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Lauren Hill leans into the depth
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“Play gives us freedom to get outside of our normal routines and imagine new possibilities of how the world might be.”
Conversations
7 June 2018

Lauren Hill leans into the depth

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Tammie Joske

Berry Liberman on Lauren Hill

Some people you can know for a lifetime and they have little impact, others enter it for a moment and the lessons come thick and fast.

Within the first hour of meeting Lauren Hill, I was deeply moved by her ideas around meaningful play, leaning into depth when faced with challenges (“surface chop” in surfing parlance) and spaciousness as a quality for living. These ideas are not merely a philosophical approach, but a lived experience. Her views on spaciousness in particular opened up my mind to a way of being in the world that isn’t pursued by agendas, lists, dos and don’ts.

Spaciousness invites breath and movement, presence of body and mind, connection to oneself and others. It also invites silence—the good kind.  The kind that echoes through your bones, brings perspective and clarity, and makes you grateful for the day.

Lauren is, among many things, a feminist surfer. Despite embodying the ideal surfer girl image, her passion is to highlight the authentic stories told outside of the narrow, hyper-sexualised and competitive realm of women’s surfing. Unable to ignore the environmental degradation her beloved sport imposes on the coastline, nor the sexism defining her place in it, Lauren brings a fierce intellect to a felt experience. She has been compelled to use her platform to change the status quo, and sees her role as pushing the boundaries of what is revered, what is sacred and what it is to surf.

Raised in Florida by a single mother, Lauren’s childhood was spent training in gymnastics at the local gym while her mum worked long hours. The pull of the surf came in the form of a powerful dream she had as a teenager. Within months, she was in local surf competitions, at first enjoying the thrill of her achievements, but then finding herself uneasy with the commercial circuit and the paradoxically rigid stereotypes that came with it.

Unsure how else to support herself as a surfer, Lauren took a break from the ocean to study environmental and social sciences. She graduated from college during the financial crisis, leaving her without any job prospects—a crisis which proved to be a major opportunity. Lauren returned to the water, and, as an outlet for self-expression, began her blog “The Sea Kin” through which she shared often-excluded perspectives on community, equality and activism in surfing. She found a hungry audience. This dual role, of surfer and commentator, brought Lauren back to the attention of the big brands.

There is a deep wisdom inside surfing culture if you know where to look. For Lauren and her partner Dave, the lessons they have learned from the ocean are constant and deeply nourishing. In her own wise words: “maybe the fall you’ve experienced on one wave is going to set you up to be better on the next wave or 50 waves from now.” It’s a reminder that when we engage in a conversation with nature, and truly listen, it can teach us everything we need to know about being human.

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: So what’s a normal day for you guys?

LAUREN HILL: Well, I guess the ideal day is to wake up, have a stretch, go for a surf. Preferably ride a shorter board ’cause the wind is typically from the west in the morning. And then, yeah, have a nice spacious surf, come home, pick some veggies from the garden, make a little stir-fry, then get into some reading or writing or gardening. Dave’s been building a bridge and I’ve been helping him paint it. So we’ll do work around the farm.

What’s a “spacious surf”?

Not feeling rushed. That’s one of my favourite experiences—to not feel like you have to be anywhere in particular.

Surfing can feel rushed?

Oh totally. I mean, we’ve all got things we have to do. Deadlines to meet and places to go. But it’s nice to set aside time where you don’t have to be thinking about deadlines. It’s a distinctly different feeling surfing when you’ve got deadlines or things to do, as opposed to going, “Gosh, the tide is coming in and the wind just switched and the conditions are aligning perfectly and I get to stay.”

When we met you introduced me to the concept of meaningful play. Can you talk about that?

It’s space that lets you explore your creative potential, that gets you out of your mind for some period of time and into your body and your senses, a space that allows you to connect to the world  in a different way. I think surfing is the best example for me. It certainly may not be meaningful play for some people [laughs]. But surfing puts me back into my body and allows me to connect to the elements.

It’s interesting to be having this conversation with you now because I’ve been having a lot of back trouble.

Oh.

And yesterday I had an injection in my back. I’ve had no mobility and quite a lot of pain. And it made me wonder, because you seem so strong and sure on the water, have you always felt at ease with your body?

I think it’s something that I developed. I was a gymnast when I was a child so that had a lot to do with it. Right next to my school there was a gym and Mum was a single working mum so I would walk over and spend three or four hours there every day after school. And I’ve always been so grateful for that because it set me up to feel really connected to my body. And to develop a sense of balance and spatial awareness which, you know, with my limbs especially, is so important in gymnastics. And then that fed into surfing.

