Although she grew up loving the outdoors, it took a global pandemic to remind Abigail how important it is to connect with nature. Starting with Wim Hof cold showers and breathing techniques to balance the stress of law school, Abigail took to swimming outdoors when the lockdown restrictions first eased.
Now swimming every day, she's here to share the benefits. In her Body Story, Abigail talks about connecting with nature, encouraging more people of colour into the water, body confidence and personal growth.
How do you feel about your body?
I have a very positive relationship with my body. I appreciate it, I value it and I try not to say horrible things about my body because it doesn't serve me or anybody else.
The positivity around my body comes from my mother. My mum demonstrated body confidence growing up; she taught me that you should appreciate your looks, but at the same time, it's not what's on the outside that matters, it’s what’s on the inside. She taught me say “I am beautiful” every single day.
So, when do you think you first became aware of your appearance?
Probably in my teens when you're feeling a little bit awkward and your body is growing and doing things it didn't do when you were younger. At the same time, you're seeing lots of images on television and often these images were of women who didn’t look like me or my mother.
My mum was so good at instilling self-appreciation as well as pointing out other women's beauty. So, even though I was becoming more self-conscious, she was very good at ensuring that I wasn't manipulated by the media and the images I saw.
My mum would show me positive representations of Black women that were generally absent from mainstream media. Looking back, I am so glad she did that because it can be challenging when you're sold certain images; you think, well, where do I fit in with all of that? I'm not that; does that mean that I'm not beautiful? None of that occurred to me because my mum was so powerful in saying, you’re beautiful; you're stunning just the way you are.
How do you think representation of women has changed since you were a teen?
I think television is getting better at showing families from all backgrounds. I think there’s much better representation in terms of sizing as well. I do think things have improved, but I still think we can always do better.
I was Lead Practitioner of English at an inner-city secondary school. My tutor group were at that age where they started to take note of the images they were being sold. I told my class, please question what you see, never take images at face value, always ask, how did it get like that? Why am I being given this image? What’s the message?
To demonstrate this, I showed my class a video showing everything that photo editors do to make models look so thin and ‘perfect’. The video showed what the model looked like at the beginning of the shoot and all the work they did to reach the final campaign ready image. After the video I said to my class, look at the amount of work done to make her look like this, you can all see that this isn't a real representation of a woman. When you see all the re-touching happening right in front of you, it’s very alarming.
It's appalling that is allowed to happen, but that's what I like about Deakin & Blue campaigns: you show everything as it is. We are real women, doing our thing and swimming. I love that.
We’ve talked about the fashion and beauty industries, but how do you feel about representation in the outdoor industry?
When I first started swimming outdoors, I noticed there was an absence of Black people. In terms of representation, I still think there is a way to go in terms representing Black people swimming indoors or outdoors. I think representation is improving, but I think there needs to be much more of a balance in terms of representation.
I love swimming so much and I want to share it with everyone, but I particularly want to share it with people who look like me and my family. I want to see us represented because images are so important. If you don't see us, people think we're not there, we're not swimming, and a possible consequence of this is that Black people might not feel encouraged to dive in and try it out. Positive representation can encourage participation.
How did you discover outdoor swimming?
I decided to career change from teaching into law. I was very aware that I was going into one of the most stressful careers out there, and to survive, I needed to pick up some tools that would enable me to deal with that stress.
During the Legal Practice Course, I came across the Wim Hof Method. I started off with the Wim Hof breathwork, the cold exposure, including cold showers and ice baths. It definitely helped me through law school in lockdown. It was fantastic distraction because it gave me a focus beyond my studies. I remember hearing Wim Hof say we spend far too much time in our heads, we need to spend more time in our bodies. By going into cold water, I wasn’t thinking or worrying, I was focused on my breath, my body and the moment.
Not long after discovering the Wim Hof Method, I realised that there was an outdoor swimming venue close by and I thought, yes, I'm going to try outdoor swimming – that’s real cold exposure! As soon as the lockdown restrictions were eased, I went to scout the territory and soon after, I went for my first 8.1 degree swim. Since then I've been swimming almost every single day!
Is socialising part of what you enjoy about your daily swims?
