How Sometimes When You Lose, You Really Win
In my first ever swimming race, I came last. Not second. Not third. Last. It was a flashy promotional event put on by Speedo at the Olympic pool in London. Top athletes were there to swim with us. There was even branded bunting. In the photo taken afterwards, I am standing brazenly (and inaccurately) on the winner’s block. The three girls with whom I’m sharing the podium are also laughing and pulling faces. It’s a competitive scene, and there are cameras all around. I’ve just gained the worst possible result, and I look the heaviest I’ve ever been. It is also the happiest picture I have of me as an adult.
Belonging was not a condition of your ability or the way you looked: you belonged because you had chosen to belong.
Competitiveness. Perfectionism. The rat race. Call it what you like. We go way back. Growing up, I would set my sights on an achievement and go for gold at the expense of all else. As a teenager, this meant I received top grades. It also meant my physical health was a mess. Instead of confronting the changes my body was undergoing, I ignored puberty. I buried my head in my books and turned my bedroom into a menagerie of color-coded study timetables. This seemed like a good strategy at the time. I was happy. I was doing well at school.
Unfortunately, my strategy turned out to be a false god. Just before I left home and went to University, I applied my unrelentingly high standards to my appearance. I spent the next six years working through one eating disorder after the next. Sometimes I would be restrictive and detached. Other times I would surrender to the social environment and be excessive. I was – and remain, to some extent – deeply selfish and frustrating to be around. Whilst the principle of ambition can be healthy for many people, I learned to be cautious of my own. My ambition is tangled up with peculiar eating habits, great personal shame, and an unconditional belief that I must be great to belong.
Challenge provides space to share and belong
So. With a hefty raft of insecurities in tow, you can imagine my surprise when – in January of this year – I realized I had signed up to a swimming challenge that was being filmed for national broadcast. Meeting on that fateful first day, we discovered we were a diverse group. Thirteen of us altogether, all between the ages of 18 and 25. All from inner city London. Our challenge was to go from ‘no swim’ to ‘much swim’ in the space of five months. Come July, we would swim a mile together in open water.
With mentors and teachers in support, each swimmer had to overcome his or her obstacle: whether it was learning to swim for the first time, overcoming a fear of drowning, or growing confidence in or out of the water. We were all different. But we were united, too, by a willingness to confront our fears and to support each other through it all. A community defined by sharing our worries, looking out for each other, and enjoying the journey. Despite the media attention, there were no standards to meet or performances to give. Belonging was not a condition of your ability or the way you looked: you belonged because you had chosen to belong.
As a public health issue, we cannot afford to underestimate our relationship with our body.
I was not the only one in our crew who struggled with poor body image. To the contrary, it turned out to be a significant theme – just as it is in wider society. In the UK, over a five-year period, there has been a 7 percent spike in emotional problems for girls linked to body image, social media and the sexualization of young women. ‘Fear of judgment’ relating to appearance is also a major detractor for women getting involved in sports, in spite of the potential physical and mental benefits they might find through exercise. This is to say nothing of the implications of poor body image for such conditions as depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and, of course, eating disorders. As a public health issue, we cannot afford to underestimate our relationship with our body.
Now that our crew has completed our challenge, I am excited about swimming in the future. I enjoy the power of butterfly, the grace of freestyle, the choreography of breaststroke and the concentration required for backstroke. But most of all, I value the community I have found through swimming. I value its lack of judgment. I value its capacity to bring together different people in the service of supporting each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
You know the drill: If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together.
If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about eating disorders and the recovery process, the resources below provide a helpful starting point: