We kick off our Diversity Outdoors Body Stories series by hearing from Kelly. Our youngest Body Stories model so far, Kelly is the first person we’ve interviewed whose formative years took place in a digital age of the internet and social media. At the age of 26, she’s an amazing ambassador, spokesperson and group leader for climbing, hiking, swimming and paddle sports.
While Kelly’s incredibly savvy, switched-on and successful in the outdoor world, she's has also experienced prejudice against her age, sex, size and the colour of her skin. Here, she talks openly about the connection between hitting puberty early, body image and outdoor elitism.
How do you feel about your body?
I think that I'm grateful to my body. I'm not lucky enough to be one of those people who can say, oh, I love my lumps and bumps; I'm not there yet. I know that everybody's on their own journey, but I'm not quite there. However, I'm grateful that my body is able to do amazing things.
There are different types of climbers and hikers, and so it’s about changing the narrative. Now, I can look at my legs and think, my legs are strong. I can look at my arms and say, my arms are flexible. I can look at my back and I say, my back can carry a lot. That’s instead of saying, I don't like the handles, I don't like the lumps, I don't like the bumps, I don't like the fact that my legs rub together. I'm grateful that my legs hold me up when I go for a walk. I have a lot of power in my ankles, which is really important for kicking and swimming, and so I'm grateful.
When do you think you first became aware the importance of appearance?
It's so interesting – we were having this exact conversation at therapy this morning. I went through puberty quite early, so I've looked this way since I was about nine years old. I only really put on weight in the last 18 months since COVID, but I've had the same cup size since I was nine. I haven't changed. I've pretty much been me, in this body for a very long time – for as long as I can properly remember.
I became aware of how I looked very early on, especially from the point of view of the male gaze. I attracted a lot of attention that I didn't understand – way before I was able to understand what it was. Now that I'm older, I see it for what it was. Other women saw the male gaze that I got and were jealous. But I didn't understand why other women had such a combative nature with me. It wasn't something that I said, it was just the way I walked into a room.
I remember going to Mexico when I was 11 years-old and my mum got me a SpongeBob bikini because my cousins had SpongeBob bikinis and I wanted one too. I remember that with my cup size and my bum and my hips, teenage boys would look and grown men would look. And from then on, my mum was like, it’s t-shirts over all your swimming costumes.
We talked this through this morning in therapy – it was definitely a protection thing from my mum. You want to protect your daughters. But, in the defence of those male onlookers, I look at myself and, honestly, in some of my pictures if it wasn’t for what I'm wearing, I can't tell the difference between then and my age now. So, nine to 26 years-old is a long period of time in which I haven't changed.
So yeah, I became very body conscious very early on. That wasn’t just due to the gaze of men, but also to the way women responded to my body. From a very early age, I remember my older cousins and my oldest sister saying, I want your cup size. Or my mum saying, you've got bigger boobs than me, which I did. But I didn't want them. I wanted to play. I've always been active, and I've always been outdoorsy – my main aim was to have fun and to do active things. But when you're a young girl who's well endowed, doing active things means a lot of movement, and lots of movement causes unwanted attention. And it was definitely unwanted for me.
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. Even now, my partner continually reiterates that he's in love with my physique and he loves the way my body looks, and I can't stand it! I really can't. I just think to myself, what is it that you see? Or what is it that other people see that they find so attractive?
And I'm working on it. I am. And sometimes, when I'm speaking, I'm not speaking to the 26-year-old me, I'm speaking to the 16-year-old me and sometimes even the six-year-old me because that little girl didn't have the cognition that this one does.
How did being so different to other children make you feel?
Some girls who didn't have what I had wanted to wear the tight dresses, the short skirts, the bikinis. But I’ve never been interested in that, not even to this day. That's not what I want for myself. It just so happens that I was born in this body. And so, even when I went swimming prior to wearing Deakin & Blue swimming costumes, I'd always wear a tight sports bra or binders under my swimwear because otherwise my chest area just goes all over the place. It's incredibly distracting, not just for other people, but also for me because I'm conscious about it. I just want to get on with whatever activity it is that I'm doing.
I think the nature of swimming is that it’s an exposed sport. Deakin & Blue has an amazing long-sleeve swimming costume, which I love. But before I had worn it, I found it was always quite difficult to get the mobility in your arms because other long sleeve tops and swimsuits - those with inbuilt bras and padded support - can forfeit other things. I had to ask myself: did I want the mobility, or did I want the comfort?
