It’s easy to assume that women who have young, slim, healthy bodies have an easy ride. But that’s very far from the truth. In our second Body Story from our Love Flowsseries, Tirion talks about how yoga and surfing helped her recover from an eating disorder and learn to practice self-kindness.
Co-founder of the amazing Gower Women’s Surf Society, she discusses how her love of surfing and sisterhood, both familial and a sisterhood of the sea, have become the cornerstones of her life.
Imagine that you're standing on the beach in your swimwear. How do you feel about yourself and your body in that moment?
The first thing that comes to mind is cold! I think strong comes to mind too, because I’ve made it a personal mission to increase my water competency and my strength in the sea just for my own benefit, really. Last year, I trained to be a beach lifeguard and got my qualification. This year, I’ve been training to become an RNLI lifeguard and have my assessment coming up. So, I think that's one thing that I really wanted to achieve is to feel as strong as I can in my body - specifically around water and the sea.
Strength is a great way of framing how you feel about your body. Does that feeling connect with your perception of yourself?
Yes, it's definitely intimately connected. It's something that I've been reflecting on a lot recently because I think a lot of people struggle to get out in winter, especially when the evenings are dark. I've been feeling so lethargic and just a bit meh. But because I knew I had this fitness test coming up for the RNLI, I've been forcing myself to get up early and get out after work to run or swim. And it's so obvious, but I just feel amazing. Moving your physical body really translates to your mental health.
When did you first become aware of appearance as something that mattered to people?
I bet you get all the juicy stuff when you ask this question! Mine’s the classic story of being around the age of 12 when your body starts changing. I was one of four sisters, and because we're so close in age, we were compared a lot in terms our bodies – who’s the tallest, who's smallest and so on. At the time, we’d go on summer holidays to the seaside so we were often in swimming costumes. I remember one year specifically when I became very conscious of my body as I wasn’t the smallest anymore.
That, combined with some other life events, led me to develop eating disorders. I struggled all through my teenage years with anorexia and bulimia. Thankfully, the unhealthy relationship with my body that I had as a teenager faded away as I grew up, started university and gained independence in my life.
I think those teenage years are so hard. I don't know how kids do it these days with TikTok and the like because that's a whole other level of consumption and comparison. When I was growing up, we had the start of Tumblr blogs, Instagram and Facebook. I remember Vogue magazine and things like that which exposed us to images of really thin women's bodies. So I think it must be even more difficult for teenagers nowadays. That being said, I think the effect of unhealthy imagery extends beyond your teenage years. I think social media, filters and constantly being bombarded with unrealistic expectations of beauty does make you feel crap. So, I try and make a conscious effort to curate my own social media feed – if there's something that doesn't make me feel good, I just unfollow it.
Curating your social feeds is a great coping mechanism. What else do you do to make yourself feel good about who you are in the world?
I think yoga really was the best thing for me. I used to do a lot of running, but running has historically been tied up with my disordered behaviour. Whereas yoga exposed me to ideas around being kind to yourself and being gentle with your body and understanding its limits. It’s about not having to push yourself and letting go of expectations of your body and of yourself. Yoga has taught me to respect that my body is different day to day and hour to hour, even.
And so, yoga was, not to be cheesy, really transformative. It was a pivotal point in my life. It’s why I went on to train as a yoga teacher as through yoga I can try to spread my learnings others. For example, someone I know was struggling with eating disorders and so I met up with them and talked to them about it and encouraged them to practice yoga. At the time they were also running and going to the gym a lot and from my own experience I don't necessarily think that those are practices that are conducive to recovery in the context of eating disorders.
Surfing has also become an important part of your life. When did you start that?
So, it really started when I studied at UCLA in California for a year. When I was over there, I thought, that's the coolest thing ever, I'll give surfing a go. Surfing is so ingrained in the imagery, culture and lifestyle over there so I think I wanted a piece of that.
After that, I lived in London so it was always something I would do on holidays. Then, the COVID years happened and I finally learned to drive at the age of 26. Then I moved to the seaside after lockdown and bought my first surfboard. So I’ve more seriously been surfing for about a year and a half. I could probably say I'm possessed by it. It's my whole lifestyle. I’m even doing my PhD on surfing!
I suppose surfing has taught me similar lessons to yoga in that expectation is the root of all heartache – I think that’s the expression. I really learnt that the hard way with surfing, because the moment you have expectation is when you set yourself up for disappointment. And so again, it’s about having that same mindset of being kind to yourself, just seeing what your body does that day, seeing what the waves do and responding in a non-judgmental way. I will say that I don't always do that! I often beat myself up for not doing this or not doing that. I worry about what I look like when I'm surfing and what people think of me; do I look like a kook?
You talked about surfing being quite male dominated. What’s it like to be a female surfer?
It's weirdly something that I tried to unpack more recently when I moved here. Looking back to when I started, I was scared of getting in the way, of being judged, of looking silly. A lot of those anxieties came from this idea that male surfers are intimidating. But I think part of that is because there aren't many women in the water.
I personally have never experienced any sort of stigma or hostility because I'm a woman. If anything, I get ignored. I’ve never been hassled but I do notice that in general men are much better at exuding this sense of, I belong here.
One thing that I have tried to do more recently as I’ve become more confident in myself and my ability is assert my own space in the water. For example, recently we were surfing and these two older men paddled up, and came into our space and our peak. I was surfing with Ebbi at the time and in my head I consciously went, no, this is my space, this is my wave. I knew that I was good enough by then. I knew that I wasn't going to mess up any wave, whereas an earlier version of myself might have been like, I’m a beginner, they can have the wave, whatever. Whereas I thought, no, I'm here, I'm surfing. And I held my space and eventually, they moved on. I was quite pleased with that. It was a moment where I really recognised that I belonged there and I owned that.
