In Body Stories we talk with ten different D&B customers about their relationship with their body and body image. We ask them how their relationship with their body has changed over time, from early childhood memories to more recent experiences, the influences on their body confidence and what they love about their bodies today.
Each of these conversations were candid, thought-provoking and surprising. We left each one feeling moved and inspired by their stories - and hope you do too.
In today's post we introduce you to Oxford midwife and champion of women: Naomi.
Tell us a bit about you.
I’m Naomi, I’ve been a midwife for 34 years and have worked for the NHS for 40 years, working with all different types of women and families. I grew up in North East England and moved to Oxford when I was 18 or 19 and have lived here ever since. I’m a mum to two boys, who are now grown up, and who also both work for the NHS!
When you are busy working, managing a family and running a household, it can be easy to put your own interests to one side for a while. But as an individual I have always been very keen on exercise and tried to keep this going – even in the background during those busier periods. I grew up before computers and we used to spend our days outside - swimming and walking. My dad was an enthusiastic walker and so we would often go to the Lake District or the Yorkshire Moors for weekends. We swam in rivers, built dams, went to the coast – I swam in the North Sea from a very young age. There is a huge movement of “outdoor swimming” these days but when I was growing up this was just the sort of swimming we did - it was normal.
I’ve always loved sea swimming and over the last few years I have really enjoyed swimming in any sort of sea – warm, cold or icy. I swam in Iceland in January in ice lakes, cold pools and hot thermal springs: it was completely addictive. At the moment in lockdown I am really missing my swimming. I normally swim daily in my local lido which is currently closed. I find a daily dip is the most amazing thing for my headspace and mental wellbeing, as well as for staying fit. I feel a strong draw to be near the sea and would love to live nearer the sea to be able to swim in it every day.
What is the earliest memory you have of your body image?
When I was 11 or 12 or I travelled to Paris to stay with a pen friend. The family were very chic Parisians and I remember my pen friend Ann wearing cacharel dresses and perfume. I had taken an enormous suitcase with me from the UK because I was so insecure about what to wear and what to take. I remember seeing her and realising I had absolutely nothing that would suit me.
Then as a 15 or 16 year old I remember reaching that stage where you stop trying to blend in, you stop copying friends, and start looking at yourself. But with that comes more insecurity, worrying about what people thought. I’m glad I grew up when I did, in a world before Instagram – it is really stressful for young girls now. I didn’t like my smile, my hair was boring and although I was slim I had big breasts and struggled to buy nice things that suited me. It didn’t feel like there were choices to help your body look beautiful, to enhance your shape.
I’ve had a love hate relationship with my breasts all my life. I remember I couldn’t find bikinis or bras to fit my shape. I used to call them “NHS bras” – there was no choice to make your body look beautiful, no choice to look lovely on a beach. I remember being 16 years old, on a family holiday in the Mediterranean and all of the kids would have beautiful bikinis and I was just so conscious of my breasts. I felt forced to hide.
I think body image is not just how you look but it’s about how you feel about yourself. I still don’t like walking around without clothes on and taking part in the Deakin and Blue photoshoot was a big thing for me! But you think, 'well actually it’s okay. I’m confident in who I am now, so bring it on if you have a view on what I look like. You know nothing about the power of women.' So I have changed in the way I see myself, but I do still feel insecure.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your body image and body confidence?
Definitely my job as a midwife. Working with women you realise that women are goddesses. I’ve seen enough women’s bodies to really know that every body is beautiful. If you work as a midwife you will never see a woman more beautiful than when she is having a baby. In labour there are no secrets, you cannot be anything other than who you are. You learn from that as a woman. Watching an individual go from being stressed, anxious about their body and the changes in their body, you watch them grow, you encourage them and you make them realise they can achieve this and they emerge the other side, as if from a chrysalis, as a confident mother. It does alter the way you feel about yourself and you change yourself when you’re involved in that. You see them emerge, so powerful. Giving birth, they become a woman.
Being widowed 10 years ago also impacted my confidence. Before, I was part of somebody, a group identity, a family, then suddenly that person is gone and you have to learn to be without somebody else – I found I didn’t know who I was as a single person. That’s been a big learning curve for me. A person going out into the world without somebody else beside me. I lost a lot of confidence. I was glad to have a job that gave me the confidence to stand up, get dressed, put makeup on and carry on as normal. I was forced to continue, to try to support my children. It was both a huge knock and a huge build up as you come out the other side – you realise you can survive and move on.
One of the biggest things about being single in your 50s is you feel very invisible. You never think anyone would ever look at you again. You remember the things you worried about in your 20s and laugh – you’d love to look like that now! But you have a different set of insecurities now. And also when someone dies because they are sick you realise that these things about your body just don’t matter. I’m alive.
What do you love about your body today?
I love that I’m liberated from worrying about my body and I love that my face shows my story. I feel proud of my wrinkles: they have felt my joy and my pain. I love that my face celebrates my knowledge and experience of life. I wouldn’t want to be young again – not because it was awful, it was lovely, but I’m glad to have the liberation and security that comes from being older.
I remember being a student midwife in my 20s, I was shadowing more experienced midwives and they were mentoring me. I remember being very new and looking down at my mentor’s hands on a pregnant woman’s tummy and thinking ‘oh my goodness, look at those hands, they know so much. They are really experienced hands’. They were just old hands but I wanted hands like that, I wanted to be like that. Then 4 or 5 years ago I remember looking down at my hands on a woman’s tummy and thinking ‘I’ve got those hands’. The image had stayed with me all the way through my career and I realised ‘I know what I’m doing, I’m comfortable in myself and with women and that is my gift’.
What makes you feel amazing in your body?
Exercise - be it swimming or cycling. Even a spin class (my personal addiction!) I love the high you get from exercise, from knowing that you can still work really hard and feel great about it. Exercise makes you look good and feel good – it’s great for feeling amazing in my body.
What advice would you give to your younger self or to another woman to help her develop a positive relationship with her body?
I would remind any woman that she is a goddess. Every woman is a goddess: there to be worshipped. To be a woman is to be so powerful and as a woman you can do anything you want to do. I have been lucky in my career and have been surrounded by positive experiences – of course there are aspects of my job that aren’t so happy. But predominantly I work with healthy women that have an amazing gift: the ability to create and nurture life. My job is not about babies, it is about helping women to see this gift, to realise how incredible they are. If you can believe in yourself and can see your body as this incredible source of power, I think any woman might learn to accept it as it is, whatever it is.