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.

 

Capture2.JPG

Follow @glitterandlazers on Instagram

 

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.

Advertisements

Bikini weather

The current cold snap is perfect for Winter Championship training. Practising starts, smiling while sprinting face-in, operating numb hands and larking about in a bikini…

Never much good at sports, and never one to take myself seriously, I have finally found a sport where mucking around and laughing actually improves my performance. As the ‘beast from the east’ gusts its way from Siberia bringing snow and freezing winds, my body is being tested like never before, and it’s time to find new coping strategies.

“Force yourself to smile,” said teammate Tom on Sunday. “It makes you believe you’re enjoying it.” Scientists have found that smiling releases the feel-good hormone endorphin, and serotonin that helps regulate mood. Smiling through discomfort or stress can effectively trick you into feeling less pain.

Sometimes the only way to cope with getting into water that’s hovering just under the 1ºC mark is by acting the fool. It takes a lot to even contemplate swimming in water that cold, and going it alone is unthinkable. Brave is a word, but it doesn’t feel brave; it feels foolhardy, and counter intuitive, so eking out the fun is important.

For a start, water this temperature is painful. Last year, I got pain in my hands at 5-6ºC; this year, I felt pain for the first time on Sunday. I’ve also ditched my beloved Aquasphere Vista goggles that cover that sweet spot between your eyes to prevent ice-cream headaches, for tiny, more streamlined racing goggles that don’t. Plus, my sensitive teeth are not impressed by the cold water in my mouth.

The hand pain is the worst. It’s not simple numbness, but actual pain caused by  thermoreceptor nerves in our skin to tell us that we’re at risk of tissue damage (in the same way as burns hurt). Vasoconstriction that closes capillaries in our extremities to protect our core temperature also causes discomfort, numbness and lack of movement in our hands. I set mine into a swimming position like one of those pose-able figures, and need help undoing my swimming costume straps and removing my earplugs afterwards.

The head pain is also caused by sudden exposure to cold water temporarily altering blood flow in your nervous system. And again, it’s a warning shot; stay in the cold water too long and it can start to cause mental confusion, tissue damage and death.

So not swimming solo in this weather isn’t just about help with getting dressed, it’s also a matter of safety. But camaraderie plays a huge part too. Just as smiling helps us believe pain is less, well, painful, swimming with friends increases bravado and confidence and that changes perceptions.

I felt sick to my stomach driving to the marine lake on Sunday and today. There aren’t many occasions where I don’t want to swim, but the horribly low temperatures of air and water had seeped into every fibre of my being. When you’re freezing cold, plunging yourself into ice-cold water is completely illogical.

But camaraderie gets you there. Meeting my fellow South West Seals, most of us training for the World Winter Swimming Championships which take place next week (March 5-11 2018) in Tallinn, Estonia, buoyed my confidence. It’s partly being in it together, but also that we’re incredibly supportive of one another. Camaraderie is the spirit of trust and friendship among humans, and in that team environment, you feel invincible.

Never exactly shy, playing the fool has always boosted my confidence. I like laughing, being childish and uninhibited, so finding a sport where that kind of behaviour actually benefits my performance is wonderful. Prancing into the water in a bikini with my whooping teammates made the impossible possible, and I managed a 300 metre training swim at 1ºC.

Will I be mucking about in a bikini in Estonia? Well, no. Seeing as I’ve changed my goggles to shave a couple of milliseconds off my time, I will actually be taking my races seriously and relying on adrenaline to get me in the water.

But with my team behind me, I’ll be having fun in Estonia too. And if you saw my face under the water as I race, you’d hopefully see that I remembered to smile.

Swimming through anxiety

For as long as their have been humans, there has been swimming. If you engage with aquatic evolutionary theory, you could say that we were swimming even before we were human. And it’s true that we were all kind of swimming before we were born. But why is swimming in water, particularly cool, open water, so good for us?

I’ve just come back from a holiday. Holidays are a total luxury; but, as they are afforded by the kind of life choices that send you slowly mental, they are a total necessity. Anxiety was scrunching me up, making me jumpy and edgy, causing me to withdraw, ironically, from the very things that sort me out: swimming, exercising, socialising, relaxing. Instead, I was hunching, pulling inwards, flicking obsessively from app to app on my phone, searching for something but never knowing what. Working hard, and trying to work harder. Spending too much time staring at screens, obsessing with doing more, being better. But anxious energy gets jobs done, and in this state of flux, I remortgaged, sold my car and researched and bought a new one, organised builders’ quotes and PTA events on top of working and sorting out my family’s needs. I also organised a holiday.

Swimming has always been the centre point of my holidays. The criteria for my parents’ holiday plans was to find a beach or lake or river and then choose the campsite or rental nearby. So ingrained is this particular method of searching for holiday accommodation that I barely noticed how my planning focused on proximity to the nearest body of water.

