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Lauren Hill Talks About Her New Book 'She Surf' and Making Women's Stories Central

The author in her happiest of places. Photo: Nathan Oldfield


The Inertia

If you ever wanted to learn about the history of water women, how they integrated themselves into a male-dominated sport and worked their way up to equal pay and equal stops on the WCT, where would you start? There hasn’t really been a collective place for these stories – “sheroes” that have ridden the waves of activism to prove their unique connection and movement with the ocean…until now. Lauren Hill, professional freesurfer and writer, tackled decades of history to answer this question with her newly-released book, She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing. I spoke with Hill about the process, the parts she couldn’t fit in, and her plans for the future.

Your work has been described as ‘eco-feminist.’ What does this word mean to you?

My feeling is that the same systems and ideologies that allow us to trash our home planet also allow us to treat people who seem different to us, like trash. The prevailing white, Western, colonial approach has been one of domination and separation. We have so much to learn from indigenous cultures who managed to live, work and play for thousands, or tens of thousands of years, and not desecrate their homelands or waters. It’s not that they were perfect, but they did a much better job than we have in terms of ecological management and impact.

For me, eco-feminism is a way of connecting the dots between different kinds of pollution that need cleaning up; whether the physical pollution of plastic on our beaches or the social “pollution” of sexism or racism. Eco-feminism is very similar to the newer iteration of intersectional environmentalism, in that it considers the intersections of differences that shape us and also shape how we interact with the living world.

We need alternative stories and histories to rebuild what is no longer working, and I hope that the book, perhaps only in tiny ways, can speak to and empower others to share their own surfing stories and approaches as an alternative to the homogenous narrative we’ve inherited.

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You cover 26 females in this book. If you could sit down with one of the original trailblazers that you didn’t get to interview, who would it be?

I’d definitely choose to go surfing with Princess Ka’iulani and watch her ride an olo in person. I’ve been on an olo once in the water – just long enough to get cleaned up by a set. I can’t emphasize enough how skillful and powerful you have to be to ride those ancient behemoths.

How did you come across some of the women, like Marilyn Monroe and Agatha Christie, who weren’t necessarily associated with surfing? 

I’ve been nerding out on surf history, but especially women’s surfing, for the last two decades. Many of the historical stories were little threads that I’d encountered elsewhere that I felt hadn’t been adequately acknowledged in the larger tapestry of women’s surfing. I knew that I wanted to weave quirky little anecdotes like theirs into the more commonly known “herstories.”

I know certain parts of the book had to be cut and there’s endless people I’m sure you wanted to include. Can you share a person or story that we don’t get to read in She Surf

I started with 130 women’s profiles; the publisher cut me off at 256 pages. Haha. There are SO many women that I didn’t get to include purely because there wasn’t enough space. I definitely want to make clear that this book is in no way comprehensive – it’s just a starting point to acknowledge the importance of women’s perspectives, experiences, and historical contributions to surf culture. We need more, and from other women’s perspectives.

One of my foundational intentions was inclusivity – in shade, shape, ability and nationality. The biggest miss in putting the book together is not having had the chance to include a Black African surfer. South Africa is represented, but that’s the one change I would make in terms of content, as I really wanted to have most major surfing regions represented. We didn’t quite get there. This time. I’d love to put another volume together with some of those stories, and deeper historical dives into other important periods for women’s surfing. And, yes, some of the women will also be guests on Waterpeople to share stories in their own words.

What was your favorite part of collecting these stories? They’ve come from the past 20 years of surfing and 10 years of writing, and were compiled within four months?

I loved the mental stretch of trying to find, or build, connections to weave a more inclusive story. I wanted to include overlooked aspects of women’s surfing lives – motherhood, miscarriage, The Spice Girls, wardrobe malfunctions, or unrealistic beauty standards and grapple with questions like: “How can I share the deep male bias of our surfing culture, that I’ve experienced personally, in a way that is still celebratory of women?” or “How can I reference the trans experience of surfing, even if none of the profiled women identify that way?”

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Most generally: “How can we reimagine the narrative of women’s surfing and sidestep the comparative lens that prevails?” Most of the women profiled are people I know, or have shared water time with, and that I’ve admired for a long time. Several of them I’ve interviewed many times before, so I already had a strong sense of what the story would look like. For those women that I didn’t know, I relied heavily on research. I did the bulk of my writing in about four months, primarily during my two-year-old’s sleeping hours.

