Why Women’s Surfing is in the Deep End
Earlier this year, around the time of the inaugural Australian Open of Surfing in Manly, I found myself at a friend-of-a-friend’s barbecue. Of the twelve or so guests, my girlfriend and I were the only ones who weren’t female professional surfers. I didn’t need to be told. Many of them had made appearances in my life before, carving across the pages of one of the surfing mags piled up next to my bed or grinning at me from a window display as I bought Havaianas.
On the balcony of an ultra-modern holiday rental property overlooking one of Australia’s iconic beaches, we sat around a table spread with organic meat, quinoa salads and wine – for those who weren’t competing the next day – chatting and swapping stories. At some point it emerged that everyone in the group was either sitting next to their girlfriend, an ex, or a future love interest. Despite resenting the ways in which queer women are stereotyped, I was ashamedly surprised by this little matrix of same-sex attraction: you would be hard-pressed to find such long, blonde hair and deep tans in a straight club on a Saturday night, let alone a gay one. Nevertheless, being surfers ourselves, my girlfriend and I were enamored with these women and their lifestyle.
Then, the wine dried up, the sun went down, and it was over. We spent the whole drive home talking about these women; their travel plans, their quivers, their free clothes and surf gear, their tans, and their good looks. It seemed like they had it all.
Having gotten to know these girls better over the last few months, the illusion of ‘it all’ has been washed away. Instead, I find myself coming to the conclusion that being a female professional surfer isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’re not straight.
Women’s surfing is in trouble. While society is slowly moving forward in regards to women’s and queer rights, the surfing industry is stuck in a time warp, somewhere between Puberty Blues and the Bra Boys. Reliant upon and driven by its sponsors, professional surfing has become entwined with the marketability of surf culture, and the results are disastrous, particularly for women. To the detriment of some of the world’s most talented athletes, femininity and heterosexuality remain pre-determinants of sponsorship and media attention, and often, one’s ability to succeed in the sport.
With sponsorship drying up, no one is chomping at the bit to ‘out’ themselves or bad-mouth the industry, so respect the fact that the surfers I have spoken to have chosen to remain anonymous. Just know that between them they have 12 years experience of being in the ASP Women’s Top 17.
The Reality of Being a Female Pro Surfer
You may have heard it all before, but just to re-hash, the costs of competing as a professional surfer are huge, regardless of gender. One surfer I spoke to lost her main sponsor in 2011, and had to choose between funding her time on the 2012 ASP Women’s World Tour out of her own pocket, or giving up her dream of winning a world title. She picked surfing, and estimates that it cost her about $50,000 for the year. The occasional novelty check is only the icing on the cake and by no means enough to cover costs. To fund a career in professional surfing, let alone make a living, surfers are forced to turn to sponsorship; a reliance that has both blessed and plagued all surfers with dreams of going big.
While the ASP governs the industry and sanctions all the events, sponsors play a key role in funding these events and financing prospective competitors – a task mainly taken on by the “Big Three”: Rip Curl, Billabong and Quiksilver. This is where gender kicks in. Being businesses, the sponsors are motivated by high returns, and when it comes to profitability, women’s surfing struggles. Women’s events only draw a fraction of the crowds that the men’s events do, so they receive a fraction of the funding, and in the wake of the GFC, the gap between the number of events scheduled for men compared to women is only widening.
When it comes to the female surfers themselves, their viability to a brand is often tied up with how they look. As far as target markets go, there are relatively few women who surf in the world, so while the boys are celebrated for their skill and strength as surfers, the girls’ appeal is stretched to fit a more broad, mainstream audience. As one of the surfers (hereafter referred to as BBB) told me, “It’s all about marketing. If you appeal to a greater market they are going to hold onto you.”
BBB explains how the women are coaxed down one of two paths. They are either pawned off to the already established audience of male surfers, by keeping the sporting element but adding an Alana Blanchard variety of sex-appeal to make up for a perceived deficit in skill, or, turned into a lifestyle symbol for young, non-surfing females. Either way, their surfing takes a back seat. “They came to me and said ‘we don’t know how to market you’” says BBB, who was “forced to femme up” when she entered the industry at 19, and ditch the board-shorts for a bikini. She doesn’t seem too stoked about this but is resigned to the fact that it helped pay the bills, and tells me that it was something she never took personally. “They own your arse… the person is taken out of the equation when you become a product; you lose your privacy and become other people’s property and that’s it, you accept that.” As Tetsuhiko Endo highlights, when you contact company reps for comment on the matter they will either decline or refuse to answer: “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.”