There’s a neat little graphic going around the internet at the moment which shows two eggs, one brown, one pale, side by side, cracked open and their yolks spilling out. The unsubtle message is hey kids, look! Even though our exteriors may be different, we’re all the same on the inside. On one of the courses I teach there’s a diversity-slash-equal opportunities module, and I do an activity with my learners which poses the question Are we all the same? I get them to discuss this as a warm-up to a whole day of exploration and revelation. It’s a simplistic route into what are always fascinating discussions, reminding me as much of navel-gazing nights as a teenager as of being a now 50-something weather-beaten teacher, trying my darndest to get people to find the best of themselves. Are we all the same? The conclusions my learners draw of course tend to be: yes and no. Yes because we’re all human, and no because we’re all individuals. Simple.
I’ve taken my swimming activities back outdoors and returned to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. It’s a truly special place. Tucked away on Hampstead Heath, behind a squeaky iron gate with a sign forbidding men to venture any further, the soupy green pond is home to coots, moorhens, geese, gadwalls, numerous insects, songbirds, lilies, weeds and teeny fish (plus the legendary pike and more recently a dead python). I hadn’t visited for a few years, what with living out west now and having so much nature on my doorstep – in fact the last time I swam there was very drunkenly, nakedly and illegally after a friend’s birthday. We snuck in at two in the morning and if I’d drowned or choked to death on the weed or lilies or python, hey ho, sorry fam. Happily, I lived to frolic another day, and on arriving there at the crack of Monday morning, I was reminded why I love the place so much. Coots, yes; dear little ducklings preening their fluffy little feathers, yes. Sneaky moorhens walking like Monty Pythons. And women. Naked women. Naked old women.
The first bare bottom I saw was on the wildflower path leading to the changing rooms and jetty, popping out from a half hearted attempt at towel-draping. It was pearly white; both dimpled cheeks hanging like pale ruched curtains. The owner was post-swim, so I’m guessing there may have been some goose bumps there too, but I wasn’t going to be so bold as to examine it that closely. In the changing rooms, more women – all elderly or middle aged – were in various stages of undress. Bosoms, tummies, buttocks, thighs, arms, necks, nipples, pubes (or lack of them): thin, bald, fat, flabby, overhanging, bony, hairy, rounded, bouncy, pert, crinkled, puckered. Suddenly, naked old women. Normal. Healthy. Glorious.
Yet I felt unexpectedly shy about getting my kit off. I have never been self-conscious body-wise at all, completely the opposite, in fact. I’ve always preferred as little covering as possible and couldn’t give a shit about fashion or body modification. Women (and men) who have plastic surgery, implants, botox – they bewilder me. And I do try to take good care of myself these days. I love my life and want to be as fit as I can possibly be. I gave up smoking years ago and have gym membership which I actually use. I eat so much vegetation I’m a virtual human compost heap and although I can’t run much on account of my woodwormy knees, I still cycle, swim, walk, occasionally kayak.
Now, however, my once washboard stomach more closely resembles a bag of laundry, and although I’ve never counted a calorie in my life and alternate between despairing of and despising those buying into the deeply misogynistic diet industry, I’m not immune to the insidious stabs of shame we are encouraged to feel towards any of our middle-aged bulges or rolls. I have a scar from breast surgery. A turkey neck. Bodies change. I know I’m expecting still to look young.
So, in spite of all my Lady Godiva leanings, I changed in a cubicle, behind a closed door, trying to deconstruct the unwelcome and unfamiliar feeling of coyness. I felt stupid; it was cramped and impractical in there, so I compromised and opened the door but didn’t actually venture out. It’s ok, everyone, I said (in my mind). I’m like you, unbuttoned, literally and metaphorically. I’m starkers and free. Yay. No one spent a second looking at me, they were too busy chatting about raspberry compote and their overgrown allotments.
Ageing is of course unstoppable until whatever causes our lights to be switched off, and at this stage of life I think a couple of things. One, I want to get old. Properly old. Eighty, ninety, a hundred kind of old. But, two, I want, of course, to be healthy old. I want a body which is at home in cold green pond water as it is in a field of buttercups or the bar at the National or a rear-wheel drive convertible. I want a body with wrinkles, crinkles, sags, scars and overhangs, a body which has served me well, has done its job. Like the old woman amongst the wildflowers, I want my bottom to look like it’s been smiling for nine decades.
I spent an hour in the pond, unable to stop grinning, having little chats with the other swimmers. There’s a certain view you get, eye-level, of murky green water flowing over your hands and arms, of the ducklings sitting on the lifesavers, of water boatmen skittering across the surface, of willow blossom drifting in the sunshine; a certain view which includes scattered heads, many of them with silver or white hair, seemingly floating on the ripples unconnected to any human underneath. It’s a truly beautiful sight, it’s rare and comforting, it’s liberated women at its very literal, it’s joyful, delightful and carefree.
My last sight as I left the pond, exhilarated and energised, was of a very elderly woman standing naked under a tree. She bent over, stretched, touched her toes then reached up to the sky.
Are we all the same? Here, under the trees, unclothed and free, yes we really are.