I'll never forget my first time. Sixteen years old and perched on the sandy dunes of Cape Cod under a setting sun, I watched the surfer drop into an indigo Atlantic wave and glide all the way to shore. Mesmerized — no, obsessed — I beelined to the convenience store the very next day for surf magazines, on a mission for some kind of clue how to be just like the goddess I'd seen in the water. Yet, as I looked at the taut, tanned bodies slashing through waves in the glossy pages of Surfing, it was suddenly obvious that I had been born in the wrong place, and probably to the wrong family, too.
Like quintessential California girl Cameron Diaz or Blue Crush–era Kate Bosworth, surfers have always struck the perfect balance: They look like they have no problem eating dinner in a bikini or throwing down at Pipeline's famous waves in Hawaii. Unlike the cute, good-girl archetypes of the past, the modern Gidgets represent radiance and self-assurance. How did they get so hot? And could I, with my pasty New England skin and dull-brown, shoulder-length hair, ever come close?
The following summer, I signed up for an Orange County surf camp at San Onofre beach. The very first wave I caught washed me up on the rocky shore and pushed my bikini top down to my waist. Coughing up water, I started having doubts. Was getting pounded really the path to enlightenment? Searching for answers, I hiked my suit up, wrested my board back, and struggled to paddle out again. But in no time my arms fell limp, and I was too weak to get past the inside of the break where the waves crash. The next day, I went out into the water again, and again the day after that. Soon, I was hardly aware that I was wearing a bikini, much less worried about how I looked in it. Catching a wave became my central focus, even if most of the time it took hours to get one.
As the week went on, my fear subsided. The pride I felt in standing up on my board for the first time was indescribable. The next day, I woke up with excitement instead of anxiety and loosened up around my campmates. I even found myself hanging out with the instructors who'd seemed unapproachable just days before.
Clearly, the sexiness and sense of adventure I sought came from someplace inside. Before a golden tan sets in or hair starts bleaching, there's a mental shift that happens when you paddle out for those beginner waves. The secret to surfing's transformative power stems from facing your fears and challenging yourself physically, according to Wende Zomnir, executive creative director for Urban Decay makeup, and an avid surfer. It gives you "confidence in your own skin," she says. "Sometimes it's not that fun, like when you get caught inside a heavy set of waves breaking on you. But if you have the power to deal with the consequences of being out there, there's this inner beauty that's cultivated and shines through."
It was true: Headed into my senior year of high school at the time, I was deeply nervous about leaving home for college. But when I was in the water, my anxieties vanished.
Long after my week at San Onofre, I hit the road for Australia, Fiji, and beyond to surf full-time, visiting spots I'd previously only seen in pictures. Although I didn't become a pro, I did learn how to change out of my suit in the beach parking lot (a trick that requires a towel tied tightly around the waist and deft maneuvering; forget about underwear), how to evade airport fees for surfboards (pretend no one's ever charged you before), and even how to spend a birthday alone at a beach in southern France (remind yourself how tough you are, then call in a foreign boyfriend).
Now I live in Los Angeles, where the beach is a part of my daily life. Still, I sometimes look around while waiting for a wave and zero in on the strongest, most gorgeous girls — getting all the good ones, of course — and I wonder if I look like them. But then, as I paddle and get ready for takeoff, I forget my insecurities. Who cares? I am that surfer girl.