Words: Jack Copeland
For all of surfing’s wonderful traits, the sense of liberation it provides and the deep respect for the ocean which it instils, there exists, just as their does in every sporting industry, an unavoidable flaw. In the case of surfing, this flaw exists in the form of under-representation among surf brand ambassadors.
Anyone who surfs can recall a time in the line-up where a veteran surfer, probably in their sixties, has charged out ahead of the younger crowd, unbothered by their understandably weightier figure, and put everyone else to shame.
Photos emerge on Instagram of larger than life wave-chasers, boldly carving their way across mountains of moving water, arguably much better than the more ‘athletic’ crowd.
So why is it that surfing brands don’t advertise to this demographic of surfer?
A large part of where surfing makes its money is through brands selling clothing and, despite appealing to a somewhat liberal-minded crowd, the models for these clothes usually fit the Barbie and Ken Doll stereotypes.
That being said, surfing is a demanding sport, so you would expect the people who partake in it all to be in pristine condition. But being athletic doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a small waist and a six-pack. It seems cliché to say it, but some people are just built bigger. Broader shoulders, bulkier thighs, and height all play a big part in someone’s body shape, so you can still be relatively fit without the template figure.
In the surfing world, shortboard surfers all have this stereotypically lean figure, and they need to have it. Shortboards are notorious for not being able to carry a great deal of weight, so the people who ride them competitively, performing carves and ridiculous aerial manoeuvres, need to be quite lightweight.
However, longboarding is a different story altogether. Longboards can take a great deal of weight, even that of two people in the case of tandem surfers, and so naturally longboarders tend to possess a variety of different body shapes.
And yet still, if you were to search for wetsuits, and you were to find a product that was being modelled by a longboarder, the model in question would still have a skinny or petite build.
Ironically, the wave of plus-sized fashion, that has been sweeping the market in recent years, seems to have missed the surfing fashion industry. But one longboarder in Hawaii, who is making an effort to bring plus-sized fashion to the surfing world, is Elizabeth Sneed, also known as the Curvy Surfer Girl.
Elizabeth is originally from Texas, but for the past three years she has been pursuing a career in modelling, while also learning to surf, on the island of Oahu. Browsing through Elizabeth’s social media profiles, you immediately feel the urge to smile as the five-foot ray of sunshine gifts your timeline with an endless stream of positivity.
Although, the more you delve into the words below each of her posts, the more you realise Elizabeth has had to move beyond a great deal of pain. Home life was very difficult for Elizabeth as a young person, leading her to be in foster care between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, and even after that she had to contend with being diagnosed with plaque psoriasis.
For those who don’t know, psoriasis is a skin condition which causes the growth of red, hardened patches of skin, known as plaques, which become very itchy and painful. Though psoriasis is not even remotely contagious, the plaques, which become covered with silvery scales, can be triggered by certain stimuli, and can flare up for varying lengths of time.
Elizabeth was fifteen when she was diagnosed with plaque psoriasis, which later developed into severe psoriasis, meaning that it all came at a time when a person’s changing appearance is already a knock to their confidence. Contending with teenage years on top of a chronic skin condition would be enough to turn anyone into an introvert, yet Elizabeth excelled both intellectually and athletically.
Speaking in an exclusive interview, about her attitude towards adversity and her positive nature, she said: “I always believed the path forward was to succeed my way out.
“While others may have taken various paths of self-destruction, I knew that would only worsen the crisis which I’d been born into. I decided, as a young girl, that I would try my best to excel in anything I put my mind to. I suppose I continue this today because it was simply a survival mechanism, and the only way that I knew to achieve my goals.
“As for my personality, I believe those hardships also culminated to make me a loving and compassionate individual. I want people in my sphere of influence to know they’re loved.”
Elizabeth’s experiences with psoriasis continue to this day, but came to a head at the age of twenty-two, when it escalated to psoriasis arthritis and covered sixty per cent of her body. At around this time, she had also started university and, alongside a male friend, had co-founded a psoriasis support group. Sadly though, the male friend in question took his own life a couple of years later due to bullying and subsequent depression.
Opening up about this experience on social media, Elizabeth wrote: “I vowed to honour his legacy and not let the outbreaks get the better of me, showing others that we can be accepted and seen for who we are, despite our skin.”
Though she is very open about her psoriasis, and is a vocal advocate for all-round representation, Elizabeth’s main focus with Curvy Surfer Girl is to encourage plus-size modelling in the surf industry.
Broaching the subject during the interview, Elizabeth explained: “Photographers and brands, until recently (and I mean in the last few months), have had no interest in discovering, photographing, or promoting the stories and images of women in this category of surfing…
“Once an established media outlet decides what’s ‘popular’, that’s now the new standard and, like a domino effect, the new ‘popular’ is perpetuated across the industry. The difficulty lies is gaining access to these influential outlets, which control narratives and persuade them with public opinion.
