It’s 2023. Women get barreled at Pipeline, charge at The Eddie, perform on the Championship Tour, and do airs. But for whatever reason, it seems like the desire to objectify, and therefore reduce women to their looks as opposed to what they can do in the water, has persisted.
Specifically, the desire to photograph, portray, and sell images of women in demeaning and sexual lights, especially on social media, has spiked as of late. Yes, male photographers have historically risen to fame by capitalizing on gender cliches, but surf photography isn’t commercial or fashion photography, so this wouldn’t happen, right?
Unfortunately, surf photography is not immune to certain photographers attempting to up their earnings by photographing women in scantily-clad outfits in sexual positions, sometimes on the beach, sometimes nowhere even close.
I won’t draw attention to specific names, because I’m not interested in pointing fingers. This is a theme across the industry. And if you follow enough surf photogs, you’ve definitely noticed it. Artists who post beautiful photos of noseriding and empty waves will also post photos of female models seductively gazing at the camera, fingers pulling off their bra strap, lying near the shorebreak.
Then, to make matters worse, these accounts ask viewers to pay more money to see the real, 18-plus content (often on Patreon or similar platforms). If this sounds like porn, that’s because it is. Asking people to pay money for adult content is not something that should be considered surf or water photography (or even adjacent).
An important disclaimer here is that I’m not claiming it is wrong for women to want to be portrayed in sexual or promiscuous ways. In fact, women should be free to dress and act however they want without stigma attached to it. But, when male photographers are profiting off selling women’s images in ways that appeal to the male gaze, this becomes an issue for other women in surf culture who do not wish for women to be subjected to objectification or judged solely on their appearances.
Women have worked hard to get sponsorships in the industry (something that was historically always more difficult than their male counterparts). Take Linda Davoli, for example: her Encyclopedia of Surfing entry reads: “Davoli moved to Hawaii in 1975, and two years later competed in the debut women’s world circuit, finishing fifth for the season. Over the next three years, she placed, in order, 4th, 4th, and 3rd, and in 1981 she won the Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro. Even so, as Davoli later said, ‘I was sleeping on people’s couches, living on peanut butter and jelly. I was poor all the time and that’s kinda the reason why I gave it up.'”
Her experience was not uncommon among professional female surfers, and that’s what makes the modern-day exploitation of women’s bodies in surf media so upsetting. There are plenty of women in the surf industry who are phenomenal subjects: Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore, Soleil Errico… not only because they’re fit and beautiful and everything else that comes with the aesthetic ideals of surfing, but because they rip! Why photograph women who don’t surf, and then use these sexual images to promote “surf” content? It’s a cheap way to get views, it’s tacky, and it’s unethical.
To be clear: I am critiquing one small aspect of surf media here, not surfing itself. Because surfing, as a culture, is not more sexist than Western culture at large. In fact, surf culture is pretty inclusive, as groups of people go. No matter if you believe surfing began in Hawaii or Peru, women were at the forefront of wave riding activities. Tracing all the way back to ancient Polynesia, women surfed gracefully and were praised for their wave-riding abilities. Surfing was a religious practice, and it was for everyone.
This is not to say there weren’t certain… less than stellar moments in surf history concerning women’s involvement. But all of history has its black spots: women couldn’t even vote until 1920, and Title IX, or the law concerning women’s right to receive a fair and equal education, wasn’t signed by Nixon until 1972! Women were surfing long before being allowed to pursue the same academic and athletic opportunities as men.
Oftentimes, male photographers excuse this harmful behavior by claiming that they are making women feel beautiful, or raising women’s self esteem up by showing them their own good looks. But at the end of the day, even if the goal is to “make women feel better,” it’s to make them feel better about their looks. Are looks really the only important thing? Are looks a way to build lasting confidence and self-esteem? Do looks really have anything to do with surfing?
Also, note who these photographers are choosing to “lift up.” If you want to raise people’s self-esteem, why choose the most conventionally attractive women to highlight? It’s because you’re not interested in doing charity work for the greater good of society. Photographing attractive young women who fit the beauty standards is something you are doing for your own personal pleasure and financial gain. And it is harming all the people who aren’t benefitting, while only benefitting the male photographer. One, singular person. By any ethical standards, this is a pretty poor trade-off.
Surfing doesn’t need more corruption and violence, and sexism promotes both of those themes. And if you think, “well, it’s just a few pictures. How bad could it be?” In a psychology journal-published research article by Manuela Barreto and David Matthew Doyle titled “Benevolent and hostile sexism in a shifting global context,” the authors explain that “sexism takes different forms, some of which can be disguised as protection and flattery.”
In this case, let’s be clear: by photographing women in sexual, objectified, and vulnerable positions, you are not flattering anyone. And it’s definitely not impressing your audience who followed you to see surf photography.
Surfing, and many of the values it represents (open-mindedness, exploration, appreciation for nature) can change the world. Let’s keep it that way: we don’t need more affiliation with sexism.