Trigger warning: Hannah's story contains references to eating disorders, addiction and suicide.
We invited Hannah to join our Reimagining Beauty campaign because she had an aura of quiet self-assurance and a radiant glow. Little did we know that we had found her at an important stage of her journey, recovering from an eating disorder and gaining self-confidence through swimming outdoors.
While Hannah's story is uniquely her own, her experience of finding sanctuary, comfort and joy in cold water will resonate with so many of us. Swimming is so brilliant for our mental health - and for some, it's a total game changer. Over to Hannah.
What does the word beauty means to you?
I've been thinking about this a lot actually. It's really difficult because I think we're so conditioned to think certain things are beautiful that it can be hard to think outside of that. You do see more different body types now, and people representing different things, which I think is great. But I do find that difficult to answer because so many people are beautiful for different reasons.
For me, confidence in yourself or self-belief or when you're passionate about something, I think that shines through. But I also wouldn't want to say that someone who wasn't confident wasn't beautiful because I don't think that's true either.
Beauty's definitely on the inside. You can look at someone walking down the street and think they're beautiful but then you can speak to them and they're not. So, I think beauty’s probably the essence of who you are.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of the idea of beauty?
I don't remember ever not being aware of it. So, I think it must have been from a very young age. I've always been interested in hair and makeup and clothes. My mum's the complete opposite, so I wasn't brought up for it to be that way. My mum's very body conscious but never beauty conscious – that’s something that I've just picked up from around me and magazines. I’ve always been very conscious of the way I look, comparing myself to people around me or magazines.
I don't have a lot of young childhood memories. I had quite a difficult childhood. My dad was an alcoholic and drug addict so I think I've just blocked a lot of it. I can't remember back before a certain point other than odd bits, but not how I felt.
From the age of probably eight or nine I remember being very aware of how I looked and my size. My mum's very petite and I've always felt quite sturdy and big next to her. Not that she necessarily felt that way, but it was just something I always remember being aware of.
My mum always put quite a lot of importance on not being overweight and there's nothing wrong with that, but I think that’s where I'm quite sensitive and quite insecure. Anyway, that escalated as I got older.
How did your behaviour as a teenager and young woman reflect that?
I'd still say I've got an eating disorder. I'm in recovery, but it's always going to be there to a degree. So, although I dieted a bit on an off as a teenager, it didn’t start until after I had my first son. I was 17 then, so I put on quite a bit of weight and it was from then that it became a massive problem for me.
I had lot of thoughts like, I'll be happy if I can weigh this, and I developed bulimia. I had it throughout my second pregnancy as well, which was really hard because I felt so guilty that it could affect somebody else.
I felt like I lived a lot of my life as a before picture – I was always waiting to be the after picture so that I could do this, I could do that, I could wear this, I could be that if I weighed so much less.
So, it's been quite a revelation that actually, because I wore shorts this year for the first time in 25 years, the world didn't end, nobody turned round and stared at me, nothing happened. I walked down the road and it was fine. And I came home again and everything was just as it was except, I'd worn shorts instead of suffering every summer for 25 years from being far too hot! I was always worried that my legs aren't stick thin. It sounds really silly that something so small could be this revelation that I could actually do it.
I've always worried so much about what other people think. That's my main thing. It's, would people judge me? What will they say if I do this, if I do that? Then I realised that I don't really care, which is really nice.
The other week, I posted something in a Facebook group for wild swimming and someone made some not very nice comments about my stomach. And the group admin were amazing – the person was barred. The admin actually asked to ring me and speak to me, and they were very sorry – they couldn't have done more. But I realised it didn't upset me. I replied to this person and said, well, actually I'm really pleased that you noticed my fat stomach because it shows that I'm recovering from my eating disorder. It shows that I've had four children. I'm proud of it. And I'm probably going to show it in every single photo.
Whereas, up until then, I had worried about posting on Instagram or Facebook where I'm in swimwear that someone would make a comment and how that would feel. That would have absolutely devastated me. I'd probably have never swum again if someone had said that. It is out of order and I was more upset that they could have said it to somebody else that would still feel like that.
That sort of comment is quite unusual for the outdoor swimming world, isn't it?
Yeah, I don't know if this was someone who was just in the group to do that sort of thing. You know, it was quite a surprise. He said, are you aware that your fat stomach shows through that swimming costume? So, I replied to this and then he said, you should be ashamed of your fat body.
I'm not even fat. I'm somewhere in the middle. I would put myself as average. I've been a lot fatter. I've been a lot thinner, and it's quite nice, it's quite freeing to have that not giving a fuck sort of attitude.
So, how do you think you’ve got to this place of not giving a fuck even when trolls make horrible comments?
I’m having therapy, which really helps. I’d had various counsellors over the years and it never really worked for me. And then, there’s a charity based in Shepton Mallet, SWEDA, the Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorder Association, and they provide counselling. You pay what you can, and they're trained in eating disorders so it’s more geared up to your needs than general counselling. That's really helped.
