The first Body Story in our Love Flows series is about an amazing woman who has battled her own mental illness and founded an award-winning network of inclusive community swimming groups called Mental Health Swims.
Rachel's story is a real journey from sparky child, through darkness and then finding that spark again. In it, she talks about finding her identity, coming out, learning to appreciate her body, and finding love... in the sea!
Trigger warning: Rachel touches on topics of trauma and eating disorders.
Picture yourself standing on the beach in your swimming costume. How do you feel about yourself and your body in that moment?
I don't want to say I love myself, because I don't think I'm there yet, but I think I've entered a phase where I feel more neutral about my body. My swimming costume can make me feel great and when I’m on the beach I’m enjoying myself, but I'm still unlearning a lot of crap. It’s been about three years since I ditched diet culture and I don't think too much about it. So, where I'm at is body neutrality, but working towards a place where I can really love my body.
To what extent do you think your feelings about yourself as a person are affected by how you feel about your appearance?
I think is really interesting and I imagine there are lots of other people who feel the same; while the pandemic was horrific and incredibly challenging for our mental health for different reasons, it did give us space to learn. That was what I found really fascinating about it. I felt overwhelmed by looking after my children every day; I felt overwhelmed by the lack of swimming; I felt overwhelmed by having a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I find that especially difficult because of having a mental illness. But, my crippling social anxiety stopped because I wasn't seeing anyone, and I realised that I’ve always felt that I needed to look a certain way to be seen in the world.
Then, I was able to actually learn to eat intuitively. And when I say learn, I don't mean I had a plan; I just ate and then found that I didn't feel the need to over eat in the same way. I actually started to listen to what my body needed. So, in the noise and the chaos of the world when were forced into time on our own, I got to know a very quiet voice in my body, which knew what I wanted. And that was huge.
I actually I think that for somebody who's always struggled with identity, the pandemic – and I'm not saying it wasn't really horrible and hard, it was, and it wasn't great for my mental health – did help me find my internal voice. And that voice got so strong that I can't switch it off now, which is wonderful. I can't betray it.
Also, boundaries have become a thing. I think for a lot of us, boundaries are really hard and I often wonder if they're tied in with diet culture. So, I know that I'm not going to go on some horrible crash diets; I know that I want to move my body more; I know that I want to eat more vegetables, but that’s adding in things rather than restricting. But I now have clear boundaries and feel more of a connection with the person I was as a little human, between the person I've been and the person I am now. I feel more tender towards those different parts of myself. And she deserves to eat, you know? And she probably needs to do a bit more exercise, but we're working on that.
Talking about you as a little human, when did you start to feel that appearances matter?
I remember the first time I heard some older women saying, I can't eat that it's naughty, or, I'll have to work that off. It was that kind of toxic way of talking that so many of us experienced as young people. But I remember hearing that and thinking, what nonsense. My mum had obviously managed to not talk about that sort of thing.
In terms of appearance, I was the only brown kid in my family because I'm adopted, so I always stuck out. And that was difficult. So, it wasn't about weight, but I never felt like I fitted in.
I used to do gymnastics, swimming, fencing – all the activities. And, as a kid, I always ate masses. Like, I love food. I come from a family where there were always really big events, lots of parties. My mum’s side of the family are all really good at cooking. And when I was a little human, I loved food, but I also did loads of exercise. It was only when I got a bit older, when your body starts changing and you start to get like puppy fat and your boobs are growing that suddenly there's a size that you're not supposed to be. I was thinking, it’s interesting how we say to babies, good baby for eating your food, or, look at your beautiful chubby legs, and then suddenly it's like, you’re too chubby.
I think I went to my first slimming class with my mum when I was 12 or 13. By the way, my mum has done great work on this stuff in the last few years as well, so I don’t want to be critical of her. It's very hard when we talk about the past because that was what we knew then. But, basically, I had eating disorders as I was growing up, once I was into my teens. I also had a lot of trauma, which I'm not going to go into because it's too grim and I have to look after myself, but because of that trauma, I used food as a way of feeling more in control of my body. If you've had traumatic experiences, especially with your body, I think there's a disconnect.
How did your feelings about yourself and your body change as you went into early womanhood?
I think I have to take a step back and remember that although I didn't realise it at the time, I was very, very unwell. And, throw in some crash diets and starving yourself, throw in occasional drug use to make myself smaller, as in stuff you’d take so you don’t want to eat all weekend, and there’s a lot going on there.
My mental illness is very complex. I have borderline personality disorder, which I mean, even the name is not ideal. So, they've rebranded it to emotionally unstable personality disorder, which is similarly fabulous! In my teens and early twenties, I didn't know about that; I didn't know that I was very unwell, I just knew that it hurt. When you're struggling with all of that stuff, it’s really difficult.
But you're in a much better place now. So, how did you get from there to here?
It was, you know, a very quick process of over a decade of therapy and medication!
When difficult things happen to you, the person you are is fractured. We all have different parts of ourselves and if you have lots of difficult things happen to you, there are more parts of you. I think for me, it was getting to know them all. Which probably sounds a bit mental, but it was getting to know myself. It was listening and actually acting in the way that was helpful.
So, a massive turning point for me was coming out as gay. I think that I had tried to come out when I lived in Bristol and then went straight back into the closet. I got married to a man, which was so very into the closet and out the other side, like, I went right into Narnia!
I don't know, I think there's something there around permission; I gave myself permission to live as myself, who is, to be honest, boring. I mean, that's the bit that I really struggle with these days; I am quite boring. I used to feel like I sparkled but, actually I don't really want to sparkle any more. I just want to be me and potter around picking up shells, to be a bit frumpy but feel very peaceful. Most of the time. I mean, I still get horrible waves of anxiety and panic attacks, but I'm ok.
I think a huge amount of it is taking risks. And that’s really hard when you think about yourself as being someone who’s erratic, a risk taker, someone who's ill. It's really hard then to say, I'm making this massive decision. A huge part of it is boundaries and also being able to say no. Like, with food, it’s being able to say to people, I'm not going to diet, I'm going to be eating this and really enjoying it, and I don't like diet culture.
In diet culture, there’s a lot of focus on mothers and daughters. You have two sons, so how do you pass on self-love to them?
It’s hard for our generation because there's a lot of unlearning to be done. We're pioneers! In our home, there is no chat like that. We talk about how we all come in different shapes and sizes, and how that’s what makes the world such a beautiful and wonderful place. We talk about how can be very different. There's nothing that you can do to change to a different body; this is your body and it's the body you look after and you care about
It’s great now that the boys have their amazing stepmom because our bodies are so different – it's very helpful having one large mum and one thin mum, both prancing around in their swimsuits, both living their lives. There's nothing more moral about Cory because she's thin, or me because I'm fat. It doesn't matter. Living in a queer family kind of makes it a lot easier in some ways because when you're not fitting the standard format, it does free you up.
Also, we enjoy food. I don't know what else there is, really, I think it's just living. And actually, doing that work for yourself and letting go of those really unhelpful rules is really important for kids.
So, let's talk about let's talk about outdoor swimming. When did you first discover it?
I've always loved swimming outdoors; I did it as a kid. My parents live right on the beach in Edinburgh, so we had a huge amount of beach time. I loved being outdoors and I spent large quantities of the happiest parts of my childhood pootling around in puddles and streams.
I discovered it as something that could support my mental health in 2019 on New Year's Day. There’s the New Year's Day Loony Dook in Edinburgh and I went along in my M&S tummy support swimsuit – I wish I'd known about Deakin & Blue then. I was really unwell at the time. I’d just had my formal diagnosis and so I on medication and not feeling well. But I did it because I'd seen this thing called The Confidence Corner, which had this challenge called Wellness Our Way where you do something for yourself everyday through January. It was also Red January, which is where you do something active every day, and so I gave it a go.
I remember getting into the water. It was so cold! I didn't enjoy it, by the way. But afterwards… I mean, part of me wonders if I was literally shocked into feeling again having been unwell and feeling really dissociated. But, I felt a glimmer of hope. And that was nice after a really long time of feeling like complete shit. So, I promised myself that I’d dip every month that year. And I did, but it became more than once a month. I got very into it.
Then, back home in Swansea, there was this person who was dipping every day for a year. I went along and joined a couple of days with them as they were dipping with different people every day. Then I met someone on a Mental Health Mateswalk. He was really unwell, and I invited him to come and live with us, as you do! And part of encouraging him was going for dips. That was really amazing because both of us had both been unwell, and this friendship and also the dipping was just making a massive difference. He’s still a lovely friend and we look back at the transformation in both of our lives. I don't want to say that it was just the swimming, but it did help.
So, the idea of friendship, support and dipping has turned into your amazing, nationwide organisation called Mental Health Swims. How did that start?
Again, it was the whole social anxiety thing. I was doing things through my own personal, social media account, like, really random stuff. I was coming up with things like sending a care package once a month to somebody and blogging about coming to terms with a mental illness diagnosis, and swimming was in the background.
Ever since I was a kid, I've loved organising weird events. I used to put on plays with my friends in the neighbourhood. It would all be really organised; there'd be signs like, this way to the toilet, and my dad would help put up some curtains and I would like tell all the kids to get their families to bake cakes to sell at the show. I would write a play and then we would perform it and then we’d give all the money to charity. My mum has always said that ever since I was a little child, my finger would come up in the air, and I'd say, I've got an idea, and then I would go and make it happen.
