Body Stories: Emma S

January 30, 2022

Body Stories: Emma S

It's a new year and we're kicking off a brand new series of D&B Body Stories. In this series we speak with D&B customers from around the UK about their relationship with their body and how it has changed over time, with age and in response to lived experience. We also ask them about the influence of swimming and being in water on their relationship with their body image and confidence. 

We are delighted to kickstart this series with Emma, a writer from Dorking, who first discovered outdoor swimming after becoming very ill in her 40s. Emma got in touch with D&B after being moved by a Body Story she had read and, when we got chatting, we realised Emma had her own incredible story to tell.

We hope you love reading this as much as we have enjoyed getting to know Emma over the last few months.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

Tell us a bit about you. 

I’m Emma. I am currently Director of a Coaching Company which I co-founded with my sister. I’m also writing a book called Ocean Tales which is about open water swimming, water as a lifegiving force and the unique relationship between women and water. It tells personal tales of women as the water carriers of the world, women’s feats in endurance swimming and the role of water in women’s health from mental health, to birth stories, through to menopause. It is a book of soul stories from the heart and from the sea. 

I spent 20 years working in aviation and leadership as an air traffic controller before I experienced a series of traumas in quick succession and became very ill. I had a breakdown and depression and, although I recovered, when I came out the other side I had some ongoing chronic illnesses which I still manage today. I have a husband and two teenage daughters and a few years ago I made a major life decision to come away from my career and retrain in coaching and psychology. This has given me the space to write, to swim and to be.

I always say I’m not a swimmer. I suppose what I mean is I’m not a traditional swimmer. I grew up in land-locked London, I wasn’t sporty and I stopped swimming in pools at about 10 years old. I came back to swimming through open water when I got sick.  I hadn’t swum much since I was a child but something about being in the water and the feeling it gave me felt very special. It is all about being outside for me, being in nature and, more latterly, the community that comes with that. It’s been an absolute life saver. I had been training to swim the English Channel as part of a relay team, but unfortunately my health has meant I have to leave this for now. One of the best things about the training though was finally being taught how to swim properly, learning how to do front crawl. I have good endurance and can withstand the cold, I can swim breaststroke for hours but I’m slow. I am definitely the tortoise, not the hare.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

What is the earliest memory you have of your body image? 

When I was at school I was always very skinny and pale skinned. I’m of Irish heritage and I used to say that my legs and chest were so blue that they could light up an airport at night! I always felt it wasn’t the ‘nice’ paleness that you see on models. I’m all freckles and blotches. And although I had skinny legs I’ve always had a round tummy. As a young child I was mocked for being too thin!!! My ‘barrel on sticks’ kind of self-perception from when I was very young is the mental self-image I have always carried with me, and as I matured, I became a classic ‘apple’ shape. Oh how I longed to be a pear!

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

How did your body image and confidence evolve?

In a lot of ways I’m fortunate: my relationship with my body image and body confidence has never really been about weight. It’s more about what my body does for me or rather, how I feel it fails me. My weight can move up and down within a relatively normal range. The only time that’s really been different is when I was very ill and I became very, very skinny with stress. I’d just had my second child and I lost three stone in a matter of months. I remember pulling up my jeans without undoing them. At the time everyone was saying ‘you look amazing’, ‘what’s your secret?’; but I was dying inside. I look at photos of me from that time and, as a woman, I can’t help the flash feeling of congratulation at how slim I am but then I look at my eyes and see how broken I was. It’s like selling your soul to the devil – yes I was thin, but at what price?

Very few women love their bodies and like many women there are days I feel horrible in mine and want to cry. But through becoming more comfortable in my body I have found peace with it. One of the many wonderful things about the swimming community is that is provides liberation from focusing on what your body looks like. In her brilliant documentary 'Body of Water' Gilly McArthur said  ‘when I’m at the water’s edge there’s a disrobing of ego’. That really speaks to me. When you’re open water swimming there’s no judgement and people aren’t looking at you. There is a real community and communion of spirit at the water’s edge, and no matter what your shape or size, in the water you feel light, graceful, invincible. 

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

You mentioned that you feel your body ‘fails you’. What do you mean by that?

I used to be in a very high-powered career, doing everything at a million miles an hour; I was a person that was always on the go. Four hours after the birth of my first daughter she caught meningitis and nearly died, and very shortly after that, my brother died very suddenly – we were both in our 30s. My daughter survived, but these were very significant traumatic events to experience in a very short space of time. My drive to live got stronger but my body became weaker as I dealt with them.

