Content warning: today's Body Story contains reference to sexual abuse, eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. If you're not in the right frame of mind or think you might find this content triggering, then please feel free to give it a miss today.
In today's D&B x Bluetits Body Story we speak with Fran who lives and swims in Lincolnshire. Fran courageously shares her story as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the ensuing journey to re-take ownership of her body.
Experiences like Fran's are hard to discuss but we are so grateful to Fran for sharing this difficult story with us. We hope, along with Fran, that her reflective and powerful account might provide hope and light to others. Thank you Fran.
Tell us a bit about you
Hi, I am Fran, I’m well into my 50s and I have struggled with poor body confidence after experiencing childhood sexual abuse, which led me to hate my body and what it represented.
Open water swimming has really supported me to accept who I am. It has taken many years to learn to love my own body: it’s strength, it’s weaknesses, the secrets behind my eyes.
I swim in the river Witham in Boston in Lincolnshire. We have a beautiful local place, occasionally seals swim with us and it is fresh water even though it goes off to the sea.
I have two adult children, both of whom I am incredibly proud of who do amazing professional jobs. It was vitally important to me that my children got what all children deserve: safety, unconditional love and fun. Having a solid, loving, gentle and supportive husband who remains constant in his love for me has been so vital.
Where does your body confidence story begin?
My story feels hard to share but I do in the hope that it may help other people who may have had a similar experience. I had a 10-year history of childhood sexual abuse which left a significant mark on me. Sometimes childhood trauma sets us down a track of poor self-belief because there is so much shame attached to the experience. Shame is like having tenacious velcro hoops attached to you, despite constantly and painfully trying to detach them, the past feelings of shame reattach. This Shame meant that I have hardly ever spoken about my experience.
I came from a family full of brothers and was the only girl. I hated being the only girl, because this seemed to single me out to be abused and I longed to be like the boys. For a long time, I didn’t want to be female. When I hit puberty and developed curves I felt an increased risk, and so I covered my body, living in baggy boy’s clothes in order to hide. In my late teens I struggled with an eating disorder associated with my own rejection of my body and what I felt it represented. From the outside it might be hard to imagine my poor body confidence because I look like an average size 12 women, however I have had an incredibly low body confidence associated with my experience and have felt deeply ashamed of my body. It’s so important to never assume how a person might feel about their body.
During my childhood I was often given sweets or a few pennies - we were very poor so this was huge for me. Later I would then be abused. The sweets and pennies were a payment for what was to come. This association between gifts and what would happen later became something from my past that for years I carried. I couldn’t accept not only gifts, but time or affection without feeling vulnerable. I would always ensure I gave back more than I received so I never owed a debt. I guess I even chose professions where I could give out more. These learned childhood patterns of behaviour are hard to disentangle without support. With support it is possible to stop destructive patterns of behaviour but it takes bravery and courage to change.
I struggle with the stereotype that sexually abused people can have. Today I’m a professional, a mother, I have several degrees. You can become confident and strong, fun and fabulous. I am who I am, my past is part of who I am today, and I’m okay. I can almost say ‘I’m magnificent’. I really don’t want anyone to waste years in a body they don’t love, especially through abuse. But it’s not an easy fix. I left school with no qualifications, learning was not high on my agenda during childhood.
The word I use for myself is resilient. I am incredibly resilient. This body has gone through so much. It was abused at the hands of older adults, it has lost a few body parts, it has carried children, it has lost children, it has been broken physically and mentally, it has a few pins and plates, the thyroid has packed up, the hormones have stopped, it’s got osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease and yet it is resilient. It’s flipping amazing actually. I ran a sub 2-hour half marathon last week, I swim, I cycle, I do yoga. I want other people to know they can get past childhood trauma; they can learn to love their body too. It has taken me 50 years but I got there. Saying it here is part of the journey of acceptance.
Of course, it’s a constant battle, I’m not saying I’ve made it. Small things can set me off. I look for rejection everywhere. But my experience also makes me very empathetic - I’m good at picking up on micro-nuances and the body language of others, after years of being alert to these as a child. A long time ago I realised that if I say “how are you” first, then I could avoid being asked how I am. I am very caring to others and have had a long profession in nursing and counselling, always wanting to make others feel better, valued and heard. I am always looking to encourage people; I know how much a few encouraging supportive words can be life changing. You never know what battles people are fighting.
Getting into a swimming costume has been particularly huge for me in the past. You can’t hide being female in a swimming costume. Getting into the water usually means wearing a swimming costume and it has left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. For me, body confidence is not about being a certain size or shape. It’s about the connection between what your head feels and believes about your body. For years, my head told me that my body was at fault, wrong, dirty and I should be ashamed of it. These were also the messages repeated to me as a child in secret. Changing my belief about my body has been a long and difficult battle but I am so proud of everything it stands for and has overcome.
Shame and silence are often joined together. Abusers can use secrecy and silence as threats. But this silence and not speaking out only protects the abusers and deepens the shame. Speaking out, however hard, takes back that imbalance of power. I acknowledge it’s so hard and scary to break silence, I know telling my story here, has thrown open old messages I used to believe. Sometimes it feels so hard to speak out when you have been so violated, I held onto my righteous anger for so long, but realised it was only hurting myself.
Loving your body, is also about learning to appreciate and accept your inner self and emotional feelings. Valuing and accepting your experience, your history and total uniqueness of yourself.
When did you start swimming?
