Falling leaves and fresh autumnal mornings are so evocative of fresh starts and learning. Whether or not you’re still involved in the education system, it’s a time lots of us think about learning something new.
You may be contemplating your first winter of swimming, or using the colder season as your time to learn a new stroke or improve your technique in the pool ahead of next summer.
Those of you who are parents may have young children starting swimming lessons, while those with older children starting school might be taking the opportunity to do something new for yourself.
While starting something new and pushing out of your comfort zone is exciting, it can often feel daunting. Sadly, when it comes to swimming, the way we feel about our bodies in swimwear is still a huge barrier for many women.
In 2015, Sport England carried out a huge survey about participation in sport. It found that five hundred thousand women gave up swimming and 50% of mums had stopped taking their children swimming. Why? Because of a lack of body confidence – they didn’t swim because of how they felt about their bodies in swimwear.
“One of the things that breaks my heart is when you hear about women who are not willing to get into the water because of the way they look,” says swimming coach, Rowan. “So, the other day, I was chatting to a woman at the marine lake and she was admiring all the swimmers who were getting into the water. And she said, I wish I could do that. I'd really love to do that. And I said, well, you know, I happen to be a coach. I do introductory sessions if you want some tips. And she said, would you run a session at five in the morning because I don't want anyone to see me in a swimming costume?”
And yet, 63% of women surveyed by Outdoor Swimmer magazine said that swimming was vital for their mental health. Swimming also has huge health benefits for people of all ages, and for children, it can actually help their growth and development.
So, what can we do to feel confident enough to put on that swimsuit? We asked some swimmers who have faced their own body confidence demons to tell us how they plucked up the courage to try something new.
Finding body confidence
Gaining body positivity can feel like finding a golden ticket – it’s something you want, but you feel like the chances of getting it are pretty remote. But there’s lots you can to feel a bit more confident and happier in your body.
For a start, you don’t have to love the way you look. Body acceptance might be a gentler, more realistic goal – instead of saying, I love my fat bottom, wobbly thighs and caesarean overhang, you can say, I accept that this is how my body looks and I’m going to enjoy it anyway.
Ellie swam through her first winter outdoors last year. She already had body confidence – it was seaweed and creatures in the water that gave her the colly-wobbles - and she explains how she sees herself.
“When I look at myself in the mirror and I see my scars on my breasts, gallbladder and c-section scars and I see my c-section overhang, I just look at my body and I accept it for what it is…” she says, “and then I'm like, oh, I've got nice eyes or let's just put my clothes on and go and start dinner. I suppose the negative thoughts don't outweigh the positive ones, but also… I give more credence to the positive ones.”
Secondly, (and we would say this) finding a swimsuit that makes you feel great has a huge impact. In order to make you feel more confident, you can choose something that feels nice to wear and fits well so that it’s comfortable.
“I'm not just saying this because Deakin & Blue put me on their website, but invest in a good costume, especially when you're not a teenager without any lumps and bumps, when you've got a bit of shape. I've got big boobs. It's lovely to have something that does actually support you, especially if you're trying to swim better,” says Lindsay, who’s trying to improve her technique at the age of 72. “I think to feel confident in yourself, you have to find something that makes you feel better.”
Finding personal confidence
Another great tip is to focus on what your body can do rather than what it looks like. The very act of learning something new can be just what you need to give your self-confidence a boost. It’s always worth remembering that the challenges that scare you the most are often the most rewarding.
“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?” says Lucy, who took up cold water swimming after getting a cochlear implant. “And if I feel fit and capable, I kind of look better in my eyes. I think that I stand up straighter when I'm feeling accomplished like when I’ve swum a cold kilometre.”
Finding your tribe
While that self-confidence is deeply personal and comes from within, having a supportive group to cheer you on makes all the difference. If you’re about to take on winter swimming for the first time, for example, it’s worth finding a group to support you such as Mental Health Swims or The Bluetits.
“When people join The Bluetits they quickly realise that others don’t see them as they see themselves,” says Bluetits director, Sian. “We’re all tits and bums and fannies falling out all over the place… 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.”
If you’re looking to learn to swim, find an instructor or coach with whom you feel comfortable and safe. If you’re taking your baby or toddler swimming, go with friends, or find a specialist class with other new parents in exactly the same position as you.
Ultimately, getting out and moving will have huge benefits for your mental and physical health. If you’re a parent or carer, swimming classes also help you bond with your baby or toddler as well as giving them health and development benefits.
And whether you’re taking your first icy plunge, learning to swim front crawl or floating around a hydrotherapy pool with your newborn, stepping out of your comfort zone and into a swimming costume will make you feel amazing.
Back to Sian: “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,” she says. “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.”