Kanoa Greene was born into a surfing family – but for a long time, she didn’t think she belonged in the ocean.
“I’m Hawaiian, and surfing has been part of my family since the beginning. My uncle is a well-known surfer in Hawaii, and so I was immersed in that world,” she told CNN Sport.
Growing up in Orlando, Florida, Greene spent a lot of time at the beach surrounded by surf culture. But despite longing to surf, she grew up thinking surfing wasn’t a place where she belonged.
“I never saw anyone who looked like me out there,” she said. “Surfing to me was one of those that was really far-fetched. You know, we are so conditioned to see a certain type of body doing it.”
After years of dreaming about riding the waves, she finally decided she wanted to give surfing a try, although it took Greene another two years to leap into the water because she couldn’t find surfwear that fit her.
“And that really discouraged me because … the industry is telling me that I don’t belong here.”
Elizabeth Sneed, who started surfing five years ago, had a similar experience.
“It took a bit of a toll on me because even when I would go and try to buy performance swimwear, the things were not either available in my size or, if they were, they weren’t really designed to fit my body type, Sneed, 31, told CNN.
“If you think about it, right, a triangle bikini with string tie bottoms is not ideal, if you have a double D chest and larger hips structure. I got to this point in my mind where I thought it was punishment for being overweight,” she said.
Two years after first deciding to surf, Greene plucked up the courage to finally give it a go.
“It wasn’t until 2018 where I decided, ‘You know what, I’m just going to be the person that I wish I could see, whether or not I have the right outfit.’
“You know, I want to look cute, but that’s not how it’s gonna happen. If I have to go out there in shorts and a t-shirt, I’m just gonna do it for me and prove this to myself,” said Greene, who now works as a fitness trainer and documents her adventures on social media.
“When people say surf culture, usually they mean a very Southern California and Australia-centric culture,” Lauren Hill, surfer and author of “She Surf,” explained to CNN Sport.
“And when we think about that culture, we see that it’s been shaped by and for largely young, White, hetero men, who have a particular worldview, a particular definition of what quote ‘good surfing’ means,” she said.
“Historically, that hasn’t necessarily included the unique ways that women tend to ride waves.”
Surfing’s roots lie in premodern Hawaii and Polynesia, where the sport was practiced by men and women across all social standings.
Meanwhile, many countries like Peru have rich surf cultures, and accounts of surfing on the African continent are said to go back to the 1640s.
“If we look at the long arc of surfing history, we know that right next to the first boys who were riding waves … there were little girls surfing right next to those boys,” Hill explained.
Not that the media and popular culture was showing that.
“Surf culture … had a very narrow representation and has been quite exclusive, and exclusionary, of lots of different kinds of people, people of color, people who are differently abled, [different] races, varying ethnicities,” said Hill.
As a young surfer in Florida, Hill says she saw a lot of women represented in surf media, but not a lot of women actually riding waves.
“I saw a lot of women passively posed in bikinis at least partially nude they were almost always White. They were almost always skinny and hairless,” added Hill.
“They often had blond hair and blue eyes and were very much a heteronormative imagining of what a woman is – and that excludes most women.”
These types of attitudes even initially deterred a champion surfer like Risa Mara Machuca.
“The boys always made fun of me. [As a child] I had a very peculiar funny little, you know, bubbly body,” Machuca told CNN Sport.
“And so I’d actually body surf – [I’d] keep my body in the water, you know, water up to here, my neck. But because the boys teased me as a kid, I just never even wanted to try to surf, to be honest.”
After a relationship break-up in her mid-20s, LA native Machuca thought “F**k it” and went traveling – and surfing – around Central America.
“I just got out there and I didn’t see that many other women like that, so it was really tough,” added Machuca.
Now, at 45, Machuca has her own line of bathing suits and is an instructor at her surf school in Sayulita, Mexico, where she teaches clients of all backgrounds and sizes.
“Maybe, you switch up the teaching format a little bit, or teach a different way to stand up or you actually realize like, ‘Wow, these women are amazing.’ They’re these big, broad, strong, confident beings that just needed the right board or an opportunity to get out there and do it.”
Sneed agrees. “We rarely ever see people in the beginner to intermediate space within surfing at all whether you’re male or female,” she said.
Sneed credits Greene’s posts on social media for motivating her to try the sport, even though she was a beginner.
“One day, I saw Kanoa Greene pop up on my Instagram feed and she was holding a surfboard. And that was the moment that everything clicked for me.
“There’s always been curvy surfer girls. It’s just not been something that has been visual and mainstream,” she said.
Sneed was inspired by her to start her Instagram page, Curvy Surfer Girl, which has over 75,000 followers on Instagram and over 100,000 on TikTok.
“Oftentimes, when people find the page for the first time, I think that there’s an element of like, ‘Wow, I just didn’t know that women like us were surfing or could surf.’
Greene says that surfing brands and the community need to do more to make people of all body sizes feel welcome in the sport.
“What happens if they’re inspired, but they go to a local surf school and they don’t have the proper gear and then they don’t have the wetsuit and then they walk away, discouraged, maybe like me, wait another two years, maybe five years, maybe never get out?
“For me, as a plus sized person, the first question that always comes to mind when I want to try something new is, ‘Is the gear going to support my body?’ And for someone who is in a smaller body, they may never have that question,” she said.
Machuca says there has been a lot of progress in recent years with surf brands becoming more representative.
“We’re making our moves and we’re doing things – I honestly feel like we are making … the bigger surf companies open up.”
Sneed added: “We’re coming into a new era of inclusion for women’s athletics in general and particularly with the body positive movement in surfing. It really is making waves – not to sound cliche.
“I know a lot of women think that if you’re older, you can’t surf either. So we’re just trying to break those barriers down and show women around the world that those kinds of things are irrelevant when it comes to the ocean space, and that they’re welcome.”