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Bikini Blonde Part 3 | Women's Surfing Comes of Age


Women surfers were not depicted as athletes in television, songs, and other media in the slightest during the 1960s. But that changed with new legislation during the ‘70s. There was an increase in women’s athleticism in response to the 1972 Title IX legislation. As a result of Title IX, women and girls “benefited from more participation opportunities and more equitable facilities” (Feminist Majority Foundation). This widespread increase in girls’ engagement in sports also applied to surfing. To an extent, female surfers were no longer objects, they were bonafide athletes. As Lauren Hill, surfer and writer for Surfing World Magazine, argues in her article “We Celebrate Heroic Women of 90s Pro Surfing”, because of Title IX, “girls were given widespread permission and support to pursue the sport”. Hill furthers that girls coming of age in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s got the “cultural ‘okay’” to be serious athletes for the first time. But, similar to women surfers in the ‘60s, the competitive female surfers coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s were objectified in the surf advertisements of the ‘90s, put on a pedestal, and exploited by the surf industry. Women in surfing made progress in the sense that they were known as dedicated and committed athletes. But, the patriarchy remained by capitalizing off of the image of the woman who surfs in their advertisements.

Before we can examine how the patriarchy was still ingrained in surf culture, we should first understand how the new portrayal of the surfer girl was different than the Gidget era. Unlike the Gidget era, the new female surfer was athletic and had a serious interest in surfing. Coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lisa Anderson was one of the first to define this new image. She would become the emblem of women in surfing during the peak of her career in the 1990s. Born in 1969, and growing up in Ormond Beach Florida, she started surfing at the local pier. She was defiant, strong, and confident. In her biography, Fearlessness: the Story of Lisa Anderson, Nick Carroll captures her seminal experiences in the water as a young teenager: “This little all-male surfing bubble-world felt to Lisa like something she instinctively knew, Lisa the tomboy who’d grown up in the company of boys” (37-40). Lisa, self-identified “tomboy,” fit in with the local surfer boys in her neighborhood, unlike Gidget, who could not blend in with the boys. He furthers that “they were calling her ‘Trouble’ down at the Hartford approach—first because she’d endlessly pester them for a turn on their boards, then because she was soon enough moving faster than anyone her age, taking waves from all over the place” (37-40).

Anderson’s nickname ‘Trouble’ characterizes her desire to fight her way into the surfing world by begging to use the boys’ boards. She was determined to become skilled at surfing, and she accomplished this goal.

Soon enough, Anderson was surfing better than the boys at the local pier. Anderson’s relationship with surfing stands in stark contrast to Kohner (the real-life Gidget) who explained she was surfing to pursue a guy she had a crush on. Kohner did not seem to take surfing seriously. Anderson did. Her ambition and dedication to becoming the best set her apart from the other women surfers of and before her time. In 1985, Anderson ran away from home at the age of 16 to chase her dream of becoming a professional surfer.

Figure 3: Lisa Riding Huntington Beach, Age 16

Fig. 3 is one of the first photos ever taken of Anderson surfing. She is in Huntington Beach California, having just arrived from Ormond Beach, Florida. She wrote to her parents: “I’m leaving and I’m going to be the number one surfer in the world”—and she eventually did (Carroll 44). After several years living and learning on the professional dream tour, Anderson won her first of four world titles in 1994 (Kessel, “Triumph and Despair: Lisa Anderson”). She is nothing like the earlier women on the shoulders of the male surfers in the photo, Kathy Kohner basking in the sun, or Gidget falling off her board. The expression on her face is fierce and her body is in perfect form: knees bent, front arm aligned with the center of the board, back arm out for balance. She is in the critical part of the wave, and she is moving so fast that the water is turning white in her wake. This was the model for the new surfer girl of the 90s—radical, rebellious, aggressive, courageous, and fierce—able to hold her own. Unlike the women who came before her, Anderson left a legacy that was remembered.

She became the new face of female surfing for the next generation. But what allowed for her smooth entrance into the world of professional surfing? What allowed her to be identified as a serious athlete instead of a ditsy adolescent?

