Let’s show the world that beauty & strength doesn’t have a definition!

WAIKIKI, OAHU – It's a few hours before sunset. Mellow waves consistently kiss the shoreline. With a few strong strokes, Elizabeth Sneed pops up onto her yellow longboard with ease. She smiles.

Sneed is doing something she's always dreamed of: surfing.

It's something that certainly didn't happen overnight. In 2020, Sneed was feeling the effects of a breakup and had suffered the loss of her grandmother. The pandemic left her without a regular 9-to-5.

Elizabeth Sneed showcases plus-size women like her who surf. CAROLINE CARNIEL

With idle time on her hands, she launched @curvysurfergirl on Instagram to showcase plus-size women like her who surf. Six months later, it catapulted to 10,000-plus followers, her own website and a surf retreat she led for women around the country.

She's in a much different head space: redefining what it means to be a surfer girl. It's not just her, women from around the globe join her grassroots movement.

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'The body that I had and being an athlete could exist in the same space'

In high school, sports occupied much of Sneed's time. An autoimmune disease at age 14 and a series of health events caused her to gain weight.

"I had this idea in my mind that to be a female athlete, you had to be lean, athletic and muscular," she says. "It was very hard to divorce the idea that the body that I had and being an athlete could exist in the same space."

Her perspective shifted when she met Chelsea Lewis, a Waikiki surf instructor with Ohana Surf Project.

"Chelsea was really the one (who) started to deconstruct a lot of those myths and a lot of the, you know, misogyny that goes into marketing women in the world and women in sports," she says. "Chelsea and my best friend kind of teamed up to say, well, Elizabeth, if you're surfing, you are a surfer. And if you are surfing, then you are an athlete."

She did not need to prove herself continually.

"You know, if you can surf, it doesn't matter what a quote-unquote athlete has to look like," she says. "You are an athlete. Doesn't matter if you're 50 or 60 pounds heavier than the average woman (who is) surfing."

It took years for that to set in. And it didn't help that she could not fit into the tiny surf suits sold at stores. Most women's surf apparel, she says, does not go beyond extra large and wetsuits often don't go past women's size 14. Suits are often based on junior sizing, so they tend to run small.

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After rigorously surfing for about three years, it hit her: "Why do I continually have to try to change my body and who I am to meet a standard that I may never be able to meet for as long as I live, both from a skill set level as well as a physical aesthetic perspective?"

Sneed's advocated for inclusive surf gear and diversity in the surf world ever since. Good news: Surf brands are starting to listen. Volcom, for example, extended its swimsuit sizing to 24W, and Billabong launched a body-positive campaign.

Creating inclusive spaces

Sneed carves up waves three to five days a week. Most often, she's not solo. Thanks to her powerful message of acceptance and well-being, women – from young adults to grandmothers – travel to Hawaii to catch waves with her.

"I genuinely feel like the luckiest person in the world to have built something with such a positive impact on so many women around the world," she says.

It's not a stretch to say that surfing has radically changed her life. It has led to some stellar friendships with other role models such as Vanessa Yeager, founder of Women Who Surf and Latinx Surf Club in Newport Beach, California.

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"I was pleasantly surprised to see how many women and Latinx surfers were looking for a place to belong, to feel safe and supported on their surfing journey," Yeager says. "I now see that by creating these spaces, people feel more inclined to try surfing. These communities offer a positive environment which is supportive."

Risa Mara Machuca, a surf champion based in Sayulita, Mexico, is another friend spreading the word.

"Body positivity in surfing is growing," Machuca says. "I'm lucky to live in a community that cheers me on in the waves. It's so important for so many women of all ages, shapes and sizes to stop asking for permission."

How can you participate?

Sneed's newfound status as an athlete slash entrepreneur slash changemaker makes the sky the limit.

Her enthusiasm is contagious.

"I learned through all of this that showing up exactly where you are and just being yourself gives power to so many other people to do the same thing," she says. "That's the beauty of it all."

For those who want to delve into the sport of surfing, there are plenty of options in Hawaii and beyond.

► In Waikiki, The Surfjack hotel and swim club and SUP Dog Hawaii offer surf and standup paddleboarding lessons (you can even bring your dog to learn with you).

Ohana Surf Project gives surf lessons at Sneed's home surf break in Waikiki.

► Want to go international? Sneed will host a body-positive surf retreat in Bali in September. Machuca regularly hosts surf retreats in Sayulita, Mexico.

Every woman in this photo is a surfer & that’s something to celebrate!!

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