The sign on the door said “Please shower”.
I hadn’t showered – I didn’t know. It had been so long that I hadn’t even thought. Eyeing the lifeguard, I tried to assess her level of caring, to figure out if she was going to spy my fresh hair and drip-free knees and banish me before I’d even dipped a toe.
I dropped my towel and to my surprise, the world kept spinning. I jumped in, and her whistle didn’t blow.
Being dry wasn’t the first obstacle I’d overcome that morning – I’d just spent 20 minutes in the changing rooms working out how to take off my bra and pull up my racerback costume without flashing the innocent victims around me. The answer, I have since realised, is either to perform a complicated ritual involving twisted straps and a flick of the hand so quick it’s essentially street magic, or to follow in everyone else’s naked footsteps and stop giving a shit about who sees your goods anyway (clearly the superior option).
I’d decided to start exercising in December, choosing the most expensive gym in town partly because of a Black Friday deal that brought the monthly average price down by a very valuable £6, or by my accountancy structure, half a Nando’s, and partly because I knew that at that time, while everyone else was face down in a tub of individually wrapped chocolates, the prospective audience for my failures would be smallest.
Over the years, my friends had started to run marathons, take up high-intensity interval training, even sign up to roller derbies, but at 26 I still hadn’t really found a sport that felt like home. I’d flirted with Couch to 5k, but went back to Couch to OK within six weeks of completing it; I’d got Pilates apps on my phone that were the first thing I deleted when it told me my memory was full. All I was left with was a snacking habit that needed offsetting, and a dull ache of recollection in my gut of being 8 years old and attending the only sports class I’d ever excelled in: swimming.
Like the other half a million women in England who have stopped swimming in the last decade because of concerns about their body image (seriously, Sport England has counted them), I gave up on my finely honed breaststroke basically as soon as I got breasts. I went from chubby kid to even chubbier preteen, stuck the label of “dieter” permanently to my forehead, and spent break times running up and down the school field to burn calories and obsessively reading Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls Under Pressure – a depiction of a young girl, who happened to have the same name as me, struggling with disordered eating – for “tips”.
The thought of pulling that tight, lurid fabric over my widening hips and doughy stomach filled me with more fear than exams, the dark, and the copy of The Exorcist I’d watched without my parents’ permission, put together.
So I didn’t. I quit.
My experience with swimming since then had been limited to holidays where the resort had an undersubscribed pool and spa breaks where I’d arrive and leave on the same day. But on that day in December, I cut the tag out of the swimsuit that had been guilt-tripping me from the bottom of my underwear drawer since wayyy before Zayn left 1D and stretched it on.
I know that this may not sound like a big deal. You are putting on sports gear to exercise, you might think. Round of a-fucking-pplause. Yet when you’ve spent hours rubbing (pointless) cellulite gels into your legs, or dedicated entire evenings to Bio-Oiling your stretch marks, praying for the unsightly red bastards to disappear overnight, or issued a wardrobe-wide ban on the word “bodycon”, it’s more than that. In fact, if you’ve ever looked in the mirror and thought in any semblance of a way I could be better, you’ll know that displaying yourself in a skintight bodysuit can be a significant act of bravery.
As soon as the water rose around my shoulders, I became my 8-year-old self again: ballsy, strong, and one of the only two girls in her school year to earn a 1,000m badge in the slightly grimy local leisure centre. I did 50 lengths, and then returned the next day to do 60, because I’d calculated that was 1,020m exactly, and I felt I should at least be able to match my own record. Here, in the safety of the slow lane (yeah, I know I said I was good, but the people in the fast lane at my gym wear actual flippers), I finally remembered the joyous feeling of being so simultaneously exposed – butt, meet world – and utterly anonymous.
Here are some great things I’ve rediscovered about swimming: Once you’re in the water, you could be anybody, any size, because its volume is so much greater than your own. There’s no sweat, no shaky legs, no beetroot face, and in complete antithesis to panicking that you’re that too heavy for the treadmill that’s shaking beneath you, you learn to relish the sensation of rising to the top, like the layer of cream in good milk. There’s nothing like feeling the weight you’ve been worried about carrying your whole life becoming, well, weightless. (TL;DR: Floating rules.)
It’s also low-impact and kind to your joints, it works basically every muscle, and once you’ve overcome the flesh exposure issue, the only perils you’re likely to face are forgetting you’re still wearing that day’s mascara and vigorously rubbing your eyes, or realising that you haven’t brought clean pants for afterwards and having to waddle home in gross sweaty tights. Which, as sporting hazards go, is actually pretty decent.
Of course, my journey back to water baby has not been totally without incident. One morning, in a wave of unprecedented ambition, I tried to discreetly duck under the rope to the middle lane and ended up pulling the entire rope apart; and we do not speak of the time one of the swimming instructors told me to “cover your bum ‘cos there are children in the pool” during a brisk poolside dry-off. I was wounded, mostly because those children run like savages amid naked women in the changing rooms every time they attend a class anyway, but also because I seriously doubt she would have made the same comment to a woman with a less sizeable arse.
In case you’re wondering, I handled it like any responsible adult would have: by crying hot, humiliated tears in the shower for five minutes and then getting back in the pool the next day.
I should also probably clarify that I’m not saying that everyone should buy life shares in Speedo and spend every evening in the deep end – frankly, I don’t want to fight you all for the lane space. What I am saying is that when you find the one exercise that doesn’t make you feel like a failure, you should grab on to it and embrace it as tight as you would an amazing friend, because that’s what it becomes. In fact, on bad days I do 70 lengths and feel much less like I want to ditch all of my actual friends and hibernate in a dark and joyless hovel, which leads me to think that this whole “exercise is good for your mental health” thing might actually have some validity.
I know that swimming is still a relatively new hobby for adult me, and I do accept that there will probably come a time when the novelty wears off. It takes years to make a habit you can keep, but although I can’t promise myself that I’ll love splashing around and smelling ever so slightly of chlorine forever, I can promise to never avoid an activity because of the size of my thighs again, and that feels like an achievement in itself.
So my advice to anyone who has a tiny childhood voice in them screaming “let’s do that, we used to be really good at it before you got jugs” is LISTEN TO IT, because it’ll make you healthier and happier. And if you’re lucky, yours probably won’t even make you wear Lycra.
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