Surfer Girls

We need women who will buck the media onslaught to stand strong and be recognized for their abilities and accomplishments instead of how they look. The swimsuit issue: NorCal style. Photo: Krueger


The Inertia

Dawn patrol in Eastside Santa Cruz. The lineup swells from a few to 17 guys… plus me, the sole surfer girl. Then a woman paddles out on a soft-top longboard. With her brown hair still dry, she stops on the inside where I’m waiting for my last wave. We exchange smiles, and she tries for a couple small bumps, but they pass her by. I say ”Here you go,” when a slightly larger wave comes toward her, and as she turns to paddle for it, she hoots “We could ride it together!” inviting me to drop in on her. Surfer girls rock.

While there are fewer women who surf than men, rising stars like Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore, Sally Fitzgibbons and Courtney Conlogue surf on par with the boys. Yet they are relegated to the poorest waves during shared contest windows, and largely absent from the phallocentric surf magazines. Instead of glossy photos of these pro surfer girls ripping, many of those magazines lure male eyes with annual swimsuit issues, posing women in barely-there bikinis sexily on the beach while a guy rides waves in the background. As Miss Representation (trailer below) points out:

No matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look…. The exploitation of women’s bodies sells products, magazines, etcetera.

Some women and girls buy into the myth that their worth is measured by their bodies and not their abilities. Others contribute to their objectification, like Stephanie Gilmore who posed naked for ESPN. Sponsors of women’s surfing, while providing an opportunity for competition, also focus on the body, using their athletes as models. While pro male surfers can look less than pleasing, it seems an unwritten rule that for a woman to be sponsored, she must be eye-candy: pretty, preferably blond, and hot in a bikini. Olympic swimming medalist Amanda Beard recently disclosed in her book, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry, that her fit, athletic body was deemed too fat to advertise swimsuits, so she was forced to diet unhealthily and suffered damage to her self-esteem.

We need women who will buck the media onslaught to stand strong and be recognized for their abilities and accomplishments instead of how they look. We need women to support and encourage each other, like the longboarder in Santa Cruz did, and to celebrate our achievements, like Stephanie and Sally chairing Courtney up the beach after she won the Commonwealth Bank Beachley Classic.

When the surfing magazine swimsuit issues hit the stands again this year, I gathered a few of my friends for a photo shoot of real NorCal surfer girls. We don’t surf in bikinis, because the water is too cold, but even if it was tropical, many of us would choose more practical rash guards and board shorts. Because it’s about surfing, not sexy.

Miss Representation Trailer:

  • Kevin

    Awesome, Cynthia. What do you think about the Dove campaign? They do a good job communicating the social fright, paranoia, and post-modern schizophrenia today’s youth must feel. Information literacy is essential. 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=321Kb8pBu5s

    Personally, I hope my daughter won’t have to deal with this BS. 

    • http://twitter.com/surfergrrrl Cynthia

      Thanks, Kevin. I hadn’t seen the Dove video. Pretty good, but… they’re still trying to sell something.

      I hope your daughter doesn’t have to deal with this too. Although when I was in college, I never this would be the future.

      • Kevin

        It’s also true that when you were in college fewer women were graduating. This has changed. And to a certain extent everyone is selling something, whether it’s a product or point of view. 

        • http://twitter.com/surfergrrrl Cynthia

          There are more women graduating in some fields. Sadly, in those that are typically male-dominated, like engineering, women are still a small fraction. “In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools that went to women hit 17.8%, a 15-year low, according to the American Society of Engineering Education.” http://it-jobs.fins.com/Articles/SB130221786789702297/Women-Engineering-Graduates-at-15-Year-Low

          • Kevin

            Female engineers are definitely needed. So are men graduating with degrees in literature and communication. It’s tough having to read aloud from Shakespeare, Faulkner, Woolf, Dickinson, etc. because your classmates don’t have a deep enough voice to act out “STELLA” from A Streetcar Named Desire. Trust me, I’ve done it.

          • Kevin

            Female engineers are definitely needed. So are men graduating with degrees in literature and communication. It’s tough having to read aloud from Shakespeare, Faulkner, Woolf, Dickinson, etc. because your classmates don’t have a deep enough voice to act out “STELLA” from A Streetcar Named Desire. Trust me, I’ve done it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carletes-Saez/100002820475116 Carletes Saez

    Excellent reading,I agree on everything you said. Thanks for sharing you toughs, hopefully they would reach some people and make them think about them. Respect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carletes-Saez/100002820475116 Carletes Saez

    Excellent reading,I agree on everything you said. Thanks for sharing you toughs, hopefully they would reach some people and make them think about them. Respect.

