Love Flows

February 01, 2023

Love Flows

What is it about water and women? Women seem drawn to it and the bonds of love, friendship and sisterhood that grow from swimming, surfing and paddling outdoors together are magical.

Many of us start water-based activities because we’re looking for something. That might be a kind of healing, new start or boost for our mental or physical health. But it means that we tend to arrive at our beaches, rivers and swim spots with open minds and we meet other open-minded people. Then, getting into cold water together is incredibly bonding. And so, it’s hardly surprising that strong friendships, bonds and relationships grow.

In January, we headed to the Mumbles, just south of Swansea, to meet four amazing groups of women who have bonded in the water. They included sisters and friends who’ve founded a surfing foundation, a couple who met in the sea, best friends and a mother and her young daughter. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing their stories.

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Women and water

While it’s wonderful to see men’s groups like the Edinburgh Blue Balls focusing on men’s mental health, men’s groups are still outnumbered by women’s in the water – especially in outdoor swimming. Why is that?

The reasons are many and varied. For a start, there’s the benefit of our wobbly bits for insulation and buoyancy. We’re not joking. A study by University of New South Wales found that women have a biological imperative to store more fat than men. The female hormone oestrogen that primes women for childbearing also reduces energy burn, meaning that women’s bodies store six to eleven per cent more fat from fewer calories.

In cold water, more fat gives a level of insulation from the cold, hence the term ‘bioprene’. But fat is also more buoyant than muscle. And women have better fat distribution than men, so all over rather than just on our stomachs. Our natural buoyancy helps make water a great leveller – swimming technique makes more difference than size or strength.

Research has also found that women cope better with pain, able to reframe discomfort positively and enjoy the process rather than focussing on the outcome. It’s really interesting how women match and even outperform men in ultra-endurance sports – the top female swimmers in the 45.8km Manhattan Island marathon swim are faster than the best men.

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Faffing and chat

But it’s the social aspect that seems to be the most important for women. A recent piece of American research found that, “Females find same-sex social interactions to be more rewarding than males, and females are more sensitive to the rewarding actions of oxytocin than males.”

Also, despite advances in gender equality, women are still more likely to work part-time than men – 38 per cent compared to 13 per cent according to figures from the Office of National Statistics. Added together, these two factors give women more time and impetus to join social swimming, surfing or paddling groups.

Then there’s the mental health factor. Women not only get more from same-sex social groups, but they’re also more likely to seek support for their mental health – this is according to the Mental Health Foundation.

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Sharing the love

Talking to our swimmers and surfers on our Love Flows photoshoot, we heard amazing stories of female friendships, relationships and support networks. From founding networks and groups such as Mental Health Swims and the Gower Women’s Surf Society, to strong bonds between friends, family and couples, we were reminded how incredible the sisterhood can be.

“We understand that learning to surf is hard and showing up at a break to surf by yourself can be even harder,” say Tirion, Ebbi and Asha from the Gower Women’s Surf Society. “By building a community, we now have a growing network of women surfers who can draw on each other for knowledge, company and support.”

Part of that support is empowering women to feel more confident in themselves. When you join women of all sizes, shapes and ages, you see for yourself the beauty that comes from difference and individuality. Instead of finding being with others wearing nothing but a swimsuit intimidating, it becomes liberating. 

That liberation and growth in self-confidence is just important to us as individuals, it's also important to each other - when you see other women enjoying their bodies, you feel like you can enjoy yours too.

“We believe in empowering everyone – people of all skin colours, body shapes, ages, sexualities, genders, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy the healing power of cold water and community,” says Rachel, founder of Mental Health Swims, who we photographed as part of our Love Flows campaign. “We are an easy-going group that prefers short dips to long distances and puts companionship before competitive swimming.”

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Mothers, sisters, friends

Over the next few weeks as we explore our participants' body stories, we'll look at how taking part in an activity together strengthens our relationships with ourselves and each other.

We'll look at how women thrive from social interactions from intimate relationships and close friendships to business partnerships and familial bonds. We'll explore how we talk to each other about our bodies - especially how we talk to our children about body image having photographed a child for the first time.

Whatever draws us to the water, there’s no doubt that the relationships we have there can be life-changing. And so the love flows.

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