I’m more of a solo swimmer. I'm happy to catch up with people out of the water, but swimming is my time for me. I want to focus on me, how I feel in the water, the sky and the changing environment. I want to focus on being in the moment. I will do a social swim sometimes, but my favourite is swimming alone and getting grounded.
If I had a choice, I'd be swimming every morning and every evening but life doesn’t really work like that, so I try to swim as much as life and work permits. I’m excited to be going into my second year of all-year-round outdoor swimming! It’s quite possible that if it if hadn’t learnt about the Wim Hof Method, I wouldn't have found outdoor swimming.
You took part in your first open water swimming event in July. What made you enter that?
I wanted to do an open water swim event, so I signed up for the Henley swim, but then I found out about This Girl Can and thought, maybe I should apply because it sounded really positive – you get to be around other women who have their own stories to tell about swimming.
I was very surprised that I was selected. As part of the experience, we had to blog up to the big event: swimming the Henley-on-Thames mile. I used the platform to share my experiences of open water swimming to talk to my community and beyond. I struggled to find the Black female voice in stories being told about open water swimming. I wanted to open that door and share my experiences. Anyone can swim outdoors if they want to. The blogs allowed me to combine my love of writing and swimming and hopefully get more people from the Black community into swimming.
Living in a city, how important is it for you to connect with nature through water?
Wim Hof taught me that we spend far too much time indoors and that this is not good for our mental health. For me, putting myself in physically stressful situations like the cold, can help me deal with the stress and strains that come with modern society.
For example, during my swim this morning, the sky was absolutely beautiful before I got in and when I got out, the sky had changed so much in such a short space of time. I felt fortunate to witness that up close and personal. Nature is one thing you can count on: the sun is going to rise, the sun is going to set, the moon is going to appear and the stars will blink. There's a lot of comfort in that.
Was being in nature a part of your childhood or is it something you’ve come to as an adult?
My mum would always take me on Sunday walks. I would cycle and she would walk. My dad is a big walker as well. He loves walking and he enjoyed swimming when I was growing up. I think as much as we could, we got outside. My mum would also take me to Jamaica so we would spend the majority of the time outside soaking up the sun and the greenery.
I enjoyed the water as a child. My dad was the one who would disappear on long swims, but my mum had a horrible experience where she nearly drowned as a teen. She didn’t pass her fears onto me – I don't think I knew she didn't feel confident in the water until I was much older. Now my mum wants her water confidence back and to re-learn how to swim. I think it's interesting how the parent-child relationship reverses as we grow older: now I'm the one that's hoping to help her feel comfortable in the water, which is exactly what she did for me as a child.
What do your family think about you swimming outdoors? Are they into it or do they think you're mad?
I’m always reporting the temperatures to my family and they're like, I don't know how you do that. My mum can't stand the cold so it’s very unlikely she will join me for now. As much as I’ve tried to say, look, why don't you just come down and give it a go, my family are not keen. However, they see how passionate I am about it and praise me for my commitment.
If anyone was tempted, what advice would you give?
I’d say take it slowly and do as much research as you can before your first swim. If you get carried away, cold water swimming can be dangerous. The first time I went into cold water, I had a great time, but I stayed in too long and suffered from the worse after drop ever. It was terrible. I use that experience to talk to other people about what I did wrong.
People often ask how long they should be in the water and refer to that one minute per degree rule. I think you have to keep it really short to begin with and have someone on land to set time limits and monitor you. It’s so easy to get carried away and lose track of time. So, I’d say be respectful of the cold water, don’t overdo it and remember that the water will be there tomorrow!
Abigail wears The Swimcrop Bikini in Beach Meadow and The Plunge Bikini in Black in size 10 Hepburn tops and size 12 bottoms
Read other Body Stories in our Diversity Outdoors series:
"I became really body conscious, but it wasn't because of my perception of my body – it was definitely because of the way others perceived my body." Kelly's Body Story
"I think that a lot of women are not really comfortable swimming at all. It's a difficult skill and there's a lot of fear of drowning. So, to then go into outdoor water where there's not really the stability that comes from being in a swimming where there’s a shallow end and a deep end, that fear is even greater." Minreet's Body Story
"I think you've got to make time for exercise. You really have to. With me, I leave my housework. It's more important to me to exercise, you know?" Pritpal's Body Story
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