Seasoned With Salt

It is not only in the sea the women of a ‘certain age’ are swimming against the current. But it is in the sea that we gain the confidence and increased self-esteem so we can continue to be strong, significant and visible on dry land no matter what age and gender we are.

Over the last couple of years I have watched the Salty Seabird flock grow in number and more importantly in strength. Changes, subtle over time, can go unnoticed. As autumn turns to winter, the days grow shorter and the sea temperature drops, transformations take place. Women are finding a new place in the world, a place where they are strong. We draw our strength from the sea and each other.

When we set up the Salty Seabird’s Swimming community group we had no idea what we were doing or indeed, what it would become. We just knew that we loved swimming in the sea, all year round, and that it made us feel happy. People, mainly women, began to gravitate towards our group and find solidarity as well as solace, What I have come to realise is that swimming in the sea also makes me feel strong, significant and visible. All words that are not usually associated with women of a certain age. And my fellow female swimmers feel the same.

As a woman enters her forties and fifties her body changes considerably. This has a significant impact of how she views herself and how others view her. This is unique to females. It can be a very difficult time, for a number of years, plagued by low self-esteem, and dwindling confidence. No longer seen as sirens of the sea luring sailors to their death by the sweetness of our songs.  How are others supposed to recognise our worth when we struggle to recognise it ourselves. So we take to the sea where we remain our real selves. Youthful, relevant and defiant.

People’s perception of you changes when you say you swim in the sea all year round.  Too many women don’t swim at all, at any age, let alone in a big mass of salty water in the depths of winter. By doing something out of the ordinary, that some would say is brave and bold, blasts stereotypes out of the water. Quite literally. And as these positive affirmations continue the perception others have of you becomes yours. You are what they see. You find the real you. You become the person you were before you were defined by your role as a mother, a carer, a worker, etc.

Over the last few weeks, our company Seabirds have been running Introduction to Sea Swimming Taster sessions. They are not aimed specially at women, but 100% of the participants have been female. We have commissioned two new swimming coaches, Emma and Christine, to keep up with demand. At the beginning of each session we ask the women to introduce themselves and their swimming experience and ability. Without fail they all claim not to be swimmers even though they refer to time spent in the water.. Phrases like “I only dip really” and “ I used to swim all the time when I was young” are all too common. We reassure them that they are swimmers regardless of how far, or long or deep they swim and that the person that used to swim “all the time” is still there and we will help to find her.

It is not by accident, that all of our coaches, including myself, are women ‘of a certain age’. Our youngest is 48 and our oldest is 60 but you would be hard pushed to guess which one of us is which, as the sea keeps us young. We’ve been that woman that claims not to be a swimmer, I still am sometimes. We can relate to their anxieties but are proof that you can overcome them. It is incredible to see, how, with the right encouragement, these swimmers morph in a matter of minutes into smiling and laughing women proud of their achievements. It is an absolute privilege to be a part of their journey of rediscovering their self-worth.

We recently had a group of women from Girls Alive in Surrey, visiting our shores to experience the sea as part of their channel swim relay preparations. Girls Alive is a collective of encouraging, all-female, non-competitive activity groups for women of all ages and abilities. As we knew we would, we had a wonderful morning with them talking all things tides, waves and weather conditions before a social swim. During the talk a couple of fishermen set up close by and struck up a very loud conversation. It was so loud many of the participants were unable to hear and so I asked our 17 year old lifeguard to ask them to keep it down as but as we were running a session. Their initial reaction was slightly aggressive, possibly because a young female was asking them to move away from the session. It then turned to complete surprise that our group was even there, as even although they had walked passed us we were clearly invisible to them. The result of that session was that a bunch of women, some significantly nervous of the sea, smashed out a swim against the current, and a young woman had the confidence to ask members of the public to pipe down.

