Jo Moseley, 53, is a mum flying solo with her two sons. Having loved the outdoors as a little girl, school PE lessons and teenage worries caused her to lose self-confidence and the joy of moving. She struggled with her body confidence for decades. Five years ago, after bursting into tears in a supermarket because she was so stressed, anxious and overwhelmed by life, she took up indoor rowing to help her sleep and since then has not looked back. In her guest blog for the Be Real Campaign, Jo shares how moving in the hills and sea near where she lives has given her a new lease of life and helped her develop a friendship with her body through tiny, joyful adventures.
“Butterfly! You’re actually going to learn butterfly?”
This was the reaction from some friends when three years ago, at 50-years-old, I shared that I had signed up for “Learn to Swim Butterfly” lessons at a local school. It was something I had always wanted to do, simply out of curiosity, but I had often doubted my ability.
It was great fun and I was proud that I almost managed to swim a length butterfly!
However, what I remember most from the experience was something I saw in the changing rooms. It was a This Girl Can poster, with the phrase “I swim because I love my body, not because I hate it”.
I remember being quite struck by the words and body positive message.
I so wished I have had posters and encouragement like this when I was at school. I wondered how differently I might have viewed PE lessons, exercise and my own self-confidence over the years.
When I posted the picture and my thoughts on Instagram, the response I had from women my age, late 40s and 50s, was overwhelmingly the same. They too wished they had been taught that exercise was about looking after and loving ourselves and we were so glad younger generations were hearing this.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, sport and exercise were seen so differently. School PE made many of us feel inadequate and unsure. Hockey, netball and hurdles all meant a few winning and most of us losing. PE was not an opportunity to build teamwork or self-belief.
As a young girl I had loved throwing myself into the sea, riding my bike and doing cartwheels on the beach. I was most often found upside down or climbing a tree. However, secondary school sport was one of the things that knocked the joy and confidence out of me. My teenage years were marked by self-doubt and trying desperately to be thinner than I already was.
Despite academic success and a wonderful family I constantly criticised my body for not being thin or good enough. Eating disorders were rarely discussed in the 1970s and 1980s unlike today, but looking back my relationship with food was not a healthy one.
As we grew from teenagers into young women in the 1990s, the message from the fitness video craze was that we needed to lose weight and tone up. Exercise was something we had to do to fit an ideal body standard that we saw in magazines and on TV. Again, it was about improving our bodies and ourselves, because we simply didn’t measure up as we were.
It was never suggested that being active might be fun, good for our mental health or a celebration of what we can do, individually and uniquely.
I held this view for decades as my weight fluctuated from underweight to very overweight and my confidence went on a rollercoaster through career, marriage, babies, miscarriages and divorce.
After decades of doing very little exercise on a regular basis, I began indoor rowing at 48-years-old simply because a friend suggested it might help me sleep. I had explained to her that I had burst into tears in the supermarket aisle, overwhelmed, stressed and anxious about life.
Over the last five years, since those first tentative kilometres on the indoor rowing machine, I have rekindled a love for the sheer joy of moving my body and the positive impact it has had on my mental wellbeing as well as my physical.
In 2014, I rowed a million metres and marathon on the rowing machine, raising £10,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support to thank them for caring for my mum, who died of Lymphoma and my dad, who had breast, bowel and skin cancer.
I have started running, body boarding, stand up paddle boarding and wild swimming. I even trained as a pool lifeguard this spring. For four glorious seconds in June I popped up on a surf board and rode the waves to the shore, screaming with joy all the way. I am once again doing headstands and cartwheels on the beach.
At 53-years-old, I am finally more confident about my body and more appreciative of what it can do than I have been for decades.
The four key things I now understand and which have helped are:
- My body is amazing – it has given me two healthy, gorgeous sons, healed after two miscarriages, helped me row a marathon and raise money for charity. At times in my life when I felt all was lost, especially after my mum died, my body somehow carried me through the day whilst my heart and soul healed.
- I am deeply grateful that at 53-years-old I am healthy. I have lost friends to cancer who were much younger than I am. Appreciation is a great foundation on which to build acceptance and self love.
- “Comparison is the thief of joy”. My thoughts, opinions and experiences of life are unique and so is my body. It is a mixture of my family’s heritage, genetic makeup and all the things I have done in the last 53 years. Comparing it to anyone else’s, in particular the airbrushed photos in magazines, on TV or on social media is pointless.
- My body and I have gone on lots of lovely tiny adventures. I ran at 10pm on the hills in the evening sun on the longest day of the year, swam with my fins in the sea on Christmas Day, have paddle boarded with my son collecting litter from a remote beach in the June sunshine, and clambered up a snowy crag. I’ve huffed and puffed, lived in the moment and breathed in the fresh air.
My body confidence is not simply a result of the sense of achievement that moving has given me. It is the very relationship that has changed.
I somehow now ‘live in’ my body more rather than see it as something separate to change. I have become friends with it because of these wonderful moments of togetherness and joy. I am learning to treat my body as a treasured friend – with kindness and compassion, gratitude and respect.
It is ironic that formal school sport and exercise created the barrier between me and my body, bringing such anxiety of not being good/thin enough, and yet it has been tiny, joyful adventures and exercise in the sea, pool and hills that have brought me back to myself and my wellbeing.
In our fifties, women are constantly hearing messages from the media that we should fear ageing and that physically, it is ‘all downhill’ from now on. I am in no doubt that there are challenges ahead and no one has a crystal ball. However, knowing the sense of physical, mental and emotional benefits being active gives me, I feel I have a way to help me navigate the future with more self and body confidence.
I want to care for my body, embrace it, celebrate it, be friends with who I am. I hope posters like the one in the changing rooms will mean that younger women and girls won’t wait until their 50s to truly understand what it means to “exercise because they love their body, not because they hate it.”