Bringing Surfer Kim Merrikin's Active Swimwear Dream for All Bodies to Life
** Disclaimer: Trigger warning. References to body image mention in this blog post**
Hakuna Wear is starting to step away from bringing out collections and moving toward a more sustainable way of producing swimwear, making batches on a pre-sale basis and collaborating with female surfers of all different shapes and sizes through their new Hakuna Lab.
Hakuna Wear's founder, Jessica, recently collaborated with Kim Merrikin, a surfer based in Seattle to design her dream suit. We asked her a few questions about the design process and what it was like to come up with a swimwear piece specifically for her body type. There is still considerable gap in the curvy women surf/ active swimwear market, so coming up with pieces for women who normally struggle to find something that not only fits them but is also functional is definitely an obstacle for plus size women.
Can you tell us a little bit about where are you from, where you live now and what the surf community is like there?
I grew up on the north Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, playing in the cold waters of the Straights of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean. I currently live in Seattle, and have been here since 2009. There is definitely a surf community here—all over western Washington—but many of us have to drive hours to get to surfable waves. My nearest me-friendly wave is about 2.5 hours away on a good day!
Fill us in on your surfing or ocean journey.
I have LOVED being in the water since I was a kid. We'd camp on the coast when I was a kid, and my friends and I would get in the ocean and play in the waves for hours. (Even in the cold Washington water! We'd come out blue.) I always wanted to surf but never really saw any in the waters here. Then, as I got older and became more self-conscious of my obviously larger-than-my-peers body, I slowly stopped getting in the water because of the derogatory comments about my body—and the comments I'd hear people say about other larger bodies in swimwear. I've always loved watching waves—and in my early 30s, I started driving to the coast for big swells and king tides to watch the big waves, and around the same time started watching big wave surfing. Seeing Justine DuPont and Maya Gabeira set world records at Nazaré made me think... if they can surf THOSE waves, maybe I can surf the little ones? But I had never seen anyone in a body even remotely like mine surfing. I started following more female surfers on social media and stumbled into finding some plus-size surfers like @lexijorgy, @kanoagreene, and @curvysurfergirl. (Now, they're all in the warm waters, and there are still not a lot of plus-size surfers in wetsuits out there!)
What changes would you like to see in the Women’s Surf/ Swim Industry? Right now, the industry largely keeps plus-size women out both because of the lack of apparel and gear and an exclusivity that says "only thin/fit women are capable of this." The whole industry sometimes feels like an extension of diet culture. I think the swimwear availability piece is slowly changing—but there are still no plus-size women's wetsuits. Size 14 is the average size of women in the US—and no top surf brands truly serve beyond that *average* size. (Some list up to a size 16, but their sizes run extremely small, and their small sizes are actually children's measurements.) If you are above a size 14, you're pretty much out of luck if you want a wetsuit designed to fit your body as a woman. If you're above a size 16—there are NO quality options (the one I found doesn't even list neoprene thickness). I think the narrative around who CAN be a surfer needs to change alongside the availability of apparel and gear for a broader range of body types and sizes.
Is there anything you feel that is missing in the surf swimwear industry? Or you’d like to see more of?
I think the surf swimwear industry is lacking TRULY inclusive sizing—up to size 6 or 7X—AND representation of those sizes in a variety of body types... not just the standard "curvy" body type that they often display when they make that first step of expanding their size range to include 1–3X. I would love to see more body diversity in all its unedited glory. Stretch marks and razor burn (or just hair!). Softness and strength at the same time. Different abilities—adaptive surfing. THE WORKS.
How does Surfing/ Swimming/ the ocean affect your relationship with your body?
Honestly, sometimes being around the ocean challenges me—out of the water. I know my body is on display, and can still see people looking at me like I don't belong. The ocean doesn't judge, though. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is equal. It's easier to forget I don't look like I belong there based on sociocultural values. Sometimes there will be a jerk in the water and remind me—but it's easier to forget again in the water.
How does swimwear affect your relationship with your body?
