Around the world, women are supporting other women in the water. They’re creating safe spaces, cheerleading and enabling each other. Together, they’re connecting with nature, moving, bonding and becoming more confident in themselves.
This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the ways in which water brings out the very best in female strength, support and camaraderie.
Water is womanly
There’s something very feminine about water. From ancient civilisation, goddesses and mythical creatures such as mermaids were of water. Poetry and art links femininity with water, and with water is considered an element of the sacral chakra, the seat of feminine power.
Stories, myths, alternative healing and art that links water and women come from a feminine ideal where both share qualities of healing, purity, calmness, life, creation, elegance and creativity. In traditional Chinese yin-yang theory, water is associated with yin, sharing with women the qualities of being soft, graceful, flexible and yet strong and powerful.
These days, in Western culture, our strong female connection with water remains. For those of use who love swimming and surfing or just being in water, we find it brings us healing, calmness and strength. As we’ve written about before, research shows that the women’s response to water is different to men’s – the way we approach water-based activities is more about community benefits as well as personal benefits.
Finding a community
If water is our element and we’re motivated by being sociable, then it makes sense that water-based groups are so important to us. From baby swimming classes to women’s surfing societies, women are amazing at building communities, making connections and support each other into water. The importance of those female relationships, of that camaraderie, flows through all our body stories.
One such woman is Sian, the mastermind behind The Bluetits, a nationwide network of outdoor swimmers. “People are amazing for just turning up to a cold water swim,” she says. “People who turn up swim after swim, to do it again and again; they bring a towel and a piece of cake and hold someone’s hands as they go in – those are the people who really inspire me.”
“I love The Bluetits. I’m amazed that the majority of groups run with same ethos. Most weekends at Pencarnan I have visiting Bluetits and so far all of them say the same thing about their local group – how welcoming and accepting the groups are,” says Sian. “We are a bunch of cake eating, gin-swilling tits who make a lot of noise – some people come to swim, some people come and don’t swim – and that’s fine too. We are safe space, whether you’re in the water or not.”
While there are plenty of groups of friends who swim together, some women go further, spotting who’s missing from their swim or surf community and finding ways to reach out and include them.
Herself an introvert with a complex mental illness that gives her social anxiety, Rachel founded Mental Health Swimsto reach those who struggle to join groups. “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,” she says. “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.”
For Minreet, it has been more about reaching out to other women in her South-Asian community. Outdoor activities is still a very white-dominated space, so recognising and overcoming barriers for women from non-white communities is important.
“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,” says Minreet. “I think the way to overcome those barriers is by trying to educate the people in the community about why it's good for you to be able to do something outdoors… Also, community is very important and I think that it’s nice to swim together with people from the same community because you understand the barriers and the challenges and you're able to help support each other and encourage each other.”
Riding the waves
While outdoor swimming groups tend to be quite female-orientated, surfing is a different matter. In response to a macho, skill-focussed image, a female surfing movement has started to push back.
Taking their lead from the Pembrokeshire Women’s Surf Society and inspired by the film Girls Can’t Surf,Tirion, Ebbi and Asha founded the Gower Women’s Surf Society. They were bowled over by how their group’s taken off, how much women want to surf with other women and how much women need their group.
“Within three months of setting up the society, we introduced more than a hundred women to surfing,” says Tirion. “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.”
So what do women bring to these communities that we value so much? In part, it’s about creating safe spaces. That might be a place where other women understand specific barriers or challenges as with Minreet’s South Asian community. It might be a place where women feel free of judgement and expectation as with Mental Health Swims.It might be a place where women can set a different tone.
“The community has drawn people from all walks of life who have come together over this love of surfing,” says Tirion. “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.”
As well as creating safe spaces, women are finding that they can escape society’s expectations for them to behave or look a certain way. Whooping, shouting and playing are all fun ways to enjoy the water – and behaviours that we might not feel comfortable displaying anywhere else.
“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,” says Tirion. “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.”
We also might not feel comfortable showing our bottoms and boobs elsewhere. But, as we celebrate our bodies because they can splash, swim, surf, paddle and endure the cold, so many of us find that rather than caring about how we look, we can enjoy our amazing bodies.
“I think that their body confidence is a barrier as well,” says Minreet. “Some people are not comfortable wearing swimwear, and they don't really want to be in a male and female environment, they want it to be women only.”
“Everybody has something about their body they don’t like and it’s really shocking that we all feel this way. I’m not knocking it or belittling it – it’s real – but it’s just so sad that as human beings we have this thing,” says Sian. “Why can’t we get up and think ‘what I see is beautiful’? It’s our society and this stupid idea of perfection.”
Whether you go to the water with one or two close friends or scream and whoop with a group, it’s clear that the communities we build around swimming and surfing bring so much to our lives. Here’s to the cheerleaders, supporters and fabulous friends. Most of all, here’s a big whoop of appreciation to the wonderful women who set up these communities and reach out to others.