We were delighted with the response to our launch of D&B x The Bluetits Body Stories last week. In this thought-provoking campaign we celebrate 10 extraordinary women who swim outside year-round. In candid conversation with us they reflect on the impact of their lived experience on their body image and body confidence, and share their deeply personal accounts of reconnecting with their bodies again.
This week we introduce Ali, a young mum of three who runs the Walloping Bluetits and who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34. Grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy listening to this remarkable woman.
Tell us a bit about you
I’m Ali, I’m a mum to three young children and I swim in the river Itchen in Winchester. It’s really lovely, clear water and there are four or five of us that swim together regularly. I used to swim with the Hampshire Open Water Swimmers but my husband is in the army and we have moved around a bit. We currently live on a military camp and there was lots of interest from others on the camp in swimming so we set up the Walloping Bluetits (we’re based in Middle Wallop) and anyone can join us for a swim.
Where does your body confidence journey begin?
Before December 2019 I’d always had an athletic body shape. I never particularly liked having my photo taken but I had never really questioned my body image or been conscious in a swimsuit - I was always fairly comfortable in my own skin. I’d had three children and so my body had been through some changes with pregnancy – stretch marks, saggier boobs and so on, but I was fairly happy on the whole.
In October 2019 I had just finished my selection for the army reserves and I was the fittest I’d ever been. Then in mid-November I felt a lump in my breast. I thought it might be injury related but went and got it checked out and was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 34. This wasn’t something we’d ever had in the family before and it was a complete shock. At the time, and partly I think because of my children, I just wanted them to get rid of it – I didn’t care how. I was given a plan which involved a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. By the Autumn I didn’t recognise the person looking back at me in the mirror. I was proud of my scars and what I had come through but my joints ached, my hair hadn’t quite recovered, my boobs were wonky and I no longer felt sexy.
I felt I needed something new to focus on but I didn’t have much energy. Having always been happy in the outdoors I was drawn to wild swimming. I looked up a local group and went along to join them. It wasn’t until the first swim with them that I thought about wearing a swimming costume. I only have one boob and I was going with total strangers. I think it was the first time I’ve ever felt anxious about my body. I didn’t want to be Ali who has cancer, but I also knew they’d think it was odd that I only had one boob. We made our way down to the river and as we were getting ready to get in I hastily blurted out “oh, by the way, I only have one boob”. I got into the water quickly and swam. The second time we went it was a slightly different group and I did the same thing again. After that time it occurred to me that no one noticed.
Wild swimming is such a personal experience and everybody is there on their own mission. Mostly people are thinking about how cold it will be! I noticed that passers-by would stop and talk to us, ask how cold it was and so on – at first I was sure they wouldn’t be able to see anything else about me, but they didn’t see me as a woman with one boob, they saw me as a woman that was getting into cold water, doing this amazing thing – getting out there and swimming. As the weeks went on I became more and more confident with my new body – the outside is different but it’s still me.
How do you feel about your body today?
I feel proud of my mastectomy scar, my battle scar. It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. I’m having another mastectomy next month so then I’ll be completely flat. I wear a prosthetic and had the option of reconstruction but I didn’t want any additional operations. I’ve always been small busted and I think that helped make the decision too.
When I don’t have my fake boobs on I don’t feel quite as womanly as I used to. But I actually quite like the ability to take them on and off! It’s liberating. My husband and kids are incredibly supportive and it hasn’t changed anything with my family. It’s really important to me that my kids see that I’m okay so if they ever have to go through something similar or know someone else who does, that they’ll be okay too. My grandma when she was much older had a breast removed and I remember looking at her as a young child and knowing that I loved her. That memory helped with my decisions too.
What makes swimming with other women special?
I discovered wild swimming just after lockdown when everyone had had a difficult year. I’ve realised that for lots of people wild swimming helps them to switch off from something – whether it’s an illness, stuff going on at home, work worries. When you’re in the water nothing else seems to matter. Your body is reacting to being in cold water and that’s all you’re concentrating on. For that short period you can’t be distracted by the washing up, or the kids not having the school trip money sorted, you forget all those things for however long you’re in the water.
I used to play hockey and if you turned up and weren’t quite with it that day then you could let the whole team down. With wild swimming you aren’t ever letting anyone down. Sometimes you can be really mentally drained but because you are so focused on your body and not on your brain it can be a really nice relief. It’s a very physical experience.
I’m always the first one to get cold in the water. My group have gotten quite used to me as towards the end of the swim my teeth start to chatter which makes them laugh. I go in for shorter swims when I need to and I’m learning about how my new body copes in cold water. I’m enjoying learning my limits.
I love swimming with the Bluetits. Everybody is there for their own personal reason and we’re all just swimming together in the moment. It’s been a great community to discover because of how many flocks there are around the UK, someone can join a Bluetit group here and if they move or visit family, they can find another flock near them.
What advice would you give to your younger self to help her develop a positive relationship with her body?
I came back from the Bluetits photoshoot feeling absolutely amazing and reflecting on what a difference a year could make. This time last year I was halfway through chemo, I’d just done the hardest bit. I felt stuck in the middle and still so far from the end. I can remember lying in bed with no hair, listening to the kids playing in the garden. I had no energy and felt really fed up and rubbish. I’d love to have shown the me back then a photo from this weekend – I don’t think I could have imagined having that energy again. I would love to go back and tell myself ‘dig in, you’re nearly there. You’ll get through this and then you’ll do a photoshoot in your swimsuit, and it will be amazing.’
I would never said yes to the Bluetits shoot before I had cancer. Since then my mindset has changed and I often think ‘you’ve had cancer, you can do anything’. It’s funny: I used to think I wanted my old self back, the woman that I was before I found the lump. But more recently I feel I am building a better me. I can’t be my old self, that life is over and it can’t come back, but I can build a new life the other side of cancer. And in this new life I say yes to things, the new one can be better.
And finally to any woman reading this, I encourage you to Check Your Bluetits regularly. You can find out more about how to check your bust at CoppaFeel! #CheckYourBluetits
Ali wears the X-Back in Cobalt in a size 12 Hepburn
Want to read more in our D&B x The Bluetits Body Storiesseries? Last week we spoke with Sian, the Founder of the Bluetits. If you haven't already, you can have a read of her story here. We'll be releasing a new Bluetits Body Story every Friday for the next 8 weeks. Sign up to our mailing list to be alerted when these beautiful accounts go live.
Want to join Ali for a swim? Visit The Walloping Bluetits
Did you know at D&B we can customise swimsuits for women who have had single or double mastectomies? We offer this service free of charge. To find out more visit our blog post on mastectomy swimwear.