Image by Paul Meyler
Ella has been a longtime friend to D&B. When we first launched back in 2017 Ella got in touch via Instagram to ask about our sizing plans. She was kind, friendly but firm - something along the lines of 'it's really great what you're doing.. but there is demand for bigger sizes than you currently offer, so please let me know when you expand your range.' We'd launched with a small range in sizes 8-16. Ella's wasn't the only voice asking for bigger sizes. She kindly volunteered as our fit model, joined product development meetings and within six months we launched sizes 18 and 20.
Since those early days Ella has continued to be a cheerleader and critical friend to the brand. She's been an enthusiastic advocate for more size increases (we launched a number of styles in sizes 22 and 24 earlier this year) and is a constant source of both friendship and swimming inspo. With her encouragement I've gone from being a heated-lido kind of girl (and no shame in it) to enthusiastically charging into the Irish Sea off the Pembrokeshire Coast in January (and rather enjoying it too...).
This body story explores the tension between feeling good in our bodies and loving them, every day. We can be grateful for the things our bodies do whilst wrestling with things we don't like about them. If you love this, then I highly recommend following Ella on Instagram.
Tell us a bit about you.
I’m an outdoor swimming journalist: I cover stories in and out of the water. I’m contributing editor for Outdoor Swimmer magazine and I write for a number of other publications including Stylist, The Times and The Guardian. I’m the Director of Dip Advisor, an outdoor swim guiding business where we take people to enjoy outdoor swimming spaces. Dip Advisor is not about event swimming or competing, but about the joy of swimming at a leisure pace. I love to design swims that take you on a journey, support you in a body of water that is meaningful to you or hosting special swims with seasonal fun elements like flower crowns and pumpkins.
I’m based in Surrey and swim all around the home counties. I love river swimming in the Jubilee, Thames and Wey. Ever changing, river swimming is a lovely way to embrace the seasons.
What is the earliest memory you have of your body image?
When I was five years old, I started ballet lessons. I attended until I was about 17 and I loved them. However, my teacher made it very clear to me, from a very early age, that I didn’t ‘have the body for ballet’. I don’t think she meant it unpleasantly. If you look at a ballerina, male or female, they almost always have a certain body shape. It wasn’t about being fat or thin but I was already taller than the average ballerina with curves and hips. I suppose part of the teacher’s job was to identify the next Darcy Bussell and, based on my body shape and structure, that simply wasn’t going to be me. I can understand, retrospectively, she was probably being kind – saving me from future disappointment. But, of course, as a child you don’t understand that, it felt difficult and that there was something wrong with my body.
So much of dancing is about your body. I used to go once a week, stand in front of all the mirrors, watching my body and learning how to arrange it for each posture and position. The more you’re told about your body the more you look at it and the more you see what’s different to the girl stood next to you. I remember recognising how different I was to other girls in the class. Now, as an adult, I look back at those photos of me and see a beautiful young woman. I developed boobs quicker than my classmates and I had a different physique: I was slim but curvier. I think the classes are when I first developed a critical eye when looking at my body.
Image by Roger Taylor
What have been some of the biggest influences on your body image and body confidence?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My mum had a difficult relationship with her body and her mum did too; it was passed down female to female, across the generations. My mum was never unpleasant, but she tried to educate me about nutrition and food. She would say things like “if you eat too much of that you will become overweight”, but I heard it differently, I heard “you are overweight”. That message was reinforced for me in the messages I heard in popular culture at the time. I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, Friends was a huge TV show and everyone followed the characters. I remember the storyline of Monica being overweight when she was at school and then becoming thin and celebrated as an adult.
Looking back there were a lot of stories like that at the time. Love Actually is filled with so many fat shaming references. The comment about Martine McCutcheon’s ‘thighs’ in conversation with the prime minister. Those kinds of things in films irritate me so much now. But I remember really buying into it and loving it at the time. So much popular culture was obsessed with bodies. And if you didn’t have that kind of body, if you’d never been a Monica, it probably passed you by. But because I grew up feeling bigger than my peers at school (even though, looking back, I wasn’t really) that narrative really resonated with me.
The books I read, the films I watched, the music I listened to - all of it was about obtaining a man who would validate the fact that you were beautiful and you had therefore made it. That became my mentality, especially in my late teens and early 20s. By that point I consistently wanted to have this ideal body in order to be beautiful and accepted. Looking back I remember that every girl at school seemed to hate themselves: it’s terrible but it felt very normal. One of my friends had a terrific figure but a very bad eating disorder: she was bulimic. We didn’t like it but we accepted it and simply carried on. It seems crazy to me now.
I am interested in whether things like the body positivity movement and Instagram have had an impact: are we doing it differently today? Has it actually changed? I don’t even remember having a conversation at school – in the context of life, religion, sex education or anything – about bulimia or disordered eating or body image. I suppose there is much more of an open dialogue in schools and families, but I wonder if beneath the surface the same issues are still there.
What do you love about your body today?
I’ve always absolutely loved my skin. I’ve never had a problem with spots or anything on my face, it’s easy to manage and it goes a lovely golden brown in the summer. I am really fortunate with my skin.
I’ve also always really liked my face and felt good about it. I’ve never looked at my face and hated my features. It’s funny, I’ve got moles on my face that are quite prominent, but they’ve never been an issue. I wonder if someone had said something about them whether I would feel conscious of them but no one ever has, so they are like wallpaper to me. That’s exactly how the rest of your body should be, shouldn’t it? Without comment. Not trying to change it, cover it, hide it. I have moles all over my body so that is my normal.