So, you set up the Gower Women's Surf Society. How did that start?
So, I guess, from my side, it started when I moved to the area. I didn't know anyone and I felt quite intimidated by the surf breaks around the Gower. And, quite naturally, I just felt that I wanted to surf with other women. It wasn't a conscious decision. It's weird; I've looked back at it now with new eyes and thought, why did I want to surf with other women? I guess I just wanted to do stuff with other people who have a similar ability to me and it just felt less intimidating to me.
Then I met Ebbi and Asha, who live in the same place as me. We thought, wouldn't it be amazing if we could set up a women’s surf group? Then, Pembrokeshire Women’s Surf Society started in last summer. So, I spoke to them to ask for advice and see if we could borrow their template. They gave us lots of advice, you know, women lifting other women up.
Girls Can Surf was touring the UK at the time, which is a surf film about women surfing through the 80s and 90s, and all the challenges that they faced in gaining gender equality in competitions. That felt like a real impetus to crack on and do it. So, in August, the moment they announced the film tour, we went, right, this is it, this is the moment. We put our heads together, made a logo and an Instagram page and launched it.
It's just been wild, because it's so funny how our expectation has differed to what it's actually been like. We thought, oh, it's going be like a crew of women, and we'll just go surfing together. But it's absolutely blown up. And the thing that people keep saying is, there's such a need for it, which is crazy because I don't even know what that means. Why is there such a need for it? But women just want to surf with other women.
Within three months of setting up the society, we introduced more than a hundred women to surfing. It’s so wild to me because there are surf lessons running all the time. We've partnered with a local surf school and they hold lessons every week – we’ve not invented surf lessons. But, it’s because it's with other women. People have driven from Bristol, they've come from Blackpool, Manchester, and we even had someone from Ireland and Edinburgh because they just feel that it's a space that they’re drawn to. They want to try surfing and meet like-minded people and have fun.
You've attracted a really diverse group of people; not what you think of as the stereotypical surfing types. Is that important?
Yes, and all ages as well, which is really nice. The community has drawn people from all walks of life who have come together over this love of surfing. They’re coming into surfing where their first exposure to surfing is with Gower Women’s Surf Society. I know women in different contexts have this intimidating male-dominated, localism-heavy, macho kind of perception of what surfing looks like. But with these women, they have this completely different idea of what surfing could be. They have this amazing view of surfing as a really fun thing where you can have a laugh and cheer each other on. It’s going to be so interesting to see their journey through surfing, hopefully feeling a bit more empowered than I did when I started.
What's the title of your PhD?
Good question – it’s very changeable! Ask me in another year. But it is around winter wellbeing and ideas around mental resilience and nature connection, and I’ve naturally chosen the Gower Women’s Surf Society as a case study because we were all moving into winter together.
So, talking connections with other women, how does female camaraderie manifest itself within your group?
I think one thing that I really noticed surfing with the women's group, as opposed to surfing by myself, is the noise. I think you really hear the camaraderie through people cheering each other on and laughing. I've even noticed it in myself, being able to laugh. One time, we surfed at Caswell and it was really big; I would not have gone out otherwise, but, because we were together, we thought, oh, let's just go out and have a laugh about it. It was just such a relief to be able to share that with other women and just to not take it so seriously.
So, I think one thing that I've really noticed is that the community has created a feeling of being able to share and talk about experiences. Being able to have a space to ask questions and be a complete beginner and kind of own that has been a big relief for a lot of people.
One of your sisters also involved in the Gower Women’s Surf Society and Ebbi and Asha are sisters too. What’s it like working in this salty sisterhood?
I mean, in truth it has had its challenges. For me personally, a sisterly relationship has an unfiltered aspect; you're kind of like your childhood self around your sisters. But the thing about sisters is honesty. You can go to a sister with a problem. You share things. 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. It’s really funny because Ebbi is one of five sisters and I’m one of four. 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. We’re there for each other, especially through winter.
When you're stripped down in your swimwear in this big powerful space in the wild sea, do you feel vulnerable?
Yes. And I think that’s why I've been so motivated to get my safety qualifications because I recognise how dangerous the sea is. With surfing, you go out a lot deeper, and you go to remote places, especially in winter where there aren’t that many people around. So, building up my own competence to kind of like combat that vulnerability has been a coping mechanism.
But then also, it's been funny because a lot of people in my research have compared swimming and surfing. I've been trying to understand why people are drawn to surfing versus swimming. A lot of people say that they feel much safer with their surfboard whereas when they're swimming, they actually feel more vulnerable. I definitely find that when I do my surf photography, I feel so naked when I go in the sea without my surfboard. I’m suddenly so aware that I'm just like, this little thing in the massive sea. Whereas, when you're surfing, you have your board and the board you ride has a lot of associations and connotations. It’s how you recognise other people in the water. I think it's almost like an armour.
How does it feel to surf in your D&B bikini?
I’ve actually been wearing my D&B when I've been surfing and honestly, it's fantastic! I find that because it doesn't really have any seams, it sits so smoothly on my body. It’s body hugging but not in a super tight sports bra kind of way. It fits really nicely under a wetsuit because it just kind of moulds to my body, it doesn't get in the way and it doesn't move under my wetsuit.
Tirion wears the Plunge Bikini High Waister in Plum and the Sweetheart Swimsuit in Navy and Plum in size 12 Monroe.
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?
"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... For us, it's the sea. The sea is the thing that we gaze upon together, that we appreciate together." Read Rachel'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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