“The introduction of corporate brands to the surfing market is going really well,” says Anastasia Ashley. “They are probably using girls better than the endemic brands in the sense that they are marketing them more.” If Carissa Moore’s sponsors have helped her base her image almost purely on performance, Ashley, perhaps one of the savvier businesswomen in surfing, has based hers around sex appeal. So much so, that it’s easy to forget that she is, perhaps, one of the better female free surfers in the world. She also surfs big waves, like Waimea. Although she is a good example of Kennelly’s “Maxim Magazine sex pot,” she hasn’t always had the closest relationship with the surf industry based, anecdotally, on a reputation for being “difficult”. As in any male dominated area, “difficult” when used to describe a woman can sometimes be another way of saying “opinionated.” Whatever the case, I’ve interviewed her a couple of times and found her to be consistently thoughtful and interesting.
She doesn’t find fault with the way surf companies are marketing their women, but she does think that the media could sharpen its focus a bit. “Most brands have actually stayed pretty authentic by mixing lifestyle and performance in their marketing,” she says. If anything, magazines could improve because they tend to only look at what gets the most eyeballs. If they are going to get more hits running a certain type of photo they are going to do it. I think if they do lifestyle features they should make a point of doing more performance.”
Let’s also not forget the women themselves. Although many would not admit it in interviews, they are some of the most media savvy self-marketers in modern surfing. “I think that most young females surfers that are sponsored are aware of how their image comes across and how it can affect their careers,” Says Villa. “ And I think it is their choice as to how they choose to be portrayed in the media. Sex sells — you can see that with someone like Alana Blanchard-she has more Instagram followers than pretty much any professional surfer-male or female. But she is not just a beautiful girl, she is actually a talented surfer as well and that has worked well for her profile. And I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.
Villa embraces these young, attractive athlete/businesswomen. “One of the great things about the social media phenomenon is that these girls are marketing themselves more than the brands are marketing them,” she says. “You get to know everything about them by reading their Twitter feed and checking out their Instagram posts,”
It would take a better mind than mine to tease out any firm conclusions from the frayed ends of feminism, double standards, business-speak, history, and theory that twist into the impenetrable knot of this damned article…but what can we say for sure? Women’s pro surfing, while not actively discriminatory, has found a way to weed out a lot (but not all) women whose appearances won’t sell clothing. This is achieved through a sort of positive discrimination in which young, extremely talented surfers who also photograph well are supported by the industry more than young, extremely talented surfers who do not photograph well. This does not mean the current crop of famous women pros do not deserve their vaunted positions. But it might mean that there are a lot of women who also deserve prominent positions but will never achieve them without the right complexion or bone structure. There is no evidence to suggest that this system is part of a larger agenda promoted solely by a cabal of filthy, sexist old men. Instead, it’s promoted by everyone who stands to benefit from it – companies, parents, managers, all the way on down to the young women who appear in magazines dry riding their boards like stripper poles, tight asses suggestively pointed towards the camera lens.
Speaking of strippers, listen closely and you can hear the bugles on the battlefield where once raged the war of the sexes; it’s over now. As Jacob Palmer says, men won the second women started pole-dancing for exercise. What we are left with is not a clean resolution, but some voyeuristic amalgam of sex, merit, and PR. Call it what you want. Ultimately the issues here say less about discrimination or sexism in the traditional senses of those terms, and more about the deeply ambivalent role of the modern woman, what society expects of her, and what she expects of herself.