The Fat Girl's Guide to Surfing
Posted by Angela in Sports + Recreation
Surf Diva Co-Founder Izzy Tihanyi doing what she does best

There's a group of vacationers who book cabins every July at the same Lake Huron resort where my family and friends spend the week. We call them "Extreme Family." The Extremes don't believe in our brand of lazy and relaxing vacation, a carefully crafted mixture of swimming, sunning, volleyballing, grilling, drinking, and playing every card and board game you can name. Instead, they prefer to remain in sporty motion every possible second. They are led by a board shorts-clad matriarch whom we watched wind-surfing daily while eight months pregnant with her daughter (a child we later dubbed "Extreme Baby"). If the kids in our group build sand castles, The Extremes pitch a tent and 14 high-flying "extreme" kites on the beach. If our group rents a jet-ski, The Extremes will no doubt begin water skiing in pyramid formation. That's the way it is with The Extremes -- they do all of the things that seem impossible or impractical to do.

I share the story of Extreme Family not just because it amuses me (although, let's be honest -- it totally does), but because it perfectly captures my attitude and assumptions about activities like surfing. Surfing has always seemed "extreme" to me: exotic, implausible, unrealistic--especially for an overweight Midwesterner like myself. "I/we don't surf," I thought. "Only super-fit daredevils like The Extremes take up sports like that."

It took just one phone call with Izzy Tihanyi, co-founder of Surf Diva Surf School for women, to shatter that myth for me. An instructor and competitive surfer, Tihanyi and twin sister, Coco (the "Diva" counterpart to Izzy's "Surf"), established San Diego, CA-based Surf Diva in 1996 to introduce women of all ages to the sport in a fun and encouraging environment. Thanks to Tihanyi, I learned (and now you readers will, too!) that fat chicks "abso-lutely" can surf, and that this sport is more accessible than some of us may think.

How does being overweight affect a woman's ability to surf?

Turns out there are both challenges and benefits to being a bigger girl with a surfing jones. On the plus side of being plus-sized, Tihanyi says, "You stay a lot warmer in the water; you don’t get as cold because you have your own personal insulation. I’ve noticed I can stay in the water longer than most of the guys out there who have 6% body fat." Tihanyi takes me back to the days of science class in referencing water-dwelling animals whose biology maintains a layer of fat beneath their skin for warmth. Like seals and walruses, she says, "I’m more suited to surviving in the ocean."

And once you're standing on the board, neither your weight nor your weight distribution (top heavy vs. pear shaped, etc.) affects your buoyancy or ability to ride the waves. As long as you have the strength and stamina to paddle and manage your board in the water, what your weight affects more than anything is your pop-up. Also called a "pop," this is the maneuver that takes you from your belly to your feet on the surfboard, and it's a challenging one to master at any weight because it requires considerable strength and flexibility. Imagine an explosive push-up that requires gripping the sides ("rails") of your board and using your arms to press your torso up while you simultaneously pulling your knee under you and sliding it up toward your chest.

"That's kind of a hard maneuver," Tihanyi agrees, before talking me through the "Izzy Twist," a pop-up modification she invented for use by her "more voluptuous students." Rather than sliding the knee straight up toward your chest, the Izzy Twist involves opening your knee to the side so it can go around your belly or chest or any other generously proportioned area that's in the way. Tihanyi explains the maneuver to me three times (even suggesting I visualize it by getting into push-up stance on the floor) before suggesting I check out the full description in her book, Surf Diva: A Girl's Guide to Getting Good Waves, which she co-authored with sister Coco.

If you don’t feel comfortable attempting a pop-up because of your size, flexibility, joint issues, or any other reason, there are still exciting ways to ride the waves. Tihanyi suggests trying stand up paddle boarding (SUP), a sport that emerged from Hawaii and involves (you guessed it) standing and paddling on a huge, 12-foot board. The board's extended length, combined with the use of the paddle, make it more stable than either a shortboard or a longboard. “Imagine being in a kayak but you’re standing up!” Tihanyi explains. “You can paddle [out] on flat water, so you’re not popping up, and you can do it no matter what size you are.” As an added benefit, stand-up paddle boarding can be done on lakes and rivers, making it even more accessible for landlocked or otherwise ocean-less girls.

The bottom line, according to Tihanyi: "You can surf in the ocean no matter what your weight is. You can lay on a board, you can paddle and you can catch waves. The only difference is you’re going to need a bigger board."

Gear for the plus-size surfer girl

Because proper board size varies by an individual's height and weight, it's important to select the right board for maximum possible flotation. Board lengths begin at six feet (these shortboards are used by "rippers," advanced-level surfers who chase the more dangerous rip tides), but beginners should start with the smoother, more graceful longboard. To that end, Tihanyi recommends big girls choose a board at least 10 feet long and three and a half inches thick. At 5'7 and a size 18, Tihanyi has found her ideal board length to be 9'6. Once you're set for a board, she says, "it's really important to find the right wetsuit. And that, my girls, is tricky."

