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.

AnyBODY can swim

The thing about swimming is anybody can do it. No matter how big or small or able bodied, anybody can get in the water

I love open water swimming. I love the cold. I love the friends I have made. I love the sense of community. I love the tea and cake afterwards. I love the stillness of floating. I love the joy of jumping over waves. I love the calm of being submerged. I love the way I feel post swim. But most of all I love the total and utter rejection of the idea that only certain body types can swim.

The thing about swimming is anybody can do it. No matter how big or small or able bodied. Anybody can get in the water and experience the texture, movement, temperature on their skin. You may need a hoist, or a wheelchair. You may need a flotation device or some one to physically support you. You may not be able to propel yourself through the water but you may be able to float. You may not be able to see it, hear it, smell it or taste it, but you will be able to feel it. Feel the weightlessness, feel the cold, feel the energy of it. However you experience it, anybody can swim.

The Salty Seabirds really are all shapes and sizes. One of the many things I love about our flock is the contagious body confidence that has spread as we strip on the beach in full view of passing tourists, dog walkers and other swimmers. You don’t have time to worry about who can see your bits as you race against the tide and swim shakes to dress your numb stinging body. And contrary to what the name Seabirds suggests, we have some, albeit few, male sea swimmers in our numbers. They have seen ours and we have seen theirs.

Along with body confidence there is a huge amount of body positivity which again is infectious. You would assumed the two go hand in hand but they don’t. I have masses of body confidence, brought up with a practically naturist mother, there were naked bodies constantly on display in my youth. However, I had 2 caesarians which left me loathing a body that had failed at the 11th hour and has left me with a permanent physical reminder. I was unable to see it’s strength at carrying two babies. I had the confidence to be naked but I didn’t have a positive relationship with my body as I focused on the aesthetics and the final few minutes of my pregnancies.

This has changed since sharing swims with the Salty Seabirds. The people I share my swims with have had a profound impact on my relationship with my body. No longer do I measure my body’s strength and success by how many marathons I have run, or how fast but by the everyday things I rely on it to do. How it can get me to the beach to meet my friends. How it adapts to cold water and keeps me afloat. How all of my senses process the sights, sounds and smells of my wild swimming experiences. This is it’s strength and success. It didn’t and doesn’t let me down. People often ask me how I do it? How do I get in water that cold? My response is a kind of shrug. Hopefully not an arrogant or nonchalant one, but definitely a shrug. I have come to take my body’s ability to adapt to the cold sea temperature for granted – it is only when I take a step back and consider what an accomplishment that is, that I can see it’s strength and success. But it isn’t just my body that can do it. Anybody’s can!

Without intention we are pigeon-holed by others and ourselves as a ‘type’ of person from a very early age. Seabird Cath refers to herself as ‘not your typical sporty type’ because she didn’t fall into that category at school. However, she has forged a new relationship with her body since cold water swimming. She is able to see past her previous label and see herself as a resilient sea swimmer which her strong body enables her to be.

How we see ourselves and our bodies has a profound affect on our confidence in its abilities. We are quite literally bombarded with the opinions of others on our bodies from a very early age. From people we know – think elderly relative squeezing our cheeks and calling us chubby, to people we don’t know – think glossy magazines telling us what every celebrity weighs and it is less than us. (This is a particularly pet hate. Unless you are stood in said celebrity’s bedroom looking at the number of the scales they are standing on, how on earth do you know how much they f@?king weigh?)

Two Salty Seabirds Christine and Claudine have come together to create a workshop called ‘Think, Eat, Move’. The ‘Think’ part encourages participants to question how we see ourselves and challenge the media messages of what a body should look like. Once you’ve come to terms with the ‘Think’ you then move onto the ‘Eat’ and ‘Move’ parts. The focus being no good or bad foods but rather fuel for our bodies and no arbitrary goal driven forms of exercise but movement being enjoyable and as a way to look after our bodies so it will look after us later in life.