Our first swim was on the journey itself. The Plymouth to Santander ferry takes 20 hours, and among the entertainment on board is a small pool cut deep into the deck so the water doesn’t slosh out. Lately, stress and anxiety has taken its greatest physical toll on my jaw. Somewhere across the Bay of Biscay that night brought a terrible wave of temporomandibular joint pain that jolted me awake and kept me there, even after scrabbling around our sleepy cabin in search of drugs. So the next morning I thought a swim might wake me up.

For an open water swimmer, a swimming pool is poor cousin to the vast, ever-changing waters of the ocean, lake, river, tarn, loch or stream. This one was small and over-chlorinated, but it was water and it was deliciously cold. It woke me up all right. But more than that; I was amazed by the sense of calm that washed over me with that cold water the moment I submerged. I smiled, I felt the knots in my muscles loosen a little, the stuffy headache recede, the tetchiness fade.

What an idiot to have forgotten. The stream next to where we pitched our tent in the breathtakingly beautiful Spanish-Basque mountains, the crashing Atlantic waves on the west coast of France, the turquoise-clear lake near our campsite in France, even the open-air pool on the campsite, undid the painful knots of anxiety in my body and  washed them away. Star floating and watching wisps of cloud cross the blue sky as the waves lifted and dropped me, jumping off a rock into a deep pool in the mountain stream, diving through the surf, I was struck by how the water always changed, not just in colour and temperature, but in viscosity, opacity and taste. Being in it, on it, under it is an experience for all the senses, and somehow, unlike any other activity, it always cures.

Another of my holiday pleasures is reading. I took with me two books. Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley, which I had started at home, and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Both these women swim the year round, both have had huge emotional health issues with which to deal, both very different from one another, and different again to me, but to whom I could relate in many ways, mainly in their love of being in cold water and the salvation it gives them.

All this; these women’s accounts, my own anxiety being undone by water, made me wonder why swimming outdoors is so powerful a healer. I’ve known for a long time the benefits of swimming, releasing endorphins, well-being from exercise, better sleep patterns, better health and fitness, relaxing through breathing steadily. But can you not get all that from running, cycling and yoga?

There are plenty of theories about cold water swimming, as explained in this article. Connection with nature, release of adrenaline, training your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response so you cope better with stress, anti-inflammatory properties of cold water, and improved immunity. But science is still at a bit of a loss as to exactly why and how plunging into cold water seems to sooth anxiety, cure depression, wash away grief, loss, bereavement, emotional pain.

There’s no shortage of accounts showing that open water swimming does change lives. For Amy Liptrot, it helped her deal with enforced sobriety; for Alexandra Heminsley, cope with infertility. For me, a lot of my anxiety has been tied up with poor body image, but open water swimming seems to have transformed me into someone who’s if not achingly body positive, at least at peace with how I look. Like Heminsley, it’s helped me take pride in a body that I’d always felt wasn’t good quite enough, to find strength and power where I’ve previously seen cellulite and flab. My sister, a photographer, and a person who knows me better than most, photographed me as part of a project in the pool (main photo and below), and she was amazed by the change in my demeanour, my confidence and self-assurance as I entered the water.

It also helps me switch off my whirring mind. When I’m in the water, I don’t think about much more than the sensations, the colour of water, its opacity, whether its sharp and biting, or smooth and velvety. Whether it has a saltiness that buoys me up and stings every nick and scratch on my body, or a freshwater, mineral taste that envelopes me. As I swim, I think about the pull, catch, kick, breathe. I watch the Hockney-like patterns on the sea bed, the pebbles and reeds, or simply my hands pushing away in turn with a steady rhythm. I stop, I look towards the horizon, the sky. Birds and fish come close by. I feel strong, happy, peaceful, and that feeling will often stay with me for more than a day.

I’m a science person, rather than one of faith or religion. But from time to time, even those of us who put faith in science needs to accept that some phenomena is beyond rational explanation. There is perhaps something in the fact that we are ourselves made of water, that we grew in it, that we evolved in it. Just as we are likely affected by the lunar cycles, maybe we are somehow connected to this life-giving element. Perhaps, sinking into a warm bath stirs some kind of pre-birth memory of comfort and safety. Perhaps wading into cold water awakens a genetic memory from our ancestors, living on the shoreline and wading into the cold seas and rivers to find small crustaceans and shellfish for dinner – read The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan for more on this fascinating evolutionary theory.

Proof that swimming in cold, natural water heals all manner of emotional and mental health issues is anecdotal, and overwhelming. The manner in which it heals varies from person to person, but the resulting rosy glow and sense of peace and well-being seems to be universal. For me, it’s at once meditative and soothing, and a perfect, attainable high, giving me a pure buzz with a healthy afterglow. Maybe there are no fathomable reasons why, and it doesn’t even matter.

Good reads

Leap In Alexandra Heminsley
The Outrun Amy Liptrot
The Descent of Woman Elaine Morgan

18268265_1314898395294541_4627867177303101013_n

Swimming in Clevedon’s Marine lake: Photo credit Fur and Gold Photography