When the children left home I started doing some triathlons and learnt to swim a little better. I had always cycled and run as physical exercise really helps my mental health and I struggle with depression. However, I got injured and started doing open water swimming a couple of years ago. I found that when I’m in the water it embraces me to a point that I feel totally immersed and accepted. This doesn’t happen in a swimming pool – it’s about being a part of nature. Losing yourself, letting go of your thoughts and just being in the water.
And I think open water swimming brings together like-minded women. I don’t feel judged for my hairy legs or anything else. We are all here together to be embraced by the water.
What is it that makes wild swimming different to pool swimming?
I swam through the winter this year, breaking the ice to swim. When you get in and it’s really, really cold, and your skin prickles, it makes you feel completely and utterly alive. Every cell in your body is awake. This is a complete opposite to times earlier in my life when I have contemplated death by suicide, when the inner struggle and flashbacks felt too overpowering. Childhood sexual abuse can be a very lonely dark place.
Swimming in the open water also immerses you in amazing nature – swans, ducks and geese and a seal sometimes swim with us, recently I swam by a deer grazing by the river. Swimming outside is very much about being a part of nature. I love all of that. It takes a certain kind of person to get into a river or a lake – they’re not bothered about muddy toes or a few weeds. You just want to be in the water, no makeup and hair plastered to your head. You can scream and swear and no one cares. Its 100% natural, warts and all. Whether size you are, whatever your hang-ups might be. Standing on a cold river side together before and after a swim, kinda makes you very connected to others in very primeval way.
And how do you feel in your body today?
I have had therapy over the years, then I did a masters in counselling and psychotherapy in my late 40s with a great friend, who became my best friend and soul mate. Slowly for the first time ever I fully shared with her my experiences. I waited for the repulsion and rejection but she just accepted and loved me. If she could, I knew others might. I used to expect everyone to see me how I saw myself. I projected my own beliefs onto everyone. Learning that others actually liked me was huge. It was like, in my head, I was marked out as an unworthy, unlovable person. I still feel surprised when people include me and like me. I am very thankful and blessed to also have local running and triathlon groups who have embraced me as a friend.
Changing your belief about yourself and your body isn’t just a quick fix. Like many things it takes practice. I give myself positive affirmations and through exercise, including wild swimming, I feel empowered. I can look at myself in the mirror now and say “I’m ok”. I do fear the judgement of others. But I tell myself now that if people judge me, then that is their issue and not mine. I am proud of what this body has gone through and what it continues to achieve. I am not saying there are days I do not want to face the world and long to stay under the duvet, but I know that to take one small step which leads to another and find a positive in one small thing. I try and take care of my body, eating cleanly as much as possible. I feel a bit like a warrior, battle scared and bruised but survived to tell the tale. We are all warriors that face battles internally and externally. Be proud of each step you make.
Hitting the Menopause has also hit my emerging body confidence. I can be anywhere and experience a hot flush. It’s unbearable, I hate it. The only place I never have a hot flush is in the river. The flushes make me feel anxious especially not knowing when they will happen. During these power surges I feel I need to escape from the room and find cool air. It can feel suffocating. It affects what you wear, how you sleep and fogs your memory. But on the positive side I feel it’s important to now live life to the full. I can enjoy doing crazy, carefree things. Menopause in some ways is a reminder that you are in a new stage of life, so now is the time to really live and enjoy every single minute of it. It doesn’t mean you can’t still do things. I’m planning on doing a full Ironman in my 60s. You only get one chance at life so fill it with adventures.
My best friend, who heard my story, my mum and my dear sister in law, have all died over the last few years. These three women influenced my life in various ways. They left a legacy within me. Life is precious, short and you get one chance. Take a small step towards loving yourself and life and see where life takes you.
What does it mean to be a Bluetit?
I love being a Bluetit. It connects you with like-minded people. It’s a philosophy, a way of being that just embraces you – it is about being part of something very, very special. I haven’t yet met a Bluetit who hasn’t had that same philosophy. It’s a place where everyone knows your name and you are part of a group. There’s power in that. And there’s friendship, acceptance, safety in that too.
I used to regularly pool swim but find the pool a bit hot now. In the river you keep an eye out for others. I have stopped swimming crawl all the time because I want to see nature as I swim, to watch out for other Bluetits. In many ways outdoor swimming isn’t so much a sport as a pleasurable activity. A lot of women do competitive stuff at my age where it is all about getting better, faster, fitter. But with outdoor swimming there is no pressure on me to be better, swim faster, or have people behind me wanting to overtake and that’s really important, just to be able to enjoy it, be in it. It’s my safe, happy space.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d convince her that it wasn’t her fault, she was the child. I’d tell her that she and her body are loveable. I would take her hand, lead her out of the dark, make her feel safe, secure and loved. I would tell her to speak out and tell someone.
Want to read more in our D&B x Bluetits Body Stories series? Have a read of the previous conversations in this series including with Bluetits Founder Sian and fellow Bluetits Ali, Sophie, Lisa, Nic, Tracie & Wendy. Enjoying reading? Join our community to be alerted when new stories go live.
If you're an adult survivor of any form of child abuse you can visit NAPAC for more information and support.
If you have survived rape, sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse you can contact The Survivors Trust for specialist support.
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We know that no two “size 12” bodies are the same, so our sizing is tailored to three different body shapes:
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|BRA CUP SIZE||AA - B||C - E||F - HH|
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|BIKINI TOP SIZING||Cup Size|
Band Size (inches)
|26-28||8 Hepburn||8 Monroe||8 Hendricks|
|28-30||10 Hepburn||10 Monroe||10 Hendricks|
|30-32||12 Hepburn||12 Monroe||12 Hendricks|
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