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A note on wild swimming
I’ve been thinking a lot about swimming – the unabashed gliding freedom of swimming and how it is one of the first things we cut from our lives through embarrassment and feeling judged. I’ve been thinking about how starting to swim again is, for some women, the start of something more powerful. A move from seeming to doing, if you like.
Last year we holidayed in Mallorca – it was late September, the sea had had the summer to warm up and the swimming was glorious, like bobbing around in a salty bath – long views out to infinity, blue skies above.
Lots of the beaches in Mallorca are long strips near to easy parking and people group themselves right along the sand, marking space with towels, windbreaks and picnics. It became clear that it wasn’t a random placing, that many beaches had three distinct parts. At one end, nearest the café kiosks, there were young people, beautiful, lithe, tanned, dressed in fashionable swimwear, awkwardly getting changed behind a towel, rarely in the sea. In the middle were the families with small children, and then at the other end, older people – heavier, pot bellied, scarred, stretch-marked – striding confidently into the waves as nature intended.
It was as though something happened in middle age for these people that stopped them from feeling watched or judged – that bodily invisibility that some find distressing, had given them the courage to actually do more, to strip off and swim. Naturally, I joined them.
I discussed this last month with my good friend Kat Goldin who runs a smallholding and teaches homesteading skills near to the Lake of Menteith in the Trossachs. She wrote about returning to wild swimming in an Instagram caption last year and I was interested to get her take on it, to find out what it meant to her and why it had taken so long to get back to it.
Kat grew up, one of four siblings, in Lisbon, Iowa in the American Midwest.
“I grew up by a lake and swimming was our thing. We swam every day, either there ore at the pool – it was our childcare, we would be dropped off in the morning and picked up again at the end of the day – it was only when I moved to the UK that I stopped swimming.”
For Kat, the move away from easy, regular swimming had somehow transported her back to that teenage feeling every time she thought of it, that feeling of being under inspection, that feeling that everyone is looking at you. That they are looking at your thighs and your ill-fitting swimsuit and that you should feel embarrassed and cover up.
For years, that feeling kept Kat out of the water – she chose instead to paddle in the midgey shallows and photograph her family from the edge. She knew that she was restricting and depriving herself – that Scotland is perfect for the kind of cold water swimming she loves, the chill of the swimming, the amazing scenery that surrounds the lochs, the absence of midges once you are away from the shore, the rush of heat to chilled limbs as you emerge from the water – but she couldn’t get over the feeling of being watched and judged. She told me that she often took swimming clothes with her on these family days out, but never actually got in the water.
Then, a few years ago, sitting on the bank at the Lemahamish swimming pool on the river Forth, watching her children splashing in the shallows, she realised that she was preventing them from going deeper by insisting on staying on dry land herself. That her embarrassment was stopping her from doing something that she loed and also stopping them from swimming further out. She thought of how upset she would be if her young daughter refused o do something because she was embarrassed by her own body.
Kat got in the water.
“Now we swim all the time, the kids all love to swim, Georgia is like a mermaid – we go to the lake, especially at the end of the day when we are all hot and tired and dirty. And it has given me confidence to do other things in other areas of my life too – last week there was something that I was embarrassed to do and I thought about that, if I can walk in front of everyone in a swimsuit and not feel embarrassed, then I can do this too, so I did.”
I wonder how many women this applies to – that getting over a block, especially an imagined block like judgement, and having the courage to engage in an anxiety inducing activity spreads confidence to other parts of their lives too.
For me getting back in the water was to do, I think, with middle age, with the freedom of not feeling that I am being looked at and judged and also not really caring if I was.
For Kat, it was to do with a feeling she was not being a great example to her children by missing out on something she loved through embarrassment.
And for both of us it had spread to other parts of life – I recently joined a choir despite a very teen based anxiety that I cannot sing in tune. Now that I feel I’m not being watched with judgement, I am finding it much easier to be seen as the messy, unfinished part of the project, the part where I don’t know what I am doing.