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Becoming A Surfer Taught Me An Important Lesson About Being A Black Woman

I'm a black woman with a full afro, and I surf.

As Told To

As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer. If you have a story you'd like to share but aren't sure about how to put it into words, contact us at submissions@xonecole.com with the subject "As Told To" for your story to be featured.

This is Chelsea Woody's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.

I'm a black woman with a full afro, and I surf.

I wanted to learn to surf since I was a teenager after seeing Kate Bosworth in the movie Blue Crush. I was enamored with everything about the movie: the surfer lifestyle, living in beach environments, how freeing the act of surfing made her feel.

As a teen, we're more enamored by the idea of just becoming a surfer or spending carefree summers along the beach. In reality, the lack of representation takes its toll, and you realize how differences can sometimes make it difficult to relate to anyone on the journey or break into surfing.

The more I reflect, the more I realized that Kate inspired me because she was the only example that I had of female surfers—despite looking nothing like me.

I didn't grow up in a coastal town, so I wasn't raised around surfing. I didn't actually learn to surf until much later in my life. It was always in the back of my mind, but whenever I found myself on vacation in places such as Hawaii, I could never convince myself to try out of fear of what those consequences might mean for my melanated features and my hair.

Courtesy of Chelsea Kungkagam

As crazy as it may sound (to others), we know that hair is a major excuse as to why many black women choose not to participate in any water sport. The need to maintain unrealistic hairstyle upkeep, combined with the fear of the open ocean, and a necessary strength in swimming, means when I look around, I don't see many people—male or female—that look like me. These are also major reasons as to why we represent less than 1% of any water sport.

And unfortunately, for many black and brown women, there is still a major antiquated view of skin tone and colorism that can keep us from spending time in the outdoors and sun.

Access to outdoor spaces and having family members or friends to pass down traditions also contributes to the lack of diversity.

It's unfortunate, but the facts. So, how do we weaken the stigma? How can we spark the interest in black families to encourage them to add surfing to the list of what we can do?

We can give our community positive examples and resources to help them feel more comfortable in the ocean. Through representation hopefully we can encourage more black families to get out in the surf lineup and know that we belong in these spaces. Then we can see the generational growth in outdoor spaces. When we see more folks that look like us, it begins to normalize what should already be normal.

A few years into my marriage, my husband and I decided to take a break from corporate life, quit our jobs, and travel abroad for a year and a half. I figured this was as good as time as any to finally learn to surf. We posted up in Indonesia for a few months and both committed ourselves to learning. We would hit the water everyday for a month; it became a part of our daily routine.

Initially, when I first started surfing, I was a bit insecure about not fitting the typical surfer stereotype. In Indonesia, although the majority of the population shared my skin tone, there weren't many Indonesian women who surfed, and there certainly weren't any black women. Additionally, swimsuit options didn't fit my athletic body type the same, and my protective braided hairstyles made me stand out.

Refusing to be discouraged, I didn't allow my outward appearance to be indicative of my interests. But oftentimes, when people have the similar interests, there's a tendency to want to fit a certain mold to make sure people know that you belong to that group. I quickly realized that my surf style wasn't at risk of emulating anyone, my flavor was a little different. And I really learned to embrace that.

I didn't need to try to fit into a space that didn't have people like me in mind at all, allowing me to be unapologetically myself. That was one of my most liberating realizations in my surfing. But I still had more work to do.

You know how, as a black or brown person in a "particular" room, you see another sister or brother, and suddenly you're immediately connected? That's similar to how my surf sisters bonded over our relationship with the ocean. Certain experiences we have surfing just don't need explanation, they understand and can relate. It has been such a blessing finding these women. The ladies and I would regularly discuss the lack of diversity, what the sport considers marketable, and how that impacts surfing for future generations who are both free surfers and competitive. We collectively knew there had to be more black and brown girls who are interested in surfing; those who surf and are unapologetically who they are. And in the slight chance that there weren't any, we knew the importance of showing examples of what we didn't have when we got started

Soon, our community, Textured Waves, was born. We're just four African American female surfers who wanted to create a space for women of all shades who surf. We support each other through sisterly camaraderie and creative outlets related to surfing, and we aim to change the narrative of who is a surfer through imagery and representation. We're even working on a few short film projects that showcase the beauty of African-American female surfers. If you can believe it, nothing like this exists.

It's all full-circle moment, and why I fight so hard to promote diversity in the sport.

Here in the States, we are a lot further behind other countries in terms of representation in the surf world. That has a lot to do with the history of this country: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation at beaches and in swimming pools, I could go on and on. But I hope black women reclaim their place in the sea, and eventually we get to see a 'Serena Williams' of surfing, representing us on a competitive world stage. I hope in the future we begin to see more diversity in aquatics and beach life as a whole.

As often as I can, I try to surf. I am happiest and feel most beautiful when I'm gliding up and down on a wave in my flow. Carving my own lines on the wave feels like dancing on water to me. No matter what it looks like to anyone else, I know what it feels like to me and that is the most beautiful feeling.

That feeling, will forever be unexplainable.

This year, we are no longer accepting representation to only be limited to what we're shown. We have to expound our interests to go beyond and visualize our wildest dreams. Women who go against the grain inspire me.

So in essence, I'm inspired by my sea sisters who work to challenge the visual we see on the daily.

To keep up with Chelsea's journey, you may follow her on Instagram @chel.bythe.sea. Also, to learn how you can join the movement, you can visit Textured Waves' website for more information.

Featured image courtesy of Chelsea Woody

Originally published February 4, 2020

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