It seems that Anderson’s embodiment of traditionally masculine characteristics aided her in gaining respect from her male peers and the predominantly male institution of surfing. Lisa Anderson seemed to epitomize progress for women in surfing because she was able to embody the characteristics of a “good” surfer, rooted in stereotypical masculinity. Sociology researchers Ford and Brown unpack the definition in their notable 2001 book Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment, and Narrative of the Dream Glide. They explain that male surfers “earn prestige and respect” by demonstrating “finely honed combinations of skill, muscular strength, endurance, cunning, aggression, toughness, and, above all, courage” (p.88). Indeed, in order to demonstrate the highest skill level and “earn prestige and respect” from respective communities, surfers have to “demonstrate” stereotypically masculine traits, and that is what Anderson did. Her “aggression” and “toughness” come through in the earlier image of her surfing as a teen.

The idea that being a “good” surfer is defined as surfing like a man would is inherently misogynistic because it implies that surfing in a traditionally masculine way is the right or proper way to surf.

Anderson became distinguished within the male surfing institution (unlike the women that came before her) because of her stereotypically masculine attitude. In 1996, she was one of the first women to be featured on the cover of Surfer magazine. Her image was paired with the caption, “Lisa Anderson surfs better than you,” implying that she could even surf better than the male readership of the magazine (Gabbard). Anderson was able to assimilate to the male surfing world and became successful within the male institution.

Lisa Anderson, Still from Documentary "Troubled "

While Anderson became successful in the male surfing world, the surf industry created a restricting image of what the surfer girl had to embody in the ‘90s. As a result of Title IX legislation, the tough and boyish women surfers of the ‘90s such as Lisa Anderson represented some progress in the industry. Instead of completely excluding women from actually participating in the sport like in the ‘60s, the male-dominated surf industry continued to deny women surfers athleticism and subvert their identities as athletes by creating a specific surfer-girl look.

The restricting, heteronormative, and prejudiced image of the surfer-girl look was originally developed by Roxy, the first women’s surf brand, a company co-founded by men (the sister brand of the men’s line Quicksilver).

Before Roxy, the surfer-girl was not a look that was sold to female members of surf culture; the idea of the surfer-girl was depicted in photographs, music, and television (as we saw in the previous section). Roxy capitalized on the new athletic image of the surfer-girl and sold the fantasy of the dream surf lifestyle through its advertisements. These ads portrayed a singular and limiting image of what it meant to be a woman who surfs. This would end up detracting from women who surf’s portrayal as serious and committed athletes. But, what inspired surf brands’ interest in the surfer-girl look in the first place?


Old Roxy Logo 90's

Quicksilver and other surf brands were looking for a way to revitalize the surf market and increase profits. The answer to their problem was women’s surfing. Ann Marsh explains in her 1997 article for Forbes, that by the ‘90s American consumers were becoming disinterested in surf culture as they knew it and surf companies were losing money. In 1992, “Quicksilver Inc., the largest maker of surf apparel, lost a third of its volume... its sales dropping to $60 million” (“Surfer girls,” Marsh). Marsh paints the picture of what exactly went down between Quicksilver co-founder and a Quicksilver executive.

She writes: “In 1992, Quicksilver cofounder Robert Mcknight was sitting on a beach in Hawaii with one of his top designers, wondering what to do. “ ‘And this girl walked by wearing one of our boardshorts [for men] pulled down low over her hips, over a bikini,’ McKnight recalls. ‘It was real. It was sexy. We turned to each other and went, ‘Ah-ha!’ ” (Marsh).

Quicksilver was quite literally inspired by the new image of the surfer-girl. In a 2015 interview with Adventure Sports Network, Mcknight recalled that from the start Roxy wanted to target that girl: “She surfs, she skates, she snowboards, she has good style, she is fashionable and active.....She's alive, daring, and confident” (Bradstreet, “Quiksilver Executive Chairman Bob McKnight To Retire…”). Founded in 1992, Roxy introduced the athletic surfer girl to consumers of surf culture by selling Lisa Anderson’s look to women who surf everywhere. Their campaigns manifested in a boom in the surf market and in women’s participation in surfing.

While images of female surfers were popularized, increasing the representation of female surfing in the media inherently (and the number of female surfers as a result), Roxy’s campaign was the start of surf brands capitalizing off of women’s bodies, which we still see in the status quo. The new portrayal of the female surfer in the media during the 1990s was more athletic, fierce, and serious than the Gidgets of the 1960s. But, similar to the Gidget-era, the surfing institution was focused on women who surf’s appearance rather than their strength and competence.

