A passionate sea swimmer who restricted herself to sunrise or sunset dips for 30 years and was so self-conscious she wore a full-length wetsuit now proudly displays her curves in a bright pink costume leading a 900-strong women’s open water group.
Busty for her age, a friend’s thoughtless comment about her curves at a pool party on her 15th birthday triggered decades of misery for mum Claire Keable, 48, whose deep-rooted shame about her body meant she was only able to indulge her love of swimming in the sea if she was covered up and away from other people.
An epiphany during lockdown, realising she did not want her daughters Ruby Clarkson, 20, and Polly Clarkson, 16, developing the same hang-ups as her, made Claire resolve to face her demons by swimming freely and becoming the body-positive role model they needed.
Inspired by her newfound confidence, Claire, now a size 18 to 20, who lives with her husband, Robin Keable, 45, a refinery worker, and her daughters from a previous relationship, by the sea in Hornsea, East Yorkshire, launched an open-water swimming group for women of all shapes, sizes and ages, in March 2021, saying: “For so many years, I thought I was hideous.
“I would sneak around to swim at sunrise or sunset or take boats to deserted islands on holiday to avoid ever being seen.
“I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time feeling that way. I’m still learning to love my body, but if I can change even one person’s mind and make them feel better about themselves, then that means everything.”
Taught to swim by her father, Glenn Naylor, 76, an author, as a toddler, in Bridlington Sea and Albert Avenue Swimming Baths in Hull, East Yorkshire, Claire has always loved being in the water.
She said: “My grandma used to pick me and my sister up from school and take us to the seaside.
“We just used to go in our knickers and swim and jump over the waves.”
Claire added: “As soon as I got off the train and the smell of the sea hit me, I felt at peace.
“Whenever we saw a river or a lake, we would strip off to our undies and run in.
“I was never really very good at school, but with swimming, I was always really confident. I felt fearless.”
But her joy for swimming was tainted by the callous remark at 15 that completely knocked her confidence.
She said: “We were at the lido for my birthday with a group of friends and when we stripped off, one of my friends made a comment about my pubic hair and made me feel so ridiculous.
“I didn’t realise there was anything wrong with me and it made me so self-conscious.”
She added: “Then a few of them made comments about my size, even though I was only a size 10.
“That began the years of me hiding and sneaking to have a swim when I couldn’t be seen.
“It was heart-breaking, doing everything I could to avoid the thing I loved.”
Once jubilant trips to the beach with her family became insufferable, with Claire refusing to get in the water and sitting fully-clothed on the sand while others swam.
Explaining her self-consciousness, she said: “I used to do gymnastics up until early 15.
“I was really slim and straight up and down, but then puberty hit me like a ton of bricks and I got these big boobs out of nowhere on a tiny frame.”
She added: “Suddenly, it felt like I couldn’t go a single day without someone commenting on the fact I had ‘blossomed’ or developed.
“I couldn’t bear to be seen in a leotard anymore, because I didn’t want anyone looking at my boobs.
“I quit gymnastics as soon as I got them. It was really sad because it was one of the only sports I enjoyed.”
Moving abroad for nine months when she was 17 with a friend and working in a bar beside the sea, despite the glorious weather, she was too hung-up about her body to swim in front of people.
She said: “I only went in the sea once that whole time, because I couldn’t stand anyone looking at me.”
Claire’s crippling self-doubt meant she also avoided mirrors.
She said: “I couldn’t bear to catch my reflection.
“My whole personality changed because of how I viewed myself after that day when I was 15.
“I developed this self-depreciating humour and sarcasm became my defence mechanism.”
Even though she was terrified of being seen, as soon as she was submerged in the water, Claire was at peace.
“All my worries would go as soon as I was in the water,” she said.
“It was only getting to and from it that terrified me.”
Through her 20s, Claire continued her secret sea swims while working as a development manager for electrical firm Comet, still plagued by self-consciousness about her body, despite being a slim size 10-12.
“Even at work, I felt like couldn’t get away from my body,” said Claire, who became a size 14 to 16 after her pregnancies and grew to a size 18 to 20 in her 40s, as she moved into the peri-menopause.
“I was either over-sexualised by comments because of my curves, or called a ‘fat cow.’ Neither was pleasant.”
