Think “surfer girl”. What’s the first image that comes to mind? A hundred bucks says that it’s a bronzed beauty with sun-kissed hair in a bikini. Maybe she’s charging hard in the Ments or maybe she is just doing typical “surfer girl pose”, you know–holding her board on the beach being sexy and all. Whatever she was doing, she no doubt looked pretty similar to the thousands of bikini babes that come up when you type “surfer girl” into Google images.
The images you don’t see are the pioneering Polynesian women surfers, or big waves surfers like Maya Gabeira in their wetsuits and puffy lifevests, or Middle-Eastern women in head-to-toe religion-appropriate attire breaking down all gender stereotypes in their countries. Or pretty much any other woman that doesn’t fit the surfer girl stereotype. Which, in case you didn’t realize, is about 99% of all women.
So why does Miss Bikini Babe come into our head when women’s surfing, and indeed female surfers, are so much more diverse? Well, it’s no secret the surf industry likes to sell one type of surfer girl, and not only does she look a particular way, but she also doesn’t wear very many clothes. Sex sells, people! So much so that we’re all brainwashed into thinking that to be a surfer girl we’ve got to look like Alana Blanchard’s bottom turn.
Now, I’m all for women’s lib. If a women wants to be naked, then I say go hard sister! I was raised with parents who were partial to nudist beaches and taught me to love my body and be proud of it, no matter what it looked like. But I’m also a 5”10 blonde, athletic “surfer girl”, so I’ve never really had to think twice about not fitting the stereotype. I’m also blessed to live in a global north country, where showing skin and being sexy is embraced, and as a woman I’m entitled (and safe) to do whatever I like with my body, and it’s no one else’s business.
But that’s not the case for all women, and it’s certainly not the case in most cultures around the world. This doesn’t mean those women are any less empowered, or any less of a “surfer girl”. It just means that women everywhere are different, and that needs to be honored and respected. And that women should never have to fit or be sold some stereotype.
Last month, nine girlfriends and I went to Sri Lanka as part of The Fresh Air Project. Tropical paradise. Perfect bikini surfing weather (especially coming from winter back home). We were frothing. Had our instagrams ready for surf goddess overload. Except there was a catch – we didn’t wear bikinis. Why? Because that’s not what a “surfer girl” looks like in Sri Lanka. Instead, we wore full-length leggings and a full-length rashies. Just as stylish, mind you, thanks to being sponsored by the stylin’ and generous Salt Gypsy. We thought, the local girls wouldn’t wear bikinis, so why would we?
Sure, we could have gone to Sri Lanka and got our warm-water bikini surf fix (after all, it was our holiday and our surf trip). But we would have only perpetuated the stereotype, further isolating the local girls – where surfing is still seen as somewhat taboo for women, often associated with sex, drugs, partying, and not wearing very many clothes. Instead, we chose to respect the locals and their culture. Men and women, alike. We wanted to breakdown the stereotypes and help empower the locals to see women’s surfing differently.
And what happened next was amazing. For the first time ever in Arugam Bay (an area badly affected by the 2004 tsunami), all the women in the Sinhalese village, except two, came together… and together, we all went surfing. For some, this was the first time they’d ever been in the ocean; many couldn’t even swim. But every single woman surfed that day – mothers, sisters and daughters united by waves.
We shared the power of surfing with the local girls, and helped them take ownership over what surfing looks like for women in their local community. Covered from neck to feet, every woman could get involved without consideration of what she looked like. Because that’s not what surfing is about. Not for a minute that day did Miss Bikini Babe pop into anyone’s mind – we were too busy having fun. Too busy surfing. Too busy enjoying what it actually means to be a surfer girl. And since then, those women have been out surfing again by themselves, without us. They’re hooked!
We couldn’t be more proud and honored to share the waves that day with our Sri Lankan surf sisters, and couldn’t be more stoked to receive feedback and see for ourselves the positive impact not wearing out bikinis had on the local community. A small step, but an important one.
Now, there’s no moral of the story here that we should all protest against bikinis and being sexy. Back home, I don’t mind my cheeky bottoms (they stay on better for me!), but it is time we start to appreciate the diversity of what it means to be a surfer girl and that there isn’t a stereotype. Being a surfer has nothing to do with being sexy. Caring about image or being confined to one image goes against the grain of everything that surfing is about. Surfing, in its essence is about freedom, connection and joy. As surfer girls (and surfer boys), we have the choice to celebrate and respect the diversity of women and women’s surfing, and to lead by example, even when our industry and the media doesn’t (don’t worry, they’ll catch on. Stereotypes are so 2014).