Wetsuits are designed to cling like a second skin (and you thought wrestling your Spanx made you crazy!), but they're also designed to insulate and retain body heat, while protecting you from the effects of colder water, winds and, in some cases, sunburn. "I wear a men’s extra-large, and I've found that fits me better than a women’s 18," Tihanyi says. "[Surf Diva] carries sizes up to a men's 3x. We've fitted wetsuits on women up to about a size 26, and the men's 3X tends to fit them. Most men's wetsuits go up to size 3X or larger. I’ve never found a women’s wetsuit past a size 18."

Fortunately, this is where FGG comes in handy, because we did locate ladies' wetsuits in extended sizes. Sea Dreams offers fashionable wetsuits for women of all shapes, including a full-length wetsuit in sizes up to 26. We also spotted a pink & black shorty suit in sizes to 4X (comparable to a 22/24) available online at TommyDSports.

If you go the men's suit route, keep in mind that the arms and legs will likely be too long. Roll them up if it's a rental, or consider having the suit tailored (yes, it's possible, though you'll need to locate a professional in your area) if it's your own. And if you're between sizes, always go up a size because of the suit's close-fitting nature.

Surfing skill doesn't depend on your size

“It really depends on your flexibility, body strength and core strength,” Tihanyi says, going on to describe an experience with two her recent students – one much lighter and leaner than the other. Although many people guessed by appearance that the thinner man would be more successful, she says, “The heavier guy tore it up while the skinnier dude couldn't stay on the board. The bigger guy was all core strength – if you have a lot of core strength, you can surf remarkably well.”

To excel as a surfer of any size, Tihanyi recommends training your body by adding both flexibility and strength. Yoga, stretching or Pilates are all great for developing the fluidity you’ll need to move with your board in the water. (There are even surfing-specific yoga workouts you can use for training.) Beyond that, Tihanyi says, “Get in the pool and do some laps. Swimming is all upper body strength, which you’ll need for paddling the board.” In addition, the cardio will make a big difference when you need stamina out in the water.

Resources for beginning surfers

While there are plenty of books, Web sites and Youtube videos out there to teach jargon or demonstrate certain techniques, Tihanyi strongly recommends classes for the brand-new surfer. “You’ll learn faster and have more fun, and you won’t give up,” she says, along with stressing the importance of informing the school ahead of time if you have special needs. “We have plus-size surf instructors [at Surf Diva], and we’re very fat-friendly.”

Tihanyi's own Surf Diva book includes photos of surfing women who encompass all ages, sizes and experience levels. The idea is to make the sport relatable, Tihanyi says. “It demystifies surfing and takes away fears. It acknowledges that, yeah, you can be afraid of [surfing] if it’s new, but that’s something that we can overcome together.”

While Surf Diva specializes in classes for women, you can take surfing lessons -- everything from one-day classes to extended camps -- almost anywhere there's coastline and surf-friendly conditions. A quick Google search of "surf lessons" and your preferred city/state/country will yield tons of options, or you can try an aggregate site like As always, word of mouth and a close reading of online reviews are savvy ways to help ensure a positive experience.

Be the "best surfer in the water"

“I call surfing ‘the lifetime achievement sport,’” Tihanyi says. “Keep it fun, don’t make it competitive. Don’t try to compare yourself to anyone else. Surfing’s not a team sport, it’s an individual sport – so it’s just about you having fun. One of my favorite students was from Oregon. It’s hard to estimate weight, but I’d guess she weighed over three hundred pounds. And she had the best attitude. Our motto at Surf Diva is: 'The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun.' And by that motto, she absolutely rocked it. She was catching waves in – she caught some of them on her knees – and we all cheered her on. She was an amazing woman and I hope she’s still surfing today.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Tihanyi shares some advice that resonates big time with our own FGG mission: “Don’t wait until you feel like you’re ‘strong enough.' The more you surf, the better shape you’ll be in and the better you’ll feel. Don’t wait until you’re ‘thin enough.’” I can practically hear the surf pounding in the background as Tihanyi gets philosophical: “You’re in the ocean . . . and you’re in water . . . and you’re in nature  . . . and the sun is out . . . and that, in itself, is beautiful. And that’s all that matters.”

Phrased that way, the whole idea of fat girls surfing doesn’t seem so extreme after all.

Girls, share your surfing (or other "extreme" activities) with us - did trying something that felt daring change your perception of yourself in any way? Has this Guide changed your attitudes about activities that seem out of your reach? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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