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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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.

My Eddie the Eagle moment

Estonia 2018. Flights booked, events entered, stomach flipping somersaults anytime anyone says “Tallinn”, but I’m actually doing it: World Winter Swimming championships, here I come.

It was actually not hard to enter; in fact, I’ve had a much easier time than Eddie the Eagle Edwards, who at least had to record a qualifier. It was just a case of registering for a couple of events, and then finding a flight.

It’s the training and doing that’s the harder bit. Swimming at least twice a week in biting water that electrifies your skin and turns it an alarming shade of pink is challenging enough, but racing in even colder water on the world stage for winter swimming will be quite something else. The water is expected to be under a degree. That’s colder than a G&T with ice.

And I’d be nothing without my team, the South West Seals. We’re motley crew of winter swimmers and chunky dunkers who gather on the side of Clevedon marine lake throughout the winter, faff immensely before tripping off to the water, swimming for a short while, and then faffing some more over warm drinks. Half of us are just in it for the cake.

We’re a growing team. This year, around 75 Seals have signed up to the Facebook group, and a dozen of us are going to Estonia. As winter swimming catches on, with its benefits for health and well-being, the number of feet-stamping, hot-water bottle hugging swimmers at the side of the lake increases too. Sometimes it feels busier than it did in the summer.

And we’re none of us athletes. Most of us are better covered than your average Olympian; I swear more ballast makes us better insulated and more buoyant. Our ages range from mid-twenties to late-fifties; our neoprene wearing from full wetsuit, booties, gloves and bonnet to bikini-only; our technique from quick dunk full of swears, to freestyle loops around the lake.

Estonia requires no neoprene. Other than that, it’s open to anyone with the desire and cold water experience. For the less confident in our group there are untimed events, while our youngest member has entered about six competitive events, and being an athletic, experienced swimmer in an age-category that’ll have the fewest entrants, has a good chance of winning some bling.

And imagine that! While there will be some hardcore northern European competitors for whom winter swimming has been a way of life since childhood, there is a small chance that a couple of us will win a bronze, silver or even gold in our events. Proper world champions!

However we do, the experience will be immense. The absolute joy of winter swimming is that it’s pretty much the only sport where it’s enough to simply be sporting. Other world championship-level sports require an Eddie the Eagle standard of dedication and practise; winter swimming just requires a masters-level of faffing and a penchant for cake.

To follow the South West Seals’ adventures in Tallinn, watch this space…

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Swimming at Clevedon at around 3 degrees centigrade

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?