Trigger warning: This story contains references to disordered eating.
In our second instalment of our Reimagining Beauty Body Stories we meet Rowan. A 42-year-old outdoor swimming coach and writer, Rowan campaigns for inclusivity in swimming and helping people with different body types access the water.
Involved in running Clevedon Marine Lake, she appears confident and self-assured. But, like so many of us, she’s struggled with her appearance and self-worth. Outdoor swimming has helped her confidence grow, though, and now she strives to help others enjoy the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of swimming outdoors.
What does the word beauty mean to you?
It ought to be an innocent word, but I feel it has been hijacked. I think that throughout your life, you come across the word beauty in so many situations where it is loaded and full of judgement. Like, if I think back to my first experience of the word beauty, it was probably fairy tales and Disney films where beauty is a princess's quality. I mean, she might also have a few other fairly insipid qualities like loving animals, but nothing that's got any kind of fortitude or interest or spark.
So, then you learn that beauty is this kind of passive quality that you either have or you don't have. From early on I decided it was something that I didn't have.
And then, as I got older, I was constantly fed the promise that beauty was something you could achieve by buying products or following beauty routines and if you achieved the beauty standard, you were more employable or datable - you had more power in society. Only, the women that you saw, that you were aspiring to look like weren’t real – they were either photoshopped or touched up. Flawless skin, perfect teeth, long eyelashes, slim, long, smooth, glossy hair – that was the only way to look and anything that fell short was inadequate.
So, when did you first become aware of beauty in relation to yourself?
I was aware from a young age that I wasn't a beauty. I was compared to my little sister who was. Even as small children she got a lot of attention, people would coo over her. On the other hand, I wore glasses, I was very tall with sort of gawky long legs and when she got clothes and make-up for Christmas, I got books.
I've got a really early memory of being in the infant school playground – I reckon I must have been about six – and my teacher made a comment about ugly ducklings growing up to be beautiful swans. I don't remember the context but I do remember thinking, she thinks I’m ugly. I remember being in swimming lessons maybe aged 10, and being aware of the size of my thighs, trying to sit so that they didn't spread on the side of the pool. I mean, God, I was so young.
I was actually pretty skinny up until I was 18 or 19. I felt big because I was so tall... but I also had lots of other issues with my looks - bad acne, wearing glasses and braces. I just remember thinking that I'd never have my first kiss because I was so ugly. And that feeling of being ugly, I think it runs so deep that it's been impossible to shake off ever since.
As I got older, my skin cleared up, my braces came off and that lack of confidence in myself transferred into being about weight. People made comments - womanly, child-bearing hips, good aura. This was the 90s when heroin chic was a thing - girls were supposed to be stick thin. Models at the time looked like skeletons and they injected heroin in between their toes to stay thin, but that was the thin ideal – that’s what permeated and what stuck.
How did that affect you?
I made really poor choices for my body. I wasn’t very discerning about boyfriends – I was just flattered if someone paid me attention. But it was the crazy behaviour around food that did the real damage and, looking back, I definitely had body dysmorphia and that led to disordered eating.
I first joined Weight Watchers when I was 19. I was probably only a size 10 to 12, but I’d stopped growing in height and I'd started to grow in my hips and boobs. What should have happened is that they should have said, you're not fat, you should just eat a bit more healthily, you know, more fibre, more veg, and do some exercise and enjoy your body, enjoy being young. But they didn't. They took my money and they gave me a weight goal.
I had irritable bowel syndrome as well. So, over the next few years, I struggled so much with pain in my digestive system. Lots of bloating, lots very uncomfortable symptoms, severe cramps and things like that. I became obsessed with seeking out dietary answers to these digestive issues. But, ultimately, no matter how I dressed them up, it was always about losing weight.
And I really did become obsessed. I weighed myself obsessively. I used to measure the circumference of my thighs and waist and hips and write them down, record ‘progress’. When I left uni, I fell into quite a deep depression around being fat. I joined Weight Watchers again and I also remember ordering a detox kit and drinking nothing but blue green algae for two weeks and didn't eat anything. Unsurprisingly, it made me feel awful but I still thought there was something wrong with me and that I couldn't slim down.
I think that a huge part of the problem with feeling that you're fat isn’t about just looks. I mean, I felt ugly, my thighs chafed and buying clothes was hard. But also, that idea that fat equals lazy, useless and stupid is a constant undercurrent to your negative thought process.
