Surfing and sex are inseparable; and thank God for that.  But female pro surfers aren’t glamor models; they are elite athletes who deserve to compete in the best possible waves. Image: Red Bull Girls Surfing Video

Surfing and sex are inseparable; and thank God for that. But female pro surfers aren’t glamor models; they are elite athletes who deserve to compete in the best possible waves. Sally Fitzgibbons poses for a recent Red Bull video.


The Inertia

My ability to calculate sums is comparable to a chimp with a handful of dried pinto beans, so I need some help figuring out the following bit of surfing math: Matt Warshaw, in his 2008 New York Times article Surfing: a History estimates that there are about five million people in the world who surf, and ten to fifteen percent of them are women.  In the US, SIMA calculates that these women were responsible for buying 503.8 million dollars worth of surf and skate clothing that same year, making it the fourth largest surf/skate related market behind shoes, men’s clothes, and boards (in that order…which in itself is a telling stratification). Even if you ignore the fact that women also purchase boards and shoes, it’s safe to say that, not only are female surfers an important part of surf culture, they represent a sizeable portion of the surf economy as well.  Knowing all of this, how is it possible that the ASP was forced to cancel the Honolua Pro – an event widely regarded as the best on the women’s tour – because it couldn’t find a sponsor?

Unless I’m counting my beans wrong, something is amiss in surfer town.

The news of the cancellation brought to mind a video clip of some of Red Bull’s female team riders I had seen a few weeks before.  It’s a pretty standard surfer-girl/modeling photo shoot where each lady is given a theme to interpret.  Sofía Mulanovich is a director, Maya Gabeira is a dancer, Nadja De Col is a painter, and Sally Fitzgibbons, who apparently pulled the short straw, is jail bait.  In all fairness, that is not her official theme, but I challenge anyone to watch the video on mute and try to guess her intended occupation.  Male viewers, in particular, will be assaulted with the dueling notions that this young woman is about to appear in something soft core, but may be under the age of consent.

It turns out, she’s 19, so it’s perfectly legal to lust away, but the whole thing left me with a lingering queasiness.  It seems strange that no one is willing to put some money into what is supposed to be the season-ending competition for the best female surfers in the world, especially since they seem to have no problem marketing the girls for their pure sex appeal.  I wanted to talk to some female pros about sex and surfing, but it can be hard getting interesting quotes out of them because a.) Few are over 25 years old, b.) They tend to be heavily managed, often by their parents and c.) Very few young women or their parents feel comfortable talking about sex with a strange journalist who they have never met. In the end, I got in touch with Keala Kennelly because she fears no reporter – nor much of anything, for that matter.  Here is what she told me:

“Sometimes, women pro surfers that are more attractive get more sponsor dollars thrown their way over women that are better surfers who are not as physically attractive. What that keeps reinforcing in women is that it is more important to be beautiful than it is to have talent or skill or to be accomplished.”

Beauty over accomplishments, bodies over brains, tits over turns. You’ve heard this story before.  This isn’t promoting women’s surfing, it’s Barbie-ifying it.   The message is that it doesn’t matter how hard a girl charges, just as long as she smiles a lot, looks good in a bikini, doesn’t curse too much, and shows up in a Maxim profile humping her board it’s all good.

Exhibit two: Keala Kennelly towing in at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. May 2010. Photo: Ryan Struck

Exhibit two: Keala Kennelly towing in at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. May 2010. Photo: Ryan Struck

There is something very Blue Crush about this whole surfer girl paradigm.  That movie was inspired by an article called Life’s Swell by a non-surfer named Susan Orlean, and it originally ran in Outside magazine in 1998 (trivia: it features a cameo by the young Cheyne Magnusson).  The article does a great job of capturing a brief, idyllic moment in the lives of some of Maui’s surfer girls in their late adolescence and early teens when their entire lives revolved around surfing local competitions and hanging out with friends.  Still, her account ultimately falls flat because of the rose tint it casts on every aspect of the girls’ lives.  The deck of the article basically sums it all up:

To be a surfer girl in Maui is to be the luckiest of creatures. It means you’re beautiful and tan and ready to rip. It means you’ve caught the perfect dappled wave and are on a ride that can’t possibly end.

