As Mental Health Awareness Week reaches its climax, we talk to inspirational Ocean Swimmer, Beth French about how body confidence should be uppermost on our agendas. Taking time out from her busy schedule, Beth spoke with the Spring PR team on how swimming and a new perspective on body image changed her life and why we should follow suit.
So Beth, what do you think about the focus on body image for Mental Health Awareness Week this year?
It’s a double-edged sword for me. On the plus side, it’s a vital conversation we need to have as more and more people are naturalised into the world of social media, click bait, tinder- swiping where image is all. The pressure to look a certain way, presenting only a happy, healthy appearance is damaging on so many levels. Integrity and honesty are lost in the clamour for likes and follows. It’s dangerous. But that’s well documented. Depression and anxiety are on the crazy incline with eating and exercise disorders being a massive problem. It’s been a long-standing problem for women and it’s increasing for men too.
BUT! I have a massive issue with the body confidence message that is going on. I’m all for embracing yourself and loving yourself but we need to separate body confidence from image. Whilst we are still focusing on feeling good based on how we feel about how we look we are doomed. Body confidence should be based on appreciating what your body can do, rather than what it looks like. Feeling powerful about the relationship you have with this amazing vessel that gives you access to experiences and adventures is something that cannot be shaken. It’s not based on a tenuous notion of how we look in a mirror. Self-image is still focusing on image – style over substance. We need to encourage finding confidence in ourselves that causes a positive relationship with our body; confidence from the inside out. The onus is on feeling good about ourselves rather than about looking good to others.
How has swimming affected your body image? Has it had a positive impact?
Swimming has literally changed my life. I developed body dysmorphia as a pre-teen having undiagnosed ME from the age of 10. I lost trust in my body, and by 13 hated being trapped in it. Bulimia with episodes of anorexia, self-harm and suicide attempts ensued and all because I lost trust in my body. I wasn’t safe even in my own skin. I was trapped in it. And that wasn’t because I thought I was fat. It was such a hard battle to convince anyone that not eating had NOTHING to do with how I looked! Swimming allowed me to find a way to feel positive. I need to look after my body so I can swim. It’s that simple. I loved feeling the freedom of the water, spinning, diving, playing in the water – I felt good. And so I fell in love with what my body could do. I still struggle with body image. I stand on stage in front of people with larger than life sized pictures of me in a swimming costume and I don’t relate to that body in the image but rather to the experience of swimming and the feeling of invincibility. Knowing I can self-propel myself from England all the way to France! And that is a knowledge that cannot be shaken by something as meaningless as dress size. Accepting that I do things to make myself feel good, not to attract others, is also key. I wear what feels comfortable and makes me feel good and has nothing to do with attracting someone else.
How has your body image changed since your teenage years?
I now view my body as a precious vehicle that I need to nurture and listen to. It’s my greatest ally. I don’t look in the mirror, other than to check I don’t have mud on my face, or total bed head, but other than that, I keep away from judging. Also, being a massage therapist has helped give me a profound insight into body Image and confidence. It’s such a privileged profession. People entrust their bodies to me. All shapes and sizes. I’m without judgement and non-sexual, non-judgemental touch is a vital component of human development- right from birth. It’s how we develop our earliest sense of self. We learn safety and security and a sense of belonging from being held, and stroked by our parents. This helps build our patterns of stress and anxiety, our ability to meet our own needs and even our immunity.
What’s your top tip for people struggling with their body image?
There are many well-advertised tips for those with self-image issues, from reducing social media scrolling and avoiding fashion mags to positive self-talk in a mirror! For me though, I would suggest orchestrating a regime of self-nurture. This can be challenging to start with. A monthly massage helps build time in your body that feels good (and you can build trust with the therapist who isn’t going to judge your soft/bony/any bits). Treat your body like it is another person – we are often kinder to others than ourselves. Simple acts like making time for a bath – and going all out with scents and candles – seems pointless to some but making an effort for yourself like this starts the process of upping your position on your pecking order.
Look at what your body can do whether it be hiking, climbing, singing or swimming; what it gives you access to and celebrate those things.