I broke my metabolism so I didn't recognise hunger cues or know when I was full, and I had this deeply-rooted hatred for my body. I would I would pinch and punch my wobbly bits. I would fantasise about carving off bits of my thighs with a bread knife. I would use food to punish myself either by withholding it or by binge eating, kind of like, you don't deserve to be slim.
I mean, it's actually completely mad if I think about it now.
So, what changed?
I think that having babies was what started to change me. For the first time in my life, I felt some semblance of pride in what my body could do. I'd been crap at sport all the way through childhood. I really was so terrible. I couldn’t run. I’m hypermobile, so I had, like, these sort of weird floppy limbs that went everywhere and joints that were unstable. I would do anything to avoid sport at school.
What I missed out on was this idea of sport for well-being for feeling good and for health. But, when I had babies, I was actually incredibly proud of my body for growing these babies and for giving birth to them and then breastfeeding them and it was the first time that I felt something positive about my body.
After I had my third, I realised I probably couldn't just keep on having babies. But I wanted to feel good about my body again. A lot of my friends were doing things like the Bristol 10k and the Bath half marathon, and I thought, actually, I like swimming, so I found the Great North Swim and decided to enter that. I’m not going to lie – it was a weight-loss ploy to begin with.
I started training with a triathlon club because I knew that they had access to a stretch of river near where I lived. And so, I did pool training with them over the winter and then in the spring, we went down to the river. I remember swimming this 2K stretch river and thinking, ok, cool, this is it. It was just a pleasure and I was able to do it and I felt so proud and accomplished and I'd never had that before. I'd never felt pride and accomplishment from doing physical exercise before in my entire life.
Is that where your outdoor swimming career started?
Yes. I was hooked. I signed up to so the Dart 10k the next year. So, I went from one mile to six miles, which is a bit of a leap, but again, I did it. No problems physically at all, you know, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed again that pride when you finish, it's just like, wow, I just swam six miles down a river.
And then I decided I was going to see if I could swim through the winter. I don't really know where I got this idea from. But I went to Clevedon and I met a couple of people who were in a group called the South West Seals. Bear in mind that I started out thinking I’ll just keep going every week and see where it takes me, once it gets too cold, I'll just stop. But within a couple of weeks of starting, I had not only signed up to swim in the national championships in a relay team, I had also become head of merch. So, I got these swimming costumes printed with the south west seals logo on the front. And on the back, the words, does my bum look cold in this?
This group of people were the most wonderful, slightly batty, diverse in terms of their backgrounds and their stories, non-judgemental – just the most wonderful people. And I think that winter I lost almost all my self-consciousness just in one go. I suddenly found myself getting into freezing water and being able to withstand that and feeling this sense of pride in my body. Also, there was something about being with people of all ages and shapes and sizes who proudly wear their swimwear without giving a stuff what anyone thought about what they looked like, and it was the most liberating experience.
How did outdoor swimming change how you feel about your body?
I look back at photos of myself when I first started swimming with the South West Seals and I wore a navy blue or black boy leg swimming costume. So, swimming costumes that completely covered as much of my body as a swimming costume can. Especially my thighs, which were the part of my body I hated the most. Fast forward six years and I wear bright colours and bikinis. I think I've got three bikinis now, which I wear regularly.
In terms of my size, I am actually a couple of dress sizes bigger now. And obviously I'm older. I'm just going into that perimenopause stage and my body is changing a lot and not in a way that the beauty industry would call good. You know, wrinkles cellulite, broken veins, things being saggy.
And I’ve got a belly. In the past, when I gained weight, it was always in my thighs and my bum and my hips. Now I've got this band of weight around my belly that I've never really had before. That undercurrent of what I was brainwashed to believe was the ideal is still… Well, it's permeated so deeply that it's still there. I still look at photographs of myself and think who is this fat, middle-aged woman? I don't really recognise her and it makes me cringe. I still get those thoughts – just one more diet, if I could just shrink down to below a 14 again.
But I am so much more confident in myself and I can mostly outwit those negative thoughts. I know, like, intellectually that weight and appearance doesn't matter. I know that I'm healthy. I walk or run between 5 and 10k about three times a week. I can weightlift. I can swim. I swam two miles down the Thames dressed as a mermaid mono-finning and wearing my Deakin & Blue swimming costume, of course and I feel just so much better in myself.
I feel better for being physical and I now exercise because I need it for my head. I love walking up to the top of a really big hill with my dog. And most of all, I love swimming outdoors. I love the community that I'm a part of now and that I feel so unjudged and accepted for who I am, rather than what I look like.