  • http://twitter.com/smallaxe SmallAxe

    I like this post a more than the last post on wetsuits as a fashion statement. THis is one I will be happy to share.

  • http://twitter.com/smallaxe SmallAxe

    I like this post a more than the last post on wetsuits as a fashion statement. THis is one I will be happy to share.

  • Maureen

    Brava!  Girls do rock!  AND they can SURF!

  • Maureen

    Brava!  Girls do rock!  AND they can SURF!

  • http://www.TheMadtoLive.com Lauren Rains

    Fantastic! From one surfer girl to another, thank you for writing this and inspiring us women to show the world the best of what we got! 
    :) 

  • http://www.TheMadtoLive.com Lauren Rains

    Fantastic! From one surfer girl to another, thank you for writing this and inspiring us women to show the world the best of what we got! 
    :) 

  • Cori S

    Excellent, Cynthia, and great way to introduce MissRepresentation to the surfing world. I hope brands take notice and consumers choose to buy from the brands they support with their dollars with care and attention to this marketing. Regardless of the “empowering” rhetoric some companies use, the message, as it is communicated through images, is often far less so. Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/surfergrrrl Cynthia

    Thanks, all, for your positive comments! I do hope this will make people think.

  • http://twitter.com/surfergrrrl Cynthia

    Of course male surfers are also used to sell product, but not on par with females. It’s interesting that you had to qualify most of your statements, distinguishing how men are treated differently than women. 

    The problem is the message that it sends to young women – that they are valued primarily for their bodies. The Miss Representation film does a good job of examining and explaining the impact.

  • Tim Hamby

    Excellent piece, Cynthia. As the father of two young daughters, one currently an aspiring surfer, I greatly appreciate it. I’ve been desiring to explore this subject further myself, but have not been able to create the time necessary to do it to the level I’d like. 

    Radmania, I think your response is probably representative of the opinion of many. Clearly, you’re seeking balance, which in my opinion, is always a good thing. And while attractive men and women should both be able to take advantage of their good looks and fortune, and capitalize upon their marketability (understanding that appearance is not what ultimately creates worth, or makes a person beautiful), the difference between the two is the way that the girls are still too often being sexualized (and at increasingly young ages).

    I’ll share two telling and disheartening stories: My 9-year old daughter started surfing last year after watching the movie, Soul Surfer. She idolizes Bethany Hamilton and has gone completely nuts for the sport. I never get any surfing time myself anymore because I spend it all pushing her into waves! : ) Naturally, she’s decorated her room, primarily with pictures she’s drawn herself, of surfboards, waves and beach scenes. She also asked if she could look through my surf magazines (old copies of Surfer and Surfing), to try to find pictures of Bethany; Alana Blanchard (the other notable personality in Soul Surfer); and/or any other female surfers. 

    She’s looking for heroes and role models…

    I initially winced at the thought of her looking through these publications because of the over-proliferation of sexualized content that I know are in them (ads and editorial). In the end, I wanted to be able to share all the good things about our sport that are also included in these publications. So I made the decision (probably the wrong one), to let her look through the mags (for the record- more pictures of Bethany, please).

    Here’s what happened: She brought back two photos. One of Bethany surfing and another of Alana, standing with her surfboard, looking back over her shoulder with a “come hither” look. Interestingly, the picture of Alana was cut right in half. Why? Because the bottom of that photo portrayed Alana showing us her arse in a thong. And my 9-year old daughter INSTINCTIVELY knew that there was something that wasn’t quite “right” about that photo. 

    It’s not what she was searching for…

    The second event occurred more recently. She has continued to drink in the sport. I bought her a used CI that used to belong to Sage Erickson with some beautiful Butterfly artwork on it that Sage did herself. So, her universe of idols has continued to expand. Concurrently, she has continued to look for pictures in the magazines of her heroes; of ANY girls surfing. 

    So last week she came up to me and asked this question: “Dad, why aren’t there more pictures of girls surfing?” 

    “What do you mean Kaelyn?”

    “I mean why aren’t there more pictures of girls DOING things on their surfboards? They’re always just standing there, or holding their boards or something…”

    She was truly puzzled. And I didn’t have a good answer for her…

    In our society today, soft porn is ubiquitous. Do we really need more of the same in our surf mags? 

    Surfer girls DO rock. They are sexy because surfing is a healthy, athletic, joyful, adventurous act, one that requires confidence. These are all sexy qualities. Women do not require anything more. Or in the case of stereotypical “F-me” poses and thong shots, anything less.