That is, of course, until your sponsors decide they don’t want to keep putting money into your sport.  For all her skill as a writer, Orlean was unable to see beyond the age old surfer girl stereotype of plucky tomboy who’s perpetual adolescence both infantilizes and hyper-sexualizes her existence.  She’s a Lolita with a surfboard, and Orlean unwittingly canonized her by sending her out to play in the pop cultural imagination.

Of course, Blue Crush occasioned a boom in women’s surfing, and it was all gravy so long as it stayed lollipops and pigtails and fun boards and string bikinis.  But what comes next?  The girls are growing up. And they are calling guys off their waves and busting airs and towing in and doing a lot of other things that little girls don’t, or aren’t supposed to do.  In theory, everyone supports it, but words mean little without power or money to back them up.

“It’s all about creating a marketing strategy and interest,” said renowned tube rider and World Runner-Up Rochelle Ballard in an email.   “Most of the time the girls are going to shitty waves and have press that is hard to follow unless you go to Surfline and the ASP site.  Half the time the video is down and you can’t even watch the event.  Most of the time the announcers don’t know their subjects well enough or get lost in silly conversation instead of maintaining interest in what is going on out in the water or telling us about who is surfing.”

The difference between the way they cover men’s and women’s contests wasn’t lost on her, either.  “I hear the hype and interest when they announce the men’s heats and how much more depth goes into the live web cast.  If they treated the women like they do the men and then some, I would be very interested to see how much more it (women’s competitive surfing) would grow and attract people.   If there was more unity in surfing for women and participation from all parties in the same direction…it has great potential.  Without that I believe it will always be the same old story that I heard when I was a teenager growing up next to Margo Oberg and hearing her stories, that sound exactly the same as they do today.”

We can do better than this.  We owe it to women like Keala, Sally, Sofia, and all the rest to be better than this.  Yes, surfing and sex are inseparable; and thank God for that.  But female pro surfers aren’t glamor models; they are elite athletes who deserve to compete in the best possible waves.   If they want to do it wearing makeup and Brazilian bikinis, tally-ho: there’s no sweeter sight in the world of sports than a beautiful woman riding a perfect wave.  But there is no sorrier site than denying the world’s best female surfers the right to end their season with chins held high…instead of relegating them to the beach outside of surfing’s boys’ club, which (consciously or not) sends its message loud and clear: “No girls allowed.”

  • grace

    Great article. It's a sad self-perpetuating cycle that rears its head in not only surfing but in so many other circles of female sports industries.

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  • GirlInTheCurl

    It speaks of a truth people prefer to brush under the rug. Very good article.

  • Jay

    As a long time surfer and father of a daughter, I have to say this article is right on target. When I saw the image of Sally Fitzgibbons, I jut thought, "Really?" It doesn't have to be this way. I'm not a prude, and some women do like to do shoots like this, and to feel sexy, etc. To me, nothing is sexier than strong women surfing really well—many of them in surf I would never go out in. It's up to all of us to reinforce the good stuff. Nothing wrong with beauty, but the Barbie-fying of women in our culture does more harm than good.

  • ccb

    Great article!

  • http://www.xoxovideo.com Sky Rondenet

    I use to make surf movies with the very best women surfers in the World and I finally threw in the towel because a. I was tired of trying to convince surf companies to support women surfers through film b. the asp pulled teaupoo and cloudbreak events (2 of my favorite spots to film) and c. there just wasn't enough support in general. It was so frustrating. The guys get so much money for their own movies and we wanted to make one girls movie that showed how talented and fun they were. Nobody wanted to give us enough financial support to do it. They want to put all of their funds into model shoots. Borrrrrrinngggggggg!!!!!

  • John

    Whenever I see an accomplished female having to model it horrifies me. It is so distasteful when I see the marketing of her as pure visual image as if all of her effort and success doesn't matter. It also is an insult to my intelligence for them to suggest that I wouldn't notice her achievement without reducing her to only her potential sexuality.

  • Smiley

    I wish the whole world new this and thank you for your voice that is well needed. I compete in longboard proffesionally and I also have a career in Biotech. My co-workers always ask me why I work a regular job if I compete in proffesional surfing. Its always a difficult thing to explain to them the cituation of womens surfing. Everyone is always shocked when they hear the world of womens surfing.