When I had my breakdown, my body went into shutdown and whilst I have recovered mentally, my body has struggled to return to its former health. I suffer with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), mast cell disorder and fibromyalgia. I used to run half marathons: I can’t do that anymore. I used to be up early: I can’t do that anymore. I used to travel, be constantly on the go: I can’t do that anymore.

I went through a massive period of frustration with my body: I want to do so much, why won’t you let me? But actually that feeling has evolved to such an extent, over a journey of some 10 to 15 years, that I can now see that my body is my early warning system. And I love it for this.

I read an incredible book called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It explores the impact of trauma on the body and how it stays with you. I don’t think I’d ever been able to articulate it until I read that book. But now, if I have a physical 'crash' or I can’t get up in the morning, I know that this is my body telling me something. I’ve gone through panic attacks, passing out, physical manifestations of stress; previously I used to get so angry with my body but now I let it happen, I go with it. When I can't move in the mornings and my legs ache so much I want to cry, I lean into acceptance, and clear the decks. My body knows what is good for my mind and holds me to account. I’ve adjusted my life and the way that I live to work within that.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

What have been some of the biggest influences on your body image and body confidence? 

My children are great inspirations to me. My youngest daughter is a national gymnast and I find her physical strength hugely inspiring. My eldest daughter acts in a theatre group and uses her body to express feelings in the most remarkable way. I am also inspired by sports people and people whose bodies enable them to do amazing things. I love Cath Pendleton and Jaimie Monahan – world record ice swimmers, Chloe McCardel the world record holder for Channel Swims, and I marvel at the physicality of super athletes like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Ellie Simmonds. People who have taken epic journeys, I think it’s incredible that their bodies have allowed them to do that. I’m also a fan of Bryony Gordon who has been down a tough road of self-discovery both physically and mentally and is a wonderful advocate for body confidence. These inspirations are all about strength - both inner and outer. 

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

Tell me about your relationship with swimming.

When I was 22 I was living briefly in Tel Aviv and I joined a big group of friends for a sea swim on a gorgeous sunny day. There were red flags up and clear signs telling us that it wasn’t safe to go swimming but I had that invincible feeling that you can only really have at that age; I didn’t even see the signs.

I started swimming out with the group when I realised I wasn’t as strong a swimmer as the rest of them and I couldn’t keep up, so I headed back with the shore firmly in my sights. However, as I turned back I realised the sea level had changed and that where I had, just moments before, been able to stand up, I could no longer put my feet down. I started to swim back but became caught in the apex of a v-shaped current. I was swimming and swimming with all my strength but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get out of the current. I just remember thinking ‘Jesus. This is so much bigger than me. I’m in real trouble.’ I was crying; I remember the salt of my tears on my face.

Thankfully I was spotted by a lifeguard who came over in a kayak, rescued me and unceremoniously dumped me on the beach. Fair enough: I had been so foolish. It taught me a huge life lesson and gave me both a respect but also a life-long fear of the sea.

Years later when I was unwell I did a sea swim on holiday in Swanage. It was such a big thing for me; I hadn’t been willing to go out of my depth for over 15 years and this would involve swimming 500m in the sea. My family asked me ‘are you crazy?’ But I really felt that I wanted to do it. I turned up to the swim in an M&S swimsuit and my flipflops. I looked around and everyone else was in neoprene and booties. ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’I thought. But I got in and I did it. It was a really pivotal, liberating moment; it changed my relationship with water and gave me a taste of that invincible feeling again. I now feel that same feeling every time I dip my toe in.

It really feels as though I have come full circle. I know now that bodies of water can be beautiful and profound but they can also be ferocious and you must show respect or you can get into trouble. It’s about experiencing the majesty and wonder of the world but also knowing your place in it! Maybe that is part of the special energy that cold water swimming gives us; it’s sort of dangerous so you have to do it properly, you can’t be reckless. You’ve got to know your own body and your limits too because it can quickly go from being a magical, wonderful, electrifying experience to something very dark.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

Tell me about your cold water swimming journey. 

During lockdown the pools were shut and, for a while the lakes were closed down too, so we ended up swimming in rivers in buddy pairs. I had done an introduction to cold water swimming previously at the wonderful Surrey Hills Adventure Company, but I had always swum in a wetsuit. Through only having river access in December 2020 it was just too much of a hassle trying to get in and out of a wetsuit in the mud and rain with no cover so I decided to ditch it! Before I knew it I was swimming in the river in a bikini in the snow!!

