Team GB artistic swimming duo Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe have returned from the Olympic Games in Tokyo and although they didn’t return with gold around their necks they were doing something the two of them love – however it’s not been easy for them.
Although to some artistic swimming, formerly synchronised swimming, doesn’t look like a lot of work, athletes need to be incredibly strong to compete in the sport which means their bodies become muscly and broad – and it’s something Shortman and Thorpe were made aware of growing up from people close to them.
Both Bristol-born Olympians have recently backed international lingerie brand Bluebella’s female empowerment #BeStrongBeBeautiful campaign to get more girls back into sport and to highlight that they shouldn’t worry about their body image.
They took part in an underwater photoshoot to showcase their body confidence and to show girls that they shouldn’t let their insecurities get in the way of what they want to do and achieve.
The 20-year-olds explained what the #BeStrongBeBeautiful campaign is, how they felt about their body image when they were younger and also spoke about how they were feeling ahead of Tokyo 2020.
NOTE: This interview was conducted ahead of the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
What is the Bluebella campaign and how excited are you to be a part of it?
Izzy Thorpe: Basically, the campaign is about obviously trying to promote that being strong is beautiful and not having a stigma around being too athletic and having that physique as a lot of women and young girls in sport they tend to drop out of sport because they’re worried about their body and their body image and how they look. And they’re worried about getting big shoulders from swimming which is a natural thing to happen or get too muscly because that’s seen as more of a boy’s thing than a girl’s thing whereas it should be promoted equally for both as it’s healthy and sport is really important, and it shouldn’t be focussed on body image or anything negative like that.
Kate Shortman: I think we’ve both seen first-hand people, particularly girls, not wanting to participate or carry on with the sport just because of what it makes you look like. Obviously for us as we’ve gone on it’s not even about what you look like it’s more about what you’re doing and the objective which is getting results and just training for good mental health as well as physical health.
Do you hope the message from this campaign not only gets across to people in sport but also transcends the sporting world and can help people in general not to negatively focus on body image?
Kate: 100%, I think you shouldn’t confine yourself to doing something because society or someone else has told you that that’s what you should be doing. If girls enjoy sport, they should enjoy sport because it’s an amazing opportunity in so many different ways.
Obviously, we want this message to translate throughout the whole of someone’s lifestyle and inspire people to keep up with what they’re doing and don’t let biological things such as periods stop you as well. It can be such a taboo subject but if I think about me, if I hadn’t done sport and I’d let things like that, or certain stigmas hold me back there’s no way I’d be the same person I am today. Even if it inspires one person to keep going or just push through those stereotypes, I think it’s so important and it’s a message that we really want to expand upon and make it heard.
Did you both experience people focussing on your body image when you were younger and how did you deal with that?
Izzy: I think for both of us when we were growing up, especially when we were younger there wasn’t loads of social media, so it wasn’t too bad when we were younger. But as we started to develop and go through puberty and then also things like social media came along and then there’s more attention on it. I think both of us noticed that obviously as a swimmer you naturally get bigger shoulders, broader shoulders, and actually it was probably the people that were closer to us kind of joking around, saying like: “Oh you’ve got big shoulders,” or just little comments. But they actually do get to you in the end after hearing it quite a lot of times it does get to you.
This has actually helped me even though it’s recent, this campaign, thinking back it is just amazing to be strong and a strong woman and feel like you can do sport and it does help you in every way – mentally and physically. It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s about the sport and enjoying it and having a good time because at the end of the day that’s why you’re doing it.
What would your message be to young girls who might be feeling insecure about the way they look?
Kate: It’s hard to say, I mean we believe stick with it, keep with it, don’t let anything hold you back and even yourself, don’t let yourself hold you back. But it is hard to obviously say that because we’ve been there too and when you feel insecure and don’t feel like you look your best and you look different to other people it’s not always the easiest thing to think stick with it, keep going. My advice would be just look at yourself and try and reflect on the good things about you that you love and really home in on it. If you almost fake it ‘till you make it, you can change that stereotype and just keep going I would say because it is an amazing thing to be involved in.
Izzy: Also, I think the end result of you being strong looking, so for us with the end result we’ve trained really hard, we’re now going to the Olympic Games which is just amazing to say. I look back at the people who might have said something to me like: “You’ve big shoulders,” or “You’re really muscly you’re not supposed to look like that,” or whatever – who cares about them? I’m achieving massive things and people are messaging me now like: “Wow, I’ve always believed in you,” that kind of thing. So, I think really you just need to focus on yourself as much as you can, like Kate said it’s really difficult to do at the time and you’re not feeling it but 100% stick with it.
How are you feeling about competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games?
Kate: We’re both so excited, we’ve been working together for the best part of 10 years for this moment so we’re literally just going to enjoy every second of it, try and really grasp the moment. Hopefully it’ll be something to remember for the rest of our lives. We’re just going to make the most of every single training session, every single day and just smash it when we’re out there.
Are you disappointed that there’ll be no spectators allowed in the venues or are you just happy that the Games are going ahead?
Kate: We’re both so happy that it’s definitely going ahead and that’s all we’re focussing on. But I mean it’s definitely very strange not having people there but we’re there in our sport to perform for the judges so it won’t make a huge difference we’ll just be focussed on that, but it would have been nice to have family out there and other people that have supported us along the way. It’s okay, maybe next time.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
Kate: I think just from the point of artistic swimming sometimes people look at the sport and they might think oh it’s not that hard or it’s not a proper sport and that’s another thing we get quite a lot. So, from the standpoint of looking masculine and stuff also being told: “Your sport’s not that hard,” or people don’t understand it, I just want to push artistic swimming because I think it is such an amazing sport to be involved in, especially with girls, and I think that us growing up in that sport also really changed the way we look at ourselves and changed our body confidence, obviously a lot of sports are mixed gender whereas artistic swimming is predominately girls. We want more people joining in artistic swimming, it’s an amazing sport, it’s so fun, it is obviously hard work but it helps you in so many different ways and it gives you so many different life skills that you can count on for the rest of your life.
Izzy: It’s always good to get people to know what artistic swimming is because still a lot of people don’t know about it and like Kate said our community when we were growing up in the sport is amazing and that’s why we both carried on and kept pushing through the negative times or when people were saying negative things to us. Just having those people surrounding us was really amazing.
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