps, bikini bodies and waifs is good news, no doubt. But the real progress is a) who’s driving this movement b) who moves up the ratings as an idol and c) what it means for our mental and physical health.

The 90s have my heart. Brit pop, trip hop, jungle, Adidas Gazelles, parkas, Courtney Love and Kate Moss. I emulated Heroin chic: smudged eyeliner, blood-red lips, grimy hair and short skirts. Only I really loved the college canteen’s chips with beans and cheese, and the local pub’s pound-a-pint night could only be cancelled out with cheese pasties.

Fast-forward to now, and Beyonce is up front with her thighs, booty and glossy Amazonian goddessness. This is A Good Thing for us women who choose food over hard drugs. It’s good for anyone who has a naturally athletic figure, who enjoys working out, who isn’t a pubescent white girl.

But where has this come from? As far as I remember, we were complaining about heroin-chic in 1997 while watching Trainspotting, shopping in Miss Selfridge and applying our Rimmel eye-liner. We wondered how it happened, how the curvy 50s figure had been usurped while our friends were pulling us across the floor of the fitting room in New Look by the leg hole of the hot-pants in which we’d got stuck (maybe that was just me).

Back then, Heroin chic was the new 1950s hourglass. And that ubiquitous phrasing favoured by lazy journalists everywhere sums up perfectly the driving force behind all fads and fashions before now. Blah is the new blah: the formula for the consumer market where one fad is replaced by another.

These trends, derived by whoever, pushed on (mainly) women by the world’s media, seep into our conciousness. I’m a savvy consumer: I like what I like. And yet I have four jumpsuits (they’re the new LBD), work the bronzer and highlighter (contouring, Rupaul), and have at least one Hemsley & Hemsley style cookbook (clean eating, not dieting). In other words, I’m as much of a consumer capitalist sucker as the next person.

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Contouring like Rupaul

And yet this strong woman movement seems to have emerged from somewhere else. I may believe this to be the case because at last, 20 years on, I’ve accepted that I’ll never look like Kate Moss, and decided to suck it up, and I got there before it started trending.

But I like to think that social media has allowed women to dictate how we want to look; a trend that has been started by real people and the market has answered our actual needs rather than creating them.

It may also be that, finally, health is taking the top line. That we’ve realised that being strong and fit is so, so much more desirable than looking like we’re injecting between our toes – and it’s better for our mental health, too.

Clearly we haven’t moved on enough to stop analysing the figures of women, like this excellent piece of journalism by the Mirror, but if the media inspires women to go out for a run rather than stop eating, then perhaps it’s progress. Maybe if people from ethnic minority backgrounds or with fuzzy gender boundaries become inspiring idols, then it’s progress. If we’ve, through the power of social media, picked our own idols, then it’s progress.

But the biggest bit of progress is just starting to creep into our collective conciousness. Not just that it’s ok to have big quadriceps that don’t fit into hot pants, but that exercise makes us feel better about ourselves on many levels.

When I started this blog, I wrote about the mindful, almost meditative state I enjoy when I’m swimming. But I could go further and say that I have never in my life felt so good, and so at ease with my body. Now! When there are a thousand baby-stretched, greying, random-pube sprouting reasons not to love my body, I am actually ok about how I look.

Back to Bey, and I do like to draw parallels between myself and Ms Knowles, and her video for her new Ivy Park activewear collection. Yes, it’s beautifully produced, and so is she, but it’s the fact that she talks not about she came to look so amazing, or what she weighs, or how many minutes it takes to run a mile, but the spiritual, emotional benefits of exercise. It’s the focus on how it makes you feel good, not what it does to your body.

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Beyonce launches her new Ivy Park range. Yes, it’s consumerism, but it’s spiritual, yeah?

The narrative is finally shifting, or so it feels, from how we look to how we feel; to our health, physical and mental. My weighing scale is currently buried under some decorating sheets, and long may it stay. While I cut through the water I feel stronger and more at peace than ever before. It doesn’t matter how old I am, what colour I am, even that I’m a woman, and to me, that’s a blissful state. Maybe at last, my heart can move on from the 90s.

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Just like Beyonce, see?

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For the love of skin part II #guestblog

In the same way that it’s important to look after your fitness between swims, it’s important to look after your skin and well-being too. Last week, guest beauty blogger Gilded Magpie gave some recommendations for products to keep in your kit bag to use after a session. This week, she explores products to use at home.

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Hi all! Gilded Magpie back again with some more skin care recommendations to help you keep your swimmer’s skin looking distinctly un-swimmery. Last week  I suggested some lovely products to keep in your kit bag, today I am going to recommend a few bits to keep in your bathroom.

