Diversity Outdoors: Adya's Body Story

January 04, 2023

Diversity Outdoors: Adya's Body Story

Lots of women grew up feeling that they fell short of body image ideals – we’ve heard many Body Stories that talk about just this. But Adya’s story describes the extra barriers faced by people of colour when trying to meet white, westernised beauty standards.

Our final Body Story from our Diversity Outdoors series is a powerful one. In it, Adya talks about how discovering outdoor activities has helped her learn how to rationalise negative feelings towards her body and treat herself with the kindness she deserves.

How do you feel about your appearance?

I don't feel good. I have to make quite an effort to tell myself that what I see in the mirror is good. So, having that level of acceptance is something I need to practice every day. It doesn't come naturally, which is terrible, but it's the truth. I used to have quite a lot of body dysmorphia as a child and as a teenager, but, with time, I've come to realise that however I looked in the past, even though I hated it at the time, was really good. So, I reached the conclusion that it's just in my head.

Now, when I look at pictures from two years ago, I know I didn’t like how I looked at the time, but when I see them now, I think I looked absolutely fine. I know that a lot of older women have that kind of reflection as well. What I've learned from all my older friends is that, actually, what you have now is great. And what you had before was awesome. And what you will have in the future is even better. So, I treat it as a mental practice, telling myself that what I see in the mirror is good. But it's not easy.

Deakin & Blue Plunge Swimsuit Black

When did you first become aware of how you looked?

When I was a teenager, I remember being told I was overweight. I remember being told I was short, too. My parents aren't tall people, but somehow there was an expectation that I could be tall or taller, or smaller and skinnier. I was very aware of it.

I remember looking for clothes for a birthday outfit, and I couldn't fit into any of the age ranges that were available because clothes weren’t made for 'chubby' girls. As you go up sizes, they become longer and less comfortable. Since I was short, that just didn’t work very well.

I remember family members asking me to go out and exercise. Unfortunately, I never saw anyone I knew do anything physical, outdoors or being active, so I had absolutely no idea where to start. At the time, I was not interested in anything outdoorsy.

I’ve always been aware that I’m overweight, or I used to be, and that I generally didn’t fit into anyone’s expectations of what I should look like. It's always been there and it’s stayed with me. It turned into a lot of bad eating habits and developing an unhealthy relationship with food. I’m trying to overcome it, but it’s there. So, when I'm stressed, I don't eat. Or when I'm not feeling good, I don’t eat. I'm the type of person who will forget to eat a meal.

So, you develop disordered eating patterns. Did you also try diets?

I was asked to try things like those slimming shakes, which I tried maybe for a week. But, when you study biology at school, you know none of that works and it’s really hard for me to do something I know is a waste of time. So, I never really properly got into it. I think it was more about skipping meals rather than changing anything. Because we didn't have the exposure to dieting at home. 

At the time, people would tell me, oh, you know, when you get taller, you'll become more proportional in your body – whatever that means. People say all sorts of things. It's really interesting. I think that I just decided that this is me and I just needed to live with being a little bit. So, effectively, I decided that I was just going to see what happened when I grew up.

Deakin & Blue Plunge Swimsuit Black

You talk about the influence of your cultural background on how you perceive yourself. How has that been part of your story?

I guess that one part of the story is that nobody told me that we were comparing ourselves to unrealistic ideals. We’re now talking a lot about how women are expected to fit into a mould that was not based on reality.

Even as a teenager, I couldn't fit into mum’s old clothes. We're all different. But I think there was, at the time, little understanding that we are different and we should be proud of that rather than trying to conform to this westernised ideal of having a certain body type that is associated with a very specific demographic.

I think the other part is that because we've been taught to be a little bit ashamed of bodies, there’s a stigma about showing our skin. There's a lot of shame associated with showing our bodies and I think a lot of it comes from the older traditions of women not even showing our faces in public. Historically, South Asian women were physically secluded or had to hide their faces in public with the ‘purdah’. So now it's a big deal that some of us are able to show our faces, but now have to hide everything else.

So, yes, it's been a big part of my journey. But I think that when I discovered kayaking, I started to become more open. When I started doing sport, I saw people engaging with each other in a very different way. And so, I've kind of shed – almost to the other extreme – all that cultural baggage. I’ve been reflecting more on that transformation recently, because I sometimes think of my younger self and how different she was – very naïve, very innocent, always trying to be a wallflower and happy to be indoors. People who meet me now don’t believe it, but it's true. People would have to push me to talk to people; I just wasn’t that confident.

