Reimagining beauty: Mary's body story

August 03, 2022

Reimagining beauty: Mary's body story

Unbelievable adversity as a teenager completely changed Mary's concept of beauty. Learning how to appreciate her body for what it could do rather than what it looked like, she reached a level of self-acceptance at a young age that most people only achieve later in life - if at all.

Having recently swum the North Channel (wearing her Deakin & Blue swimsuit, of course) as part of a relay team of people with disabilities, there's no stopping Mary now. In our third Reimagining Beauty Body Story, she tells us how important it is to enjoy our amazing bodies and find beauty in our differences rather than aspiring to achieve a certain look.

What does the word beauty mean to you?

I think beauty means a variety of things. I don't see beauty as being traditional beauty. I think that's because I live with a quite obvious physical difference, so I don't conform to any of the so-called normal beauty standards. I see beauty as being healthy, being strong, being resilient, being physically active.

I also see beauty as being something that is not just external but internal. I'm quite a spiritual person and I believe that your spirit can shine through, and that if you've got a beautiful spirit it can add to your external beauty. So, I think I probably see beauty in a very different way from the traditional beauty industry.

Deakin & Blue Essential Swimsuit in Plum

Do you remember the first time you encountered the word beauty?

Yeah, actually I do, I was really young and my younger sister was an incredibly beautiful girl and woman. She's passed away now, but she was very beautiful and people would often say to her, you're a beautiful little girl. I remember feeling quite left out because she was the beautiful one, whereas I was the clever one and I secretly wanted to be the beautiful one.

And so, I think I grew up with that sense of not being as beautiful as my sister and therefore not feeling particularly confident about myself. That manifested itself in being shy. I'm not now, but I was a very shy girl. I was embarrassed about my freckles and being very skinny and so I focused on my studies and on being really physically fit instead. I did a lot of running, gymnastics, ice skating and some swimming. But then, when I was 17, I had this incredible life change which completely challenged my concept of beauty.

When I was 17 years old, I developed pain in my leg. And, when that was investigated, it turned out that I had a very serious form of bone cancer. At the time, the only treatment for that was to amputate my left leg and then to have chemotherapy.

And so, I lost my leg at a time when you're beginning to come to terms with yourself as a woman and that was very difficult experience. My self-image was massively challenged. For many years, I think I saw myself as less than beautiful. I saw myself as… well, certainly different. I didn't feel beautiful and that was really difficult.

There were other impacts of the treatment as well – I lost my hair, which again is an integral part of your femininity. So, losing my hair and losing a leg and being 17 when everybody else is beginning to go out with boys and fancy each other, it was just a really horrific experience and one that was mentally challenging.

Deakin & Blue Signature Swimsuit in Cobalt

How did you cope with such a monumental challenge?

I think the only way that I dealt with it was by pursuing my lifelong ambition of being a doctor and also by carrying on being physically active. I carried on swimming. I'd always swum. My dad was a GP and also a swimmer, and he said to me, well If you're swimming, you're still on a level playing field, it's not going to hold you back. So, he taught me to swim crawl.

From then on there was not much stopping me and I started to swim further. I also started to swim in open water. I went to university in Liverpool, so we were quite near the Lake District. So, a weekend would consist of camping in the lakes and basically going and jumping in the lakes and swimming.

I think by being active you get that sense of being a strong resilient individual who is attractive to lots of people, and it also helps you deal with whatever loss you're facing. I think I focused on that – on becoming a strong and active person. I took up cycling… and fell off lots of times! But, again, the cycling and being able to be a really good cyclist was integral to my recovery and also to my mental health. It helped me get through that period that was, looking back on it, actually quite a dark period of my life.

So, it sounds like being active has been key to changing your perception of your body.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that doing more and more swimming and realising that I actually had this quite strange skill set of being able to put up with long periods of being in cold water and also being courageous. I mean, I'd been through so much that actually jumping in a freezing cold lake was, you know, a lot easier than being told that you might likely die in the next year. So, it was like, go out and live your life and if there's a beautiful lake, well, swim in it.

I also think that I began to appreciate far more the beauty of nature and the beauty of the human body and how much it can actually adapt. Living without a limb is really difficult, but in the water, you're not disadvantaged at all. I found my mobility and my freedom was completely unhampered. And that's what I loved about it.

And then, of course, things happened, like my hair grew back and it grew back curly - it wasn't supposed to do that, but it did. And so, I think I began to embrace the differences and feel more confident with difference. Also, because I was working in a caring profession as a doctor, I began to see that there were actually advantages to having a difference and a disability and living with a really serious illness. I began to realise that I was actually much better doctor. So, it all began to feel more positive.

And yeah, I think having a sporting interest… it's about strength. It's about confidence, and I think that all helped me really come to terms with what I'd been through.

Deakin & Blue Signature swimsuit in Cobalt

Where has your swimming career taken you?

For many years, I just swam for pleasure and I swam on my own or with the family. I was slightly put off events because I didn't really want to go through the whole hassle of explaining that I use crutches, I use an artificial leg. How am I going to get in the water? How am I going to get out of the water? I just increased distances and started to swim through winters, and then got more in touch with the swimming community through social media.

And then I was approached by a fellow swimmer who is also an amputee. He had this ambitious plan of swimming the North Channel as a relay team of disabled individuals, which had never been done before. So, the North Channel is a very challenging swim and he wanted to put together a relay team of swimmers with disabilities, and actually, as it turned out, all five swimmers in the team were amputees.

So, on June the 22nd 2022, we completed the swim and became the world's first disabled team to swim the North Channel. So yeah, quite an amazing challenge and really exciting to do. I'm really proud of that achievement and I think it will be the first of many that we do as a team. We're already talking about what next.

