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Surfing & the Myth of the Bikini Body

This is me, peak health, and still drawing responses of, “You’re a surfer?!?!”

It’s “bikini body” season, the time of year when women are reminded by diet plans and gyms to get “bikini ready.” As a surfer girl who spends weeks of each year at the beach, I can authoritatively say that women — no matter how fit or fat they are — are never “bikini ready.”

From my perch, floating on a surfboard, looking at aqua waves crash into limestone bluffs, I watch as women in bikinis and rash guards, usually petite or thin, enter the ocean with their surf instructors. Many are certain and confident. It’s exceptional to see a woman over size 12 head for the waves.

I see some women, first time surfers, get dangerously caught in crashing waves. Often, those not strong enough to paddle back out were weakened by “bikini ready” diets. The surfing and diet industries implies that if they are “bikini ready,” they’d be surf-ready — but it’s me, a 5’9”, size 14 woman, who recovers them from the rocks.

When I started surfing seven years ago, the sport didn’t strike me as a litmus test for body image and female confidence, but through it, I’ve been able to see women’s body images play out with sometimes dangerous consequences. I spend one to two months each year working remotely and surfing in Barbados. Bim, as it’s affectionately called, is the unofficial nation of the bikini, where hundreds of thousands of vacationing women don a bikini on the tropical island’s sandy beaches and world class surf spots.

In my twice daily surf sessions, I see dozens of women out on surf lessons. Women in sarongs and coverups sit onshore, snapping photos of their boyfriends and husbands, wishing they could be out there. Surfers talk a lot between sets, and women onshore often talk me up. From them, I learn that many dieted or did a juice cleanse to get “bikini ready.” For those who try out surfing, many find the images they’d been sold of skinny surf girls didn’t match up with the demands of paddling for a wave.

Waiting for a wave.

Both groups have been fed a lie about women’s bodies: that “bikini ready” means petite, slim, and, by default, strong, because they’re not “fat” nor “lazy.” Out on the waves of Barbados, women come to terms with their shocking reality that bikini readiness is a lie. Despite what bikini ready products claim, thinness doesn’t always equate to strength.

So many women think they can’t surf — because they don’t “look like” a surfer girl. Conversely, those who are thin may mistakenly believe they do have the body for surfing, without earning the muscle mass needed. This assumption has consequences; I see bikini-clad, diet-weakened women get caught in oncoming waves crashing near rocks. Their instructor or I swoop in to paddle them out. A woman who carries around a toddler every day wouldn’t have had the same problem. Women who diet, to the detriment of their muscle mass, struggle.

The surfing industry has supplanted this misguided image of female strength. Professional surfers make much of their living via sponsorships, mostly from surf clothing brands who pay primarily for the surfer’s modeling work. Forced to slide into size two and four bikinis, or at largest, a “junior” size 11 (a size eight), there is no room in professional surfing for thighs, hips, or cellulite. The famous female surfers of our time are just the best surfers of those who can get bikini modeling contracts.

Bo Stanley, via Facebook/Bo Stanley.

Pro surfers like Bo Stanley, a top 20 surfer in 2011, now a “plus size” model, spoke out about the surf industry’s bias, “(I finished in the) top 20 in 2011 on the World Qualifying Series of Women’s Surfing. I so wish that my sponsor at the time, Billabong, would have stepped up to the plate so I could have continued traveling the world for contests and dominating on the WQS. … Instead of supporting me financially, Billabong decided it was more beneficial to give other girls the financial support because they were a size 2 and thus could model for their brand as well. It is a shame what the women’s surfing world has turned into.” Billabong has cited lack of placing as a reason her sponsorship was dropped, but it’s hard to say what came first, as major sponsorships underwrite travel and gear for surf competition.

Brazil’s top surfer, Silvana Lima, featured in the BBC’s 2016 documentary, Winners Brazil, can’t get surf sponsorships — or compete as frequently — because she doesn’t “look like a model.” Lima says on the BBC, “The surf-wear industry…wants models and surfers. So, if you don’t look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which happened to me.” To watch Silvana Lima surf is to see power and grace rip through a biased industry.

The surfing industry rarely makes size 14 or up clothing or designs surfboards for women’s curvy bodies. Their marketing and products are exclusionary to the point of rejecting sales: this $13.2 billion industry should be big enough to fit size 12 and up women. The average women’s size is 14, and plus-size has become a $17 billion market. One would think that the capitalists who run this industry would want to make money by selling to everyone, not just the smallest among us.

Women are waking up to the realities of our bodies — how they can be strong, healthy, beautiful and impressive outside of society’s narrow body norms. The body-positive movement is growing with organizations like Healthy is the New Skinny, body-positive bloggers, and Instagram accounts where women stylishly dress their bodies that were rejected by the fashion industry. Women’s Running magazine recently featured plus-size runner Erica Schenk on their cover. Surf companies like Chick Sticks and swim brands like Robyn Lawley are providing the gear to get out there.

But most women are still trapped in the bikini lie, conflating size with strength. Skinny women, unable to paddle back out, are astonished as I tow our boards and bodies, paddling through a city block’s length of waves. In society’s narrative, my body isn’t supposed to be strong. Women onshore look at me with awe after I’ve ripped through a two hour long set of waves. They wonder if they can, too. (They can! They should!) I’m curvy and (to them) surprisingly strong. To their minds, my body is an uncomfortable anomaly, a rejection of our society’s association of athleticism and health with thinness. When I surf, I feel powerful, challenged, and joyous. I may not be “pro” level, but I’m not weak. More than just a workout, catching waves is life-affirming and empowering for women. Only recently did I realize it’s a radical act. Going out and enjoying the sport I love renders every “bikini ready” commercial a bold-faced lie. More women should catch a wave and shatter a stereotype; it makes for a great day at the beach.

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