I’ve got quite nice shapely legs although they change as my weight goes up and down. They are strong legs and as I gain weight they still carry me. I do find it hard to love my body. When talking or writing about body image, I often say that as a bigger woman you either never ever talk about your body because you are so ashamed of it or you seem to go to the other extreme declaring “I love my body… love the skin you’re in” and so on. I’m overweight and I don’t like it for lots of reasons. The main reason is that it’s not good for my health, so I worry about that. I’d like to change that. But also it’s harder work being in a bigger body: you are literally carrying more weight around. If I gave you the extra weight I carry, if I put it in a rucksack and asked you to carry it every day, you would struggle. It’s harder to find good fashion and style for bigger bodies. And also, of course, there is a huge amount of stigma and shaming; people assume if you’re in a bigger body that you’re lazy and eat really badly. I do find it difficult to always love what I have. So I pick things off that I can like in that moment or on that day: my skin, my eyes, my strong legs. It’s hard to look at myself as a whole and like it. Which is sad. If a friend said that to me I’d be really upset for them.
I often have my photo taken in my swimsuit and so people regularly assume that I am ‘fat and proud’. I am proud of who I am and I will never let what I look like stop me from doing anything just because ‘society thinks I shouldn’t be in a swimsuit’. I don’t ever want my weight to stop me doing things. But just because someone’s standing in their underwear or a swimsuit doesn’t mean we are happy in our bodies.
Image by Roger Taylor
I listened to a great podcast recently which interviewed Claudia Winkleman. She talked about growing up in a house with no mirrors. Her mum taught her that what she looked like was the least interesting thing about her and encouraged her to ‘go out and be interesting in other ways’ – become an astronaut, a performer. What she looked like just didn’t matter. She talked about not comparing herself to others because she was educated to know that it just doesn’t matter. It really stuck with me. I go to lots of speaking events where I’m stood on a stage, fully clothed and talking. If I’m having that sort of day where I worry ‘what do I look like?’ I try to say to myself ‘what you look like, Ella, is the least interesting thing about you. People haven’t come here because of what I look like, they’re here for what I have to say’. It’s a good mantra.
I have nieces and as they grow up I hope to instil this in them, too. It’s such a wonderful way to live. If you want to look a certain way – with wild hair and body art – you can look however you want to look. But don’t worry about what you look like to others. Who you are, how kind you are, your values and morals – these are the things that matter and these are the things that we fall in love with, in one another.
What makes you feel amazing in your body?
It is the water for me. My swimsuit is my super cape. It’s bizarre: it’s the most stripped bare I could be (in a legal way!) in public and you can see everything when I’m in my swimsuit. But as soon as I put it on and get in the water I am reminded of how great my body is. I focus on breathing; I focus on what my body is capable of. I think muscle memory is amazing: I could not swim for weeks but I know that when I get back in the water my body will remember how to breathe and move. My muscles will wake up, and yes they might hurt, but they’ll move as they’re supposed to. On dry land I often feel heavy, clumsy, cumbersome. In the water I feel graceful and light.
What first attracted you to Deakin and Blue?
I first discovered Deakin & Blue on Instagram, I was excited to see some of the product ahead of launch and I really loved the message about swimwear designed to be both functional but also stylish. I had been pretty loyal to another popular swimming brand, but with my size the choice was often limited with the more interesting designs only being made for a small size range. Although I don’t have a big bust, I do have a big back size and so often finding something comfortable and supportive can be a challenge. I loved the mesh panelling on the signature swimsuits when they launched, they felt like a flattering alternative to a bikini for me. It is still my favourite style in the range. I love colour so welcomed the teal, raspberry, and cobalt blue to my wardrobe.
I have loved seeing the brand develop over the years and how it engages with its customers. The models used in the marketing have always been relatable and in a range of body shapes, that is so important. I also love reading and seeing images of other customers in D&B suits, often I have considered a different style or colour once I see it on a body like mine.
What advice would you give to your younger self to help her develop a positive relationship with her body?
I think always focus on what your body can do – this is such a big thing. But also that so much of what our bodies can or can’t do is in your mind. There have been numerous times when I’ve set my sights on a swim distance or event and I’ve always vowed to do all the training, follow the guidance, swim so many miles before the event itself - I’ve never met any of the recommended distances before a swim. But I’ve gone on to complete some significant distance swims – the OSS Dart 10k, the Thames Marathon 14k. The night before the event I always think, ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ I worry I’ll embarrass myself or worst case, drown. Then, as I get into the water I think ‘you can do this’. I repeat a lot of meditative chat as a sort of mantra when I swim at those sorts of events: ‘you’re strong, you’re safe, you can do this’ and so on. And I do.
Almost everyone can look back on something they have managed and think ‘crikey I can’t believe I did that!’ Whether it’s giving birth, survived cancer, overcome a horrific injury. I would have loved, when I was growing up, to focus less on what I look like and more on the capability and the magic that our bodies are. And not all of it is about running or swimming marathons – just our basic functions, how we fight infection, how we cut ourselves open and platelet and plasmas put it back together again. This stuff is the absolute magic of our bodies and we should be celebrating that more. And I suppose to any other woman and to my younger self I would love to say ‘don’t ever let yourself believe that you’re incapable because of your body. There are so many wonderful examples of what we can do regardless of our shape or size.’