I did a lot of buddy swimming with two close friends over this period and one of them agreed to 'break ice' with me as soon as the water froze. We’d been swimming through as it got colder and colder, 7 degrees, then 6 degrees, then 5. In February it reached freezing and we arranged to meet on Valentine’s Day in our bikinis. I’ll never forget the text I sent her that morning: ‘I’ll bring the hammer, you bring the rose’. And we did it, breaking the ice with a hammer in one hand, rose in the other, in our bikinis and immersing ourselves in the freezing water for four minutes; it was something I would never have imagined doing before.

The cold water brings something so special for me – I miss it in the summer. It is the cold that brings me into the moment, feeling electricity surge throughout my body as I plunge, and a unique exhilaration afterwards. It really is my saviour - I think people often wonder how I can do the swimming I do as someone with CFS, but the cold water heals me, inside and out. When I'm down, it lifts my soul, when I'm exhausted it gives me energy. 

One of the most remarkable things about cold water swimming is the community - meeting like-minded women and doing something amazing. The generosity of spirit is something to behold. People look out for each other, dress each other, shove jelly cubes into shivering mouths, share hot drinks and stories, and we laugh such a lot!

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

What do you love about your body today? 

I’m 50 this year and I love that my body tells my story. My least favourite part of my body aesthetically is my tummy. My kids call it my smiley tummy because of my caesarean scars and muffin top; I look at it now and see it as the place from where my children were born. And so in its own way, I love it. I also love my strangely freckly, pale skin because that’s my heritage; it’s part of where I come from. And I love that these days my body keeps me safe, looking after my mind and giving me warnings when I need to slow down. Even though I am often quite weak, I love that I can also be strong.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

What do you like about Deakin and Blue? 

I think what I love most is how I see women look in their faces when they wear a D&B. You can tell they feel amazing. They’re happy and comfortable – they smile from their eyes. I also love that the swimsuits and bikinis are made for all shapes and sizes. You can be bigger or smaller, one shape or another and still wear a bikini and look and feel comfortable and fabulous. They’re unique. I’ve never seen a clothing company like it.

And I love your ethos. From the sustainability aspects and the fabric being made from ocean waste – that is absolutely mind-blowing – but also the way you are telling these stories about different women’s bodies. I love what you are doing.

Deakin and Blue Swimwear - Body Stories - Body Confidence & Body Image - Bereavement - Trauma - Loss - Survival

What advice would you give to your younger self to help her have a better relationship with her body?

I think it would be not to compare myself or hold myself up to others. Even now I am sometimes troubled by comparison. I catch myself looking at the other women I swim with and thinking about how beautiful they are. I find myself thinking ‘I wish I had her waist,’ or ‘her shoulders’. Sometimes I feel like the fattest and the slowest in the group – and I’m not fat or slow! I’m a pretty standard size 12. So I have to have a word with myself. I’ve seen many women with dysmorphic relationships with their own bodies and I’ve been surrounded by those who are very slim, and I think it can be hard for that not to impact you. I wholly believe everything I’ve said about valuing my body for what it can do, but like many people I still have days where I feel ugly and want to cry. I think, unfortunately, we are hard wired to compare. It's time to start reframing our perspectives on beauty and celebrate our individuality. 

I don’t often do this but recently I said to a friend ‘I just feel so lardy’. I rarely talk like that and I’m especially careful not to use that kind of language in front of my teenage girls. It was lovely because she didn’t say ‘you’re not!’ She simply said, ‘you light up a room like no one I’ve ever known’.It was the most amazing thing to be told. And what was so great about it is she didn’t engage with my comment on my weight at all.

So I would tell myself not to compare but instead to recognise my inner strengths - I would tell myself I had a journey ahead, but that everything was going to be okay, that the hard times will come and they will pass. As my dad always used to say ‘when you’re in that moment, just take ten minutes, and if it hasn’t passed, take another ten’. So I would tell a younger me to cherish my body, to try and listen to it and better understand how my body takes care of my mind, and to be kind to myself, because I'm trying my best.

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Emma wears the X-Back Swimsuit in Plum and the Signature Swimsuit in Cobalt. She wears a size 12 Monroe in both.



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