All products are suitable for women and men, except those marked with a * which smell a bit feminine.

Firstly: body products.

I know from experience that chlorine wreaks havoc with the skin on your upper arms particularly. Little patches of dry, tight skin abound and any existing skin conditions can be exacerbated. Moisturiser is a must and, if you get on with a bog standard body lotion then more power to you. Sometimes my skin needs a bit of a boost above and beyond the in-shower moisturisers I mentioned last week. For this I like to use a smoothing body lotion – these are moisturising but also contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids which gently exfoliate. Dry skin patches and chicken skin begone! Palmers do a really good priced version called the Anti-Ageing Smoothing Lotion* (£4.39  here) but I simply cannot stick the smell of the stuff. I have been testing Clarins Renew Plus Body Serum* (£40 for 200ml here) and Ameliorate Skin Smoothing Body Lotion (from £17.50 for 100ml here). Clarins to the left of me, Ameliorate to the right (thanks to Stealers Wheel for the memory trick) and I have to conclude that they are about equal in terms of skin smoothing and chicken skin busting. The Clarins smells infinitely better however – Ameliorate has an odd, jarring chemical smell that hangs around all day. It isn’t over powering and I doubt any one would notice but Clarins edges it for me for that reason.

Secondly: the face.

I like to use different cleansers in the morning and evening. I like to be refreshed and woken up in the morning and nurtured and cosseted in the evening. Swimming regularly adds another dimension to this in that your skin needs to be cosseted and nurtured whatever time of day it is. For this reason I would chose Ultimelt by Soap and Glory (£10 here) for the morning. This is a beautifully unctuous cream cleanser with oils and skin treating ingredients but it rinses really well and has a tiny bit of a tingle to it. Skin is left soft and supple feeling, perfectly cleansed and balanced for serum and moisturiser. In the evening thicker balms are the order of the day. Make up needs to be destroyed, skin needs to be pummelled and nourishing oils need to be introduced. Boots Botanicals do an excellent Hot Cloth Cleansing Balm (on offer at a bargainous £5.99 here) which is thick and effective. Even quite heavy make up is removed easily but it feels really nourishing and rich on the skin below. For something a touch lighter but still emphatically balmy Lush’s Ultrabland* is for you (from £7.50 for 45g here). Slightly creamier than the Botanicals balm this is still very luxurious feeling and smells deliciously of honey. Both these products will need to be removed with a flannel. The Boots one comes with a muslin but I find these a bit mimsy – flannels feel much more like you are having a bit of a facial and are more effective at removing all the product/end-of-day-face-grub.

For faces suffering the wrath of the elements/overexposure to chorine a bit of exfoliation is probably a good thing. I like to exfoliate with acids, as with the body lotions mentioned above, rather than scrubs but each to their own. A gentle acid tone, after cleansing 4+ (depending on your skin type – build up) nights per week can do wonders for dry, flaky and irritated bits of skin. I use a plethora of different acids but I would say that Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme (on offer for £9.97 here – I need to get me to Boots!) are a good and well priced all rounder. Do not be fooled by the ‘Extreme’ labelling, these have less alcohol and dryness-causing ingredients than their ‘gentle’ version but they also contain more types of acid to work at different levels on the skin. They smell deliciously grapefruity too.

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I love a facial oil and feel that, particularly for faces that have had nourishment sucked from them for whatever reason (and swimming would be one such reason) you get the best bang for your buck in terms of skin improvements with them. Generally they aren’t cheap but they last ages so offer reasonable value for money. I know people with oily skin baulk at adding oil but, counter intuitively, it can help to balance the skin’s oil production and keep the complexion more even. Boots Botanicals have a really good version for an amazing price (on offer at £6.66 here). This is quite oily so you’ll only need 5-6 drops per application but it smells delicious, has a good range of oils and is 100% organic. A dryer oil, and one of my personal favourites, Caudalie’s Polyphenol C15 overnight detox oil (£29 here) is a superb fix for combination skin and uneven skin tone. I try to ignore the ‘detox’ in the title because that means little to me and focus on the benefits I see in the mirror – brighter, softer and more even skin. 6 drops of this natural, plant derived oil are all that you need for a thorough massage and it lasts for ages. I have just bought a new one after over a year of regular use.

