There’s no question about it: We’re living in unprecedented times, and change is (finally) happening on all fronts — locally, nationally, and globally. This season, Unbothered and Target are proud to partner on a platform to keep that momentum going by sharing the stories of Black women who are reclaiming joy, defying stereotypes, and proving that summer is definitively not canceled.
The ocean beckons us all in radically different ways. For some, simply sunbathing where the water kisses the shores is the extent of their relationship with the waves. But for Natasha Brown, a 32-year-old Bronx-bred surfer from New York, the water is where she surrenders herself entirely — and where she found her identity.
Brown was first drawn to the ocean — the rhythm of its waves, its depth, its range of blue hues — at the age of four. The then-preschooler would jump into the water without warning, prompting her mother to enroll her in weekly swimming lessons to ensure the tiny risk-taker could safely explore her aquatic interests.
“We had to take the train and transfer quite a bit just so that I could attend classes in Manhattan,” she recalls. “And from there, as I got older, I discovered and became infatuated with surfing.”
After seeing one particular surfer on TV, Brown’s fire and curiosity for the sport swelled. While the pro-wave rider wasn’t a physical representation of her, she still inspired Brown, resulting in her begging her mother to take her to a Long Island beach for her first surfing experience. “I was around seven and there were all these crappy waves,” she recalls. “But I was still able to touch a surfboard and dance on the wave. That meant the world to me.”
Given Brown’s hometown borough’s lack of surfing beaches, she constantly chased undulating waves in faraway places. As a teen, she and her mother traveled frequently to Jamaica, where she spent entire days on the beach with her cousins. During her senior year of high school, she scoured the nation for a college near a body of water, but ending up landing at a university in New York on a scholarship. It wasn’t until she moved to New Orleans in 2010 to become an educator that she would catch swells consistently — every few weeks, she would drive several hours to surf the gulf near Pensacola, FL.
But as much joy as surfing brought her, Brown wrestled with issues — as early as seventh grade, in fact — surrounding her body image and natural hair. She was acutely aware that she was the lone Black girl in most surfing circles and felt shame for developing a curvier shape than her fellow surfers. It took her years, well into her adulthood, to accept her body. “It was almost a forced acceptance,” she admits, “because if you’re surfing for four hours a day, you can’t just eat a salad.”
She also faced inner conflict over protective hairstyles that wouldn’t weigh her down on the board and would also look presentable at work. But the freedom she found in surfing ended up outweighing these concerns, and over the years, she learned to accept herself — her body, her hair, everything — on dry land as well.
“When I tried other sports, they just didn’t feel like me, similar to when I would straighten my natural hair,” she says. “I thought wearing my hair in ways that appeased others is what I was supposed to do, but I knew it wasn’t authentic to me.”
When she moved to California in 2016, she started volunteering at Brown Girl Surf, an Oakland-based community-driven nonprofit that promotes diversity and gives surfers of color access to resources. Since she didn’t have a Black female surfer to admire growing up, it became increasingly important for her to mentor others.
“I can’t imagine the impact it would have made on a younger me to see a female of color riding the waves, so volunteering with them was really monumental,” Brown says. “It was really special to help young girls who look like me and had that same connection to water and help foster that relationship.”
She had moved to the Bay Area after spending a couple of years in Costa Rica, where she resided in an uber-diverse community bursting with Black, Latinx, and other people from all across the world. Initially, she left the colorful, lively surf town due to pressure from her family to focus on a more career-oriented future. As a compromise, Brown settled briefly in Oakland where she could build a career in educational technology and maintain her involvement in a surfing community.
Now, she’s back in Costa Rica, having found a way to return to her “dream town rooted in Jamaican culture” by working at a company that provides a literacy app for students, and surfing for fun no fewer than three hours a day. Her time with Brown Girl Surf is currently limited because of distance, but she continues to help break down roadblocks for Black and Brown girls. “I focus on fundraising efforts and additional support to our youth of color in the surf community,” says Brown, whose philanthropic endeavors include raising money for competition fees and using social media to promote the organization.
It’s been tough for her to stay dry during this global pause, but she’s finding ways to stay fit for her return to the ocean, including daily 20-mile bike rides and doing yoga on balance-training boards to strengthen her core. It’s been especially difficult for her to see what’s happening to her community from another country.
“The feeling of frustration amongst Black people is nothing new — but what gives me hope is that we are no longer alone. It’s inspiring to see how many allies have shown themselves in my own personal life,” she says. “Does it mean I can sit back and do nothing? Of course not. But now there are others I can reach out to in support of creating a society where the experience of our Black children is no different than others of a different race.”
Current events prompted her and her friends to launch Wolaba Youth Project, an organization that provides BIPOC children with the support and resources of which they would otherwise not have access, including surf training, agricultural workshops, and classes on essential skills. The hope is to uplift and prepare children to become the next generation of leaders and make a positive impact on the community. Or, if anything, inspire them to love the water as much as she does. Because for her, the ocean is the only place where she truly finds solace. “For better or worse,” she says, “surfing has allowed me to be true to myself.”
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