I think that when I was swimming in the North Channel, because it's so deep and it's so clear and it was very, very calm day, I really had this sense of being at one with the water. Human bodies are largely made up of water, and it sort of felt really special to be there in that place totally alone at the time. And just feeling strong and confident in my body and feeling that, you know, I could do this. I could smash out the miles and do something that hadn't been done before.

So, it was an incredible experience, really exciting, and something that is totally unique. And I think that's what I define myself as now. 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.

How important is it to you to push out of your comfort zone and do new things?

I mean, I've been like that ever since I lost my leg. I think part of losing a limb and going through that experience was saying, you know, I faced cancer, I faced a loss of a limb, I faced death and actually, what can't I do? It's like, that was the hard bit so now I'm going to try and go to medical school. Yeah, I've done that, so now I'm going try and do other achievements and the swimming has been part of that.

When I was in the North Channel, one of the things that kept coming back to me was that there were times when I felt frightened. And I was like, yeah, but it's not as scary as having cancer at the age of 17. So, you know, crack on, smash out the miles, we'll get there eventually.

Deakin & Blue Essential Swimsuit in Plum

The North Channel crossing is the most gruelling of the Oceans Seven swims as it is. What added challenges did your team face?

Well, we had all the usual challenges but on top of that, there were the disabilities and various added medical problems and the access around the boat. We were all amputees and so I guess a lot of us also live with other injuries or pain. Personally, I have lost a part of my lung as well from where the cancer spread. So, I have problems with my right shoulder and my respiratory function is probably a bit less than it should be. I personally had that to deal with.

Other members had various different challenges, but it was also quite difficult for all of us to move about the boat on crutches or artificial limbs. And getting in and out of the boat was really tricky because the sides are quite high. So, it was fine jumping in, but getting back into the boat with tired shoulders was hard.

And then there were the challenges every swimmer faces – the cold, the fatigue, the jellyfish. There are these massive Lions Mane Jellyfish that sting and it was being conscious of them as well.

You mentioned that your cancer spread to your lung. Was that at the same time as your bone cancer?

It came back in my in my right lung, actually a long time after the original cancer. It was 17 years after the original cancer, so it was quite a surprise. The treatment for that was to have open lung surgery and remove the lung tumour, which meant that I've got a very, very large scar on my back which I call it the shark bite because it does look like one.

So, you know, that's my way I suppose of being comfortable with it, but it is visible. From the word go when I had the operation done, I did have this ambition that I was going to wear more low back dresses so that I could show off the scar because actually, although it's massive, it is a very beautiful scar and it follows the line of my ribs – the surgeon did an absolutely fantastic job.

I think people can be very self-conscious of scars and hide them away and feel that they detract from their body. But actually, it doesn't detract from your body, it makes your body more interesting and it tells a story of what you've been through. So, I try and show it off as much as I can now and I certainly don't feel embarrassed about it. I think again, it's just part of my story and who I am.

It's interesting what you say about your body telling a story. How has your attitude towards your body changed as you’ve got older?

I think that I've become a lot more confident about living with an amputation. I think, you know, as a young woman I wanted to look the same as everybody else – I wanted to wear a prosthetic. But actually, as time has gone by, I just kind of think, you know what? I am, who I am. I've achieved goals in my life that I never thought I would. And so, I'm going to show off the fact that I've done that and with such a physical setback.

So, I think I've become a lot more confident about being seen without my limb, being seen in my swimming costume, for example. Rather than seeing as 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.

My body's changed I would say positively because I'm much more muscular. I'm stronger; my limbs are stronger. You have to be strong to swim the North Channel. So, I think my body's healthier than it's ever been.

So, a lot of women lack confidence in their body's abilities as well as the way they look. What advice would you give about body confidence?

First of all, I’d say trust your body. I think that the human body is amazing and it can adapt and heal and change. So, trust your body and also listen to your body. 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.

I think also embrace difference. I think that with the body positive movement, we're seeing more and more images of people with differences, very obvious, physical differences. And actually, let's embrace that – who wants to be boring? Who wants to be the same? So, let's embrace difference and let's embrace uniqueness.

You'll probably find a lot of people who are like-minded and who feel equally embarrassed about whatever issues, whatever problems they've got. But at the end of the day, we're all different and some are more different than others.

Mary wears The Signature Swimsuit in Cobalt and The Essential Swimsuit in Plum, both in size 16 Monroe.

Read the other Body Stories in our Reimaging Beauty series:

"At 72 I can do most things. I can still dance; I can still have fun and that's really all that matters. Everybody can do something – it doesn't matter what your limitations are, what you have to look at is what you can do." Read Lindsay's story

"Just as some people are hard-wired to think they’re not beautiful, I think that I am and no one's ever going to persuade me that I'm not." Read Ellie's story

"It makes me really angry and sad that we live in this culture where we’re told that fat equals unhealthy to the point that people don't want to do the things that will make them healthy because they think they have no place there." Read Rowan's story

"It's not often what I look like that makes me feel good or bad about my body, it’s how it feels like it's working. Has it been used and do I feel fit, do I feel capable? I think that I stand up straighter when I'm feeling accomplished like when I’ve swum a cold kilometre." Read Lucy's story

“We, as grown-ups, have a responsibility to young people today… to show them that beautiful isn’t what they see on a curated, filtered phone screen. Beautiful is a lust for life. Beautiful is freedom from the shackles of media driven expectation. Beautiful is taking up the space you deserve. Beautiful is running into the sea in your pants.” Read Vix’s story

"I know that overcoming mental health is not to be sniffed at, as it were, but it's quite hard to quantify how difficult a struggle it is. You can't see it." Read Hannah's Story