SURF // 01 MAR 2022
REIMAGINING THE SURFER GIRL
Close your eyes and imagine what the quintessential surfer girl looks like. Who pops into your mind? Does she have blonde hair, tanned skin, toned body, and maybe a light SoCal accent? If so, it’s not by accident, she’s the image carefully crafted by the surf industry for decades. The Endless Summer ideal that has truly been endless. Even with the ever growing body positivity movement, the surf industry has been resistant to updating their market persona.
For the plus-sized demographic, representation is limited, and more often than not, inauthentic. Models posing with surfboards, clearly uncomfortable, demoralizes the aspiring surfer. As founder of the Curvy Surfer Girl movement Elizabeth Sneed states, “No, we surf, this is not a prop. There are women out here doing this every day and this is our passion.”
Women want to see themselves represented in advertising, with an emphasis on media highlighting athletes actively participating in the sport being promoted. Some companies have caught on and include actual plus-size surfers in their campaigns. Unfortunately, inclusion does not mean the discrimination suddenly vanished. Sneed described the prejudice she’s personally experienced on campaign photoshoots as “tangible.”
“The problem is when you have the creator, the visionary there, the owner and swim brand creator on the set, and they are favoring the smaller, more petite female models over the more average body size, or curvier, plus size woman,” explained Sneed.
It was in these moments that Sneed began to wonder why she was there in the first place. The same people that hired her, put her in a position where she felt unworthy, like there was something wrong with her. “ I don’t think anyone, whether you’re being paid or not, should be put in a position where you’re there just to say you’re a part of this diversity quota.”
A quota, that consists of one photo from a six hour photoshoot. A single photo that carries all of a company’s responsibility of supporting body positivity. The idea would be laughable if it wasn’t such a frequent occurrence. If a company is not willing to put forth a consistent commitment, they should just sit it out. An insincere effort cannot, no matter how technically well-crafted, camouflage it’s inauthenticity.
One key step companies seem to miss in their support of body-positivity is making sure that their catalog actually contains items for plus-size women. The most egregious industry oversight is the absence of wetsuits above a size fourteen on the market. Stand Up Journal goes in depth on the topic, but it all culminates into one simple fact: a plus-size woman surfing in colder water that needs a wetsuit will either have to buy a custom suit, or a men’s suit. Which, given the high price tag of a custom suit, means that women are surfing in men’s suits that are not designed with their body type in mind.
The scarcity of plus-sized items doesn’t end with wetsuits. “I walked into the surf store and couldn’t buy anything really, I was like ‘I’m being punished for being in this body’,” said Sneed, explaining the mindset she’d formed after several years of learning to surf. “I was convinced that it was okay that they were punishing me. I’m the problem here, I can’t seem to lose the weight to fit into these clothes and if you really want to be a real surfer girl you just can’t look like me, and that’s okay.”
These surf shops, which already offer an inadequate selection of equipment for the plus size surfer, can then be extremely patronizing. “I have screen shots of women with personal stories saying when they walked into a surf shop to either buy or rent a surfboard, they were explicitly told that they couldn’t, because they would sink the board,” explained Sneed. “This is a level of misogyny and ignorance and patriarchal thinking that has trapped so many women in the mindset that they can’t or shouldn’t surf.”
For someone who is trying a sport for the first time, where their body type already isn’t represented, the battles with their own inner critic are hard enough. Then, for the athlete’s first interaction with surfing culture to be someone they assume to be knowledgeable in the sport, telling them that they’re too heavy to participate, as Sneed said, “ That is going to be a huge blow.”
It may come as a shock that there are women who’ve dealt with, and continue to deal with all the bullshit, that persevere and still get out in the water. Why? Simple, they love to surf. Yet with all this love for the sport, they remain a hidden facet of the surfing community. Sneed explained that, “They’ve always been out there and they’ve always been in our line ups, but they wanted to conceal their existence because they felt ashamed of their bodies and what they look like or what they’d be perceived as.”