Did you have an awkward phase?

[Laughs] oh my gosh, definitely. I was never especially good at gymnastics. But the training helped. I mean, gymnastics and surfing are both infinitely humbling because you’re always going to fall.  Like, no matter how good you are, you’re going to go down. You’re going to be not so graceful sometimes!

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

Falling is the great democratising force.

And what makes you get back up?

The joy of it. As I progressed, surfing started to become very competitive and  so it lost a lot of joy for me—because it was so structured and rigid to the point where I was just acting out these set routines time and again. It should be the opposite. No two waves are the same so it’s really about adaptability and intuition. And that makes you want to get up a million times more, because every time’s going to be different. And maybe the fall that you’ve experienced on one wave is going to set you up to make the next wave, or 50 waves from now.

I think being raised by a single working mum must have taught you about resilience and getting back up as well.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I started surfing when  I was 14 so I wasn’t especially reflective about how difficult things were for Mum working three jobs and trying to provide for me. [Sighs] being a single mum seems like the most difficult job in the world—especially emotionally.

And she was able to get on with life after so many radical challenges, from abusive boyfriends to losing jobs and not having a stable partner to lean on. I’m totally in awe of her strength. And it’s definitely been a subconscious motivator to keep getting up and trying. And to know the challenges that I’m experiencing are nothing compared to what she went through, and is still going through, trying to find her sense of self.

Wow. It’s quite different to the partnership you’re in with Dave, where you guys deeply share the same values and the same love.

Which situates me in deep gratitude pretty much every day. I really didn’t get to see any relationships that I would call “successful” growing up. And to experience one now every day is the greatest gift. It’s so much fun to experience male sweetness and kindness and gentleness. It’s one of the great discoveries of my adult life, honestly.

Every time I meet a sweet man I just want to thank him! For choosing that direction!

To be with someone who’s respectful and loving and who shares their feelings is hard to take for granted. Because I never saw that and Mum hasn’t experienced that. And so I feel like I have to experience it for both of us.

I think as children we have  an opportunity to unravel some of the issues that we’d watched our parents face.  And we have the opportunity to heal them and to live them a better way. It definitely feels like that’s one of my roles as the child of my mum—and Dad too. To just do better at the end of the day.

Who were your role models? Where did you look to build a life that wasn’t repeating the same patterns you saw growing up?

Well, I’m an only child, so I guess I had a lot of time on my hands. And somehow I ended up using  that time in less than destructive ways. I’m not sure why. Mark that up to luck! But rock ‘n’ roll music was a big part of it. Listening to The Beatles was a huge part of it.

Talking about love and getting into poetry from an early age—poets like Kahlil Gibran. And then my peers who were really smart, engaged, active people interested in politics and questioning dominant paradigms. I was lucky to fall into a friend group that was clever I guess.

You were 14 when you started surfing. Did you have surfing in your childhood before that? How did you get into the water?

Dad was a surfer. He grew up travelling a bit. Japan, France.  And they ended up in Hawaii when he was in high school and he got really into surfing there. And then when they moved back to Florida he continued surfing. He didn’t surf into his adulthood really, but we always had surfboards around. And we always lived within walking distance of the beach. So the beach was a huge part of my childhood, just like playing in tide pools and digging in the sand and feeling the sea breeze in the afternoon. It was only a matter of time before I tried it. But the real motivator for me was when I started having dreams about surfing.

Wow!

Yeah, I was about 14. And I just had this dream about flying down the face of a wave. And it felt so right I just knew I had to try. So I borrowed a board from one of my friends and he pushed me into my first wave. And then I knew that was what I was supposed to be doing. It was just really clear.

Were you adept on the board quickly?

Pretty quickly. Being a gymnast on a balance beam you have four inches to work with and with the long board you have, like, 18 inches to work with! It’s not as easy because you have the movement of the ocean underneath you. But yeah, I took to it really easily. I ended up doing my first competition six months later.

You’re like a water goddess!

[Laughs] no, I think I just had good preparation.

And so you spent quite a bit of time in the water, you started competing. What happened next?

I picked up sponsors. And then I got to my senior year in high school and my sponsor at the time proposed I go on a world tour with some of the best women long-boarders. So I had to make a decision about whether I would pursue professional surfing or go to university. And I sat with my parents and the principal of my school and they were all really clear about what I needed to do: go to university and give up this silly surfing idea. So I did. I studied environmental science and social science, ended up doing two degrees because I was having so much fun.

Oh, so you loved it? You didn’t feel bereft at the loss of surfing?

Not at all! No! Going to university was 100 percent my decision.

I’ve always been a very curious person and university isn’t for everyone, but I really love the experience within a learning community.