I started putting weight on when I hit puberty and was visibly larger than my peers starting in middle school. My relationship with swimwear became complicated at that point. That's when I started hearing whispers and shouts of "whale" or "beached whale" or "tidal wave" when I jumped in or got out. Those comments continued into college. As I got older, there were also more comments about "no one wants to see that" and simply "gross." Toward the end of college, I just stopped wearing swimsuits in any context where men or strangers would see me. In my early 30s, I had this shift in mindset that allowed me to pursue more of the things that 10-year-old Kim wanted to do—and that started with shifting my clothing style a little; then I started playing hockey—and at that point, I just became this monster that was like... I'M GONNA DO WHAT I WANT REGARDLESS OF OTHER PEOPLE'S OPINIONS. I started getting back into water activities a few years into that journey. Around that time, I found TomboyX swimwear, and finding a swimsuit that I was *physically* comfortable in started making a big difference. It's been a big journey to be comfortable in swimwear again. And honestly, posing in this suit we've designed has been terrifying. I've already had some gross fatphobic comments about my body in the suit—but I also know now that the people making those comments believe the same sociocultural lies about fat/large bodies that I used to. I don't believe those lies anymore, even if they do. It still doesn't feel good, but it's easier to get past. This is part of the healing journey. It's not over yet, but I'm on the path.
What struggles do you have when buying surf swimwear?
For starters, there isn't much of it designed for plus-size women, period. We're at a place in history where more plus-size bikinis are becoming available, but it's not ACTIVE swimwear. Call me crazy, but I want my private parts to remain covered. 😂 On top of that, it is often just straight-sized patterns that have been sized up—and they don't provide the support that a larger body needs. That's not even touching on the COMPLETE lack of plus-size women's wetsuits.
As a surf/swim consumer, how has your swimwear not served you in the past?
It doesn't stay put. Simply. Larger bodies have much more movement than smaller bodies when we move—so much swimwear is not designed to accommodate that. It also often doesn't protect against chub rub/chafing, and because it's designed for one particular body shape, it leaves gaps when you don't have THAT body shape.
What do you look for in a surf swimwear suit when shopping for one? Support, the right level of coverage in the right places, and function. One-piece suits are terrible under a wetsuit—and unisuits (like TomboyX), while great for lap swimming, are way less functional if you ever need to use the bathroom. Also—pockets. I know pockets in swimwear are controversial, but as a paddle boarder, I often have my phone with me in a waterproof case—and I think it should be up to me to choose what I carry on me when in/around the water!
What are the features you are excited about in this piece you’ve helped design with Hakuna?
ALL OF THEM. Oh my gosh. I love the high-waisted shorts. I love the pockets (with the key loop and zipper!), I love the racerback and the zipper. I love it all. I also love the print!
What did you have in mind when putting together this swimwear piece?
I wanted to make something that would work for a much wider audience than most swimwear. Making it a two-piece accommodates different torso lengths. (I'm very long-torsoed!) The high waist will accommodate people with a bigger butt, hips, or belly. The shorts will protect against chub rub (or unnecessary razor burn in unpleasant places! The racerback will stay put on people with more narrow shoulders, and the zipper will allow it to work for people with shoulder mobility issues. I wanted something that would work under my wetsuit, lap swimming, playing on the beach, paddle boarding—and every other water activity I could think of—and I wanted it to work for as many people as possible. I know it won't be universally correct for everyone, but hopefully, it is a step in the right direction to expanding access to quality active swimwear!
What do you love most about Hakuna Wear’s brand?
I am ON BOARD with the slow fashion approach. I know being able to shift away from fast fashion is a privilege for people with the finances to choose to buy a more expensive product. But—if more people with that privilege make the choice to depart from fast fashion (while also not looking down on folks who can't!), the more we'll be able to normalize this slower approach to fashion and shift toward a more sustainable fashion industry as much as possible.
What did you love most about this collaborative design process?
I have felt SO listened to and heard as we've been going through this process. This truly is the suit I imagined and scribbled out in my notebook—you, Jessica, have been an amazing partner in bringing this suit to life!
What obstacles, if any, did you come across in this process as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a design background?
I honestly feel like I've just been pitching ideas, and Jessica has been working with the team to bring them to life. I don't feel like there have been any design obstacles. The biggest obstacle has been my coming to terms with taking pictures/videos of myself in a two-piece swimsuit and sharing them online.
Where did your inspiration come from for this piece?
A lifetime of bad swimwear experiences—paired with some thoughts about inclusive apparel design that I've heard from some disabled individuals I've known over the years. I basically started with, "What is my dream suit?" and followed up with, "And how can I make it work for as many people as possible?"
Any other little bits you’d like to share with us?
I truly hope this suit makes it so more women can get in the water and connect with themselves, others, and nature through all kinds of water-based activities. More women on the water. More women in the water. ALL THE WOMEN IN THE WATER!