And I'm proud of what my body can do. I'm proud that I can swim in open water. I love telling people about my most recent challenge or swim, and I love the way people are slightly in awe and want to be able to do that themselves – it cancels out the negative voice in my head that says, they think you're fat.
And now it really is your career – how did that come about?
It gave me so much in terms of confidence that I trained to be an outdoor swimming coach. I was already a swimming teacher. I trained as a swimming teacher for Water Babies when my babies were little because I was struggling to work as freelance writer. I love absolutely adored that – I did it for 11 years. Then I taught a few adults and older children, and then in 2018 I trained to be an outdoor swimming coach.
The focus for me has always been on well-being. I wanted to give women like me that confidence in what their bodies can do as well as all those brilliant well-being benefits of swimming outdoors. It's about moving how you want to and how you feel good.
But it's also about learning how to appreciate what you've got. And one of the things I love about outdoor swimming is that you get people who are big, who are small, who have physical disabilities, chronic illnesses, injuries. And when you get in the water, it’s such a great leveller because you've got this amazing 360 degree sphere of movement and you feel this sort of freedom.
Also, I love the way that water holds you. I think for a lot of women in their middle age, you spend your life caring for people. You look after your parents, you look after your friends, your partner, your children. You hold them up physically and emotionally. But quite often you don't get held yourself and I love the way the water takes the weight off and makes you feel held.
So, what advice would you give women who lack confidence in their bodies?
I think it's really important to not discount weight, exactly, but to remember that weight is an arbitrary measurement and not an indicator of health. You can be, and I use this word in very much in inverted commas, ‘overweight’ and healthy.
You can also have people who are thin and not healthy. And so, you can't predict someone's health by the way they look in the same way that at the beginning of a swim event, you can look at all the bodies standing ready to get into the water and you cannot predict who can swim fast and who can't.
Those value judgements based on looks are incredibly harmful. One of the things that breaks my heart is when you hear about women who are not willing to get into the water because of the way they look. So, the other day, I was chatting to a woman at the marine lake and she was admiring all the swimmers who were getting into the water. And she said, I wish I could do that. I'd really love to do that. And I said, well, you know, I happen to be a coach. I do introductory sessions if you want some tips. And she said, would you run a session at five in the morning because I don't want anyone to see me in a swimming costume?
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.
Like, there was a time when I wanted to go back to this triathlon group to improve my swim fitness. But I’d put on weight, and I was too embarrassed to put on a swimming costume and get into a swimming pool with them. There have been times when I've decided that I won't go to the gym until I've lost weight. Because I felt that I don't have a place in that setting. I'm too fat.
I remember a while ago, Nike had a mannequin that was about size 16 and people kicked off, they said it was glorifying unhealthy fatness and I was like, no, no, you've got this round the wrong way. If you don't make clothes that fit people, if you don't make swimming costumes and sports bras, sports tops, running leggings that fit larger bodies, then those people on going to think, exercise is not for me. If you don’t show fat people being active, then fat people think, I don't have a place here. That's just so topsy-turvy.
There are huge misconceptions about what food does to your body in terms of health, too. I think that's the way that the diet industry has changed. It’s this sort of insidious creep from being about looks to dressing it up as health, but it's the same shit. It's the same low-calorie diet depriving yourself of food, of sustenance, of nourishment just to achieve what our society deems as beautiful. And I’ve had enough.
We should all have the confidence to enjoy our bodies in every possible sense, in every way that us women have been made to feel guilty in the past. You know, getting pleasure from sex, food, movement, enjoying the sensation of swimming, walking, running if you can. Enjoying ‘ungirly’ sport – my daughter plays rugby and one of the things I've absolutely love now is lifting weights – I can deadlift 90 kilos and that makes me feel amazing.
And you know what the socially constructed idea of beauty is doing by putting women down and making us feel ugly and insignificant and powerless? It's actually taking away our self-worth and opportunities to enjoy ourselves and that's a tragedy.
So, what would I say to women who really feel this? I would say, screw it, get out there and enjoy yourself. Find someone to cheerlead you and support you. Whether that's a coach or a friend, or a group of friends, or one of these wonderful organisations like Mental Health Swims, find someone who will support you.
Get into open water, push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you're scared of what you look at like in a swimming costume, then there are some beautiful costumes that are big enough for you, that will make you feel fabulous and I just think that that's so important.
Enjoy your body. You don't have to love what you look like, but enjoy how you feel. Enjoy yourself and find the pleasure in just being you.
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'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
"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." Read Hannah's Story