We are absolutely delighted to launch The D&B X Bluetits Body Stories: a campaign celebrating 10 women from around the UK who swim year-round in lakes, rivers and the sea. Each of these women have overcome personal challenges which have impacted their body confidence. We are so grateful to them for talking to us so honestly and reflectively about the journeys they have been on as they rediscover, reconnect and relearn to love and appreciate the bodies they wear. Usually cold water swimming has played a key part in this!
We start this wonderful campaign today by speaking with Sian – the Founder and Director of The Bluetits Chill Swimmers Ltd. I (Rosie) had the pleasure of first meeting and swimming with Sian when we met in St David’s in 2018. I think I probably heard Sian’s glorious laugh before I saw her – Sian is the sort of character who makes everyone instantly feel at ease: she is a loud, no-bullshit type and the perfect founder for a welcoming, inclusive and fun community of swimmers who are all about letting go, relaxing and enjoying the moment.
A huge thanks from team D&B to the wonderful Bluetits who have shared their stories with us. We’ll be releasing these over the coming 10 weeks.
For now, over to Sian…
Tell us a bit about you
I am Sian Richardson. I live at Pencarnan farm – I was born here 56 years ago and my family have been here for over 100 years (my father was born here in 1915). I run a campsite above the clifftop and I’m a director of the Bluetits Chill Swimmers Ltd. My five children: Ella, Jemeima, Wil, Ben & Hal, and grandchildren have all chosen to build their lives here at Pencarnan too - which makes me very happy!
Tell us about your relationship with your body confidence
I have been many different sizes in my life. I’m quite passionate about clothes and I own everything from a size 12 to a size 20. I never throw things away because I know my body weight can change and that if something doesn’t fit me now, that I will likely wear it again when it does. When I was younger and fatter I didn’t like my body so much because society didn’t like it. I remember thinking ‘I’m fat so I can’t do this.’ When I was thinner I felt amazing and of course everyone tells you how well you look. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised I’m not that bothered anymore and that over my life my body has done amazing things. My body was never made to be an athlete but it can be fit for purpose.
I did 15 years of long distance running and triathlons and throughout the time I was everything from a size 12 to a size 18. And nothing ever stopped me – I just bought bigger and smaller trisuits. I never found that I was faster or slower – I’m slow at everything! I wasn’t better when I was fitter. I could run further, yes, but not particularly faster. So I’ve learned not to worry about my size too much. It’s my brain that makes me do things and so if my brain wants to, it will happen.
Along my journey I’ve met different shaped triathletes including big women who would go thundering past me at races. We think fat people can’t do things: they can! And really well! So doing more sport made me realise that. So much of what limits us is up there in our heads and not at all to do with our bodies.
The only thing where my body size has really benefited me is when I was doing an ice mile. I did it in 2018 when I was a good size 18-20 and I think I did it at the right time – my body was really fit for purpose. Now that I’m a size 14 I find the cold water really quite cold. I’ve spoken to other people about this – GB ice swimmers, most of whom are very thin and they tell me “it’s all in your mind” but these days when I go in the cold water I’m usually the first person out. I did some ice training over this winter and it felt like starting from scratch again but mainly I was just really cold! I found myself thinking ‘I’ve done an ice mile already, why am I doing this again?!’
When we (Rosie and I) first met I was coming up to having my hips done, I wasn’t walking very well and I was on crutches. I’d put on a lot of weight and had depression. Until then I had never been ill, never suffered with chronic pain and always been able to do what I wanted to do. But as my hips started to deteriorate I got to 54 and felt like life was over. But after I’d had my first hip done I started to feel really good. After then after the second hip I felt invincible! I had put on four stone eating and drinking too much but I started walking and moving again it just came off. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and my mind kicked in.
Now I appreciate so much more that a body must be fit for purpose. I know what it’s like when you can’t walk, and you feel as though you can’t do anything. I wasn’t happy and eating and drinking made me feel better, even though it made me less able to move – I was in a negative cycle. So it was a great time to do an ice mile! I used that fat body to keep me warm in 4 degree water.
Now I’m moving, walking and swimming constantly and I really appreciate this body that I have because it can function again. The size of it is unimportant, I’m just grateful that it works.
When I hear people say "I’m fat so I can’t wear a swimsuit" I want to say to them (and often I do say) “you can walk, you can stand, you can move, be grateful! You are healthy, that is an amazing body.” How great if we can try and celebrate this: that the body works. And yes, if it’s too big or too thin or you don’t like it then you can try and do something about it. Or try to accept what you have. Wear things that make you feel good and celebrate being healthy.