At the moment, I feel quite comfortable walking around in my swimsuit, or getting changed in the car park with ten thousand eyes on me which I don't think 15- or 20-year-old me would have been able to do. Now I just don't care because I’m getting changed to do an activity I love. Just not caring about how other people feel about things that actually have nothing to do with them is a powerful feeling, on reflection.

Lots of white women will relate to what you say about not meeting skinny ideals, but you’ve also had significant cultural barriers to push through. It’s a lot. How has that made you feel?

Honestly, it is a lot. I’ve not spoken to my family about much of this, though it is changing a little and I’ll chat to my mum about things now. It has been a personal, very inner reflection. My husband is very supportive. He's kind of been instrumental in me feeling better about myself, if that makes sense. It’s not a very feminist thing to say, but it's how it is sometimes – we need our support structures and someone to confide in, and that's really been helpful for me because I felt I didn’t really have anyone else to talk to.

Trying to unpick all these different things with people who may not be on the same page is quite challenging. So, I have friends who don't feel the same way. They’re not able to break through because their cultural barriers are maybe too huge. I'm trying to get folks to start considering different things, being comfortable with themselves and how they look; just small things like how you perceive allergens or changes to our skin. There is a lot of inward blaming, so I'm trying to get folks to stop blaming themselves and start thinking about what structures might exist that make us think that it's us. That’s been a big shift for me to stop blaming myself.

When did you discover water sports and how did that happen?

I moved to Sweden after my PhD, and that was the first time anybody introduced me to a physical activity that didn't sound batshit crazy! My friend encouraged me to try kayaking because this is, “what we do in the summer”. It was beautiful, quite different and despite how stressed I was about falling in, I loved it. I enjoyed it because my friend was there and it was a really supportive environment where nobody was racing or competing; it was just pure enjoyment.

As time went on, I took on a few more challenges. I started doing more, going more frequently, paddling longer distances because it was something I wasn't terrible at. I was really surprised. It sounds strange, but I kind of wanted to see what my limits would be. As somebody who's never done any physical activity ever, I was just like, oh, I can actually do this, this is odd, let's see how far I can go.

So, three times a week, I’d do a 10-kilometre circumnavigation of the island I lived on. I connected with nature, and that was the thing that attracted me to it.  Since I started doing physical activity regularly, I lost quite a lot of weight. People started noticing and I remember someone in my family saying, oh, this is great because you're losing weight. But I wasn’t doing it to lose weight, I was doing it because I enjoyed it.

I've always thought about the losing weight part, but it never really equated with exercise for me just because I've never done it for that reason. Now, of course, I'm very conscious of the fact that people do push exercise to lose weight, which doesn't always work. When I started doing a lot more running and swimming, that was about increasing stamina for my kayaking – still never about losing weight.

My body has changed quite a lot because of all the different activities I now do, but I still wouldn't call myself skinny. I'm very active and very strong and I can do a lot of different things that I would never have even dreamed that I could do. So, for me, that's quite powerful and I have to constantly remind myself when they parade that skinny ideal body around that they can’t rescue people while kayaking in windy weather, and I can.

You do a lot of water activities now. How did that grow?

I do kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding. I’m a coach, so I coach all three practices in sheltered water and I’m working towards becoming a sea kayaking coach because I love sea kayaking and I truly believe that the sea is life changing in many ways.

I do a lot of open water swimming. I discovered sea swimming in lockdown 2020. It was just me and my husband for my birthday for the first time ever in December 2020 and I just wanted to do something different. I had seen people on the beach just going into the sea for a little dip and I really wanted to give it a go. It was so much fun that I did it every day that week! I loved it and you know, progressively getting longer in the water, enjoying the scenery, enjoying the cold – I never thought I’d enjoy that. It's really helped my water confidence, too.

I’ve learned to acclimatise to the cold and to put my head under the water – that used to be a big thing for me. I had a surfing accident years ago where I was upside-down, kind of pinned to the beach. I was in a closed cockpit kayak, so I was underwater and the surf was dumping constantly. So, I didn't fancy surfing for a bit after that. But this year, I'm trying to surf again on my paddleboard, trying to face that fear of being buried. It's not easy. But it's been really nice to connect with the sea in a different way where I don't see it as something that's going to try and kill me, but something that I can actually enjoy.