And also being mindful and being kind of yourself. I think that it helps to not necessarily focus on the eating side of it. I always felt counselling was about whether I did eat or I didn't, not anything else. I think it’s more being kinder because now, if I did have a relapse, it wouldn't be the end of the world. I wouldn't feel like I'd ruined everything, and I think that's it.
I'm an all or nothing person. And I think that's where it started from – it was eat everything or eat nothing. It's really hard even now to get that balance, and I want to be healthy, but I don't want it to be the thing that defines me. And sometimes I think when you do lose weight, it's really hard because people pay you all these compliments, and then you feel like you're letting yourself down, you're letting everyone else down if you do put on some weight. Sometimes I think that can be just as damaging.
I've learnt that I wouldn't comment on anybody else's weight. Before, I would have done, I would have said, oh you've lost weight, don't you look good? Where I've sort of learnt actually, you feel like you're being helpful and you're being kind and, in a way, you are, but I think it piles on pressure without meaning to.
How do you think that your dad’s addiction affected your own mental health?
I have learnt that my childhood has had more of an effect than I thought. I've always been a very matter of fact person. My dad killed himself when I was 11 and I've always just been very matter of fact about it. It happened; people have had worse. I've always just put it in a box and never really linked all the mental health issues that I've had.
I've learnt that actually, everyone's childhood trauma is very specific to them and how it affects you isn't a comparison - that because someone went through something else that it was worse for them. So that's been quite a learning curve.
What apart from therapy have you used to help you with your mental health and self-confidence?
Outdoor swimming has helped me more than I could’ve ever imagined. Like, it was quite a surprise how much it has helped.
There's a photo of me when I went on holiday with my partner, and I'm reading a wild swimming book. That was the first time it became a concept to me, I'd never really thought about it, and that was four years ago.
It took me a couple of years before I actually went and did it. Initially, I swam in leggings and a t-shirt. And there's a very gradual shift towards not worrying about what people thought.
But also, it helps with my mental health massively. And that wasn't really something I was expecting. I just wanted to do it because it looked like fun and I thought it'd be good and my son was quite keen to do it as well. But it really resets me if I'm having a rubbish day – I know a lot of people say it, but you don't ever regret going for a swim!
There have been times when I've really had to force myself to do it, where I'd rather just have curled up in bed and not done anything, but it does completely change my mindset once I've been in the water. More so when it's cold. I do find that, even though it's harder, but I think that's part of it.
Up until two years ago, I didn't even swim in the sea in the summer; I'd put my toe in and go, no, not for me. But now, we've done it through the winter. I think it's a mental achievement to make yourself do something that you know is going to be cold and sometimes hurts a little bit, but you carry on anyway. So, for me it was achieving something that I didn't think I could do.
At what point did you move out of the t-shirts and leggings?
I did it gradually, really. I think just a bit came off a time and I couldn't be bothered with the faff of it. And being in groups and seeing other people doing it, and it’s such an accepting community – on the whole, apart from what I mentioned earlier – generally nobody judges you for how you look, what you’re wearing, or what you’re doing, whether you bob about or you’re front crawling at 90 miles an hour for hours on end.
Everyone's just happy to be in the water and I find everyone's really friendly. I'm not the most sociable of people. I often choose quieter places to go because I'm not very good with lots of people. I find it a bit overwhelming, really. Like, I do especially like it at Clevedon Marine Lake in the winter when there's not very many people. I've struggled over the summer; I haven't been here as much because it's been busy. So, I will go other places where I might see two or three people – that’s ideal for me.
You've got the most amazing tattoos – has body art been part of your journey to body acceptance?
I've always loved tattoos. I've always had a few, but ones I could keep covered up. Again, I think because I've always felt there’s a judgement around tattoos. But then I thought, you know what? I like them.
I've never really liked my arms. Whereas now they come out all the time because I like my tattoos. My legs are next and now I can show them off while I'm wearing my shorts.
My dad always had a lot of tattoos. My uncle's a tattoo artist, and I often used to sit there as a little girl and watch him having various ones done. And it was always something that I'd been quite keen on.
But again, everyone has an opinion and they're often quite keen to share them with you whether it's positive or negative. Some people just go, that's amazing, which is lovely and other people go, I don't really like tattoos. I'm just like, well, you haven't got any then!
I've never really felt the need to tell someone I didn't like something about them, but people like to tell you. Just random people in the street. It's fine, but it does make me laugh. Again, before I'd have never wanted anything that made me stand out or be any different. So, I guess part of it is having something that makes you stand out.
Do you think that’s part of that idea that women’s looks are public property and the world has the right to comment on them?
Yeah, and I find that really quite sad that you can't just go about your business and be who you want to be without somebody commenting. The thing is, it isn't always men either. I think women are very good at judging other women and judging them quite openly. I know we can all be a bit guilty of judging a book by its cover – you do get a first impression of people, and I think that's okay. But I don't think it's okay to comment or to keep that judgement. I've always been very much, I’ll wait until I speak to someone and take it from there. I think people are very rarely what they seem on the surface.
