“You don’t see that many bigger women surfing. I’m physically the biggest one out of all my friends that surf."
Dawn Frisby is just your average woman – a healthy UK size 14 – but there is something that stops her getting in the sea and it has nothing to do with her surfing ability.
The 29 year-old from Bristol started surfing aged 18 and quickly fell in love with the sport. While studying art at the University of Aberystwyth, Dawn became really involved with the surf club and got a job in a local surf shop.
“I was probably a size 12. I didn’t consider myself fat or anything. We had an allowance for our staff uniform – and I couldn’t spend all of mine, because the brands in the shop didn’t make clothes in my size. I was like, oh my goodness, am I really that big? It planted a seed of doubt."
It was the same for wetsuits. “It was a scary introduction to surfing. Instantly I felt like I shouldn’t be doing it, because they didn’t make wetsuits in my size. That was really awful."
Today, big surf brands make clothes and wetsuits up to size 18, but in 2005 that wasn’t the case. Dawn has now developed what she calls ‘the fear of the wetsuit’.
Instantly I felt like I shouldn’t be surfing, because they didn’t make wetsuits in my size. That was really awful…
“When I’m in my wetsuit, I feel very big and exposed – like a seal with blubber on it. Something will stop me getting in the water, like an injury. I’ll get to the point where I’m ready to get back in – and then that fear of the wetsuit will stop me surfing. I even missed out on my own hen party because I couldn’t make myself get into my suit."
Seven years ago, Dawn’s life was turned upside down. She was hit by a car while crossing the road in Aberystwyth. “My poor friend was still on the phone when I got hit – she heard me get run over." She fractured her knee cap and had nerve damage down her right side. It left Dawn on crutches, unable to surf or practice any of the sports she loved for months.
The physical damage eventually subsided, but what shocked Dawn was how long the mental effects lasted. “All my friends were off partying and surfing – I was just left completely shattered. For a long time, I was constantly tired. Depression crept in. I fell into this really icky place."
After a difficult couple of years, Dawn finished her masters at Aberystwyth and went on a month long surf trip to Bali. “I was supposed to surf, but all I did was paddle out and cry into my board every day. I just needed this huge release."
She came back to the UK and got a job in London working with a major action sports brand. “For two years I tried to be someone that I wasn’t. Physically I was in good shape – going to the gym, swimming, wakeboarding – but mentally I reached a real low point. I got to the point where I thought to myself, I just can’t do this anymore."
So she quit her job in London and made her way to North Devon. “I literally turned up in Woolacombe with a suitcase and nothing else. I came with the sole aim of seeking God. I thought, forget about house, friends, surfing. I just wanted to seek my spiritual side."
“I found a really lovely church with a surf beach focus – they’ve even got a skate park inside. It was a great environment to start making friends. I joined the local rowing club and started surfing again. Everything just fell into place. Mentally, I was so much better."
However, a year ago, Dawn fell down the stairs and cracked her coccyx. Then two months later a minor operation went horribly wrong. She had to wait six months before they could operate again to correct the mistakes of the first operation.
“It just knocked me straight back again. No riding, no rowing, no surfing. The pounds piled back on and I found myself back in this place where I had the wetsuit phobia again."
Being a surfer isn’t just about looking amazing and catching the best waves. It’s so much more than that…
Dawn says she went to a surf shop this summer to buy a new size 16 wetsuit – and the legs were six inches too long. “It makes you feel ashamed of yourself – like you are not right for surfing because you can’t get the right equipment."
As conceptual artist, Dawn found the best way to tackle this phobia of the wetsuit was to confront it with photography.
“Wetsuits are disgusting things. They’re rubbery, they stink. They cling to every part of your body. I wanted to put across a realistic relationship with a wetsuit and the process of getting ready to go surfing – because it’s not elegant. It’s not beautiful. You’re getting changed in car parks in horizontal rain with people driving past. I wanted to get across the whole idea of squeezing into a wetsuit."
Dawn collaborated with London photographer Colin Hampton-White who took the shots. They were exhibited in the White Moose art gallery in Barnstaple, Devon last year as part of an exhibition called Beyond The Board.
“Through my art, I’m able to disconnect from my body and see it as a lump of flesh, as somebody else. I’ve found it interesting to look at the grotesque and trying to get across the way I see my body in my wetsuit. That is why the photos are very unflattering."
When she posted the photos on Surf Senioritas, an online community group of British female surfers, the response was phenomenal. Everyone loved the images and expressed how much they related to these natural photos of Dawn trying to squeeze her naked body into her wetsuit.
“When we were choosing the final images, we tried to pick the most disgusting images. Which were the most unflattering? Which are the photos people would never dream of using as their profile picture? We wanted to highlight all the imperfections, all the wonkiness. It’s not about looking gorgeous. I felt like it had to be real and honest."
She wanted to show female surfers as they really are – entirely different from the photoshopped models we often see in surf magazines. “If these photos encourage bigger women to get out there and try surfing, then that’s awesome."
Dawn found a great way to end the cycle of wetsuit fear was by coaching others. She is now helping teach a boy, who gets badly bullied at school, how to surf. “It is a good excuse to get back in the water. The focus isn’t on me, it is on someone else – and making them feel awesome."