Deakin & Blue Plunge Swimsuit Black

Were you in the water much as a child?

I think we were a bit later than other kids, but my mum did teach us to swim. We used to go quite a lot, maybe once or twice a week after school and it was a family activity. After I went to university, and I was studying and working it dropped off a little bit; I didn't really have time to go to pools nearby. When I was working in Cambridge, there was a lido just a bridge away from my office so I used to go there every day. That was really nice. It was a mix between pool and open water with leaves on the water and waves splashing your face. That's kind of when I started thinking maybe open water swimming isn't so bad or scary.

I used to know lots of friends who did the Great North Swim, but I still don't do long distance outside, I just think it’s so much nicer than being indoors in a pool. To me, the pool is more about people who are doing fitness training, but open water is so much nicer to enjoy nature.

How has being active improved how you not only feel about your appearance, but also your self-confidence?

It's completely changed. I never realised how powerful it would be to do sport. I think that something people still don't really talk about is how life changing having that confidence from sport can be. It's not a team sport that I do, but it's really changed how I see myself as a person. I never thought of myself as a leader on the water. It's really powerful for me to be able to see myself like that, to go beyond how I look.

When I was growing up, everything was just about how I looked and how I didn’t look good enough. I’m really strong now. I can lift really heavy things. From a functional point of view, I feel really good about myself. I still have a lot of work to do about how I perceive my appearance, but I think that's okay; it’s a work in progress. Most of us have grown up thinking, I'm just not tall enough or thin enough, or whatever, but having that perception of yourself as a strong, confident woman is life changing. I always think, why didn’t I have this ten years ago? It would have changed my life. But, hey, better late than never.

Deakin & Blue Plunge Swimsuit Black

You’ve had a long journey to get where you are now. So, how did it feel to take part in the D&B photo shoot?

It was really different. I had to constantly remind myself that I was actually doing it because it felt like a dream. I never, ever in my life thought that I would do something like that – I still have a really hard time believing it! The pictures are amazing; everybody at the shoot was so supportive and I had such a blast I think empowering is the right word.

I love the swimsuits; I wear them all the time. I think the swimsuits feel different to other swimsuits. I never realised and I don’t think you talk about it enough, but the tailoring is very specific to Deakin & Blue, and you can feel that when you're wearing them.

Initially, when I said yes to the photoshoot, it was just something fun for me to do. But when I was actually there, it was quite an emotional thing to go through. Maybe it was that realisation that actually my whole body's ok; it looks ok, and it can do a lot and it does a pretty fantastic job of whatever I ask it to do. A lot of people don’t have that luxury and being mindful of that – it’s definitely a mindset shift for me.

I've shown the photos to some people. I haven't sent it to the wider family just because I just don't know how they’ll react. But my friends loved them so much. I’ve had so much support, so much admiration, because I didn't realise how many people would just never be able to do that. People don't even like being photographed by their families.

There's something about the beach swimming that we do here where maybe we've just decided that we’re going to look silly because we’re embracing that goofiness of being out in the middle of December and jumping into the cold sea that makes you forget what you look like. That’s why I really love open water swimming because there are no mirrors. Nobody's looking at you – it’s too cold. You just get rid of all of those hang-ups you have and just go for it.

Deakin & Blue Plunge Swimsuit Black

Adya wears The Plunge Swimsuit in Black and X-Back Swimsuit in Scarlet in size 12 Monroe.

Read other Body Stories in our Diversity Outdoors series:

"I became really body conscious, but it wasn't because of my perception of my body – it was definitely because of the way others perceived my body." Kelly's Body Story

"I think that a lot of women are not really comfortable swimming at all. It's a difficult skill and there's a lot of fear of drowning. So, to then go into outdoor water where there's not really the stability that comes from being in a swimming where there’s a shallow end and a deep end, that fear is even greater."  Minreet's Body Story

"I think you've got to make time for exercise. You really have to. With me, I leave my housework. It's more important to me to exercise, you know?" Pritpal's Body Story

“I love swimming so much and I want to share it with everyone, but I particularly want to share it with people who look like me and my family. I just want to see us there because images are so important. If you don't see us, people think we're not there and we're not swimming and then other people might not be encouraged to go ahead and try it out.” Abigail’s Body Story