That 17 year old lifeguard happens to be my daughter. I swim with her when she will let me although she leaves me for dust. I regularly coach at a Surf Life Saving Club with her. And she is often my lifeguard at Seabird sessions. I feel strongly that she should never be judged by her gender or age or lose any of her self-worth as she grows older. My aim is to demonstrate that I am not ready to be put out to pasture, that I can skin swim throughout the bitterness of winter, that I am strong, I am significant and I am relevant. And she can be too, now, and as she inevitably ages. Charlotte Runcie put it perfectly in her book Salt on your Tongue.  ” The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women telling their stories and making music of beauty and imagination, and eternal mothers and grandmothers making eternal daughters and rocking them in the night as they sing while the tide comes and goes. And the power of women is to do all of this, to follow art and the moon, and to absorb it all and go on. ”

We are still swimming against the current but one day the tide will turn. Until then we will continue to encourage others to feel strong, significant and relevant by providing them with the confidence needed to swim in the sea. A confidence they can take with them in dry land.

The change of life or life changing?

Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!

The menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, when a woman’s oestrogen levels lower. And it has some ‘oh so lovely’ side affects to accompany it. Night sweats, hot flushes, low mood or anxiety and memory problems. A woman’s sex life may also be affected, with decreased sex drive, vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex. Lucky us! But there is also something quite positive about being an old bird.

When we started Seabirds Ltd and brainstorming names for our Community Interest Company,  Director Catherine came up with the perfect one. Seabirds. And there is a story behind the name. When her two eldest daughters we preschool age she moved back to the UK and settled in Hove after many years living abroad. She would walk regularly along the prom with initially two and then three small children in tow or in a buggy. She often saw women who were older than her swimming in the sea at all times of the year displaying so much confidence and strength. She admired those old birds from afar and named them Seabirds. A few months into her sea swimming journey a decade later she realised she had become one of these Seabirds that she admired all those years ago. When a few months later we started a wild swim group to encourage more people to get in the sea we added salt and the Salty Seabirds were formed.

Preserved in salt the seabird flock has grown rapidly. Not sure whether this is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and regularly forget our knickers.

The menopause is rarely talked about, even among groups of women that are living through it. There is a mass exodus from the workplace when women reach 30-40 and begin families, but there is also a mass exodus at 45-55 when women begin their journey through the menopause. As women are having families later in life, the gap between post natal and peri-menopause is very small. Unable to concentrate, distracted by hot flushes, the inability to retain even the simplest pieces of information make it, for some, impossible to carry on.  They are unable to work in the environment or pace that they were once proficient at.

Some women realise early on that these symptoms are hormonal and that they are not losing their marbles, Some take longer. Some never make the connection. Whatever your awareness is, the impact of the physical and cognitive changes is low mood, low confidence and increased anxiety.  As if the sweats and memory loss weren’t enough to deal with! The solution for many is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) but GPs can be slow to prescribe as the weaning off process is difficult to manage and many women have been slapping on patches for decades with no monitoring which isn’t ideal. For some of the Salty Seabirds a plunge in the cold sea has been a great way to deal with the symptoms and I’m not just talking about dowsing the flames of the hot flushes!

But there are positive changes that occur during this time. As a response to feeling inadequate in the workplace many women leave and find alternative employment.  It may be their long talked about dream job or have better working hours and conditions.  Many start their own businesses and as entrepreneurs they can dictate their own working environment.

As a Salty Seabird I have witnesses the positive changes in our swim group. Many of the women now work for themselves or have changed careers in their 40s and 50s. Many have arrived for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability and what lies beneath. After weeks of bathing with us they have become confident water warriors. They have exercised their brain keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read tragic seaweed forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. They have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young! They have become more body confident. Confident in it’s strength and capability in the water. One Salty Seabird has recently bought her first bikini after realising half of Brighton have seen her in the all together getting changed on the beach and if not now, when? Seabird Cath summarises the positive impact of getting older very succinctly. “We give less of a fuck”.

Whatever way it works, the water seems to keep the mental menopause monkeys that like to invade our brain with negative thoughts, at bay. So whilst the menopause is the ‘change of life’ it can also be ‘life changing’ in many positive ways. Swimming in the sea is preserving us with salt. We are the Seabirds.

As a closing note I have to share this amazing strap line with you that the visiting Southsea Mermaids shared with us when discussing the joys of the menopause. “Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!”

Author: Seabird Kath

p.s. Has anyone else forgotten they are boiling their moon cup on the stove and let it boil dry until the damn thing melted leaving the smell of burning rubber in the house? At least we know the periods will stop soon – always seeing the positive!