    I think the sadest of it all is to see the truely talented surfers get washed under rug and the beauty move further. The industry is really holding back the growth of the womens surfing.

    P.S Awesome JOB on the write up!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Surfcretary

    As the former editor and associate editor of two now defunct women surf mags, I would say you hit it dead on. We had a few good years but saw way too many talented surfers have to go another direction because they could not get the financial backing from the industry. Same goes for those two magazines.

  • http://makingfriendswiththeneighbours.blogspot.com/ Rebecca

    Well said all round! A complex issue, with female professional surfers negotiating a balance of maintaining sponsorship (and all that entails) and surfing in their own way (whatever that might mean). It's also very frustrating to read the ways that these professional athletes get described and discussed in surfing media (obviously not here), focusing on them being 'almost as good as the guys'. You're totally right to point out that all these women need to be applauded not only for their surfing achievements, but also for their persistence in a difficult, and often blokey, surfing world.

    I'm a bit bummed that the image with this article is the first and most central thing that you see when you get here – reproducing the very images that you are questioning. I know it's good to give examples, but it would have been good to include a couple of pics (even open the article with one!) that show the kinds of images of women that could be used instead of or as well as, this one. This is now the image that is asscoiated with this great piece, rather than something more dynamic, which would do it more justice.

  • http://www.theinertia.com TheInertia

    Thanks for the feedback. Rebecca, you’re right on in that the imagery associated with the message of this article is ironic to say the least. It’s certainly poignant, though, and thinking more on it, we’re going to try to get a second image to better honor the idea. Regardless, thanks for the thoughtful insight.

  • http://surfergrrrl.blogspot.com/ Cynthia

    Great article, although I agree with Rebecca about the photo. Living near Mavericks, I've questioned for years why no women get invited to the contest, although there are clearly a number with the ability (http://surfergrrrl.blogspot.com/2009/12/women-who-surf-big-waves.html). I also lament that the surf media generally ignore women except for the annual swimsuit issues, and that it's so hard to find serious women's surfing gear that's sufficiently warm for NorCal winters (http://surfergrrrl.blogspot.com/2009/06/sexism-in-surfing.html). It's truly sad that in 2010 talented female surfers still have trouble getting support, and must be model-pretty to even think about making a go of it.

  • http://darrenmason.com darren

    Good article, great comments. The sad truth is – sex sells – whether its on the beach or in the water. Its a vicious circle of media selling what turns people on and people wanting more of it. We can lay blame on the industry, the media, or the executives, but at the end of the day fingers should be pointed all around because we the people make the market. Mr. Endo, I think you comment "she’s 19, so it’s perfectly legal to lust away" reinforces my point exactly. If there was no demand for it…yadda yadda.

  • Lynn Taylor

    I agree with your article and thank you for writing it. I am the mother of a surfer girl who competed for years. at surf expos she was always asked by sponsors to model, her response was," I am a surfer not a model."' Now at 23 it is all over already. She has a career and is willing to model? Surfing is now a recreational outlet for her. It is a shame.

  • gra

    All true and nothing new. I'd also opine that handsomeness equals worth for the blokes as well. If, say, Dave Rastovich was balding ginger and pasty you reckon he'd be as successful as he is now? It's a shallow old world.

    • Al Baydough

      This is partly true but listen to men flip out whenever Slater or any decent looking dude strikes a sexy pose for the ladies (who happen to be buying a huge percentage of the product manufactured by the industry). A lot of guys were pretty envious of Slater when he was dating Pam Anderson but he sure took/takes heat for having been on Baywatch. Hypocrites much?

  • neil ridgway

    Hi,I work at Rip Curl on team and events. We sponsor three ASP world tour events in Bells, Portugal and the Search. We run with the girls because they add great value to the overall event, they are as important as the men in competition (should see the battle to get in the water!) and they get great media for the events. The key is men's and women's combined as one side rolls off the other giving the whole event momentum – especially with a hungry web audience. Stand alone women's events are incredibly hard to market and make successful and that's probably more the point on Honolua – it's what the customer wants or does not want which determines investment – plus the fact that it competes directly for media with Pipeline in the same window.