Tired of being made to feel that she didn’t belong to the sport she loves because of her body, Sneed decided to take the narrative into her own hands. So in the Summer of 2020 Curvy Surfer Girl, a movement dedicated to creating body diversity and body positivity in women’s surfing, was born.
However, Curvy Surfer Girl didn’t start with the first Instagram post. Months before the launch of Curvy Surfer Girl, Sneed was not in the ideal position to launch an independent campaign. “I’d lost my job, I was pretty broke to be honest with you,” she laughed. “I had a very limited budget.”
As an upper level beginner at the time, Sneed also struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Surrounded by some of the best surfers in the world in Hawaii, it was difficult to confront the inner critic that insisted she was not a strong enough surfer to make herself the face of a surfing movement.
Thankfully, Sneed pushed past these mental blockers and began her hunt for the best photographers on the island. And she meant the best. “All of it is going to fall flat if I don’t have something that captures people from the first minute they see this,” said Sneed, explaining her strategy. There were fears of being shot down, working against the discrimination of being plus-sized and a beginner. Still Sneed charged ahead. She was going to make at least one person say yes to her proposal. That photographer ended up being her top choice.
After a month on a payment plan to afford the photoshoot, Sneed faced her next crisis, surfing. “I’ve only got this guy for a two hour window,” said Sneed, explaining her anxieties before the shoot. “I have to go out to a crowded surf break, remember we’re in Hawaii, and I have to catch waves. And I have to look good while doing it.”
The pressure was there. If Sneed caught zero waves and walked away with no good photos that day, she would be back at square one, potentially marking the end of Curvy Surfer Girl. “Thank god I did surf, and I surfed well that day. I gave it my all and the surf lineup was very gracious, it was my home break and they let me take a lot of waves.”
And the resulting photos were breathtaking.
“When I saw the images of me, just the body type, I cried,” said Sneed. “Because I’d never really seen, with this kind of quality or beautiful imagery, ever, of a woman who looked anything like me.”
With her surf images in hand, Sneed set out to fill the rest of her Instagram content calendar with more affordable lifestyle images. Beyond visual representation, Sneed was seeking to instigate the conversation around plus-size surfers, so she composed thoughtful dialogs to accompany the photos. “I knew I needed to draft very powerful and compelling captions to really illustrate where the surf industry overlooked an entire demographic of people,” explained Sneed. Once she was armed with thirty days worth of content, Curvy Surfer Girl was unleashed upon the world.
“It was like an atom bomb went off,” said Sneed. With her surf photographer supporting the movement through his platform, Sneed’s photos were placed in front of a large audience right away. “Everyone in that moment really had an epiphany that oh my God we have never seen this body type in media surfing. It just exploded.”
Within six months of launch, Curvy Surfer Girl was getting media attention from SurfGirl Magazine, and even Folha de S. Paulo. Now, almost two years later, Curvy Surfer Girl has hosted its own surf retreat, been featured on National television, and amassed over 55 thousand followers on Instagram. But there’s no rest in sight for Sneed.
The future of Curvy Surfer Girl is ambitious, as one would expect from its passionate founder. More group shoots are a top priority for the coming year, as Sneed wants to represent an even more diverse array of body types on the page. “I know it seems like the Elizabeth show at times,” she laughed. “But that’s just a reflection of finances at the end of the day.”
One excellent spot for those group photos is Bali, where Sneed plans on taking the first international Curvy Surfer Girl group trip. Ultimately, Sneed plans on continuing her efforts of creating a line of Curvy Surfer Girl surfboards, so plus-size women can enter surf shops with confidence, knowing what size and shape of board will give them the most positive surfing experience.
Even with the ever growing to-do list, Sneed carries the core message of Curvy Surfer Girl through every decision and goal.
“Women of every shape and size are going through a body image crisis on a daily basis,” she explained. “So it’s something for everybody, and it’s a feel-good space.
What I’m hoping to communicate whether it’s just me in the images, or other women with me, is that you are beautiful and here is why you’re beautiful.
That’s what I want people to take away. “