The Wave of Body Positivity Is Finally Coming to Surfing
For Elizabeth Sneed, surfing was more of a calling than a recreational pursuit. An avid amateur athlete, she fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2017 by packing up and moving from Phoenix to Honolulu. She quickly found a mentor at the Ohana Surf School and dove into daily lessons.
Not that learning was easy. Catching waves, standing up, and maneuvering require endurance, muscle memory, and ocean knowledge that can take years to acquire. In Sneed’s case, there was also something else: as a plus-size woman, she had never seen anyone who looked like her surfing, in either the water or media about the sport.
“There was never a place for me to be seen, or to feel like I was connected to this beautiful tradition,” she says. First, there was the imagery: posters plastered across the walls at her local surf shops featured young, lithe women—sometimes professional surfers but often models—in skimpy bikinis. The surf-related ads and media she found showed much of the same. Then there was the swimwear: plus-size bathing suits and bikinis are increasingly available, but most aren’t designed for athletic endeavors (read: bottoms that stay put, tops that support).
For the first few years of her surfing journey, Sneed wore bikini bottoms with ties at the hips and men’s rash guards (“I looked like a Raggedy Ann doll out there,” she quipped). And then there were the wetsuits: in addition to surfing, Sneed freedives, but she has yet to find a wetsuit that fits. During the winter, she muddles through, cold but determined.
At first, she accepted those barriers as the cost of her body type. But everything changed in April 2020, when she saw an image of plus-size fitness influencer Kanoa Green posing with a surfboard. Sneed was at a low point in her life—she’d just lost her job and was going through a breakup—but the Instagram post sparked something. “At that moment I thought, I have never seen a plus-size woman surfing,” she said.
A month later, she launched the channel @curvysurfergirl on Instagram. Sneed’s follower count quickly grew past 40,000, and brands and modeling agencies came calling. Now she’s launching a website, a retreat, and consulting services to help create a community and to advocate for other plus-size woman surfers. Every few months, she partners with the Ohana Surf School to host a Curvy Surfer Girl meetup and surf lesson, where women of all sizes can learn and practice in a supportive environment. And Sneed isn’t alone. Though the surf industry’s portrayal of female athletes has long focused on those who are thin, young, and white, a growing grassroots movement of women is challenging that idea. By creating their own spaces on social media, in the swimwear industry, and in the publishing business, they’re pushing the surf world to become more inclusive.
One of these women is artist and educator Brianna Ortega, who in 2017 launched Sea Together, a magazine, podcast, Instagram account, and series of art installations that showcase women who don’t fit the industry’s surfer-girl archetype—including a Black professional longboarder; a white surfer in her sixties; and cold-water surfers whose hooded wetsuits, gloves, and booties cover their bodies from head to toe.
As a mixed-race woman, Ortega also long felt left out of surf culture. “I hear over and over from other women, ‘I didn’t think I was the type of person that’s allowed to surf, or who has the capacity to surf, because of my body type,’” she said. “When you’ve been marginalized from a system you have to make your own space.”
More recently, Australian graphic designer Thembi Hanify and American writer Mariah Ernst launched Emocean, a semiannual publication that celebrates diversity of all kinds in the water. And in Mexico, self-described curvy surfer Risa Mara Machuca just launched Belle Curves Swimwear, a line of swimsuits that range in size from XS to 5X and are also available for custom orders. Small independent companies such as Grnstr (for which Sneed has modeled) and Truli, a scuba-focused brand, have also popped up to meet the demand for size-inclusive suits.
In contrast to the myriad sports, brands, and media outlets that are actively embracing inclusivity, surfing has remained stubbornly stuck in the past.
To surf neophytes, images of diverse women’s bodies catching waves may seem like no big deal. Over the past decade, the body-positivity movement has made inroads into nearly every facet of American society. Gone are the days when consumers accepted muscular, rugged white men as the only representatives of everything from biking to fly-fishing, or skinny white women as the sole models for athleisure.
Yet in contrast to the myriad sports, brands, and media outlets that are actively embracing inclusivity, surfing has remained stubbornly stuck in the past. “Modern surfing, particularly in an industry that’s come primarily from California—and Australia’s played a key role in that too—idealizes a narrow idea of surfing and femininity,” says Holly Thorpe, a sociology professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand who writes about the intersection of action sports, gender, and media.