Michael Fordham argues in The Book of Surfing: the Killer Guide, that even though“Lisa’s story proved that surfing could nurture a woman’s independence,” “the movement was from the start...hyper-commercial...The mood-board of women’s surf brands. remains subject to the hibiscus-laden, coconut fragranced ideals of the beautiful sun-kissed ‘surfer girl’” (Fordham, The Book of Surfing: the Killer Guide, p.225).

The advertisements that came out during Roxy’s first years as a company seemed to have an agenda of developing a specific look and lifestyle for the woman who surfs. Roslyn Franklin of Griffith University explains in her thesis, “Making waves: Contesting the lifestyle marketing and sponsorship of female surfers,” referring to the 1990s: “for the first time, the surf industry, surfing magazines and retailers began to actively target and market female surfers to enhance their brand image” and bring in the money (Franklin, Making waves: Contesting the lifestyle marketing and sponsorship of female surfers). While their advertisements did depict women surfing in some cases, the overarching theme of their imagery is focused on using women’s bodies to sell their product.

Some of the advertisements produced by Roxy’s first years as a company:

Surfing is only the primary focus of a couple of images used in early Roxy advertisements. In the image in the bottom left, the surfer is laying hard on her rail and turning back into a wave of substantial size. Even in the image next to it, while the women are technically surfing, they are not doing much but standing upright on their longboards; they are depicted as passive. The majority of the ads depict women just hanging out, participating in the beach lifestyle.

Most importantly, all of these women embody a certain look. They are tan and skinny, with flat stomachs and long legs. They have perfect skin, and they seem to be carefree. Even if there were some high-performance surf images of women surfing, Roxy took away female surfer’s identities as athletes by also portraying sexualized beach goddesses in their other advertisements, thereby establishing a standard that female surfers at the time should follow. These advertisements help us understand that women could be serious about surfing, but they also had to look like sexualized beach goddesses to fit into the surf culture at the time.

Professional surfers like Lisa Anderson with blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, benefited from Roxy’s success as a company because they fit Roxy’s heterosexy ideal of what the perfect surfer-girl should be, and could therefore serve as ambassadors to Roxy and earn sponsorship money. But, Roxy’s imagery was exclusionary of women who were different. The standard for the female surf brand’s ideal of the surfer girl is further illuminated when comparing the experiences of Lisa Anderson to Pauline Menczer, 1993 World Surfing Champion (Serong, “Pauline Menczer: the Bus-Driving World Champion's Road to Surfing Immortality”).

Anderson and Menczer were both on the ASP world tour at the same time and demonstrated achievements in the sport. Anderson was accepted into the surf world to some extent because she pleased the male gaze. As Ford and Brown reason, “Lisa Anderson was...a sexy female...and this term ‘sexy’ clearly alludes to the predominantly...male gaze of the normative heterosexual female body (smooth, tanned skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, a feminine aesthetic, and disposition). In this way, she was able to offset the constant stereotyping that the female surfers had hitherto sometimes faced” (Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide, p.103). Because of Lisa’s image she was able to remain unthreatening to the male surfing community. Roxy wanted to sponsor her even though she embodied stereotypically masculine traits that might have stereotyped her as a lesbian in the surfing world. Menczer did not have it so easy.

Pauline Menczer Photo by: Allen J. Schaben/LA Times via Getty Images

Hill reflects on Menczer’s experience: Pauline Menczer...her story and its near erasure from cultural memory, is a testament to the attitudes that suppress characters that don’t hit the marketers mark of ideal femininity...that’s where we are today, the logical point down the timeline from where someone like Pauline, who didn’t have the look’ couldn’t get a major sponsor the entire time she was on tour, despite having the skill’ (Hill, “We Celebrate the Heroic Women of 90’s Pro Surfing”).

Pauline, who identifies as queer, was virtually excommunicated by the surf industry (Serong). She has come to the conclusion that “her short, stocky frame and freckled complexion don’t fit the idealized image of the athletic blonde surfer girl the sponsors and surfing magazines want” (“Once more into the beach for Pauline Menczer,” The Sydney Morning Herald).

I had never before seen an image of Menczer or heard about her until I read The Guardian’s Jock Serong’s article about her induction into Surfing Australia’s Hall of Fame in March 2018 while researching. I learned that Menczer has a very limited internet presence overall, and it is hard to find information about her, whereas photos of Lisa Anderson litter my Instagram daily. We even saw this in Blue Crush. Anne Marie, the white, blonde, heterosexy surfer girl gets her claim to fame, but her friend Eden with dark hair and brown skin does not. This is a testament to the fact that at the time, women who surf had to be white and present as heterosexy to satisfy the male gaze to achieve success in the surf industry as professional athletes. This is still true today, although perhaps to a lesser extent.