How much has external pressure to look a certain way influenced how you feel about yourself?
As much as I talk about social media, I was never into magazines. There was a pink magazine that came with stuff that other girls got, but I wasn't into those sorts of things.
I think for me, it was more about what I didn't want to be. I didn't want to be curvy. I didn't want to have big legs. I didn't want to have a big bust. I think it came from that as opposed to seeing images on television or magazines or music videos and thinking, I want to be that girl. I think, for me, it came from looking in the mirror and going, whoever I am I don't want to be her.
As a brand ambassador, how has outdoor swimming affected how you feel about your body?
Prior to getting into the outdoor industry in a professional way, I wasn't too bothered. Obviously, I knew that other people were looking, but I live in Brighton where people go in naked – it’s very much a liberal city. So, I wasn't really aware to the extent that I am now.
Whereas now that I'm very engaged in the outdoor industry, especially in the social media aspects of outdoor engagement, I'm actually seeing the link between myself now and the young version of myself where I was very self-conscious and aware of that on-looking gaze. Even though the gaze isn't in real life anymore – it might be online, it might be at conferences – it’s still there. And I feel like I've become slightly more self-conscious.
I find I’m thinking, what brand are you wearing? What swimming costume are you wearing? How does it fit? Does it make your stroke better? Does it make you faster? Are you more streamlined? All these things – especially in cycling and hiking – make me think that if I can drop point-five of a kilogramme that will make me better, faster, more aerodynamic.
The elitism of sport has kind of taken away from the joy of splashing in bathing ponds and pools and in the sea. It's changing the nature of the activity, I suppose. And feeling watched, which takes me back to the same insecurities that I had when I was a child.
And did that elitism make you feel out of place?
Oh, 100 per cent. Again, prior to doing it professionally, I felt right at home when I did it for fun – it was my happy place, I was very comfortable. Now it's more of a career. I look at all the others at MLMs (Mountain Leader Meetups) that I go to and I'm always the biggest person there, even next to the men. I've always got the biggest jacket. I've always got the biggest clothes. And often what hurts much more is that in some brands, I'm in the biggest size they do.
Now, obviously, you've seen me in real life, and you know I'm not that big. And especially not in comparison to the average woman on the high street. But when you compare me within the outdoor industry, and I'm not even saying the top of the game, I'm just saying other paddle sport instructors, other swimming instructors… I'm huge.
And it's not representative of the general population. I think that when people see me, they’ve always asked me what is it that everybody loves about me, that draws people to me. And I'm like, I don't look like whatever an elite swimmer or hiker is supposed to look like. I can't swim 100 metres in 10 seconds. I just can't. My body doesn't do that. However, I think that's what draws ordinary people to me – it’s because that’s a lot more attainable; I’m more like them.
There's definitely a space for elite sport – we like to see people that are the best at what they do. And that's great. But, if you're trying to get new people in, or people that might have done the sport pre-children, or at school, or in their former lives, there's no way in a normal person's mind they’ll look at themselves and think they want to reach elite level. If everybody that they see doing a sport in their age group is the top of the league, then there's no middle ground – you’re either an athlete or you're a couch potato. I think there are initiatives like the couch to 5k that really made things accessible for the majority of the country. And I think that's where the changing narrative is coming from.
Often, even when I do get the biggest size, it doesn't fit. So, whenever I go to shoots or events, I always make sure I have my own stuff. I'm always commended on how prepared I am for things! One of the conversations I had with Rosie prior to the Deakin & Blue shoot was, do I need to bring my own makeup because I'm so used to people not having things that are suitable for me. Normally, outdoor brands don't have clothing in my size - and that includes shoes or flippers (they're usually made in men's sizes). And my skin's too dark so I don't get any makeup or hair products applied. (This wasn't the case on the Deakin & Blue shoot - which was refreshing!)
So, I have to make sure that I’m incredibly self-sufficient to avoid that initial embarrassment. After all of that has happened, I then have to go and teach or present or lead in some kind of capacity, or be in front of a camera, and how can I put my best face forward if I've just been embarrassed for the last hour?
Often, even when I'm leading a hike, people come up to me and go, do you need help? Are you lost? Or, when I'm teaching someone to swim, I get asked, are you guys ok? Can you swim? And, it’s just like, well, you can see I'm in the middle of a lesson.
