Keala Kennelly XXL PUerto Escondido ALana Blanchard Butt

In many senses, professional female athletes must become a walking contradiction: a Roman gladiator in high heels. Keala Kennelly and Alana Blanchard demonstrate the polarity well. Photo (L) Ryan Struck (R) Russell Ord


The Inertia

In 1995, Keala Kennelly showed up to Hossegor, France for a competition en route to qualifying for her first year on the ASP World Tour. Most of the best female surfers in the world were there. In the final, Layne Beachley and Rochelle Ballard paddled out for what many expected to be a memorable heat. As they hit the water, a voice blared over the loudspeaker to inform the crowd that the bikini contest was starting. Music pumped, models in g-strings and high heels began to prance up and down a makeshift runway. The majority of the crowd stopped watching the surfing entirely. Some of the judges missed scoring waves because they were leaning out of their tower to try to get a better look at the bikini models. Out on the fringes of the crowd and the music and leering eyes, Beachley and Ballard finished their heat.

Since the days of Gidget, women’s surfing has struggled to define its image. Is it an arena for serious athletes where appearance and sex are immaterial? Is it an extended fashion campaign for sylph-like young women to look good and sell clothes based on an image of youthful beauty? Or is it some amorphous combination of the two?

Former pro and current women’s representative on the ASP, Jessi Myley-Dyer, says sex appeal and performance have always coexisted in women’s surfing. “People talk about the ‘new sexualisation’ of women in the surfing industry, but in fact, Wendy Botha is a 4-tim ASP World Champion – winning her first title in the ‘80s – and posed for Playboy Magazine about ten years ago,” she says. “ I don’t think that the two images are contradictory, but rather complementary – women can be incredibly sexy and be amazing athletes; they are not mutually-exclusive qualities. Outside of surfing, someone like Natalie Coughlin has appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, but still remains the first woman to swim the 100m backstroke in under a minute.”

Botha won her fourth and final World Title in 1992. The next year a sponsorless, and arthritis-wracked Pauline Menczer spent $25,000 of the $30,000 in the prize money she earned that year to travel the world, and managed to win her own World Title. Despite accomplishing what Matt Warshaw calls “one of the sport’s great achievements,” she quickly fell into the shadow of a young woman named Lisa Anderson whose career was on the ascendency based on once-in-a-generation skill, and an industry whose mid-‘90s growth in the female arena was based largely on the heavy marketing of pretty women. Menczer, who once airbrushed an Aussie “bushpig” on a surfboard (Oz slang for an ugly woman) was famously quoted as saying: “I don’t have sponsors because I don’t have big boobs, blonde hair, and blue eyes.”

Female athletes have spent over two hundred years trying to convince both men and other women that athletics and femininity are not “mutually exclusive” as Myley-Dyer put it. She’s right, of course, but that isn’t exactly the question here. No, the question is: what happens to all those women, like Menczer, who weren’t born with the right looks? Furthermore, what is the future of a sport in which women have to be both incredibly talented and adhere to a narrow definition of beauty to gain sponsorship dollars and media coverage?

***

“In 2012 a regular looking (or even homely) guy that surfs really well has a legitimate shot at sponsorship and editorial coverage in surf media,” says Chris Grant, editor of Jettygirl Online Surf Magazine. Grant has worked in the surf industry intermittently for 25 years, as a coach, contest judge, retailer, and photographer. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to be fit and good looking, and I’m sure the contracts reflect that. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that an ugly guy that shreds can still score a solid sponsorship package and make a decent run at making the World Tour. Female surfers on the other hand, operate under a completely different set of rules. With sponsored ‘lifestyle’ surfers getting more opportunities recently, it’s becoming clear that actual surfing ability is becoming less important.”

“The rules” that Grant refers to remain nebulous and ill-defined because very few people in the industry want to go on record to even discuss the notion of a double standard. The surf world is too small and too conservative to publicly shoot your mouth off about the best ways to market a young lady’s assets, physical or otherwise.