Pauline Menczer with her 1996 Bells Beach Trophy - and dog Speck. Credit: News Corp Australia
Pauline Menczer. Source: ABC News AU

The contrast between Menczer and Anderson’s experiences on tour highlights the impossibility of being the perfect surfer girl then and now, and meeting the standard created by Lisa Anderson and Roxy’s advertisements. The dichotomy in the expectations for what a female surfer in the 1990s had to be are perplexing: women in surfing inherently embodied traditionally masculine characteristics by participating in the sport, yet they had to maintain a traditionally feminine and sexy image to satisfy the male gaze. Douglas Booth, Dean of the School of Physical Education at Otago University in New Zealand, exposes homophobia in the surf industry in his 2001 article unpacking the sociological tendencies of surf culture, “From Bikinis to Boardshorts: Wahines and the Paradoxes of Surfing Culture”. He writes: “athletic-looking females exposed tensions between notions of acceptable athleticism and femininity”. If women did not maintain a heterosexy image, what the male gaze found sexually appealing, they “found themselves derided as deviants and lesbians.”

As Cori Schumacher, vocal women’s surf activist, 3x Women’s World Longboard Champion, and Carlsbad California Council Member writes on her personal blog, “the ramifications of speaking out against the surf industry’s heterosexual, white, sexist values are the same: ex-communication” (Schumacher, “Lesbian-Baiting, a La Roxy Surfing 2013). As if to say to women who surf, you can be athletic and boyish and strong, but if you are not sexy, you do not have a place in surf culture. This is exactly what we see with Pauline Menczer.

While the 1990s are known as the time of a feminist, girl-powered surfing revolution, that is not the full story. The idealized image of the ‘90s surfer girl created impossible expectations for what the female surfer had to be, reflecting that what it meant to be a woman who surfs was still defined by the male gaze: blonde, tan, white, tall, skinny, sexy. Yes, the face of female representation in the sport changed to be more athletic, which had the effect of showing young girls that being a girl and a surfer at the same time was indeed a possibility. Yes, women like Lisa Anderson showed that women could transcend the boundary between the male sphere and the female sphere that was still prominent in the 1960s. As Michael Fordham explains, “Through pure commitment and talent, four-time world champion Lisa Anderson proved that surfing doesn’t have to be driven by testosterone” ( Fordham, The Book of Surfing: the Killer Guide, p.224). Backed by the zeitgeist of Title IX legislation and her own rebellious attitude, Lisa Anderson showed the world that a woman could do it too. She wasn’t just an adjunct to surfing culture that supplemented men like the women of the 50s and 60s.

Nonetheless, the gender order was able to hide behind an increase in the success of women in surfing and the increased representation of women in surf media (those who were able to maintain the male gaze’s desired image). Perhaps we can say that this is emblematic of the shortcomings of the Second Wave Feminist movement.

Women’s surfing in the 1990s did satisfy a Second Wave Feminist perspective because of women’s inclusion in the sport. But, women were not able to reclaim their gender identity from the surf-industry and achieve “sexual-liberation,” a major goal of the Third Wave Feminist movement, because they were constrained by the male gaze and could not control their own image (“The Third Wave of Feminism”, Encyclopedia Britannica). The question that remains is whether or not we have seen this “sexual-liberation” at any point since the Lisa Anderson era, or if we will see the empowerment of women that characterizes the 4th wave of feminism. In part 4, the final part of the series, I will examine whether or not we have seen a re-definition of what it means to be a woman who surfs on the terms of women themselves with more inclusive and diverse norms of femininity.

This is a FOUR part series: The last and final post: Part FOUR: THE STATUS QUO posts March 17, 2021. There will be a link to Maija's final paper.



Maija Fiedelholtz is a student at UCLA, majoring in history. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York. For her whole life, she has spent summers in Montauk, a small town on the Eastern point of Long Island. She learned to surf in Montauk, and it is now where she works as a surf instructor for Coreyswave when she's not at school. She just finished an internship with SeaTogether Magazine (another awesome surf history source). She is stoked to continue contributing to Withitgirl as a member of the writing team. She hopes to pursue her passions for history and surfing in a podcast that will be streamed by UCLA Radio in the next few months.

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