If you want to understand women’s place in surfing, you have to look first at the history of women in sports. Sporting culture, as we know it today traces its origins to the Industrial Revolution in England and the United States. To simplify a bit: machines made the workday shorter and less physical for the bourgeoisie who then invented activities to divert themselves during this novel period of the day known as “leisure time.”
While men took to the fields, women were largely forbidden to play sports because the existing medical dogmas of the day held that women’s physiology was dictated by a “fixed degree of energy” which was inherently less than that of men. This meant that any kind of exertion, be it mental, emotional, or physical, would lead to all sorts of unspeakable problems like infertility or the development of unsightly, overly-masculine muscles. In her canonical work Sporting Females, Jennifer Hargreaves cites the chairman of the British medical association who, in 1887, declared that all women should be prohibited from playing sports for the “progressive improvement of the human race.”
As science developed, women were allowed to partake in limited physical activities. One of the early women’s sports was a proto-aerobics called Swedish Gymnastics that involved a lot of stretching and a bit of nationalist indoctrination. Other popular sports were tennis and croquet. To this day, young women in Britain play a sport called Netball, invented because basketball was (and apparently still is) deemed too strenuous for them.
In our enlightened times, women play almost any sport they want. They even play traditionally male sports, like football, while wearing lingerie. Their acceptance, though, is conditional: they have to fit into a male dominated environment, says Dr. Uta Balbier, who teaches a class on the history of sports at Kings College London. Balbier calls modern sports a “cultural system created by men.” As such, women are accepted into it with certain caveats.
If you want to be a woman in the world of professional athletics (and be successful and well paid), here are some things you must do:
You must train your body to be stronger and abler than 99.9% of all the people in the world, but you must make sure that your body does not show that strength, lest you be branded mannish, or butch. You must want to beat your opponents more than anything else in the world, but you must never voice that opinion, lest you be thought of as overly aggressive, or worse, “difficult.” You must endure the insults and snubs of your male counterparts who will simultaneously judge you on your performance and on your appearance. You must push yourself to your absolute physical limit while wearing very little clothing. You must appear in a magazine or two bedecked in makeup and showing fifty to seventy five percent of your breasts and talking about the type of men you are attracted to. You must become a walking contradiction: a Roman gladiator in high heels.
There are currently 18 women on the ASP World Tour. Their mean age is 22. The oldest by a country mile is Jacqueline Silva at a geriatric 33. She is not sponsored by any of the big four endemic surf brands, (Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Billabong, Hurley) or the larger companies, like Nike (which owns Hurley) and Target, that are currently making inroads in the surfing world. Neither, for that matter, are Rebecca Woods or Paige Hareb.
“I’m sure there are dozens of similar stories around the globe [of unsponsored surfers] but one surfer that sticks out in my mind is Lauren Sweeney,” says Grant. “Lauren is well-read, loyal, honest, adventurous and quite simply, one of the best surfers I’ve ever seen. She is a truly beautiful human being in every sense of the word. Much like the male surfers around her, Lauren grew up playing the surfing contest game …winning regularly and turning heads wherever she paddled out. Knowing that a surf “career” isn’t always a path to success, she stayed in school and graduated with a Bachelors Degree from San Diego State. At the conclusion of school, Lauren was ready to head out to challenge the world’s best on the WQS. Unfortunately, in a scene that is all too typical for women hoping to make a run at qualifying for the Tour, Lauren lost her main sponsor. While the “Leave a Message” crew has garnered much press over the past few years, Lauren and others like her have been practicing those same fins-free, airborne techniques for years now. Since she doesn’t fit into the restrictive industry “surfer girl” stereotype, Lauren Sweeney will continue to surf under the radar …with each lofty punt being followed by puzzled surfers in the water asking, ‘Who the heck is that girl?’”
No sponsors equals no money equals no plane tickets equals no photo trips or international contests, ergo nobody but lucky Socal surfers see Lauren Sweeney surf. In this sense, it doesn’t matter how well she surfs. If she doesn’t have the sponsors or a sizeable trust fund, the odds of competing on the World Tour are stacked heavily against her. Of course, there are many reasons she might be sponsorless. But if you would kindly check out this video, you will see that her surfing ability is probably not one of them.
Kennelly sums it up like this: “I have seen so many talented female surfers go without sponsorship because they weren’t as attractive or feminine as some of the other girls,” she wrote. “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.”