    • mike dismukes

      Great article. Mr. Ridgway however makes a good point highlighting the fact that professional sporting events are driven, like everything else, by money. Viewership equals money for sponsors which equals successful events. It's easy to see sexism lurking in all things advertising, media, and teenage, that's who they're shooting for you know, teens. I've watched a few of the women's events on the pro tour and it's boring, really, really boring. Surfing in general is mind-numbingly boring to watch be they men or women. This should be stated also, at this point the women on the pro tour do not surf at the same level as the men, not even close, making women's events even tougher to sit through and trust me, no amount of color commentary could spice up these events. Women do however have every bit as much fun as the men and have every right to have this fun wherever, and whenever they please.That is why we all surf, it's fun. Despite advertising telling us the contrary, surfing has nothing to do with what kind of beer we drink or shorts we wear. Now, if you can't make a living at it, well , I feel for ya. Take longboard surfing for example. The vast majority of people who surf ride boards over nine feet long, these men and women are older, have more disposable income and so on, however have next to zero in the way of sponsorship at the professional level. By all consumer mathematics, professional longboard surfing should completely dominate pro surfing. Well, it too is boring to watch and doesn't appeal to Thirteen year old boys… wait, what does appeal to thirteen year old boys? Ohhhh yeaaaa…

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  • Jenmiles

    I was hesistant on reading this due to the sex/surf parrell in the beginning, but after i was done reading Keala’s quote I realized how perfect this article was on hitting the reality. I am trying so hard to get better support for women surfers. I am a female shaper who experienced the same dead ends in surfing, and grew up learning to shape so I wouldnt have to enter contest to win a board (if a board was even the prize), so now Im starting a non profit for women of the ocean so that I can try and get better funding and support for women. If you can funnel my info or idea to anyone out there down to be apart of this movement please do. Our site is wahinesoulsurfingassociation.org

    Aloha
    Jen Miles

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  • Dustin

    This article got me really fired up with so many emotions…i had to write about it in our girls surf camp’s blog, http://mauisurfergirls.typepad.com/  I’ve filmed and surfed with the women pros each year of the Billabong Pro at Honolua…and I’m very sad and disappointed that they’ve stopped that event.  You never know, maybe my company will sponsor the event someday ;)

  • Major Pain

    “When we were in Brazil, all the guys came down to watch the girls’ final day, which I have never really seen before….” ~ Carissa Moore (“The Forgotten Struggle” by Janna Irons, SURFER Magazine November 2011)

    Perhaps, one day soon, the same can be said by Carissa regarding US Audiences. After all, since August 2011, I have been telling Folks that although Two Of my Favorite Female Surfers (Courtney Conlogue and Shelby Detmers), did not do as well as I had hoped, it was still one of my Most – Memorable US Opens (and I am “A Surfing O. G.” from back in the “OP Pro / Classic Dayz”), because The Women’s Final was held on Sunday, rather than on Saturday as during past US Open Events. So, the Big crowds normally there to see SL*R also saw The Women.

    Semper Fi,
    “Major Pain”

  • http://twitter.com/FreshRag Fresh Rag

    I work for the company that publishes the newly inked Salted Magazine, also the publisher of both the top two surfing magazines.

    Salted is aimed straight at female surfers; and the magazine is definitely trying to capture some eyeballs from what seems like a growing population of women who surf. However, when I picked up the magazine for the first time, I couldn’t help but think that instead of it being a surfing magazine for women; it was a fashion magazine for female surfers. The mag is less about the culture of surfing and more about how to sell bikinis to girls. I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing; that’s what all magazines are about to some degree, but I did think the whole premise marginalized the professionals within the pages.

    It’s not a huge surprise the girls are objectified considering the people putting the magazine together are 90% dudes, and most of the girls in the pages are too young and, for lack of a better word, naive to stand up for themselves. They’re trying to make headway, for their own career and for women in general, so you probably won’t see a lot of waves being made against the status quo.

    This debate has been raging since I was a grom in the 80s, and I doubt its going to change any time soon, but I am stoked to see these ladies getting a little more attention than their predecessors ever got. Wendy Botha, Lisa Anderson and their contemporaries deserved better than what we gave them.