She didn't see any curvy women surfing. She started a movement to prove 'body sizes are not limiting factors in our ability to achieve greatness.'
"Whatever body that each of us has right now, it's the vessel that we get to go and explore the natural world and the whole universe with," Elizabeth Sneed says.
It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Elizabeth Sneed was 26 years old and the heaviest she's ever been when she moved to Honolulu, Hawaii with the dream of becoming a surfer. While she imagined herself hopping up on the board and riding the waves, she had difficulty picturing herself in the water because of the lack of female surfers who looked like her. With Curvy Surfer Girl, she's working to change that.
The social media movement and self-given nickname was born in 2020 after Sneed had already spent a few years honing her skills at Ohana Surf Project. The Texas native felt insecure as one of the older novices surrounded by those who grew up surfing. She also was the biggest.
"It made me feel really inadequate. It made me feel bad about myself. ... You're questioning your own capabilities as an athlete because of your size because it doesn't meet those traditional narratives," she continues, referring to the belief that "fat people, overweight people, curvy, plus-size, whatever you want to call it," aren't performance athletes. "You just are implanted with this idea that once you have a certain body type, you no longer do those things. Those are not for you. And for you to rejoin the acceptable masses, you need to look like this to do it."
Sneed, who gained weight as a result of an autoimmune condition that she was diagnosed with at 21, says that she spent the five years prior to her Hawaii move adjusting to the experience of being an athlete in a bigger body.
"I accepted that role as like, the heavy girl in my martial arts class, the heavy girl in the gym, the heavy girl that was trying to learn to do different physical activities. I just had gotten used to being the 'big girl' in a group," she explains. "My will to keep going was that I was passionate about these activities, and I wanted to do them. And I wanted to be, you know, in those spaces, challenging my mind and my body to do really amazing things."
The biggest difference from her experiences growing up as a five-sport athlete in a straight-size body, however, was the lack of community that she felt as a plus-size woman attempting the same physical feats.
"You're just never really given words of encouragement and empowerment when you're in a curvy or plus-size body trying to do athletic things," she says. "You can get people from the outside saying, 'Maybe this isn't for you, maybe you should try something else. Or maybe you should come back when you lose weight.'"
Nevertheless, Sneed was determined to create the space where surfers of all ages, sizes and skill levels felt comfortable, confident and uplifted, knowing what impact that would have on her own self-confidence. That meant putting herself out there first and recognizing the mission of her surfing journey.
"Curvy Surfer Girl was a moment of proclamation. It was me finally accepting that my sole purpose within an athletic space will no longer be the pursuit of losing weight. It is the acceptance of who I am, where I am right now. Good, bad, and everything in between. It is the raw authenticity that is representative of me in this space and time. And it really and truly was very liberating," she says.
Sneed's social media platform, where she uses the handle Curvy Surfer Girl, became grounds for documenting her personal victories, failures and everything in between when it came to surfing. She's built an audience of over 250,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok combined of people who feel inspired and represented by her journey.
"We have a group of women that feel less alone and less isolated in something that they also may love. So it was really a huge transformational moment in my life and it continues to be each and every day that I have the privilege and the gift to have this community and curate it in a loving, supportive, compassionate, empowering way," she shares. "Showing the female form doing really difficult things in a non-traditional body. And I think that it's paving the way for more athletic spaces to replicate that experience and show that our body sizes are not limiting factors in our ability to achieve greatness."
That ripple effect is most important when it comes to recognizing how the lack of representation of athletes in bigger bodies has led to a lack of equipment that allows them to pursue a specific sport.
"Getting to a point where we have access to the tools that we need to pursue surfing, like inclusive swimwear, wetsuits and even the equipment, the surfboards and the surf shops, you know. Coming to an understanding that women in this demographic haven't had access to this because of beauty standards and myths that women above a certain size can't surf," Sneed says.
Her launch of the Curvy Surfer Girl active swimwear collection with JOLYN is a direct reflection of that. It features 15 pieces in sizes XS-4X as the most expansive collection of plus active swim to date, providing access to functional and fashionable swimwear to some for the very first time.
"I just thought how magical it would be to have a cute swimsuit and get to be like the other surfer girls in the lineup, and how special that would be in a larger body," she explains. "I want women in plus-size bodies to feel seen and heard when they go to the beach."
And while her mission is to serve others by creating a space for inclusion and joy, there's no denying that she's also healed herself through her Curvy Surfer Girl journey.
"I know that four years ago, if I had access to that, it really would have helped my self-esteem and my confidence and my sense of belonging in the surfing community," she says. "Whatever body that each of us has right now, it's the vessel that we get to go and explore the natural world and the whole universe with. Surfing taught me that."
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.