There’s a secret that many women who swim regularly know. It’s that the longer you spend in a piece of Lycra, the less you care about what your body looks like.
s more and more women have taken to the waves and to rivers and lakes all over the country, it’s not so much a secret anymore, more of an innate knowledge that has grown almost by osmosis. What you can do with your arms and legs, how you feel when you’re in there and sharing the experience with others, become the important things. In a world where we are bombarded with what the perfect ‘bikini’ body looks like, it’s a relief to get to the stage where you care not a fig what you look like as you prepare to immerse yourself in cold water.
The priorities become building up the courage to leap in, bracing yourself against the force of the waves. This feeling of strength in yourself is what you cherish as you stand there in your togs on a beach or beside a lake. What the body can do, what you’re asking it to do, is what matters.
Helen Mason, a 51 year-old mother-of-two who lives near Fethard-on-Sea in Co Wexford, has never felt more at ease in her own skin and she credits swimming in the sea for this transformation in her own thinking.
She’s happiest when she plunges into the waves near her home, confident and proud of the body that is strong and capable of swimming for a mile and more. But it wasn’t always that way.
Growing up in Slade on the Hook Peninsula, she loved being in the water and the feeling of freedom it brought. But her relationship with her body changed as she entered puberty. Having larger breasts than other young women her age, she was always trying to cover herself up so as not to draw unwanted male attention.
She recalls some unkind comments people made over the years about her weight. “Those never left me. Now I can see that was their issues rather than mine. But those little things, those words and images, stay with you,” says Mason.
After working abroad for years, she married a fisherman and they settled in Wexford where they are raising their two children, Ellie (17) and 15-year-old James.
“I had this idea that larger bodies should never be involved in sport. My own perception was that, as a larger woman, I wasn’t a sports person,” says Mason, even though her two children were very involved in the local swimming and rowing clubs.
But something about the water kept drawing her towards it. She started to dip a toe in and go on her own, tending to venture back to Slade, where she grew up, to swim. And as she focused on her swimming, something changed for her. “You’d go in and you’d be cold and uncomfortable but you’d reach that point where everything was right with the world. You’re very small in this huge space. All your worries have been released because you are almost nothing in this huge thing.
“I was really in the elements. I loved the sense of power I got from being out in the waves. Sometimes I didn’t want to go — it was freezing cold and it was raining but you always think how you’ll feel afterwards. I was going into the water and I was feeling ‘I’m me’ and ‘I’m strong’ and ‘I can do anything I want’. It’s a surreal feeling. If it wasn’t against the law to be topless or nude, I’d do that,” she says.
While she acknowledges that a certain amount of body confidence comes with age, that feeling of strength she gets from the water stays with her all day and she no longer cares what anyone thinks.
The confidence she gained in the water followed her back on to dry land and she started to paint on canvas. “My emotions came out in the painting. I think the water changed me. I’m definitely a glass-half-full person and it’s only when I look back I realise I was holding myself back.”
As well as swimming, Mason is also a member of two rowing clubs and has become an accomplished rower too. Her advice to other women who may be feeling stuck or filled with horror at the thought of going swimwear shopping is to just do it.
“You hold yourself back. If I was to talk to my younger self, I’d say, ‘try anything you want to try — don’t let body image hold you back’. A lot of other women would say to me, ‘I couldn’t do what you do; I couldn’t put on a swimsuit’. Find a swimsuit that fits you and go for a swim — don’t think about the next part. There can be so many barriers but break them down one at a time. There’s so many things I’ve achieved by making my body more powerful,” says Mason.
Jenny Vial, a photographer from Killybegs in Co Donegal, feels the sea has given her a confidence in herself and her body that she had lost a long time ago. The mother-of-two says she hit rock bottom in 2017. Her marriage had broken up, she broke her sacrum in an accident, she was suffering from post-natal depression and on top of all that she was drinking excessively.
“I hit rock bottom and I said, what can I do? I started getting into the water with two crutches after the accident at first. It really was baby steps. I had always gone to the water when I was younger but something else happened, I felt weightless and supported,” says Vial.
While she says she managed to hide a secret eating disorder from friends and family in her teens, she still found it really hard to connect herself with her body. “I felt I had deprived my body and I felt I had really abused myself and I said, it’s time to mind myself. Something happened in the water — it was something outside of me and the pull to water was very strong,” says Vial (41).
While she had no big plan necessarily, she started going to the pier in Portnoo, where she was living, and immersing herself several times a week. “I was calling it my floating meditation; it was something I was doing for me. I started to swim a little as I got stronger and I could feel the benefits. I was starting to feel better. I was feeling more like myself.
“I started to like myself and my body. I was neither fat nor thin. Over the years, my weight has ballooned. But now I started to view myself with kindness. My body has gone through an awful lot but it was doing alright. It was transformative,” says Vial.
“I could never see myself as beautiful — I was always performing a role that was very far removed from myself. I had a lot of conversations with myself in the water, ones I struggled to have on land, or even in counselling. I started to view myself differently and there was an acceptance in it. I felt like my body had carried me even when I didn’t give it what it needed,” she says.
Vial says she has come back to counselling again but the road to her recovery began in the sea. From finding it difficult to leave the house in 2017, she swims five days a week. “My body is strong now. It supported me when I couldn’t see that. I now see myself as a whole woman instead of a shell of a woman. I felt like a whole woman for the first time in my life — I was overjoyed. It was ‘hello me’.”
In Blackrock, Co Louth friends and neighbours Jennifer Hughes and Irene Owens started swimming together earlier this year. Both on the cusp of 40, they hope that swimming will be a big part of their future as it has already taught them valuable lessons about how they see themselves.
“The sea doesn’t care what shape I am. My neighbour is beautiful, the tall, slim version that many women, including myself, aspire to. The sea has told me to calm down. I can relax in the water where everyone is equal. No one person is better than the other in the water. The sea just doesn’t care,” says Hughes.
“I’m still working on my own body and will be for a long time but these past months and in the lead up to my 40th birthday I can now say to myself, ‘who gives two effs what I look like, we’re all there for the water’. It’s not a competition,” says the mother-of-two.
“Myself and Irene are not just neighbours, now we’re friends, we’re swim buddies. If it weren’t for Irene I’d still be the parent on the shore, ready and waiting with towels and a change of clothes for the kids. I’d be taking photos instead of making memories in the water,” says Hughes.
“The sea has taught me so much about my body image that when we got the list of what was needed for swim lessons and it included a wetsuit, I was ready. I would have usually cancelled something like this for the absolute fear of even trying to find a wetsuit to fit me. I am me, but I am a new me. I am a sea swimmer,” she adds.