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Finally for facial products: night creams. I am a big fan of Eucerin Hyaluron Filler Night Cream – I am on my 563rd (approx) pot and I always return to it with guilt for ever doubting its efficacy after trying alternatives. It is a delicious blanket that keeps all of my other night skin care in place. It contains the all important hyaluronic acid which is superb for treating dehydration and it helps to plump and soften the skin. I love it and for £19.50 (admittedly on offer but it often is) here it is hard to beat. Every now and then I do break out of the usual routine to give my skin a more intensive hydrating treatment. For that I have BioEssence Hydra Tri-Action Aqua Droplet Mask (£29  here). This stuff is watery but in a way that is accessible to your skin. Droplets form on massaging which you then pat into your skin to super-hydrate it. Leave on overnight for beautifully hydrated morning skin.

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Thirdly: treats.

The following products will not necessarily help your skin but they most certainly will help your mind, body and spirit. A few weeks ago Rowan wrote a post about how knackering swimming can be. Your limbs feel heavy and you seek comfort. Well look no further: bath products are the tops for providing relaxation and restoration by the bucket load. I love the Mandara Spa range, developed by the team behind Elemis but budget friendly and available in Sainsburys the Bali Santi is my favourite scent. The Island Paradise fragrance which is fresher and more citrusy runs it a close second and the bath soak is pleasingly bubbly and luxurious (£10 here). For bigger budgets/gift lists everywhere Laura Mercier Creme Brulee Honey Bath* (£33 here) smells like heaven and is skin softening and mind transporting in equal measure. For aching muscles and frazzled minds Therapie Himalayan Detox Salts will ensure a sound nights sleep and restored muscles so you are ready to face the water again the next day.

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Again, I will haunt the comments section for questions. I hope there are some recommendations above that can be incorporated into your routines and will really help with nourishing and hydrating your skin.

Enjoy, Gilded Magpie XOXO

For the love of skin #guestblog

If you’re anything like me, your skin suffers from all that training. I frequently get that tickling, crawling sensation that comes with swimmer’s itch, and before I consulted my guest blogger, I suffered hard, white pimples under my skin.

Let me introduce Gilded Magpie, an experimenter, an expert, a nurse and a beautiful woman herself. She tries all manner of skincare products from high end to budget. She really gets into what goes into products, and how the ingredients work. And, like any good nurse, she knows exactly what’s good for you…

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As a skincare enthusiast and sometime beauty blogger I have been asked to recommend a few products to keep in your kit bags/bathroom shelves to keep your skin all lovely looking despite exposing it to the ravages of chlorine, or (for open water lovers) the elements.

Honestly I could go on forever about skin care/beauty gubbins but I have tried to keep in mind the practicalities of limited bag space, suitable packaging and cost. I will be around in the comments to answer your questions…

(Apart from those marked with a *, all are equally good for men and women.)

First up: kit bag essentials.

Boots does a really broad range of travel minis so you should be able to easily find a shampoo/conditioner combination and shower gel to suit there. Post washing I think your skin would thank you if you added in a body conditioner. I know there is some controversy around these in shower moisturisers but I find them easy to use and genuinely effective. I think the people who argue that any benefit is washed away simply haven’t tried them! Nivea in shower Body Moisturiser Dry is an absolute bargain at £3.69 (Boots). I use the lighter version but if you are swimming regularly then this more meaty version is just what you need.

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More luxurious and much more hydrating and oily (and appropriate given the name of this blog’s owner) is Lush’s Ro’s Argan body conditioner*, from £16.50. It smells gorgeous, a tangy rather than overly floral rose, and leaves a heavenly soft oily feeling behind on the skin. A little goes a very long way but I love to slather it on and let it sit for a bit before rinsing. The packaging is not completely kit-bag-friendly but it would be worth decanting this and keeping some at home too: you’ll want to use it all the time!

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Your face is the first place that any dryness or dehydration as a result of exposure to swimming pool chemicals or extreme temperatures will show. There is very little that you can do during your swim to limit exposure (though decent waterproof sunblock is an absolute must) but you can really treat your skin once you are back on dry land.

I think a lovely luxurious oil based facial cleanser is a must to remove any chemicals and to start your skin rehabilitation. If money were no object, and you had infinite space in your bag for enormous glass bottles then I would go with Tata Harper Nourishing Oil Cleanser* which is delicious and rinses really well so no need for a wash cloth. More realistically Una Brennan does similar oil cleansers which rinse well and are much more practically packaged and priced. My top pick would be the Vitamin C Skin Renew Cleansing Oil (£10.99 from Boots) for its mild resurfacing properties but the Rose Miracle Makeover Facial Oil* (£14.99 also from Boots) has better packaging for toting around pools and plages. The Rose Oil also doubles as a decent night oil (more on which later) but is much more expensive than the Vitamin C, which could always be decanted.