I adored it. I’ve nothing but wonderful things to say, despite it being an institution and there being lots of agendas being pushed in different ways. I made best friends with my professors. And I was lucky that I went to a small liberal arts university in the States because there’s so much freedom to really construct your own path of study there.

And were you surfing in your spare time? Or that was out of your life then?

I was surfing some. Not a lot. I was the furthest that I’d ever lived from the ocean at that time—30 minutes, and promised myself that I would never live that far away again! The space away from surfing actually inspired me to want to study surfing, I still wanted to engage with the surfing world. And so I wrote my thesis on surf culture and how it can be seen as environmentally destructive.

How can surfing be seen as environmentally destructive?

Well, in terms of our travel habits. Flying across the world to surf destinations. And then the impacts on local ecologies and economies when we start setting up surf ghettos. Bali’s a great example. Costa Rica’s kind of like the equivalent of Bali, where Westerners move in and bring our ideas about economy and how things should be developed and needing certain conveniences.

And then there’s surfboards themselves which are made of petroleum products. And this multi-billion-dollar surfing industry which makes all kinds of things that get sold all over the world. One of the tenets of my thesis was about gender discrimination within surfing and how that can be seen as a kind of environmental degradation too.

You’ve described yourself as a feminist surfer.

Absolutely. Hundred percent.

What does that mean?

Well, that I’ve grown up in this culture that revolves around the standards that men have set for and about themselves. And I’m really keen to see balance there. I think femininity and women haven’t been valued within the realm of surfing culture for a long time.

What would it look like if women were valued in surfing?

Just having other perspectives is the major thing. We have this surf culture that’s hyper masculine, values really aggressive approaches to riding waves. And women’s approaches to riding waves tend to be different to that, for better or worse. I’m just making generalisations here, but there’s a lot that women can bring to surfing—about cooperation and community and coexisting with each other and with non-human creatures in the water. Men can do those things too, but the dominant paradigm within surfing has been driven by the obsessions of male youth.

And how does ageing appear in surfing culture? I mean, you’re photographed all the time. And the idea of ageing, as a woman, can be a minefield. Complicated and slightly tortuous.

Yes. It absolutely is. One of the problems with surfing culture right now is that there hasn’t been any space made for women. And I mean “women,” not just girls. “Professional women’s” surfing is really professional girls’ surfing. The oldest woman on tour probably isn’t older than 25.

Wow.

It’s very rare to hear of women over the age of 30—or a woman’s voice in surf media anywhere. I didn’t grow up with any female surfer role models. But what I love about living in Byron is that there are women of all ages—grandmas still out surfing. And I think that’s so important: to be part of a womanhood throughout our lives.

In the culture that I’m immersed in, I feel like womanhood is now so defined by consumerism and looks and all these things that don’t necessarily put us back into our bodies and situate us within our sensory experiences of the world.

Surfing is such a great tool for that. To see women staying active and ageing gracefully and joyously is so wonderful. There’s hardly anything more inspiring than seeing elders still engaged and curious about the world. It’s such a different model to what I saw, watching my grandmother on a steady decline.

She would look after me sometimes when Mum was working during the summertime. And she would watch TV all day or sit in a chair, occasionally get up to make food. And she was a beauty queen—a beautiful, capable, amazing woman who just didn’t have an idea of what womanhood could be outside of the domestic.

Yeah, and maybe also outside of being young and beautiful.

Absolutely! She was so tied to being defined by beauty, maybe she didn’t really get her feet back on the ground after that started to change.

I know you’ve been thinking about becoming a mother. How do you imagine balancing parenting with pro-surfing?

Oh gosh. There’s not really much of a precedent in that realm for women. For men, parenthood can be a great accessory. You have the family man pro-surfer who’s defined by his willingness to help out with the family when he’s not travelling the world surfing. But that’s never really been the case for women in surfing, at least practically, because what it means to be a woman surfer is so defined by looks—a very specific look. And it definitely doesn’t include a pregnant belly.

Hah!

[Laughs] so it will be a really interesting transition. And I’m excited to stretch the boundaries of what’s possible! There’s a few women—Belinda Baggs, really beautiful long-boarder who’s continued her professional surfing career after having her son. Bethany Hamilton, the very famous shark bite survivor. She lost an arm at 13. And she’s just had a baby—I think she’s 24—and back into competing now. So it’s a really exciting time to be a woman surfer because slowly the edges are expanding. I’m hoping that I’ll get to be part of that. And the beach becomes a great teacher for our child and children if we’re so lucky.