But I really lost sight of that; I hadn’t had an idea for quite a long time. And then, that year of starting therapy, finally finding the right therapist, and that first dip, that little finger came back. I was like, I've got an idea and I'm going to try it. So that year, I joined Mental Health Mates as a volunteer, and then I set up a film club in a pub and a running club. Anyway, then I was like, we could have an outdoor swimming group. I put a shout out, and from doing stuff about mental health on my Instagram, I advertised to start this group called the Swansea Mental Health Sea Swimmers.
At the first group, nearly 30 people turned up and I was really scared, but it was great. And I think the little ‘I have an idea’ me was awoken again. So, it became a monthly swim and it was really popular. Then lockdown happened, and I was like, I want to make welcoming spaces. And it just grew from there.
It's grown a lot. It's all down to the amazing volunteers. There is no lack of swimming groups, but I think there are lots of people out there who find it hard to join in, which is the purpose of Mental Health Swims. It’s about asking, how do we make it easier to join in? We give reassurance to people that our hosts have done some training, and they get it; they're going to talk to you in a way where they're not going to accidentally stigmatise you.
It was me and a few friends, and it was just going to be in Wales. But then, it just suddenly seemed to explode. I mean, it's funny now; with hindsight and everything, I wouldn't be able to do it now. I think part of it was my naivety about everything. There was lots of criticism, which helps you grow in a different way. It’s why we introduced training and we got insurance.
And then you met Cory. Tell us how you met, because it’s so lovely…
Yeah, I met Cory in the sea. Which was nice. Can I just apologise now and please, can you make sure that you put this in this? It's really gross. But I never believed in this whole love at first sight business, and, I don't know, I just knew. I'm quite confident, but I wasn't around Cory. I'd manage to fall over or bump into things. You know, just generally embarrass myself massively.
But yes, I think we both complement one another really well. I don't know how to explain it. Basically, she is amazing. And she makes me feel like the happiest human being. So, we both really love the Moomins, and sometimes when I'm on the beach, I feel like we're in Moomin land. She makes me feel like a Moomin mama down on the beach collecting shells. It's great.
You said something wonderful about the sea being the third thing in your relationship. What did you mean by that?
So, I read this article a while ago by called The Third Thing by Donald Hall. It says that in a relationship, there has to be a third thing. Like, it's not good for us to just gaze at one another. You have your friends, they have their friends and you have your shared friends, but then you have your shared thing that you gaze upon together. I read that, and I was like, yes, that's exactly it. For us, it's the sea. The sea is the thing that we gaze upon together, that we appreciate together.
When I was a kid, my mum collected cowrie shells, my whole family collects them. And I was always like, this is the most boring thing in the world. And then, last summer, we moved to live closer to the beach… and started collecting cowrie shells. We spend hours on the beach looking for them and it's the most joyful thing.
So yeah, I think the sea is the thing that flows between us. When things are tough, like we had a really tough week when Cory wasn't very well [Editor's note: Cory wasn't well enough to take part in the shoot], and it all felt like the dark side was very close. But we went down on the beach, and I had to hold her because she was a bit dizzy with the medication, but I was like, it's going be ok.
The beach is for the whole family, because now Cory is a stepmom to my two boys. And she's brilliant. And we've got a lovely doggie called Elvis.
We started by talking about you feel about yourself when you stand on the beach in your swim suit. Does your D&B swimsuit make you feel any better?
Yeah, I really love it. I wore the black X-Back a lot in the summer and it just made me feel so good. It makes me feel comfortable. It's a very comfy suit. And I think because it's lined, It kind of makes you feel secure. Like, I wouldn't wear a bikini. I'm not there yet. I do want to be sucked in a little bit. I think it’s about being held. In the same way that I don't want to go down to the beach and not wear a bra. I mean, love when everyone's says they don't need to bother with a bra, but my boobs are massive and it would be comfortable. It's so important to feel comfortable. It makes me feel confident and held.
Rachel wears the Essential Swimsuit in Black and X-Back Swimsuit in Plum in size 24 Hendricks.
If you're inspired and uplifted by this post about love of water, the sea, your swimming or surfing sisterhood and your body, why not read more from our Love Flows campaign?
"There are all those dynamics of sisters in the family sense, and then you have that in a friendship as well. I think the thing that has been really nice is this idea of sisterhood and how it transcends blood relations... In a way, we’re all sisters. It’s why we have stickers with sisterhood on it. We want to spread that feeling of unconditional love and comradery." Read Tirion's story.
"I think there are so many things that come with going in the sea, like this whole feeling being empowered and those tiny acts of rebellion, so if you feel like you look incredible at the same time, you just unleash a whole superpower that you never knew you had. It's a scary combination for everyone outside of you!" Read Mickey's story
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