I feel sad that people look at themselves and think bad things because we don’t see other people like that. When people join The Bluetits they quickly realise that others don’t see them as they see themselves. We’re all tits and bums and fannies falling out all over the place. I’ve become more comfortable with my own naked body in the last few years as I’ve swum more and met more people. You see different types of bodies including those who have no qualms about drying off naked without making excuse or fuss. When someone is in a swimsuit you don’t stare at them. You don’t look at all. We’re all there to do the same thing. And we’re all far too worried about our own bodies. And of course we’re worried about the sea, the cold, the adrenaline. But you come out and you feel amazing because you’ve done that thing that scares you. And you’re on your natural high.
There aren’t many things that make you feel so amazing as exercise and swimming is such a quick fix. When I’m walking it takes me about a mile before my grumpy brain disappears. With swimming it happens in about 30 seconds. You go from grump to amazing almost instantly and I’ve seen this transformation in 100s of people. And what’s more, most people feel much, much better about themselves a few months in.
Many people are nervous about putting a swimsuit on so we say "just come when you’re ready". But a couple of weeks in and they don’t care anymore. It’s the doing of something that brings all that adrenaline and endorphins. And you move better: it doesn’t have to be manic triathloning. It can be as much as walking from the carpark to the beach, bending down to pick up your towel, walking into the sea. Tiny movement starts to affect your brain, your brain starts to say 'you’re ok, you’re quite good at this' and before you know it you start to feel better.
What is the earliest memory you have of your body image?
I was always a chunky child. I was musical and artistic but not sporty. I remember in a sports class in primary school we were doing headstands. Horrific. I was trying and the Headmaster said to me “good luck with that one Sian”. Everyone laughed. It seemed like all the thin kids were doing it easily and the all the bigger children were struggling. I associated his comment about my ability with a comment about my weight. What I heard him say was ‘you’re too fat to do that’. I must have been ten years old but that comment has stayed with me until now.
My daughter Ella started doing triathlons when she was 16 - about 12 years ago. I was taking her to training and thought ‘I’ll give this a go’. And that’s how I started getting back into exercise. I started running first and I ran at night because I thought ‘fat girls don’t run’. A friend was a runner and I kept messaging her and she told me to keep at it. So I worked up to a mile, then a half marathon, then I thought sod that, let’s do a marathon and then, sod that, let’s do a 52-miler. I was always ungainly and always last. But I’d pick anyone up along the way, forgoing my race to bring someone along with me and make sure they finished theirs. I never worried about finishing. But the more I ran the more I noticed that runners and triathletes were generally miserable because their times were crap or their bike wasn’t quite right. When I took up swimming and joined cold water groups I realised these people are all really happy! They’re lovely! It’s a very different community.
So I started running in my 40s – even after all those years it felt like a way of distancing myself from what the teacher had said to me when I was 10 years old. I would have loved to have gone back to him and said “look at this motherfucker now”. But he was dead by then. But still, I finally had that feeling, 30 years later, that I can do this.
Where did the idea for the Bluetits come from?
I trained for two years for my Ironman and in the second year of training my hips started to go. I was back and forth to the doctors who reassured me that I’d be fine but after the Ironman if felt as though my body was broken. I knew it wasn’t working and I needed something else. Someone suggested I try ice swimming. All you need is a swimsuit, they told me. And maybe a thermometer. Up until that point I’d been a real kit queen, always wanting to have the best Garmin and the best wetsuit. So I couldn’t believe it. She suggested doing an ice mile, and I like the extreme of every sport, so I decided to give it a go.
I started swimming in cold water and my husband said to me "you’re laughing a lot, you’re making a lot of noise." I’d always taken my triathlon training very seriously but the swimming just seemed ridiculously fun. We decided to give ourselves a funny name and my husband suggested The Bluetits, for obvious reasons. A friend designed the bird logo and we had some t-shirts made. Then we started looking for different swim spots. We enjoyed ‘going on tour’, dipping the thermometer in and squealing "it’s 7 degrees!" We made a lot of noise. People used to come up to us and say "do you know how cold it is?! What are you doing?" But mostly people wanted to join us and to get involved.
I started giving people badges to commemorate their various swims and achievements – I loved this. Then about two years ago my husband asked me "do you realise how much money we’re spending on badges?!" So I started to sell t-shirts to cover the cost of the badges. And then my daughter in law, Sarah, said "would you like some help running this?" And I met Gail, and Sam and the whole thing came to life and we established The Bluetits Chill Swimmers Ltd as a social enterprise. We launched the Great Tit Weekend shortly after that with 100 women joining us for a weekend of walking and swimming. It was tremendous fun.
