Making blue spaces more inclusive

May 31, 2023

Making blue spaces more inclusive

I feel free, I feel brave, I feel like me. These are phrases that many women use when they swim, surf or paddleboard. It’s part of the benefit of being outdoors and in, on or by water.

That sense of freedom comes from the expansiveness and beauty of the natural world. But it’s also about escaping from the trappings of the manmade world, of technology, expectations and pressures of modern life. For the women who face added barriers, finding escape at the beach, riverbank or lakeside is particularly therapeutic. And that’s why it’s so crucial to help everyone gain access to these natural places by recognising those barriers and breaking them down.

We speak to three women about the barriers that they’ve faced and how they’re helping other people experience the benefits of getting outdoors and enjoying blue spaces.

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Appearances matter

Women face loads of societal pressure around our appearance. Messages about how we should look are drip-fed to us for our entire lives and we internalise them, turning ourselves into our own harshest critic. The result is that many of us feel shame and embarrassment about our appearance, like we shouldn’t wear a bikini or swimsuit in public, that we need to apologise for our bodies and, in some cases, that we don't belong at the pool or beach.

Worries about appearance are a huge barrier to sport. The 2016 survey that inspired Rosie to create her own range of swimwear found that 65% of mums said that they felt judged when they put on a swimming costume.

One of the main issues is the eternal quest for thinness. Being fat, or feeling that you’re fat, not only stops you from wearing your swimwear with pride, it can also stop you from going swimming or surfing at all.

“I’m saddened by how many women are unhappy with their bodies and the impact this can have on their wider life,” says life coach, Claudine. “It’s not just about looking in the mirror, feeling sad and getting on with the day. Poor body image can affect every area of a woman’s life; relationships, career, social life. I use my skills to help women transform that connection and make peace with their body, and by default, truly accept themselves, so they can do all those things they are holding themselves back from.”

In her Body Story, she told us how changing her mindset has transformed how she feels about her own body – especially since suffering from a minor stroke. She now uses her own experience and blue spaces into her coaching practice, swimming in or just being by natural water to help women accept their bodies.

“Over the last few years, I can see I’m the biggest I’ve ever been but it’s also the period in which I’ve been most accepting of my body and also feeling so good mentally too,” she says. “My recovery has been slow. But it has given me so much more gratitude and appreciation for what my body does and what it is really worth. I’m no longer going to let a soft tummy, cellulite and big thighs hold me back from living my life to the full. And this is the mindset shift I help my clients achieve, so they can explore and live out their dreams.”

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Fitting in

As well as body size and shape, we’ve also heard about other aspects of appearance that affect how we take part in sport. For example, somebody who has a visible difference or disability might feel too self-conscious to wear a swimsuit. Mary, whose leg was amputated when she had bone cancer in her late teens, has found a mixture of growing older and achieving more in her swimming has helped her wear her swimsuit with confidence.

“I think I've become a lot more confident about being seen without my limb, being seen in my swimming costume, for example,” she says. “Rather than seeing that I’m less than other people or different in a negative way, I now see it as my story. It's a really unique story, but it's a story of overcoming and it's a story of strength. And if you don't appreciate that, well actually, you can move over.”

While fitting in has become less important to Mary, she has also had to overcome barriers to swimming such as asking for support at events. Last year, she was one of a team of five amputees to swim across the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland. By putting herself out there and showing us what people with disabilities can do, she’s not only making herself feel better, but also helping other people with disabilities to see what’s possible and those who organise events think more about how to be inclusive.

“We're all unique, but I suppose I live with a really visible difference, and it's about embracing that and using it to show other sides to your character and spirit,” she says. “When you want to do something, try and if it hurts too much then maybe you need to think again, but give anything a go because life is short and isn't there to be wasted. So just give it a go and see. If you can swim or if you can cycle it's going to help your mental health, it's going to help your confidence.”

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Like attracts like

As Mary rightly says, part of the challenge is representation. One of the reasons we try to feature lots of different body sizes, shapes, skin colours and abilities – and an intersection of it all – is because of the law of attraction. In psychology, this is used to describe the way in which we’re drawn to other people who look like us. That means, if we see someone like us doing an activity, we’re more likely to try it ourselves. On the flip side, if we don’t see anyone like us, we’re less likely to try it.

In her Body Story, Kelly gives us a great example. Working as a mountain leader and swimming coach, she found that being young (she’s 26), black and a curvy female was quite unique in outdoor spaces. So much so, that people subconsciously think that she doesn't belong there - and they tell her so.

“Often, even when I'm leading a hike, people come up to me and go, do you need help? Are you lost? Or, when I'm teaching someone to swim, I get asked, are you guys ok? Can you swim? And, it’s just like, well, you can see I'm in the middle of a lesson,” she says. “It sometimes comes from a really good place of, we care and we're worried and we want you to be safe. But it's really annoying, and it's so undermining because everyone’s watching.”

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Breaking down barriers

So, what can we do? You might be somebody who enjoys a quiet swim with friends, someone who wears a bikini with pride or somebody who just likes to be beside the sea. Whoever you are, however you enjoy the water, you could support a friend who’s less confident about getting out and about.

Rachel took that to a whole new level. As a person who suffers from mental illness, she understood that not all differences are visible. She set up Mental Health Swims to give people with invisible disabilities and mental health issues a safe, non-judgemental space to explore dipping in outdoor water. So, knowing about groups like Mental Health Swims is a way you can signpost people to get support.

And it never hurts to check your own mindset. By noticing what makes your local area welcoming and what creates barriers, you can help remove barriers for others. Sometimes that’s physical barriers, such as sharing details about accessibility where you are. Sometimes it’s social barriers, such as saying hello to someone who’s new. Sometimes its supporting and signposting organisations who support inclusion.

The wonderful thing about water is that it’s a great leveller. Whoever you are, whatever your story, you can benefit from being in, on or by the water. Let’s help each other get there.