There's so many layers to that. It's being in a female body. It's being young. It's being a person of colour – it’s being all of the things that I am. That definitely changes people's perceptions on what they expect to see.
It sometimes comes from a really good place of, we care and we're worried and we want you to be safe. But it's really annoying, and it's so undermining because everyone’s watching. I lead DofE (Duke of Edinburgh), for example, and you've got these group of kids who are watching you be undermined by the general public. One group, I did their whole expedition – both their practice run and their award – and I said to them on both occasions, don't listen to the general public because they'll get you lost! And then I was watching from afar, and this guy came over to a girl and redirected her. And she was so confident – she was confident enough in herself to say, actually, that's not the way. And then she got herself to me – it was such a rewarding moment of like, actually, you know better than Joe Public and you trust that you know.
How does being a person of colour, young and woman affect your self-assurance in the outdoor world?
So, I've just started up a triathlon event called Black Tri, and I’ve been trying to speak to other leaders and founders, and many of them are men, and they're like, why do you keep asking me questions? And it’s just because I've had so many other people ask me, are you sure about that? Or try and push me or sway me or change my mind. Even when you are confident in what you're doing, or you’ve done it a thousand times before there’s just that a little bit of doubt that's continually fed in. Sometimes it does seep in – it would be a lie to pretend like it doesn't because it does.
You’ve clearly had to work hard to become so successful at what you do. What do you do to help yourself feel stronger, more confident and more positive?
Therapy. I think everybody should go. People often say, oh but there's nothing wrong with me. But don’t wait for there to be something wrong. I think sometimes we're so correction focused, that people miss the lead up. It’s about taking precautionary measures, making sure that you're putting things in place. That's a place that I want people to get to.
I would like to say that I don't need therapy, but I know that if I don't go, then in maybe two months’ time I will need it and it's going to take that much longer to recover. Once we're at a point where we need it, then we've got so many unresolved issues. We've got so many dormant hang-ups. We've got so many internal things that went we're not processing, or we've ignored and we’ve swept under the carpet for years.
That, for me, is it. I've had therapy this morning, so I can talk through some traumatising things for this blog and just be like actually, we're working through it and it feels great. That's what therapy does. And it's not the same as talking to your friends. I have some great friends, amazing friends, but they're not my therapists. Your friends are your friends, and as much as we can share stuff, I think it’s great to have a professional take an unbiased look into your deepest, darkest thoughts and actually make space for some of that in a place where nobody knows you. They’re not going to tell anybody. It's very confidential and very safe.
My other thing is that my partner is great. I've just got into a new relationship. And he's amazing. He's actually restored a work life balance – I've got a reason not to work 24 hours a day now!
Does he enjoy the outdoors as well?
No, not at all! He would drive to the corner shop if he could. He can't swim, he doesn’t like to walk. He's not a fan of any of it. He is so normal – it’s great. He knows nothing about the industry or the outdoor politics. It’s so nice having that completely separate.
He also questions things – when I’m dealing with swimming or learning certain NGB rules, he asks why. And I actually don't know – he stumped me a few times on mountain training, especially. There are so many things with him that really reset my thinking, which is amazing.
So, what advice would you give somebody who is battling with self-confidence or negative self-talk?
I know therapy is not accessible for everybody. So, if you can't do it, I would definitely advise meditation. It's free. You can go on YouTube and find clips; Fitbit have some meditation things in their app. Find that space to really think and slow down… and get fresh air. Meditation outdoors, whether that's swimming or walking or just going outside… being outside after being locked indoors for a year.
I think that we've gone back to the business-as-usual approach, pretending that we just didn't face a major global pandemic. Acknowledging that life is hard, and not feeling like a failure. Very few people promote their down days. Very few people talk about the days where it is hard, and it's not so fun, and it's not so great. And I think one of the things that I'm super grateful for is that I've always known that social media, television, magazines, broadcasting - it's not what it says it is – even the models don't look like that in real life.
So, taking all that into consideration, we're all doing much better than we think. And so we just need to make time and be kind to ourselves.
Kelly wears the Essential Swimsuit in Plum and the Signature Swimsuit in Navy, both in size 12 Monroe. She also wears the reversible Swim Shorts in Black and Teal in size 12
Read other Body Stories in our Diversity Outdoors series:
"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