We weren’t born feeling a certain way about our bodies or focusing on how our limbs, skin and hair look to ourselves and the outside world. Tanya Shadrick spent a season as the writer in residence at Pells Pool. She wrote in long hand on scrolls for her project ‘Wild Patience: Laps in Longhand”, a mile of written word. I had the pleasure of listening to Tanya read an extract one summers evening at Swim Talks hosted by Sea Lanes and it has stayed with me every since. Not only did the smooth velvety tones of her spoken word captivate me but so did her written words as she recalled a time when she was 9 years old, free from being labelled a type she loved herself which she only learnt to do again in her 40s. We all need to be that 9 year old girl again.

I, along with many Salty Seabirds have managed to find our 9 year old selves – she hides herself well and can be really hard to find but if you look for long enough she will appear. At every moon gazey swim, jump through a wave, dive off a jetty – she is right there smiling and screeching happy to be found again. She is able, she is confident, she is positive and she is inside every one of us. Come swim with us and you will find her because anybody can swim!

Author: Seabird Kath

P.S. Read the Tania Shadrick extract – it is incredible – click on this link

A pictures tells a thousand words

Thing you don’t know about this picture. One of the women only met the other three, 10 minutes earlier!

Things that can be said of this picture; This picture is clever. This picture invokes a reaction. This picture has a beautiful backdrop of Brighton beach. This picture is of 4 women. This picture was shared on Social Media.

Thing you don’t know about this picture. One of the women only met the other three, 10 minutes earlier!

This picture was liked on the Outdoor Swimming Society page 1.8K times. I think we can safely say these women are comfortable in their own skin. It was shared on Valentines Day – the day of love. We did it because we love swimming in the sea. But I think you will like it more when you know the story behind the shot.

The ‘L‘ is Catherine. Catherine is one of the Salty Seabird Founders. Once her husband was the only sea swimmer in the family. He is a member of Brighton Swimming Club, the oldest Swimming Club in the UK and has a graceful and hypnotic technique. Over the last few years Catherine’s confidence in the sea has grown to a level that matches her husband’s. She can be fast and fierce in the water and now they can swim together. No longer is she sidelined on the shore weighed down by the label of “non-sporty”. She now doesn’t give pictures of her in a swim suit, shared on social media, a second thought, Such has her relationship with her body changed since swimming in the sea, she takes pride in her strong body. She has a smile that makes any Salty Seabird swimmer, old or new, feel very welcome. She is definitely the L in Love.

Sam is the ‘V‘. Appropriate because she gives a good two finger salute to the pressures placed on women by society. She has a quiet strength and is up for pretty much anything. Or is that actually anything? I am not sure I have heard her turn down a challenge yet.  We met Sam at the end of August in the sea after a Swim Talk hosted Sea Lanes. She had no cossie so striped down to her bare skin and ran in. We’ve been swimming together ever since and she has become an integral part of the Salty Seabirds. Like Catherine, she is naturally inclusive, welcoming and warm. This shot was her idea.

Suzi is the letter ‘O’. None of us had ever met Suzi before this photo was taken. She turned up on the beach dragging a hard shell suitcase on wheels across the shingle in a neoprene wetsuit, hat, gloves and boots and enquired whether we were the Salty Seabirds. There were other birds there that day that had been swimming with us for months but Suzi readily volunteered to contort her body into the O without question.

The last letter ‘E’ is me. The one with the big pebble digging into my bum. It took a lot of direction to get that shape right. Not one for listening to direction from others naturally………………

What you don’t know about this photo is that the women in it are different but the same. What brings them to the beach differs, their reasons for swimming in the sea are the same. The strength of bond and camaraderie amongst the outdoor swimming society can only be described as love. The non judgemental acceptance of others is love. The quiet admiration of strength over adversity is love. The sharing of space in silence is love. The untamed guttural laughter is love. The protective togetherness is love. We are all looking for this love and here, amongst our fellow sea swimmers, we have found it.

We may have only met that day, that month, that year but we will always share the swim love. These are the words behind the picture.

Author: Seabird Kath

NB: We later went went on to create another picture spelling out a word in direct response to the Guardian article entitled ” Me and my vulva: 100 women reveal all”. A man named Paul Bullen replied to the news article on Twitter telling them “The correct word is vagina”. This caused a huge response from mainly women explaining that the vagina and vulva are two very different things, but instead of apologising or retracting his comment he began mansplaining to women about their own genitalia. You couldn’t make it up!

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