“ALL I could see were breasts,” said a stark naked middle-aged woman to her also naked pal on the upward slope from the beach back to the picnic area.
I couldn’t help but giggle. She was right. Apart from the incredible beauty that is Maghermore Beach in Wicklow with its fine warm sand and its translucent sea, the most bountiful sight on the beach that glorious day was of breasts. In all shapes, sizes and colours.
Women with one breast, two breasts, half a breast, no breasts. Breasts that perked towards the sun. Breasts that hovered above the knees. Breasts adorned with tattoos and transfers, pink painted breasts, breasts with someone’s name written on them in pink to highlight who that person was doing the skinny dip for.
And then there were my breasts, one of which has a five inch scar across it from a lumpectomy I had the same time the previous year. Apart from a brief spell in Tunisia in my twenties when I felt bold and bodily confidant enough to sunbathe topless, and that time when I decided to go braless and my blouse opened accidentally in Dunnes Stores, my breasts are not in any way accustomed to being exposed. I don’t even like exposing a cheeky sneak of cleavage.
But there I was on Saturday, June 9, with not just my breasts but my whole body on show as I stood on the beach with 2,504 other women, waiting to hear the 5,4,3,2,1 countdown that would send us all dashing into the sea together, cheering and whooping from the cold impact of the water.
This wasn’t a regular day at Maghermore beach, of course. We were there attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Skinny Dip. Thankfully, we smashed it. The previous record was set in Perth, Australia, in March 2015 by a group of 786 dippers. Whereas I’m sure the waters in Perth were far warmer, us Irish dippers were incredibly lucky that the day we dipped was unusally balmy, making the sand warm beneath our feet. And although I couldn’t say the water was hot, at 12 degrees celcius it was thankfully warmer than I’ve ever experienced the Irish sea.
To break the record, we were instructed that each of us had to enter the water to at least chest level and stay there for a minimum of five minutes. If anyone exited the water before that time, their name was taken and they were disqualified from the challenge, but thankfully not one person left the thronging naked mass that day and we all braced the waters together, alternatively singing “ole!ole!ole!” and the song of the day This Is Me from the film The Greatest Showman, which other participants had sung live on Today FM with Alison Curtis earlier that morning.
Holding my partner’s hand as we inched deeper and deeper into the sea, the sun kissing our skin, the beaming smiles on everyone’s face warming us up, I looked around and couldn’t believe my good fortune in being there for what was one of the most life-affirming experiences I have ever had.
Having had a cancer scare last year when I was diagnosed with LCIS (lobular-carcinoma-in-situ), I felt so grateful to be alive, to be bumping bums in the Irish sea with this group of kick-ass women, most of whom had endured cancer or who had lost someone to cancer.
Now in its sixth year, the event was organised by breast cancer survivor Deirdre Featherstone as a means to ‘celebrate being out the other side of cancer, remember loved ones lost to cancer, and to have the best day ever with fun, frolics, laughter’ while raising money for Aoibheann’s Pink Tie, Ireland’s national children’s cancer charity. The figure raised from the event currently stands at €310,000.
Aoibheann’s Pink Tie was set up in 2010 by Mick Rochford and Jimmy Norman after the tragic loss of Jimmy’s eight-year-old daughter Aoibheann. It offers practical and financial support to the families of children diagnosed with cancer attending St John’s Oncology Ward in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital.
Event organiser and mother-of-three Deirdre, 53, who writes the kickingtheshiteoutofcancer.com blog, decided to launch the event just six weeks after undergoing a mastectomy six years ago. While 60 people attended the inaugural swim, with numbers growing to 200 for last year’s dip, this year has been its biggest success to date with 2,505 women travelling from all over the country to be there.
The day kicked off at 8.30am with breakfast in the Grand Hotel and when I arrived a bit later, many women were having some post-breakfast booze to help them prepare for the dip. We were then all transferred via bus to the beach where picnics were set up, more champagne and alcohol was consumed, sun cream was lathered on, body paint and transfers were applied, and women of all ages adorned with pink wigs and feather boas sat in groups chatting, laughing, singing and enjoying the sun.
Breasts and bravery abounded.
Of course, having the body confidence of a regular Irish catholic schooled child of the 1980s, I was nervous about stripping off, nervous about my extra weight, my cellulite, the lumps and bumps I try to hide daily.
My tactic was not to think about it until I was in the car as I knew there was less chance of me backing out once I was en route. I couldn’t avail of Dutch courage as I don’t drink so it was solely up to me to brave it. And I did.
And guess what? No-one batted an eyelid. No one looked. And, contrary to my worst fears, a group of women didn’t gather about me in horror, pointing disgusted fingers at a body that I had been ashamed of.
That day on the beach, standing naked with thousands of women of all ages, sizes, and shapes, I began to feel something I hadn’t felt in years; acceptance, and most importantly, the acceptance was coming from myself.
I stood there with my little pot-belly and my cellulite thighs and my scars and the legs I had’t shaved in a few days and I said to myself ; ‘Look at you! How lucky you are to be alive, standing here with someone you love and all these wonderful beautiful women. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Be grateful. Be proud of yourself’. And I was.
It made me realise how lucky we are to inhabit our wildly varying bodies of all shapes and sizes; how every inch of imperfect flesh is something to be grateful for. To be alive is to be imperfect, and standing there naked in the Irish sea that day, with the sun shining gloriously, laughter in my ears, joyful smiles everywhere, I looked down lovingly at my lumps and bumps, the scar on my breast, and felt very very grateful to be alive.
For more information on Deirdre’s blog, go to: www.kickingtheshiteoutofcancer.com
Visit www.aoibheannspinktie.ie for more details about the national childrens cancer charity.