Body positivity

Can you love your body and be obese? Well, of course you can. As the body positivity movement gains momentum, this is why you should jump aboard, whatever your size.

There’s a fabulous body positive movement going on. It’s taking Instagram by storm, and it’s kicking into touch those dangerous pre-conceived, factory-generated conceptions of who’s beautiful.

But behind the photos of strong, courageous women (and it is mainly women) there’s a persistent murmur saying ‘but it’s not healthy to be fat’. Find @bodyposipanda’s recent post of an obese woman in a bikini in the foyer of a Vegas hotel, scroll down and read the comments, including, and along the lines of, “How can you love your body when you let it get in that state?”

I’ve been cogitating this for a while. Until quite recently, the two issues of body positivity and physical health were inexorably entwined for me, too. But, what I’ve grown to realise is that while they’re linked, they’re two completely separate issues.

For a start, fat doesn’t equal stupid. People who are overweight know they’re at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer; they know that obesity-related diseases put a huge strain on our health services; they know which foods are ‘bad’ and which are ‘good’.

We then have two awful, exploitative industries with which to contend – the fashion and beauty industry, and the dieting industry. The former sells us a digitally manipulated, unobtainable ideal body, the latter entices us to reach that unobtainable ideal by using its means. Both these industries have one objective: to make money.

Because aspiration sells – make it infinitely desirable, put it just beyond our reach, and we’ll part with any amount of money to have it. Insane, but pretty bloody clever that it makes us spend thousands on buying our own bodies.

And I’ve been there. It started back in the nineties when I was a lithe, slim teen, and heroin-chic was in. I read that models injected between their toes to hide the track marks, but I still wanted to nail the look. Deep down, I probably knew that I didn’t have the bone-structure and that those half-starved girls were miserable, but still, I trotted off to Weight Watchers. I wasn’t overweight.

Of course, Weight Watchers should have said: ‘you’re a fabulous size 10. Drink a bit less, exercise a bit more and learn to love your body.’ But they didn’t; they took my cash. In 2001, I drank spirulina and ate practically nothing. In 2003, it was the GI diet. 2004  took me back to Weight Watchers. In 2008, it was Slimming World, and again in 2013. I’ve done the Body Coach diet, the 5:2, the no-carb, Beach Body, and others.

Funny thing is I can tell you roughly how much I weighed at each of these moments, but I can’t tell you whether or not I was healthy. I’ve fainted through hunger, I’ve thrown up through bingeing, and I’ve done goodness-knows-what damage to my metabolism. But was I healthy at any point? I really don’t know; it wasn’t relevant to me.

The breakthrough in my journey to body positivity has been a shift in my self-perception. Instead of thinking about what I look like, I’ve concentrated on what my body can do. I’ve swum through freezing water. I’ve swum a marathon. I’ve given birth to three babies.

This confidence, this positivity has been a game-changer. I no longer feel like I need to apologise for my body, to make excuses for not being a size ten, to fork out on ridiculous diets that are destined for failure from the beginning. Instead, I have celebrated my body, and in doing so, begun to nourish it better and push my physical capabilities.

I’m lucky. I found an activity and a community that accepts all sizes and shapes. Through it, I’ve been able to gain body confidence and mental health, and better physical health and fitness has followed.

And I’ve come to realise that being ashamed of your body is one of the biggest barriers to becoming healthy.

If you’ve never had an issue with food, the many complicated reasons why people become fat and fail to lose weight can be extremely hard to get your head around. You think, ‘if I were overweight, I’d just eat less and do more exercise.’ But it really isn’t that simple.

Again, fat people aren’t stupid; they know that calorie deficit is the way to lose weight. But feelings of shame, embarrassment and intimidation don’t allow many people to push through. Nothing is more off-putting to joining a gym or exercise class than thinking that fit, thin people will judge you.

But if we celebrate all bodies, if we stop fat-shaming, then those people who hide theirs under baggy clothes and are too afraid to go to the gym will have the confidence to start making the small changes that will benefit their health and wellbeing.

Good mental health leads to good physical health. Positivity, pride, self-love, supportiveness – these are the soft skills with which we can battle obesity. Soft skills, not knowledge. Body positivity is about fostering good mental health.

 

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Back to our bikini-clad glamour-puss in her Vegas foyer. Look at her picture, and before you judge, hear her words:

“I find it ironic that I’ve taken photos in swimsuits all over the world and the one place I was told to cover up was Las Vegas. Sure, thin girls in thongs and pasties are A-OK but a plus girl in a full coverage suit trying to take an epic editorial shot – now that’s too much… I’m learning as I push myself to do more editorial type concepts, the push back is greater. But that’s why I push. It’s more than a girl in the city of sin in a bikini, it’s a statement. We will be seen. We’re not hiding anymore. And we’re going to wear whatever we want, wherever we want. Change is coming; the question is, are you going to stand in the way or help us push through?”