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In order to restore the moisture to your newly soft-from-oil cleansed skin I think a decent hydrating serum is a must. For pure hydration with no bells or whistles Vichy Aqualia Thermal Dynamic Hydration Serum (£22.50, Boots) cannot be beaten. It feels lovely on the skin and is absorbed quickly and really really works. Patchy dryness and those very fine lines that get worse with dehydration will be a thing of the past. For slightly more cash and with slightly more age defying ingredients Hylamide SubQ Anti-Age Advanced Serum (£30, Boots) is also super hydrating but contains a plethora of peptides and collagen boosting gubbins to minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and “surface irregularities”. I know, I know, we’ve heard it all before, but I really rate this serum and the brand behind it. They use their science well and their products do seem to deliver.

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To seal in all that goodness a decent moisturiser is an essential finishing touch. I know it isn’t the absolute cheapest but I cannot speak highly enough of Skyn Iceland’s Arctic Hydrating Balm (£25, M and S). It is a beautiful product, deeply hydrating and an amazing base for make up. Even though I use it pretty much every day I remain surprised at the longevity of its moisturisation. It is also a brilliant carrier for oils/moisturiser boosters and I often add a couple of drops of jojoba oil, or even a night oil, if my skin is feeling undernourished.

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You should now be ready to sally forth all clean and conditioned! A word of caution before I leave you: talc is an absolute no no. Having worked in swimming pools for years I know it is completely revolting when wet and no one likes to step in or clean up the grey slime left behind. If that were not reason enough to NEVER use it Johnson and Johnson have recently been ordered to pay out $72million to the family of a deceased woman who’s ovarian cancer was linked to talcum powder use. Just say no folks.

I’ll be back next week with some home based product recommendations to maintain that lovely skin. In the meantime, like I said, I will stalk the comments section below for any questions. May your skin always be glowing and your swims always swift…

XOXO Gilded Magpie.

Get your chill on

This weekend is the Big Chill Swim across Windermere. I want to get in to open water swimming all year round. It’s the exhilaration, the way your skin prickles and makes you really feel. I’ve plunged into cold water; I totally get the thrill. But I’m yet to brave it…

Standing on a rock in the Picos mountains in Spain, I looked down at the beautiful turquoise pool below. It seemed infinitely deep, and with the heat of the Spanish summer sun on my back, it was so inviting. But in the mountains the temperature of the water so close to source was fricking freezing.

Still, the plunge, the mind-numbing, body-shocking plunge, was exhilarating. The change in body temperature awakening the mind and focusing the senses. It’s the same principle as having a cold shower or plunge pool after a sauna; and it’s supposed to be good for your bodily functions and circulation too, which you can read about here.

But plunging or showering in cold water when you’re hot is very different to swimming across a pond on Hampstead Heath in February as described in this blog (with which I’ve completely fallen in love: beautiful photography, great writing).

So why swim in freezing cold water on a freezing cold day? Your limbs feel heavy and sluggish as your body decides your vital organs need warm, oxygenated blood more than your extremities. A friend of mine did an open water swim where you weren’t allowed to put your head under the water or you’d die. Extreme.

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Lewis Gordon Pugh: the world’s best open water swimmer

And don’t we just love an extreme? I’ve been reading blogs and articles by cold swimming affeciondos like this, and I can’t find any actual physical benefit to cold water swimming like those of the sauna then cold shower. Rather the benefit seems to be mental, feelings of euphoria, strength and confidence. So really the same reasons anyone does an extreme sport or activity.

Of course, we shouldn’t be dismissive of these kinds of mental and almost spiritual advantages. While to some cold swimming might seem like torture, if you read the words of those who do it, it’s easy to see why it becomes a kind of addiction.

Having been inspired to try cold water swimming, it’s tempting to grab my wetsuit and head to the nearest body of water (which wouldn’t be far as we’re currently on flood alert!). But I’m not going to. Not yet, anyway. It would be more sensible to start after a summer season of open water swimming, where you swim regularly getting used to the temperature as it slowly drops.

The Open Water Swimming Society has a fantastic article on getting in to cold water swimming, including a section by a doctor on what the cold water does to your body. It sounds a little daunting, but actually he’s not saying much more than you’ll need to pee more, you’ll gasp, shiver and be really, really hungry afterwards.

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Swimming, I mean enduring, the sea with friends in Bantham in March

I prefer swimming in fresh water to salty, but the marine lake in Clevedon has a group that swims all year round. I have just requested to join them. My cousin has membership with Henleaze Swimming Club in Bristol, which has events throughout the year.

But my ultimate goal is the Big Chill Swim. “There is a long tradition of open water swimming around the world and we feel that the uplifting experience of long distance swimming and winter swimming should be experienced by everyone.” These words just goad me into thinking my open water swimming experience won’t be complete until I’ve frozen off my very own tits swimming across Windermere.