Myley-Dyer, for one, disagrees with the notion that the surf industry rewards women with the “right look.” “I’ve heard people talk about this…the ‘right look’ being the blonde hair and blue eyes,” she says, “but I have surfed with so many successful women, who have been spearheads of the marketing campaigns for the brands that they rode for, who all looked differently. If the blonde-hair-blue-eyes thing was real, someone like Megan Abubo would never have been the Roxy champion that she was, and Silvana Lima would never grace the pages of a magazine in a Billabong advertisement. But, she does.”

Kennelly believes that beauty is the ultimate leveler in the industry game. “If you are a hot, young female surfer that has that ‘Maxim Magazine sex pot’ thing going for you, this industry is going to love you, and you will have a great career,” she says. “Sponsors will throw money at you. Brands will use you in their advertising instead of hiring models that don’t actually surf. And the surf mags will run mediocre photos of you doing bottom turns because it shows off your “assets”(even if you have much better shots than that). Every year you will get a spread in the token “girls issue” and only a few of the photos will be actual surfing shots… The rest will be sexy shots of you posing and every year they will convince you to wear a little less because hey- its good for women’s surfing. The only downside is your shelf-life in the spotlight will be limited because there will always be younger, cuter girls coming up to replace you.”

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  • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

    Great article, you got yourself a fan in Brasil. Cheers!

  • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

    Great article, you got yourself a fan in Brasil. Cheers!

  • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

    Great article, you got yourself a fan in Brasil. Cheers!

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Cori S

    It seems to me that the “new sexualisation” referred to is a larger, industry-wide movement vs. a one-off phenomenon (e.g. Botha). This isn’t a new industry standard (the sexualisation of women in surfing via models has been going on for years) but a shift of focus: now a growing number of female professional surfers are embracing and endorsing the sexualisation trend on their own bodies. The reasons why require an understanding of processes of internalization and enculturation… related quite neatly to the low median age of female surfers and the even younger age of the beginning of their sponsorship contracts.

    Those in privileged positions rarely admit/see this reality, even if they themselves are of the same group. Pointing to exceptions subtly underscores this point. Why are there still exceptions (off tour and w/o sponsors at that) if times have indeed changed to the extent that a more diverse, yet equally represented, group of women are making 100% performance based salaries?
    More analysis with hard numbers needed.

    Additionally, it is a rather strange marketing strategy that continues to use the same advertising and marketing techniques and then blames the lack of interest on the ladies themselves (surfers and the female market). Might not the ad/marketing be missing the mark? A bikini contest in the middle of a women’s contest? Sexy ads and sex sounds during commercial breaks during women’s contests (Bells)?? C’mon.

    Great article once again, Mr. Endo.

  • Carley

    I’ve been surfing since middle school and always regretted not pursuing the professional path. As I’ve always deep down known the facts but it is refreshing to see you write about them. I was never the girly girl or sex pot, I hardly had the looks of the girls getting the sponsorships even though I was beating them in competition. Girls surfing is endemic of our cultural view of women. Something I came to figure out a long time ago is that as a woman you have the ability to attract things into your life as opposed to having to go out and get it with bull strength. While some may see women get sponsorships and recognition partly on their looks as a negative thing, it is a powerful asset that women are blessed with. These women who are successful in leveraging their “assets” to get sponsored are actually using their looks as if they had a genetic predisposition to be a faster or stronger athlete. Beauty and brains are the power of a woman.

  • Doh!

    It doesn’t help when male journalists don’t even spell the women’s name right: it’s Miley-Dyer… With an I … ;)

  • Doh!

    It doesn’t help when male journalists don’t even spell the women’s name right: it’s Miley-Dyer… With an I … ;)

  • Doh!

    It doesn’t help when male journalists don’t even spell the women’s name right: it’s Miley-Dyer… With an I … ;)

  • Doh!