  • Anonymous

    You do realize that the target audience for most surf magazines is composed of young men right? And that they are written and edited by youngish men? And that men outnumber women in lineups probably 20-1? 

    • Tim Hamby

      And that 30% of Quiksilver’s sales are from Roxy- a $400 million dollar brand? (Don’t have my hands on growth rates between the two divisions, but bet I can guess). Quik figured out that market demand 20 years ago and made a bold, visionary decision that paid off. Maybe it’s just where I live, but 20-1 sure sounds light… There are girls-only shops, camps and plenty of all ages in the line-ups… 

      I’d personally just like to find some surf media (besides the film, Soul Surfer, which is wonderful, but which I’ve now seen 20-30 times), to be able to share the sport with my young daughters in ways that communicate the right messages. I read where former SURFER Magazine editor, Ben Marcus had tried to start a women’s-oriented surfing publication back in 2006 (WET Magazine?), but don’t know if it is still around (lending support to your inferences). Maybe it’s time someone gives it another shot. There’s a lot of young girls and parents that would appreciate it.

      Any suggestions out there? 

      • Cynthia K

        Check out Jetty Girl Online Surf Magazine.

        • Anonymous

          Which, it should be noted, is published by a man.

        • Tim Hamby

          Appreciate the tip, Cynthia. Looks like a well-done site! @Tom: Interesting that it’s published by a man. I wonder if Surfing, Surfer or TransWorld has done a women’s “takeover” issue (let them edit content / advertising, ect.) ? I guess then we’d see where things really stand between the sexes on issues like objectification and such. Would it work both ways? ; )

          • Anonymous

            Surfing magazine used to publish a Surfing Girl issue, pretty regularly, and SURFER used to devote the back third of their issue to women in the early 2000s. 

      • Janelle

        Hey Tim,

        As a school teacher and woman in her 40′s who has recently taken up surfing, (cuz it’s fun) I’m compelled to respond to your post. First off, hats off for taking the time to share your story. Your girls will one day really appreciate it. Secondly, *I* appreciate you illustrating a perspective that just isn’t talked about much in surf culture circles (or really many other circles for that matter.)

        It sounds to be a remedial lesson for you as much as a new lesson for your girls that our society is a “work-in-progress,” for sure, on this topic. As a reasonably intelligent professional person who happens to be blonde and still somewhat attractive, I absolutely understand your dilemma. You’re in a tough spot. Your role as a supportive coach to two young girls who are in learning-mode should probably include lots of explaining when it comes to how the media handles the girls vs the boys. The way I reconcile it with my girl students is that we are all ‘taking baby steps’ on this issue. Maybe the challenge is for you to help your girls focus on the sport and being the best surfers they can be…Ultimately their authenticity and talent will help us all take it the next level (of equality?) 

        Thanks for listening! ;-)

        • Tim Hamby

          Thanks Janelle, I think you are spot-on with your assessment. The path to progress is always filled with peaks and valleys and you just kind of hope that the trendline is up. With respect to surfing, I do believe this is generally the case, driven primarily by increased participation in the sport among women, as well as the continuing evolution of talent. Given that, your recommendation makes perfect sense.

    • Tim Hamby

      And that 30% of Quiksilver’s sales are from Roxy- a $400 million dollar brand? (Don’t have my hands on growth rates between the two divisions, but bet I can guess). Quik figured out that market demand 20 years ago and made a bold, visionary decision that paid off. Maybe it’s just where I live, but 20-1 sure sounds light… There are girls-only shops, camps and plenty of all ages in the line-ups… 

      I’d personally just like to find some surf media (besides the film, Soul Surfer, which is wonderful, but which I’ve now seen 20-30 times), to be able to share the sport with my young daughters in ways that communicate the right messages. I read where former SURFER Magazine editor, Ben Marcus had tried to start a women’s-oriented surfing publication back in 2006 (WET Magazine?), but don’t know if it is still around (lending support to your inferences). Maybe it’s time someone gives it another shot. There’s a lot of young girls and parents that would appreciate it.

      Any suggestions out there? 

  • Enemiesinmirrors

    Radmania, please take a closer look at any surf magazine and ask yourself where the women in there are portrayed as the subject, rather than the object. 

    • Radmania

      Are you talking about the editorial content of magazines, or the advertising? Yes, advertising nearly always views women as objects, but editorial much less so. Malia Manuel on the cover of Transworld – was that for her looks or her surfing? Or both? Aussie magazines often have semi naked models in them purely for their good looks, but there’s a reasonable amount of women’s surfing in there where the women are surfing. You can’t include Stab because it’s half a fashion mag, and is just as likely to use a male surfer as a model as a women (eg Jordy and Lyndal in the latest issue).

