Society views the fitness failures of thin and fat women very differently indeed, says outdoor swimmer Ella Foote.
I am stood in a swimsuit, swim cap and goggles waiting for the rest of the group I am with to get their wetsuits on so we can tackle a one kilometre sea swim. They have just run six kilometres of the brutal Exmoor coastal path; I hitched a lift with the event organisers. I am on a press trip, but it is being hosted by an adventure company, so the others are not the usual media types. I try to make small talk with the guy next to me. I ask him if we had met before as he seems familiar. He looks me up and down before saying he very much doubts it.
“Are you going in like that?” another chap exclaims. “You’re going to be really cold.”
I smile and politely reassure him that I will be okay, while he exchanges looks with the other guy. I have been in this position many times, at the start of many swimming events. Seasoned, regular outdoor swimmers know, you simply cannot judge a swimmer by their body.
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We stand side by side. The group have bonded on their shared experience on the run, understanding each other better, knowing who is capable of what. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to keep up on the run, my body and I know each other well. Now at the water’s edge, the one kilometre sea swim ahead isn’t a challenge, it is a joy. The anticipation is more based on excitement. As soon as I am into the blue, I am at ease, I am held, I swim. It isn’t fast, with lots of effort. Just strong and consistent, the way I have taught my body. The lead safety guy asks me to hang back for the rest of the group to catch up. The man I had tried to chat to swims up behind, wearing fins.
“I don’t think we have properly met,” he offers. “Are you some sort of cold water swimmer or something?” Suddenly I am worthy of his attention, respect. I put my head down and keep swimming.
It isn’t the first time I have surprised others once in the water. I work hard at the start of any big swim not to let the people around me get into my head. There is a great feeling swimming past someone who gave unsolicited advice or concern before starting. But why does it have to happen in the first place?
The media loves a statistic about obesity and can fuel stigma towards people who are overweight. Anyone who does any kind of activity regularly knows that just because someone may look ‘fit’ it doesn’t mean that they are. While I applaud and admire a person who can love their body at any size, I can’t find peace with mine. So I seek activity to address the problem, build strength and health the best I can – don’t shame me before I have begun.
Fashion Blogger Chloe Elliott can relate, also falling victim to assumptions when she took up ballet. “It was immediately assumed by the instructor that I was less able,” she says. “I was told I could alter movements to make them ‘easier’ for me. It was frustrating that it was automatically assumed I was less capable because of my size, when there were people half my size, less flexible than me and they were treated normally.”
This year I signed up to a nine kilometre river swim, my first proper event swim in three years. I have longer distances on my swim CV, but I am the biggest I have ever been and so the shame surrounding my body is worse than ever. It doesn’t really matter if I finish or not, but I did find myself saying to a friend that it is different when a fat person fails at sport. Because if I get fished out the water half-way, it is because of my weight. If a ‘fit’ looking person gets fished out, its misadventure, bad luck, lack of training.
As a swimming journalist, I was recently interviewing ocean swimmer Beth French. Beth set out to swim the Oceans Seven, a challenge consisting of the seven most dangerous sea-channels in the world; a film has been made about her story. I asked her experience of failure and success. “My goal was to swim seven oceans in a year, that was the destination,” she says. “But the adventure is what we learn along the way and that is why we do it. We don’t do these swims, challenges and projects for the end result, we do it for what we learn about ourselves during the process.” Her words stuck with me. Never has any big swim for me been about placing my feet back onto dry land at the end.
The leisure industry is a daunting space for many, I know you don’t have to be plus-size to have issues with your body, or feel intimated at the gym. Accepting that you need to do physical activity for your health is just the first step; finding decent activewear in your size in a second unnecessary hurdle (don’t get me started).
But the most important thing to address is to chose an activity you adore, so that when you find yourself at the start of a class, event, race or challenge it really doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, because your primary purpose is to enjoy yourself.
Five ways to tackle size stigma
- Understand why you are doing what you are doing. If one of the reasons isn’t because you get something positive out of it, don’t do it.
- Chose an activity that you are willing to do no matter how bad a day you’re having or what the weather is doing.
- Wear something that supports your body, is comfortable and makes you feel epic. My swimsuits are my super capes.
- Remind yourself that almost everybody around you is more concerned about themselves than they are about you.
- Seek out the cheerleaders. There are plenty who will encourage you, whatever you put your mind to.
Images: Ella Foote
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