What gives me such great confidence is that Dave envisions a parenthood that’s equally engaged by mother and father. It gives us so much more freedom to expand outside of our gender roles too. It gets us out of the box of having to be extreme opposites of each other and fulfil set roles.

I never thought about it like that. It’s like the most inspiring and the hardest thing for us is making choices that are different to what’s been prescribed for generations.

And play is so essential in that. I love the idea of “neoteny,” an evolutionary characteristic that we have, and dolphins and dogs have, and probably lots of other species. It’s the retention of child-like or juvenile-like characteristics into adulthood. And it’s been a major part of our evolution. It’s basically saying that we’re hardwired to play because play allows us to be more adaptable. Because when we’re stagnant and rigid, we’re unchanging and not able to adapt easily.

Play gives us freedom to get outside of our normal routines and imagine new possibilities of how the world might be.

I love that. What’s the legacy that you want to create? Especially with your profile and your unique place in this sport.

I really want to create a space for women’s perspectives within surf culture. Not just through imagery and surf magazines. I want to encourage more women to tell their stories. To write about them, photograph them, paint them. To express themselves in whatever way makes them feel joyous—and to put that out into the world. I think something like 70 percent of media is made by men.

So that’s reflecting a particular view of the world back to us. And the more women’s perspectives, ideas and dreams go out into the world, the more other women and girls get to see that. The surf culture is such a sword-fight! There are all these men and boys who have created this culture and they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing. They’re not going to change just because we feel like we need to be included.

I mean having female consumers is a big part of the bottom line now, but that’s not going to change the dominant patriarchal direction of surfing. What is going to change is when the grassroots of women’s surfing starts to tell its own stories and we become our own mirrors for ourselves. And then there are so many of us telling our stories that it’s impossible to not include women in dominant media streams within surfing.

Yeah! Amazing. I just realised we’ve missed an important piece of your story. How did you get back into surfing after university?

So I was turning 22 when I graduated from university. And I’m graduating with the global financial crisis. It’s all going down [laughs]. I’ve got this idea that I want to go out into the world and do environmental work. So I’m applying to NGOs and conservation organisations and governmental organisations all over the country: New York, San Francisco, Washington DC.

[Laughs].

And I’m filling out application after application and don’t get a single call back. Not one. Not an interview. Which is not encouraging at all. So I move back in with my mum and at that time I’ve got a considerable amount of student debt to pay off. In the States you start accruing interest on your loans after the first year of graduating. So my goal straight away was to not pay those companies one cent of interest.

So I started working menial jobs and realised that what I really wanted to do was surf. Because I’ve had this four-year gap away from having my life guided by tides and weather conditions. And so between these menial jobs I’m so joyous because I get time to surf every day, and I get time to sit and ask myself, “What do I really want to do? What’s the most dreamy thing that I can imagine?” And I’m like, “I want to combine my environmental science and social science background with surfing.”

So I started a blog, writing about the intersections of feminism, environmentalism and surf culture. And that’s what I did at night. I looked for other people doing similar things and wrote about them and my own experiences. And I started getting writing jobs from that. And eventually some companies reached out to me, which led me down the path to being a sponsored surfer again. I think I was 24, which is really late in the game. And it was completely unexpected. It was about having something different to offer a company outside of being a blonde surfer girl.

You are a blonde surfer girl though! Can we please put that on the table? [Laughs].

It’s true [laughs]. It’s hard to break stereotypes when you fit them! In the same way that I’ve had to come to terms with being a feminist and love cooking. It’s really fun!

And I can be a feminist and I can be a blonde surfer girl who likes to wear bikinis but doesn’t want to be valued only for said bikini body.

The last time we spoke I was talking about  some big existential difficulty. And you said,  “When things get choppy, you just have  to lean into the depth.” I loved that.

Yeah. Surfing is magnificent for metaphors.  I’ve been doing these workshops with women and surfing, we call them “Women’s Earth Wisdom and Adventure Retreats.”

Oh my God I’m coming!

Laughs] that’d be amazing! They’re so much fun, and so many of the women that come have a great fear of the ocean. But when we intellectualise the fear, we see it’s an irrational fear around going under. And then you do something simple like open your eyes underwater when there’s the tumultuousness of the chop and the white water going on above. And you can clearly see this column of calm underneath, which is just this beautiful metaphor for everyday life and creating that space within ourselves to sink beneath the chop and all the other stuff is just happening on the surface. If we dive a bit deeper and sink into the calm, we find one of our greatest resources.

Wow, it took me 10 years of therapy to figure that out! [Laughs].

 [Laughs].

You know, from the outside your life looks pretty idyllic.  Does it feel like that to you? I mean, when have you struggled?