      Of course there’s way less shots (and stories) run of women than men, but that’s a whole ‘nother pandora’s box of issues to open up.

      I’ve gotta admit, i only quickly flick through the American mags because they’re so filled with ads anyway. But i read the Aussie ones.

      I guess maybe things are different here in Australia, where a prime-time TV ad for one of the biggest breakfast cereal companies features Steph Gilmore … surfing. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention her name at all, but on the close up when she is drinking the breakfast drink i guess you are just expected to recognise her. And most Australians probably would.

  • Enemiesinmirrors

    Radmania, please take a closer look at any surf magazine and ask yourself where the women in there are portrayed as the subject, rather than the object. 

  • Dana

    A very valid point and article, but I think there’s a bigger picture at work here….the difference between men and women.  Biologically, men will always be bigger, stronger and capable of more powerful moves.  That’s why for so long women’s surfing was viewed as sub-par.  The Carissa, Steph and others are making great strides in this category, and if you haven’t recently, I encourage you to check out Transworld Surf, as I think they’re making a good effort to show girls ripping, regardless of what they’re wearing.  But, of course, the mag has more guys in it because guess what, more guys surf.   If you’re a surf photographer trying to get an awesome shot, your odds are better of getting a picture of guy than a girl, all gender bias aside. 

    Also, speaking to the differences between men and women, men are more visual, and I think most heterosexual men would concur that they enjoy looking at pictures of beautiful women.  No matter what they’re doing.  Also, most would agree that the female form is beautiful, it’s the source of life and should be loved and revered.  So when these up-and-coming surfer girls who RIP and can out surf most of the guys in the water at any given break, also decide to pose for a swimsuit issue, or star in a bit of a risque ad, I think it’s a celebration of just how awesome being a woman is.  Yes we can be killer surfers.  And yes, we can look good doing it too.

    I agree that there should be more publications and portrayals of women in surfing that little girls can look up to.  But I don’t think it should be all wetsuits and boxy board shorts.  Being sexy, pretty, cute, is all something we have and can harness as females, so I don’t think it has to be one of the other….and I do think as females become better surfers, the coverage will catch up…there’s signs of it already….big movements don’t happen over night….just keep your daughters and sisters stoked and the rest will fall in line.

    • Anonymous

      For what it’s worth, as a man, I agree.

    • Radmania

       Yep – i very much agree with you too, Dana. I see no problem in the best female surfers being able to celebrate both their good looks, and their ripping talent.

      • Radmania

        Ha! I just saw this on ye olde Facebook and i had to laugh. It sort of takes the ideas of a few comments here about readership and plays on it. http://instagr.am/p/KIdV12s_PW/

  • bert

    ” I think most heterosexual men would concur that they enjoy looking at
    pictures of beautiful women.”

    That’s one of the issues! Why do they enjoy looking at pictures of “beautiful women”? What is a “beautiful woman” eligible for being pictured? If I say “most heterosexual men would concur that they enjoy watching porn”, am I wrong? And what does it say about gender differences?
    Would it be possible for “heterosexual women” to enjoy watching pictures of “beautiful men”?

     ”Also, most
    would agree that the female form is beautiful”

    For the heterosexual guys, I guess? All female forms? Are you sure?

    “it’s the source of life
    and should be loved and revered.”

    Oh, come on, this is too much!

    ” also decide to pose for a swimsuit issue, or star in a bit of a risque ad, I think it’s a celebration of just how awesome being a woman is.  Yes
    we can be killer surfers. ”

    So you come and repeat the business mantra, that is: “if I show half naked women to sell something, that is because how awesom a woman is”…I know the song! Come on!
    A woman posing naked for an ad is not doing a “risque ad”, but something totally usual and normal in our world! The riosque ad would be for a brand to take a “normal girl” and advertize on her abilities and personnality, and not her butt.

    “And yes, we can look good doing it too.”

    And if you don’t?

  • Tim Hamby

    Rebecca,

    Thanks, I will absolutely check these out. I am sure that she will be thrilled to watch something new that she can get stoked on and be inspired by! Years ago, I had the great privilege of being in a crowded lineup at New Smyrna on a day when Lisa Anderson happened to paddle out. Growing up, I’m pretty sure that every guy had a crush on her (including me). But in the water, up close, watching her put on a clinic, those kinds of thoughts were quickly replaced with “Holy Mother of Mary!!!”