    It doesn’t help when male journalists don’t even spell the women’s name right: it’s Miley-Dyer… With an I … ;)

  • http://www.awasht.com/ awasht

    It comes down to the simple fact that if you want to make money from surfing, you have to have a reason for people to invest money in you. If people in the industry think you can make them money, then they will spend money on you.

    Anyone who gets paid to surf is essentially a model.

  • http://www.awasht.com/ awasht

    It comes down to the simple fact that if you want to make money from surfing, you have to have a reason for people to invest money in you. If people in the industry think you can make them money, then they will spend money on you.

    Anyone who gets paid to surf is essentially a model.

  • Anonymous

    “As for the magazines, if you are not 22 or younger, well-sponsored, and hot you can forget about getting editorial unless your shot is extraordinary.” KK sums it up perfectly. Women, by and large, don’t surf as well as men. To sell products, they need to either rip extraordinarily hard, or they need something else; most often this something else is beauty. This isn’t new, it isn’t insidious, it isn’t sexist, it just is. If I’m going to watch surfing or read about surfing, it needs to capture and hold my interest. Great surfing does that, as does interesting surfing. As does watching beautiful girls surfing. But I won’t spend any time at all paying attention to mediocre surfing. Especially in a contest. Same reason I will never watch the WNBA. Not liking boring surfing has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. I’ll watch Carissa surf (not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Steph Gilmore surf (also not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Coco Ho surf (ditto), and sometimes I’ll watch Sally Fitzgibbons surf (probably sponsored in part for her looks). But other than those four, I’m not particularly interested. I’m also not interested in watching somebody of my level surf, unless that person is me, or is surfing in some way that is unusually interesting.

    Surfing is a sport that pays its athletes from a giant pool of marketing dollars. Most sports do. Those who can sell something, by either their innate, world-class (not world class for their gender, but straight-up world class) abilities will get paid, as will those who can sell something based on their personality or their physical appearance. This isn’t the surf industry’s fault. If you want to blame something blame capitalism and human nature.

  • Anonymous

    “As for the magazines, if you are not 22 or younger, well-sponsored, and hot you can forget about getting editorial unless your shot is extraordinary.” KK sums it up perfectly. Women, by and large, don’t surf as well as men. To sell products, they need to either rip extraordinarily hard, or they need something else; most often this something else is beauty. This isn’t new, it isn’t insidious, it isn’t sexist, it just is. If I’m going to watch surfing or read about surfing, it needs to capture and hold my interest. Great surfing does that, as does interesting surfing. As does watching beautiful girls surfing. But I won’t spend any time at all paying attention to mediocre surfing. Especially in a contest. Same reason I will never watch the WNBA. Not liking boring surfing has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. I’ll watch Carissa surf (not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Steph Gilmore surf (also not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Coco Ho surf (ditto), and sometimes I’ll watch Sally Fitzgibbons surf (probably sponsored in part for her looks). But other than those four, I’m not particularly interested. I’m also not interested in watching somebody of my level surf, unless that person is me, or is surfing in some way that is unusually interesting.

    Surfing is a sport that pays its athletes from a giant pool of marketing dollars. Most sports do. Those who can sell something, by either their innate, world-class (not world class for their gender, but straight-up world class) abilities will get paid, as will those who can sell something based on their personality or their physical appearance. This isn’t the surf industry’s fault. If you want to blame something blame capitalism and human nature.