“It is the idea of the super-sexy surfer girl,” says Thorpe. “She’s a girl, not a woman. She’s young. She’s blond. She’s beautiful. And she has a white, tanned body. This is a very narrow mode of representation which has been repeated and repeated and repeated and reinforced for decades. That has a major impact in terms of women around the world who think surfing’s not for them.”
What makes the work of women like Sneed so significant, then, is that it’s establishing a counternarrative to that dominant archetype that sprang up in the mid-20th century, when surfing migrated from Hawaii to the continental U.S. and Australian shores. Some of surfing’s pioneers were Polynesian women, including Hawaiian royalty like 17th-century Princess Kaneamuna, whose surfboard was found in her burial cave and is the oldest one ever discovered. Hundreds of years later, another Hawaiian princess, Ka‘iulani, helped revive the sport on her home water and introduced it to England. Once the pastime left Hawaii, however, it was quickly co-opted by an emerging industry that was almost exclusively run by and for white males.
For ten years, Todd Prodanovich was the editor of Surfer magazine, the first and oldest of the media outlets to cover surf culture in the U.S., until it closed in fall 2020. Surfing has long had a body-obsessed culture, he says. The male-led surf industry exploited that obsession with hypersexualized ads and photo spreads; from the 1980s to the 2000s, there were the ubiquitous Reef flip-flop ads with close-up photos of women’s behinds in thong bikinis, ostensibly as a visual reference to their footwear. In surf films, there was a standard butt shot, usually of bikini-clad women lying facedown on a beach, or of women, seen from behind at a low angle, watching the men surf. The messaging was as unsubtle as it was inescapable. (Men, Prodanovich noted, aren’t exempt from the pressure to look lean and muscular either, though they aren’t sexualized in the same way.)
Another reason for surfing’s lag behind the times may simply be that, until recently, it could languish in the obscurity that comes with being a relatively tiny, navel-gazing subculture. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2020 participation report, while surfing is growing in popularity worldwide, the size of its market is a fraction of that of other outdoor sports like running, hiking, or fishing. Free of external scrutiny, it’s been able to remain an insular, highly circumscribed ecosystem—and the industry has embraced that insularity in its marketing.
It’s that dynamic that drove Sneed and other recreational surfers who didn’t see themselves represented in the surfing-industrial complex to launch their own media channels and brands. And big surf companies may be slowly starting to listen. In an email, Rip Curl CEO Brooke Farris notes that the company’s market research shows that consumers perceive it as “too pro surf” and “too perfect.”
“We love the pro-surfing aspect of the sport and sponsor many athletes of all ages from across the world,” she says. “In some respects this has limited the growth of our customer base and audience. We’re perhaps still finding that balance between our vision to be regarded as the ‘ultimate surfing company’ to really tapping into the resurgence of broader female participation in surfing.”
That being the “ultimate surfing company” seemingly conflicts with broader participation underscores a longtime tension in what the surfing industry perceives to be its two demographics: the “core”—shorthand for young, white male enthusiasts for whom the industry was designed—and everyone else. The industry’s fear of alienating that so-called core has long kept it in the grip of the past.
So far, Rip Curl has launched a new interactive fit guide, which features a wider range of sizes, body types, and surfers, and an inclusivity campaign called “Summer looks good on you.” In October, the company’s swimsuit sizing expanded slightly, down to a U.S. XS (XXS in Australian sizing) and up to a U.S. XL (which is 2xL in Australia). Wetsuits, Farris said, require longer lead time, but the company will be expanding its range up to a U.S. 14 in February. Fellow surf brand Roxy, meanwhile, released an ad featuring three generations of Hawaiian women surfing together, which was a first for a brand that’s geared toward teenage girls.
The industry still has a long way to go. For maximum inclusivity, Sneed said, a good range of sizes would be XXS to 5XL. That doesn’t just mean manufacturing the same products proportionally bigger, but accounting for the differences in women’s bodies: some women have bigger stomachs, wider hips, or thicker arms.
Despite the slower-than-ideal progress, Sneed is more optimistic than ever. The women building a movement on social media don’t have to wait for the major surf companies to act, she said.
“You’re seeing women mobilizing themselves,” she says. “We’re going to tell them what we need, what we want. And if we have to, we will manufacture it, make the images, and be our own champions.”