You see, this isn’t an issue of health, it’s an issue of image. It’s about judgement, preconception, acceptance and taking control of how we feel about our bodies. It’s about beating an archaic, oppressive system that’s there to make us spend money.

You don’t have to be healthy to be body positive. You can be obese, disabled, overweight, old, young, thin, athletic, whatever. But people who are positive about their bodies are happier and that makes them healthier, physically and mentally.

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Nice and Icy

With just over a week to go until the National Cold Water Swimming Championships, there’s time for one more chilly swim. Thanks to the recent cold snap, conditions at Clevedon’s Marine Lake have been perfect for training, with the water dropping as low as 2.5 degrees centigrade.

So what happens to your body at this temperature? And how best prepare yourself for swim in icy waters?

Standing lake-side, contemplating your icy dip, you are aware of how your body might respond. The cold shock response is first and most dramatic: gasping, hyperventilating as your skin cools; at the same time, your heart-rate shoots up as your arteries narrow. Then comes the numbness. As your body reserves the warm blood for your vital organs, your extremities become increasingly numb, heavy and useless. After half an hour or so, hypothermia becomes a risk – and remains so even after you get out, as your core temperature continues to drop.

Standing lake-side, you should be scared! If you don’t at least have butterflies, if not a full fight-or-flight feeling where you have to beat all instincts to get yourself in the water, you don’t fully understand the risks. You also need to bear in mind that this is a time for dipping, not distance swimming.

No matter how often I take an icy dip, I have the same sense of foreboding as I drive to the lake, which peaks as the cold air hits my skin when I undress. Changing into my costume among seasoned winter swimmers, the chatter is all along the lines of: why are we doing this? we must be mad! I don’t really want to. Testament to this is the high level of faffing that postpones the inevitable plunge!

And then, one-by-one, we enter the water. The easiest way for me, is to walk quickly down the metal steps into the lake, taking small in-breaths, and then purposefully blowing out, long and steady. This reduces the gasping hypo ventilation, gives me something to focus on other than the pain of the ice-cold, and lets me steady my breath and stroke as I swim away.

Most impressive is Maggie, who having inhaled two cigarettes while changing, dives headlong in from the side. But then she, like so many of my fellow swimmers, is one of the South West Seals’ old pros. This approach is not recommended for the uninitiated!

For safety reasons, I rarely swim alone. If not with fellow swimmers, I get someone to stand on the side and hold my Dryrobe. Plus, I need help to pull down my swimming costume straps when I get out, as my numb hands are quite useless. It’s also good to have someone to egg you on, and share coffee and cake afterwards.

What struck me as odd as the water temperature dropped, was that I didn’t get the ice-cream headache at four degrees that troubled me at ten degrees. Instead, my fingers take the punishment. The pain that comes with vasoconstriction is palpable. My hands hurt. The first time this happened, they froze like useless claws in a position that’s not conducive to swimming. So I learned to set them in place as paddles before I became unable to move them.

At sub-five degrees, I swim between 100 and 200 metres; no more. That’s up to seven minutes in the water, including faffing a bit and stopping to appreciate where I am, and admire Clevedon’s rather lovely pier; and on a crisp, clear day, look across to Wales.

This weekend, as I entered I got an applause from some onlookers. I admit that I loved this, and it was the audience I needed to break into a fast front-crawl that I plan on swimming next weekend instead of my usual neck-breaking heads-up breaststroke.

My CWSC event is a 30 metre swim as part of a relay team: it’ll be over before I know it. I feel ready, though; nervous, but excited. Perhaps next time, I’ll do a bit more. But for now, I feel an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and pure buzz from swimming in icy water!

What’s in my kit bag?

My kit has evolved as the season’s gone on. Here are what I consider to be essentials for winter swimming:

  • Swimming hat – I use a normal silicone cap, but you can get neoprene for more heat-loss prevention
  • Mask goggles – I love the Aquasphere Vista mask that covers the bit between your eyebrows and seems to prevent ice-cream headache pain
  • A Dryrobe – this was a Christmas present, and my favourite bit of kit. It’s so warm, plus keeps you covered as you try to get dressed with numb hands
  • A piece of foam rubber, matting, old towel on which to stand while you’re changing
  • Warm layers – I don’t bother with undies, but wear merino wool leggings under fleece-lined jogging bottoms, a thermal vest, long-sleeved top and my wonderful Dart 10k sherpa fleeced-lined hoodie
  • Hat and gloves
  • Flask of coffee
  • Hot water bottle
  • Some cake or chocolate – getting that digestive system going warms you up from the inside!

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