Now I don’t do very much with the running of the business because it bores the tits off me and I’m always getting in trouble for saying yes to things without checking with the team. But I’m still the front woman – I’m good at it. I can talk ‘til the cows come home and I will go out on a limb and do anything for anyone. Recently I met someone who was very nervous about wearing a swimsuit so I met her for a private swim to build her confidence. I do stuff like that, making people feel welcome and otherwise go about spreading the word about what we’re up to.
But mostly I just stand there in all my lumps and bumps and lady bits and I hope that I’m showing people that it’s okay to be 56, wrinkly, a little bit baggy and rough about the edges. And it’s fine to put one foot in front of the other and give it a go.
What makes the Bluetit community special?
People are amazing for just turning up to a cold water swim. It’s easy to look at professional ice swimmers swimming across the Antarctic and say "they’re amazing" but actually I think what they’re doing isn’t necessarily achievable, they’re just reminding us that the human body is amazing. But the grass roots people who turn up swim after swim, to do it again and again; they bring a towel and a piece of cake and hold someone’s hands as they go in – those are the people who really inspire me.
There are some people who turn up and tell me their stories, about what they’ve overcome and I think THEY are the amazing ones. It makes me cry. Real adversity, real illness, real mental suffering – all sorts of things – but these people turn up on the beach regardless. There was a woman with a disability who joined us at a swim recently. There were 34 of us and the woman had never shown her body to anyone. She put her hand on her heart and said "I’m doing it" and she went in. What a wonderful woman. She strode down the beach and you could see every step was a challenge. But she came out of the water and fist pumped the air. Four weeks on this woman is unstoppable. Stuff like that that really gets me.
Everybody has something about their body they don’t like and it’s really shocking that we all feel this way. I’m not knocking it or belittling it – it’s real – but it’s just so sad that as human beings we have this thing. Why can’t we get up and think ‘what I see is beautiful’. It’s our society and this stupid idea of perfection. But perfection is having a functioning body.
What makes you feel incredible in your body?
I have a body that is fit for purpose, a body that works: that’s what makes me feel incredible. I get up in the morning, get dressed and get out there – I have a body that functions really well. I am able to walk and everything functions - I have appreciated this even more in lockdown. It’s about being grateful for what I have: my health.
What advice would you give if you could go back and speak to your younger self, the Sian who was mocked as she tried to do a headstand?
I think now I’d ask the teacher, what do you mean by that? Because he might not have meant anything at all - he might not even have been speaking to me. What he should have said was "okay, Sian I can see you’re struggling, how can I help?" But I think if I could have gone away and thought about what he had actually said to me – which was nothing to do with my weight – I could have asked myself what it was about this that bothered me. And if it was the cruel suggestion that I couldn’t do it, then I would have told myself ‘prove them wrong’. Because 30 years later that is what I was doing – proving the world wrong, showing that I could be an athlete!
And, finally, if someone reading this wants to join the Bluetits how can they get involved?
Anyone who wants to get involved is welcome to join us. Simply message the Bluetits Chill Swimmers on Facebook and we can help connect you to a local group or if there isn’t one locally, we can help you set one up and give you all the help and support you need. We have over 120 group admins around the world and groups don’t have to be massive – some have only four people in them.
I love The Bluetits. I’m amazed that the majority of groups run with same ethos. Most weekends at Pencarnan I have visiting Bluetits and so far all of them say the same thing about their local group – how welcoming and accepting the groups are. I don’t know how that happens – only that perhaps you wouldn’t approach us to run a group if you didn’t have that quirky Bluetit thing in the first place. We are a bunch of cake eating, gin-swilling tits who make a lot of noise – some people come to swim, some people come and don’t swim -and that’s fine too. We are safe space, whether you’re in the water or not.
Sian wears the X-Back in Liberty Zoo Print in a size 14 Monroe
About The Bluetits
The Bluetit mission is to create a confident, capable community through cold water swimming and adventures.
No club fees, registration, rules, requirements, expectations. We are an informal group of mixed gender people who just like to swim together. Some carry on throughout the winter months, some don’t. Some enter swimming events, some swim across the Channel, some meet every morning same time, same place and swim chat their way through the water. Others swim ice miles, some meet for coffee and cake, and maybe a swim or even a paddle. Our link to each other initially is the joy of challenging ourselves to potter in and around open water together throughout the year in swimsuits.
Find your local flock
For more information visit:
The Bluetits Chill Swimmers on Facebook
The Bluetits Website