nudity and surfing


Surfing developed across Polynesia as a nude activity, and remained so until top-coated 19th-century missionaries shamed the natives into covering themselves, even while at play in the ocean. The dress code was often ignored; a British engraving from 1874 shows a set of waves being ridden by nearly a dozen Hawaiian surfers, male and female, all of them naked.

No other sport lends itself to nudity as easily as surfing; clothes shedding is required, and the act itself, a product of the tropics, is often described as sensual. Pre-World War II photos of early American surfers like Tom Blake and George "Peanuts" Larson lounging nude on the beach, published for the first time in the late '90s, didn't raise an eyebrow among contemporary surfers.

A more aggressive style of nudity was often cited as part of the "surfer problem" in the late '50s and early '60s, when rock-and-roll-fueled baby-boom teenagers began strafing the beachfronts of Southern California and Sydney with bent-over "BAs," often shot from car windows. "Undressing in public," California surfer John Severson wrote in his 1964 book Modern Surfing Around the World, was a hallmark of the gremmie or hodad surfers who were "giving the sport a bad name." The forces of decency and nudity would occasionally clash in the decades to follow. After receiving complaints about surfers not covering themselves while changing in and out of their wetsuits, city lawmakers in Pacifica, located just south of San Francisco, passed an ordinance in 1997 under which naked surfers could be fined up to $500; Long Beach, New Jersey enacted a similar law in 2008.

The mid-'70s were a golden era for surfing nudity. Top California surfers Mike Purpus and Angie Reno both posed and surfed naked for Playgirl magazine in 1974; the following year pro surfer Wayne Bartholomew of Australia shed his boardshorts for an in-the-buff Tracks magazine cover shot, while reigning Smirnoff Pro women's division winner Laura Blears of Hawaii was featured in a Playboy spread. Precedent set, four-time world pro tour champion Wendy Botha did an Australian Playboy layout in 1992, while Hawaiian pro Megan Abubo posed for a relatively demure nude shot in a 2001 issue of Rolling Stone; world champions Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore both posed nude for ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue," Slater in 2010, Gilmore the following year.

Male Australians have far and away proven to be the most fervent surfing nudists. A group of Sydney surfers formed Club INT—In the Nude—in 1984 (later changing their name to Even Nuder); 28 surfers entered the inaugural Ungawa Nude Classic, held at Southside Beach in Victoria in 1994 (with first place going to a Torquay local dressed in suspenders and stockings who surfed atop a wooden door); while the Bondi Nude Surfing Expression Session drew more than 2,000 spectators in 1996. In 2013, Sydney surfer Karl Atkins nude-surfed quadruple-overhead waves at Shipstern Bluff, thought by many to be the world's most dangerous break.

"Why are we obsessed with public nudity and silly games involving our genitals?" Australia's Surfing Life magazine asked in 1993, putting the question to a Sydney psychologist. She replied that surfers seemed to have taken normal "sexually flavored" early-adolescent bonding games and continued them "well beyond the usual age range," probably as a form of "narcissism and ego-investment."