  • Anonymous

    “As for the magazines, if you are not 22 or younger, well-sponsored, and hot you can forget about getting editorial unless your shot is extraordinary.” KK sums it up perfectly. Women, by and large, don’t surf as well as men. To sell products, they need to either rip extraordinarily hard, or they need something else; most often this something else is beauty. This isn’t new, it isn’t insidious, it isn’t sexist, it just is. If I’m going to watch surfing or read about surfing, it needs to capture and hold my interest. Great surfing does that, as does interesting surfing. As does watching beautiful girls surfing. But I won’t spend any time at all paying attention to mediocre surfing. Especially in a contest. Same reason I will never watch the WNBA. Not liking boring surfing has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. I’ll watch Carissa surf (not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Steph Gilmore surf (also not sponsored for her looks), I’ll watch Coco Ho surf (ditto), and sometimes I’ll watch Sally Fitzgibbons surf (probably sponsored in part for her looks). But other than those four, I’m not particularly interested. I’m also not interested in watching somebody of my level surf, unless that person is me, or is surfing in some way that is unusually interesting.

    Surfing is a sport that pays its athletes from a giant pool of marketing dollars. Most sports do. Those who can sell something, by either their innate, world-class (not world class for their gender, but straight-up world class) abilities will get paid, as will those who can sell something based on their personality or their physical appearance. This isn’t the surf industry’s fault. If you want to blame something blame capitalism and human nature.

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Danielle Clayton

    Another thought-provoking and enjoyable read, thanks!

  • The plain truth

    In surfing or skating, it’s almost a joke to watch the womens in comparison to the mens division. You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s exciting or unforgettable. It’s boring and lame in comparison… who knows? Maybe some day women will turn into men and you will enjoy watching it too?
    Well…. whatdya expect? haha Womens surfing is a joke and the companies (nike) that try to turn it into some new revelation are pretty kooky too! …just sayin’
    I still love watching a bikini contest either way! :)

  • The plain truth

    In surfing or skating, it’s almost a joke to watch the womens in comparison to the mens division. You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s exciting or unforgettable. It’s boring and lame in comparison… who knows? Maybe some day women will turn into men and you will enjoy watching it too?
    Well…. whatdya expect? haha Womens surfing is a joke and the companies (nike) that try to turn it into some new revelation are pretty kooky too! …just sayin’
    I still love watching a bikini contest either way! :)

  • BH

    Such a great article! It really inspired me and I could write pages on this topic. The whole sex-sells thing enrages me and I wish women would stop being their own worst enemies. We’ll only ever be reduced to sex objects if we keep allowing it to happen.

  • BH

    Such a great article! It really inspired me and I could write pages on this topic. The whole sex-sells thing enrages me and I wish women would stop being their own worst enemies. We’ll only ever be reduced to sex objects if we keep allowing it to happen.

  • SCS

    One of the best articles on this issue I have ever read, I just wish I didn’t find it the same day that you posted the Alana Cyclone video.
    On the idea of marketing to young women surfers through pictures of them lying on the beach instead of surfing, they have a double effect of not appealing to those who want to surf, and also discouraging young women who might want to surf by conveying that the “value” is in looking hot in the bikini, not ripping in it.
    Also, I like the conclusion of this article that these issues don’t mean that “the current crop of famous women pros” deserve their positions, but just that there may be others out there who might also but will never be giving the opportunity. Alana frustrates the heck out of me, but I understand that she is following society’s lead and the money. I just hope she really can rip and that there are not ten other girls who could do better but will never get that chance because they either don’t have her ass or don’t want to show it off if they do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CafePlayaNegra Andrea Raffo

    would it be different if the judges @ contests were women?

  • gurl-in-the-curl

    hi, i think this is very true. i live in indonesia and up till now is still rare to see women standing on the surfboard here. the last few years some local females have been practicing and competing, although their level in surfing are mediocre. however, they’re very enthusiastic and want to be local pro badly (at least to compete in local championship). it’s not easy to join every contest here without sponsor, because u gotta spend a lot money to go traveling around the archipelago. This beauty issue becomes real matter now, as for major sponsors they either must be a ripper, or good looking (it’s ok even if the only thing u can do is just stand and pose on the board).if you’re average on both case, you will go nowhere. Yet the worst thing about that is the beauty image often relates to racist idea for women. as for asian, lighter skin is preferred, and likely easier to get sponsors.