The comments I've had sometimes when I've posted a photo when I've been swimming and there might be a nipple showing through, and everyone seems to feel that they need to comment on it, and I just feel it's part of my body. I'm in cold water. There's quite a good chance it might show through and I don't necessarily feel that I need to edit that. It's just a picture of me. It's just a nipple, you know? Men show their nipples, like, that's okay. Mine's not actually there for any reason; it's just a picture, but a lot of people feel the need to comment, to ask am I aware? Well, I might have noticed, yes, but I just didn't care. And while the photo wasn't being taken, I was walking around like it and people saw me then…
So, how did you pluck up the courage to accept modelling swimmer for Deakin & Blue?
It took quite a lot to accept it. I always knew that I wanted to do it, but I did feel that I couldn't do it… so, a lot of encouragement from my partner. He was like, well, you prance around in swimwear all the time anyway, and it's not really any different. He knew that I'd really enjoy doing it.
Again, it's that self-belief, I think. That confidence to do things and also to tell your body story. Whether yours is worth telling, feeling that it's interesting enough or relative enough for anyone else to want hear it.
I think all the other ladies have got such amazing stories, and I was sat thinking, wow. And really, my whole issue has been whether I'm too fat to wear this or not. And a lot of them have overcome so much. I know that overcoming mental health is not to be sniffed at, as it were, but it's quite hard to quantify how difficult a struggle it is. You can't see it.
So yeah, me getting out and doing anything, whether it was swimming or not, has been quite a challenge really.
I felt I'd let myself down if I didn't do it because I'd have felt I was holding myself back. It was a really good experience; I really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed chatting to everyone.
And I got some lovely swimming costumes as well. I’ve got a bit of a thing for swimming costumes. It used to be all bags and shoes, but now it's all about swimwear, really. It's like, not another swimming costume coming. They fold up quite small and I can hide them away, so it's all right. I make sure no one sees it until I’ve worn at once and then it's not new anymore!
I have learnt that maybe quality is better than quantity. I've had a few little mishaps with something’s fallen apart, like exposing bits of myself that don't need to be exposed. And one time, not realising until a man pointed it out to me…
He was very polite and very nice, but I'd snuck up here when I was really meant to be picking the children up, but I thought, oh, I've got time to go for a quick swim. This man said, oh, I see you've escaped, and I was thinking, how does he know that I've escaped from the children? I went, oh, what, the children? And he said, no, your left tit!
I didn't even realise. Normally, you feel quite free if something's come out but I hadn't even... Yeah, completely oblivious. But yes, luckily most people are very nice, accepting and non-judgmental. He didn’t even bat an eyelid, just informed me that that was the case and moved on.
So yes, I would definitely recommend quality swimwear that keeps you where you should be with no bits falling out!
Are you looking forward to another winter?
Yeah, I am really looking forward to winter. I went the other day and there was a definite nip in the water and I thought, oh, it's back, which is nice. This summer I've found it disappointing when the water's been warm, it doesn't feel the same.
It's been quite nice not having to wear gloves and things because I get quite bad cramp in one of my hands. But on the other hand it's not quite so much of a challenge. I don't really feel that I've achieved so much from it. It's getting the shiver that’s nice, isn't it? I quite like it afterwards, the feeling cold on the inside. Strange to say, but I do like it.
It'll be different for me this year because I won't have my son to come with me quite so much. My eldest will come – he's had mental health issues as well and it's really helped him too. So, as a family it's been good. My little ones are getting a bit more involved, though I don't think they'll be winter swimming. One of my twins has got autism, so he's got a lot of sensory issues. And he really likes being in the water and he quite likes the cold as well.
So, I’m raising a family of swimmers… but not my other half. But, you need someone to look after the stuff and take photos! It's not for everybody. It would be boring if it was.
Read the other Body Stories in our Reimaging Beauty series:
"At 72 I can do most things. I can still dance; I can still have fun and that's really all that matters. Everybody can do something – it doesn't matter what your limitations are, what you have to look at is what you can do." Read Lindsay's story
"Just as some people are hard-wired to think they’re not beautiful, I think that I am and no one's ever going to persuade me that I'm not." Read Ellie's story
"I don't see beauty as being traditional beauty. I think that's because I live with a quite obvious physical difference, so I don't conform to any of the so-called normal beauty standards." Read Mary's story
"It makes me really angry and sad that we live in this culture where we’re told that fat equals unhealthy to the point that people don't want to do the things that will make them healthy because they think they have no place there." Read Rowan's story
"It's not often what I look like that makes me feel good or bad about my body, it’s how it feels like it's working. Has it been used and do I feel fit, do I feel capable? I think that I stand up straighter when I'm feeling accomplished like when I’ve swum a cold kilometre." Read Lucy's story
“We, as grown-ups, have a responsibility to young people today… to show them that beautiful isn’t what they see on a curated, filtered phone screen. Beautiful is a lust for life. Beautiful is freedom from the shackles of media driven expectation. Beautiful is taking up the space you deserve. Beautiful is running into the sea in your pants.” Read Vix’s story