In D&B x The Bluetits Body Stories we explore the impact of our lived experience on our body image through candid conversations with women about their relationship with their body and how this has changed over time.
In May this year we gathered 10 Bluetits* for a covid-compliant photoshoot on the beach in beautiful Pembrokeshire. We spent the day walking, dipping and talking. It wasn't long before we realised that whilst each had come on a different path and from a different place there was, nonetheless, a meeting of minds, a sort of 'spiritual' connection (their words, not ours) that united them. These were 10 women, all self-professed 'works in progress', who were learning to relove their bodies again.
(*Who and what are the Bluetits? Why not read our conversation with their Founder, Sian, here.)
This week we talk with Sophie who swims in Somerset.
Content warning: eating disorder
Where does your body image journey start?
As kids my sister and I did ballet for many years. My sister was always very, very skinny and really good at ballet. And I wasn’t – skinny or particularly good at it. I remember everyone talking about how talented my sister was and I think, as a young child, I equated their praise for her skill with praise for her size, her shape, her blondeness. I don’t know if that’s exactly where my body consciousness has come from, but it is a formative early memory for me.
As a child I hated wearing dresses and preferred to be wearing jeans and digging things up in the garden. I had a friend who was slim and girly and she used to talk about dieting, eating slimming foods, shaving her legs. I remember feeling completely mystified by all of it and not understanding the appeal at all. I was always the chubby friend. I’ve actually always been fairly fit and quite strong but I’m stockily-built, like the rest of my family. I don’t remember it having a huge impact on me and I wasn’t unhappy as a teenager but I was always aware of it.
I can’t put my finger on exactly what started it, but at the end of my first year of university I developed an eating disorder. It wasn’t a hugely stressful time academically but I think possibly the shock of being at university, not really knowing anyone, not having my dad around – I wasn’t coping very well with the stress in general and I became very unwell. I effectively stopped eating almost completely.
When experts talk about eating disorders they often talk about it being an expression of control when other areas of your life feel out of your control. That rang quite true for me. In fact, I think the whole behaviour was much more about exerting control over something that it was about losing weight. It’s frustrating looking back now and it’s upsetting to remember it.
I’m not sure you ever really recover from an eating disorder. It’s always there. But in the extreme it stopped almost as suddenly as it started. I just snapped I think. I had lost over 10 stone before I started putting weight back on.
My relationship with my body took a while to improve and I really struggled for some time. After I finished university I lived in London for a couple of years before moving back to the West Country where I got a job working in a bookshop in Bath. I had a really unpleasant relationship and I was drinking heavily; again I was in a bad place and I wasn’t very nice to my body for a while. And then the relationship ended and I started playing roller derby – a full contact sport played on roller skates. It’s incredible and dangerous in equal measure. Very dangerous but very, very fun.
Roller derby made me realise how strong I am. It was the first sport I’d played where body size didn’t confer benefit. You could be a tiny, skinny, 4 foot nothing twinkle toes and be amazing or you could be like me: bigger and heavier but stronger at the sport for it. In fact, sometimes in roller derby there are advantages to having a physique like mine and people who are smaller might look at me and be nervous about playing against me. It completely changed my perspective. This body, that I hadn’t liked for years and years, was something that others could be envious of it. It was a good feeling.
When I retired from roller derby I started outdoor swimming and realised this was similar in many ways: being a bit chunky is an advantage here as well. But also, and perhaps more importantly, nobody cares what you look like when you’re swimming. Nobody gives a toss, it doesn’t even come into it.
Where do you swim today?
I’m quite lucky with where I live and I swim in a couple of beautiful places. Vobster Quay which is a diving centre in an old quarry and Farleigh Hungerford - the oldest river swimming club in the country which is amazing. I had never swum in a river before and went for the first time in lockdown last year. I was really nervous but I instantly fell in love with it. I like that as well as getting a swim in and the thrill of the cold water, there is also another element: the first time I went there I saw my first Kingfisher. I’ve been slapped in the face by fish at Farleigh Hungerford! I enjoy looking at the trees, trying to spot Herons and Kingfishers, swimming past sheep and just generally enjoying how much wildlife there is.
What makes swimming outside special?
In general the people who swim somewhere like Farleigh are just there to enjoy it: to enjoy being outdoors, have a different view of the world and take everything in at river eye level.
Wild swimming can bring people together and you rarely meet someone you don’t have something in common with. I told my mum that I was doing the Bluetits shoot and she was astounded, telling me ‘You’re so brave - you won’t know anyone!’ But I knew they would all be like me – and they were! They are all Bluetits so I wasn’t worried at all, even though I’m not much of a people person. But it never even crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get on with everyone.
What does it mean to be a Bluetit?
It’s quite important to me to feel like I belong to something. After I gave up roller derby I had a period of feeling a bit lost. When I started swimming, there was a dawning realisation that there were more people out there like me and I found them all over again. Finding the Bluetits and being able to put a name on this community, this family, was really nice. It’s reassuring to know there’s that sort of group out there.
What do you love about your body today?
I’m tempted to say how strong it is but strong isn’t quite the right word. I swam in the river all the way through winter and did quite a lot of ice swimming. Somehow I never managed to get cold enough to shiver, no matter what I put my body through! All this talk of people getting too cold – I was starting to feel a bit left out! I can enjoy being in 4-5 degree water for 40 minutes. I’m so impressed that my body can do that. It’s a sort of resilience I think. And that counts for a whole lot more than a few rolls or dimples.
I am constantly surprised by the things that I can do which is quite a nice feeling. Especially because I don’t have the best relationship with my body, it doesn’t look exactly how I’d like it to, but it’s still something I can be proud of. Swimming through the icy winter has really helped me to understand that my body is brilliant.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would definitely tell her to be kinder to herself. And I would try to convince her that she won’t be happier if she’s skinny. I’ve been underweight and overweight and it really makes no difference. In fact, I was more miserable when I was skinny. I was waiting for that magical moment of being thin enough to finally be really confident, happy and outgoing. But of course I was still exactly the same person. So I would try and explain that to a younger version of myself. I’d tell her ‘chill out, do what makes you happy, wear what makes you happy.’ I do still struggle with self-confidence– talking to people or meeting new people – as I suppose lots of people do. But much less of it now is about how I look. I’m much more confident now and I do feel happier being me.
Sophie wears the X-Back in Plum in a size 18 Hepburn
Want to read more in our D&B x The Bluetits Body Stories series? Have a read of our conversations so far with Sian, the Founder of the Bluetits and Ali, a mum of three who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34. 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 Sophie for a swim? Visit the Somerset Bluetits