“Women especially use these outlets as an indicator of their own self-worth, measuring themselves by how similar they look to a celebrity, physically and fashionably. When there is a lack of representation, the natural conclusion is: ‘I am not as beautiful, worthy, popular, etc’, and this creates a cycle of self-depreciation.”
Using the Curvy Surfer Girl platform, her ultimate aim is to trigger a “meaningful change” amongst large brands and media outlets, whilst also growing the plus-sized surfer girl community.
Talking about the obstacles she faced when she first started to model, she revealed: “The most challenging setback from the beginning of my career was finding photographers, especially water photographers, and convincing them to work with me.
“Unlike others, I’ve not had the privilege of modelling, or being near the ocean, for my whole life. I wasn’t able to surf with the style, grace, and prowess of other surfers, and I wasn’t able to reach the depths of other divers. Add the component of being curvy, and it all but eliminated the likes of being photographed.
“When I imagined Curvy Surfer Girl, I knew that I needed to work with the best to even have a chance at gaining momentum. I reached out to the great Tommy Pierucki, one of the best surf photographers in the world, and started the conversation about representation and my vision.
“I believe Tommy is equally as responsible for the success of Curvy Surfer Girl as I am because he believed in me, my vision, and lent his incredible talent to an unknown surfer girl with big dreams. He’s one of my heroes and I am forever grateful for his contribution to my life and the lives of so many others we’ve influenced through our images.”
Taking a look at the origins of Curvy Surfer Girl, you can’t help but realise that Elizabeth’s success and bravery with the platform stems, yet again, from reacting to adversity. Last year, Elizabeth was involved in accidents with three cars and a city bus, all while having been unemployed for eighteen months, leading her to suffer from depression and severe anxiety attacks.
Keeping herself afloat as an Uber driver, Elizabeth toyed with the idea of starting her own platform for plus-sized surfer girls, choosing to boldly run forward with the idea after being encouraged by her long-time partner, Robert, and surfing instructor, Chelsea.
Talking about how other plus-sized surfers can find success, Elizabeth stated: “The first step is to believe they’re worthy of such attention in their current state, regardless of physical appearance and the opinions of others. Once this has been established, learning the sport to the best of one’s abilities, finding quality photographers, and finding media outlets that will support them, is absolutely essential.
“I’ve found for myself, and other women, that it’s difficult to ask for what we want, whether from a business or a collaborator, but it’s absolutely critical to ask.
“Ask as many people as possible for their support… no one knows what you need, or how they can help, unless they’re asked. To get what you want from life, you have to make it known to others. So consider that along the journey.”
Elizabeth started longboard surfing three years ago, initially experiencing a drop in weight from the changes that this new and demanding sport had upon her body. Though she’s always proudly described herself as “curvy”, Elizabeth shot down from 207 pounds to 150 between 2015 and 2018, showing how the sudden demands of a sport like surfing can drastically change a person’s body.
Nowadays, Elizabeth is a very balanced, happy, and healthy 175 pounds and can be seen gliding along the waves at Waikiki on her 9’6” Torque longboard.
In another social media post sharing her experiences, she tells her fellow curvy surfers to “be yourself at every stage of your life and have the courage and confidence, no matter your weight, to go out and do what you love.”
As a surfer, Elizabeth looks up to people like Suelen Naraisa, Malia Kaleopaa, and Risa Mara Machuca, having even had the opportunity to paddle-out with Malia and her family back in June.
During the aforementioned interview, Elizabeth was asked what makes surfing such an effective medium for self-expression and empowerment. She replied: “I believe it’s hard not to be completely authentic in the ocean. There are not many opportunities to hide your true self, either physically or personally, because surfing requires the complete presence of oneself.
“Surfing is empowering because it connects us to nature, to ourselves, and to the blissful feelings which almost every surfer knows. Through those experiences, we share an unspoken bond with each other and the great ocean. What’s more expressive and empowering than that?”
Over the past few months, Elizabeth has worked on photoshoots with various different brands, including the likes of Vermilli Hawaii, Tropic Labs, Lōli’i Swimwear, and Maaji Swimwear. The next step, however, is to work on projects with the big brands, a Rip Curl, Billabong, or Hurley, in an effort to truly inspire change and kickstart the Curvy Surfer Girl movement.
To make sure that this happens, please follow Curvy Surfer Girl on Instagram, and make sure that when you tap the like button you don’t just scroll on past. Elizabeth’s story is so much more than longboards and bikinis. The obstacles that she’s covered, from the start of her journey up to now, should be motivation enough that, no matter who you are or what you look like, there’s a place for you in the surfing world.