One of the things I struggle with constantly is self-doubt—questioning why I have these opportunities to engage with media and to say things. That voice inevitably creeps up: “Who cares? Why is anyone going to listen to you? It’s already been said a hundred times, why say it again?” Just the doubt. Major challenge.

Well what do you do with that? How do you get back to centre?

I remember that it’s not about me. I try to connect to all of the women that have come before me that deserved a voice but didn’t have one. And I try to stand up for them. So much of the culture that I’m in is narcissistic. But when you step back and make it not about yourself, there’s so much less pressure! So many more stories to engage with, so much strength to draw upon when you can pull in your foremothers.

When you can recognise your common humanity, across people and time, yeah.

Another big challenge for me, and I haven’t really spoken about it much, was having an abortion a couple of years ago.

Right.

The decision really came down to making it not about myself in a way. I mean, as I said before, it’s kind of relatively uncharted territory to be a mother and a pro-surfer. And so I felt at that point I’d worked so hard to get to where I was and to go through with parenthood would be giving it all away. It felt like a really distinct choice between motherhood and my career. And I was and still am so committed to pulling more women into this world while I can, and so for me a big part of choosing to go through with the abortion was to continue getting to work in the way that I’ve always wanted to in surfing culture.

And how have you felt about it as you’ve reflected over the years?

I feel really strongly that it was the right decision for the time.

It’s such an incredible privilege and right—family planning—that as a person and family you decide what you’re capable of. That’s what we’re fighting for: the ability for people to make the right decisions for themselves.

Yeah. And it was such an empowering experience, especially to think historically about all the women whose lives have been determined largely by outside forces, and not being able to make the ultimate decision on their reproductive lives. So I felt really strongly like it was the right decision for me.

But it also felt like a great stand to be a woman and take control. And to consult with my partner and make a decision that really made sense.

Together. Yeah, that’s incredibly lucky. [Pause]. I’ve had an abortion too.

Okay. It still feels quite taboo. I don’t know if it’s because I’m from the South and there are billboards on the highway in Florida that practically say, “Abortion is a sin.”

Well, there’s religious fanaticism and conservatism all over the world. When Dan and I decided, we decided together. It was an incredibly challenging and confronting decision to make among many other challenging and confronting decisions in life. But we decided as a family what was best for us and for me, and we were all on board.

And I felt so empowered and held and loved by my community when I made the decision. My doctor was amazing and super supportive. And it was like, “Fuck yeah! Women get to choose!” And that’s what all of these battles have been fought for, so that we are not prisoners to external forces and false morality.

You know? So I don’t go by anyone else’s moral highway [laughs].

Yeah. Thank you for that! Me either! [Laughs].

I think part of your role and my role is to speak, to tell these stories. I was like, Whoa! We’re talking about this! Do I talk about mine? Because if you’re going to talk about it, I’m not going to leave you out there on a fucking limb! I’m going to talk about mine!

And that’s part of the problem with so many issues that get called “women’s issues”—they’re so shamed and kept in the dark. And so we’re afraid to talk about them. And because we don’t talk about them we all end up in the dark feeling isolated and alone. Really these are opportunities to have meaningful conversations with each other, to turn on the light and see that this is our common story and we’re working for the same thing.

Yeah. It’s incredible. I don’t even know how to segue but I will ask a question about Dave now!

Okay!

He’s such a humble, gentle, beautiful man. And I know it’s hard for him to talk about, but what do you think is his greatest contribution?

Wow. There are so many! One of his greatest contributions to the surfing world is the elevation of non-competitive surfing, of free surfing. And really redefining what it means to be a surfer. And deeply entwining the definition with a connection to marine ecosystems, caring for those ecosystems, and making activism an essential part of surfing life. Because there weren’t any other globally-recognised public figures in free surfing before him.

He was brave enough to ask his sponsor if they would support him without surfing competitions. A lot of people make the assumption that his life is just easy. He has no structure because he’s a free surfer. It’s all waves and rainbows and puppy dogs. But he’s always had to work for those opportunities. And that involves constantly reinventing yourself and committing to projects and possibilities and ideas outside of the scope of what’s considered normal within surfing. Which involves risk. And Dave’s taken a lot of risks. That’s part of his legacy.

You sound inspired.

I am! Oh my gosh! He inspires me every day. I guess everyone says that about their partner, but you know, those early dreams I had about surfing really gave me a strong sense of the power of dreams and the importance of believing in dreams. And I think Dave was the first person I met who believes in dreams as strongly as I do. And so we get to reinforce each other’s ability to dream, to encourage each other to keep growing and experimenting. And playing.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Tammie Joske

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