Only during her two pregnancies in the early 2000s did Claire feel brief relief concerning her appearance.
She said: “Physically, being pregnant, I felt rubbish, but I loved what I saw in the mirror.
“For the first time, I felt like I was free and had a legitimate excuse for how I looked. All I could see was the beauty of life growing inside of me.”
But her hatred of her body returned when her girls were born and even stopped her from taking them to public swimming pools as babies.
“I avoided the mum and baby lessons because I didn’t like the way I looked,” she said.
“But I forced myself to go swimming with them alongside my sister and her kids, but I hated every minute of it.”
Then, in 2016, to be closer to the sea, Claire and her family moved from Beverley to Hornsea, just a two minute walk away from the beach.
But this just compounded her issues about her body.
She said: “I was acutely aware that if anyone saw me swimming they might recognise me afterwards in the supermarket or taking the bins out.”
To avoid this, she swam at unsociable hours and always wore a full-body wetsuit.
She said: “I was convinced that if anyone was on the beach when I went to the sea, I could read their mind and they would think I was disgusting and gross.
“I would wear these wetsuits that covered me from the ankle to the neck, even though I loved the feeling of the water on my skin.”
In February 2019, Claire decided to step away from working as a health and wellbeing assistant at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation hub, to work on improving her own mental health.
“I was starting menopause so my ability to cope had diminished a lot and I was taking on other people’s trauma,” she said.
“I needed to take care of my mental health and get away from the pressures at work.”
When the first Covid lockdown was enforced in March 2020 and the beaches were deserted, Claire found herself swimming even more.
But it was watching her daughters growing up and weathering the challenges posed by puberty and early adulthood that finally compelled her to address her own body struggles.
She said: “I could see my daughters growing older and I remembered how I felt about myself at that age.”
Claire added: “I heard one daughter saying she hated the fact that someone was thinner than her and I thought, ‘God no, this is stopping now. I am not carrying this down a generation.'”
Determined to be a role model to her girls, Claire began to step out of her comfort zone.
She said: “I first started to go to the beach with my girls and just sit on the beach in my swimsuit.”
Claire added: “We had a huge inflatable pool in the garden, so I would put my swimsuit on and wear that in the garden or around the house, too.
“I ended up answering the door to a few of Polly’s friends in it and started to feel a little more confident.”
After building up her courage, in May 2020, Claire went to the beach to swim in the sea in a bathing suit for the first time since she was around 14 years old.
She said: “It was amazing. Getting into the water in my costume for the first time and feeling that cold water shock on my skin felt bloody amazing.
“It was out of this world. I couldn’t believe I had stopped myself for so long.”
With her growing confidence, Claire was keen to start swimming with others but could not find any local open water swimming groups.
She said: “I decided to put a shout out on a Facebook group asking if any ladies wanted to join me swimming. I had about 50 messages from women saying they wanted to give it a go.”
Setting up a group for the women alongside the East Yorkshire coastguard charity, Hornsea Inshore Rescue, Claire organised her first open water meet up at the end of March.
She said: “The first one was with three girls for a sunrise swim which was lovely, but they were all younger and slimmer than me.”
Claire added: “The next session was a group of old ladies and I found it so inspiring.
“They all just stripped off on the beach, got changed and ran into the water like giggling five year olds. It was euphoric.
“These women were just grabbing life by the scruff of its neck and getting on with it. That was a big slap around my face to live life and love it.”
Now, Claire’s open water swimming group called The Hornsea Mermaids runs a few sessions every day.
And while she is still on her journey to learn self-love, her confidence is higher than it has ever been.
She said: “I’m still on that journey and it doesn’t come easily, but I’m working on it.”
She added: “My husband and family have noticed how much happier I am now, too. My mum said to me the other day that I seem really comfortable in my own skin these days.”
Claire is now on a mission to encourage other women to take up open water swimming and help them embrace their bodies.
She said: “I want to engage with women and tell them to look at me and realise that they can do this and discover something for themselves.
“I never saw anyone like me posting about doing open water swimming and that was really intimidating.
“If I I can help change one person’s mind and make them feel a little better about themselves, then all my years of hiding were worth something.”
To find out more about The Hornsea Mermaids go to: https://www.facebook.com/groups/197665412155113/?notif_id=1655126218575565¬if_t=group_r2j_approved&ref=notif