I read that you’ve visited every destination in the book except for one – which one is that? And how has your extensive travels played a role in opening you up to so much diversity?

Tofino. I’m Floridian, so I’m not much of a cold-water surfer, but I really look forward to visiting (and surfing) in Tofino one day.

I’ve been incredibly privileged to get to travel and surf for a living. It’s an absurd notion, really, and it’s not at all what I could have imagined my career would look like. My mom worked the same tax office job for 30-something years, and my dad installed sprinkler systems, among other things. They divorced when I was one, and for most of my life they both worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. So I’ve always felt the immense privilege of this surfing life, both the freedom of just riding waves, and, later, the social and economic privilege of moving through the world as a white, blonde woman born amongst the most free generation of women maybe ever in the history of our species.

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In terms of travel, I’ve tried to plug into local communities and social and ecological work in the places I’ve visited. I haven’t always succeeded, but those experiences of making friends, building relationships, and being welcomed into communities is really what made all the travel meaningful.

Is there a surf community or location somewhere in the world that you think is doing it right and properly representing female surfers in the media?

I don’t think there is any one “right way” in terms of representation. Making the space for many ways and making sure women and girls (and boys and men) have authentic choices in how they are represented is most important to me.

There’s been this persistent polarity in representations of female surfers: of either hypersexualzing us or, just for example, critiquing women who choose to wear tiny bikinis for not being good role models, or not being feminist enough, or something. I’m very wary of that policing. Instead of shaming individuals’ decisions, I’d rather be part of making sure there is a healthy diversity of representations of what it can look like to be a female surfer.

I write about Alana Blanchard in a section of the book, because she is a very talented surfer, and also to underscore the point that we should be shaming the system, not the surfers, in terms of representations of female athletes. Another major question of the book is: How do we celebrate the inherent sensuality of women’s surfing without either neutering or objectifying? How do we dance in the middle of that spectrum? There are infinite ways to be a woman, and infinite ways to be a surfer.

Your partner Dave has shared how he’s always been able to see his own reflection in surf culture as a white athletic male. I know that’s a large driver of why you two started Waterpeople – to go beyond those stereotypes and highlight the connections between all of us. Was he involved with the creation of She Surf at all?

There are two males without whom this book could not have been made: my partner Dave and my son Minoa. Dave didn’t read any full pieces of the book until we had the first copy off the press, but he is always the best sounding board and the very best dad. He made the space for me to sleep in if I’d stayed up all night writing, looking after our little guy. He was one hundred percent supportive in all the ways I needed to see this dream through.

Second, and this was totally shocking to me, but motherhood made me SO much more efficient with my time. I really attribute the drive to not just write, but to actually finish this book, to the mama magic that comes with participating in the ultimate creative act… and also just having finite time.

What’s next for you and your family, for the book, for the podcast?

We’re currently creating a regenerative agriculture plot on our land at the moment, so that is a family affair, and enjoying lots of beach time together at our locals. I’m diving into the podcast at the moment. We just launched our first episode of season two of The Waterpeople Podcast, a storytelling session with Gerry Lopez. We have a really exciting season up ahead with folks like Dane Gudauskas, Easkey Britton, Thomas Campbell, and world champ Pauline Menczer, to name a few.

You’ve said that many women interpret their relationship with the ocean as a call to action – which issues are most important to you, and what are some ways to support them?

I think my primary oceanic call to action has been to bring women’s stories, ideas and perspectives more centrally into the conversation about surfing. And I feel like this book is kind of the culmination of the work I’ve been doing for years. Now I’m interested in dissolving the gendered divisions – just including men and women surfing or storytelling side by side – and gathering an inclusive community. That’s a major foundation of our podcast.

Another foundation of the podcast is creating the space to talk about the solutions we already have available to us for the social and environmental crises we are facing as waterpeople. Dave and I both have been deeply inspired by the philosophy of localization – something that we talk about a bit on the podcast.

Supporting local, regenerative farmers, sourcing local power from renewable sources, and using credit-union style community banks all help to keep capital circulating within our communities. This bolsters the local economy while also keeping transport miles low and cutting support from big companies who might be using our money to fund destructive mining, and fracking projects, for example (which big banks are almost always involved in). Basically, we’ve been doing our best to source our staples locally instead of importing them from afar, especially food, power, and money.

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