Finally. The world swimming under ice record. Amazing. Insane.

 

Swimming away the fat

Interesting one this. Swimmers aren’t as slim as other athletes, and I’ve been wondering why. I remember Aussie Olympian Leisel Jones being labelled “too fat”. And I’m struggling to lose weight through swimming. Can you lose fat through swimming alone?

At the start of the year, I employed the help of a friend and personal training and nutrition expert, to help me improve my swimming performance and body tone and composition through dry-land training and diet.

On our first meeting, she tested me pretty rigorously. My BMI is a little over 25 (19-24.9 being ideal in a woman), my strength and flexibility is decent, as is my blood pressure and heart function. But my body fat surprised us both because, for someone who trains regularly, is was quite high at 36%.

Part of the reason that I’d wanted personal training in the first place was vanity, I will be honest. I’ve struggled with body image forever, and feel tremendous pressure to be slim. I also felt a slimmer me might swim faster. At the same time, I had an inkling that being a little larger helped me endure open water distance swims; on my first open water swim, I swam easier and faster than people who beat me in the pool. I told my friend that I wanted to lose fat, but retain some for buoyancy and insulation!

It appears that I’m not the first person to research swimming and body fat. Opinions vary, but the conclusion seems to be that while swimming burns calories well, it doesn’t help with weight loss. The swimmer’s body clings on to subcutaneous fat, even when it loses visceral and intramuscular fat.

Some research tells us that swimmers burn less fat than runners. Others say the total opposite. One piece of research said that swimming burns more calories per minute than running. Another showed that while swimming uses more muscles, the total mass engaged in the activity was less than in running. A third bit of research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that a running group lost an average of 17lbs, while the swimmers doing an equivalent work out over a 3 month period gained an average of 5lbs.

The reason seems to be largely down to the fact that swimming makes you hungry. Unlike running or cycling, where a workout can suppress your appetite (never experienced this, just read about it!), swimming makes you eat until you’ve replaced the calories you burned. Why is this?

It’s probably a matter of heat. When performing any kind of dry workout, your body temperature increases, which suppresses your appetite. When you swim, the water cools your body temperature, telling it to hold on the subcutaneous fat layers that insulate you, and replenish those lost calories. It’s like your body’s asking for an extra layer for next time. Think about aquatic mammals: seals, dolphins, whales and how well they are insulated.

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Swimming just makes me hungry, ok?

There’s also the argument that swimming makes you tired, so swimmers are more inclined to rest than be active after a work out. I certainly know that rather lovely wiped-out, heavy feeling you get post-swim and the good night’s sleep that follows.

Some argue that more body fat is actually an advantage in the water, for those reasons that I gave my PT friend – insulation and buoyancy. Fat is less dense than bone and muscle, and therefore more buoyant. If, like me, you have a concentration of fat on your thighs, it means you’ll have a lovely body position on the surface of the water, so your muscles can concentrate on propelling you forwards rather than lifting you, and there’s less drag.

There’s also a suggestion, which I love, that the more corpulent swimmer is better streamlined than their angular, bony counterparts. On the other hand, you have more body to push through the water, so more resistance. There’s a great article here about whether or not fat is an advantage in swimming, from which I conclude that if a had a flatter tummy, no breasts and a fat back and bum, I’d be a shit-hot freestyler!

And who gives a toss what you look like if you get results? Turns out quite a lot of people, especially if you’re a woman. Female athletes suffer a special kind of scrutiny from the world’s media when it comes to body type. The media in Australia actually had the audacity to suggest that Liesel Jones wasn’t a good role model to young athletes. I’d have liked her to take on whichever chauvinistic douche came up with that gem in the pool!

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Olympics, London 2012 Swimming training at the Aquatic Centre. Tuesday July 24th 2012. Photos: Steve Christo

I’m just as bad when it comes to scrutinising my own wobbly bits. The fact is, when I stand in the shower with my tri-club mates after a session, I feel like a fraud because I’m the biggest woman there. Women who do sport, professionally or not, certainly feel pressure to look a certain way.

But my club mates also run and cycle too, and perhaps this helps explain why I don’t seem to be losing weight, why my body fat has increased rather than decreased since I started training, and why swimming makes me equally ravenous and knackered.

My conclusion is that while I love swimming, especially open water, I must do more dry-land exercise. While I do want to retain some of my lovely buoyant, insulating, streamlining subcutaneous fat, unless I want to look like a seal, I do need to shift a bit of weight.

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Ready to take on some very cold water in the Brecon Beacons. Need the insulation, see?