THE STATUS QUO: WHAT WOMEN WHO SURF HAVE TO SAY ABOUT IT ALL
Bikini Blonde Recap: Parts 1, 2, 3
I have discussed the past history of women in surfing from the 1960s to the 1990s in the last three parts in order to better understand the present and future of women’s surfing. I noticed that the materialization of the patriarchy in the 1960s transcended to the 1990s. Instead of literally keeping women from achieving athletic prowess and accomplishment in the sport like in the 1960s, and diminishing women’s identities as athletes, women of the 1990s began to achieve excellence, winning world titles, and, if they had the right look, recognition from the surf industry. Critically, the patriarchy still controlled the image of the female surfer in the way that it was marketed—oftentimes, surfing was not even present in the advertisements for women’s surfwear.
What’s more is that the best female surfers who ended up earning sponsorship money to stay on tour fit an image of a white, blonde, heterosexual woman. The industry excluded anyone who identified in a different way, as we saw with the comparison of Lisa Anderson’s experience and Pauline Menczer’s.
At the same time, others may argue that surfing was a tool that Lisa Anderson and even Kathy Kohner were able to use to supplement their coming of age and transition into womanhood. We cannot deny that as adolescents, both Anderson and Kohner were inspired by the institution of surfing, whether it be the cultural aspects of the sport or the athletic aspects of the sport. Surfing helped them establish their identities in the context of the world, even if the portrayal of their images in the media were demeaning. It is true that while sports have been a place where female surfers have been able to engage in a Second Wave Feminist exploration because they have found themselves by harnessing their ability and fitness and affirmed their identities, surf culture in totality has enforced patriarchal standards.
Daniel Duane’s New York Times article, published in February 2019, “The Women of Big-Wave Surfing” should not go unnoticed. Duane argues that women’s explicit exclusion from surfing is still present in the context of big wave surfing, with the women being prevented from participating in events and lobbying for their own inclusion. But, if anything, this is just more of an example of the narrowing of the places where women are completely excluded from surfing because the battle has taken such a niche form (Duane).
I have personally struggled to reconcile two opposing parts of my relationship with surfing: the pressure to conform to the male gaze, or rather the demands of the patriarchy (evident in the images all over my Instagram, and in bikini advertisements) and the way I have found strength, and my own version of femininity within the sport. In this section, I will explore the relationship between these two parts of my identity as a female surfer.
As opposed to the Gidget and Lisa Anderson eras, where the role of the female surfer was defined to varying extents within the context of the male surfing world, we are seeing alternative versions of the embodiment of the surfer girl being portrayed in 2021—a shift wherein female surfers are re-defining what surfing means to them, for themselves. This is particularly relevant given all of the recent progress the institution of surfing has made, and all of the new media sources female surfers have developed on their own, as well as all of the new female surf clothing lines.
The diaspora of female surfers is only growing as more and more people find out about surfing because of the way the Internet puts everything at our fingertips, and I am curious to understand what this new wave has meant for female surfing.
How have women been empowered through the experience of surfing?
How have women been affected by the gender order in the status quo?
Have women been complicit in the gender order or have we been resistant?
In the past decade, the best female surfers in the world—surfers with multiple world championship tour titles—have been exploited in their sponsor’s advertisements. Tyler Wright, two-time world champion, sponsored by surf industry giant Rip Curl, is often photoshopped when featured in Rip Curl bombshell series advertisements. In 2013, 2015, and 2018, Wright made it pretty clear on her Instagram that Rip Curl edits their photos of her to make her look more like a model than an athlete. Screenshots of her Instagram posts are below:
She makes fun of it. She also calls bullshit on the ridiculous standard that athletes should be expected to also be models when she says that she is a female athlete, not a model, but can do both. The surf industry is portraying the image of the surfer girl that does not coincide with the authentic image that Wright sees in herself.
Of course, not every professional woman surfer points out the flaws in their sponsor’s advertisements. But, Wright stands out as a professional surfer who wants to dismantle the image that many mainstream surf brands set forth.
In 2020, Wright came out to the public about her relationship with a woman in her feature on 60 Minutes (Pro-Surfer Tyler Wright’s Inspiring Story of Post Viral Syndrome Recovery | 60 Minutes Australia). While her ability to reveal her relationship is evidence of the growing cultural acceptability of being gay in the surfing community, it is also noteworthy that she was not able to speak about her sexuality earlier in her career.
Wright has been on the WSL championship tour since her early teen years, and she never said anything about her sexuality publicly. Imaginably, she probably feared ex-communication from the surfing community because of the industry’s past history of demonizing queerness on tour, as seen with Pauline Menczer. In contrast to Menczer, Wright maintains her spot on team RipCurl to this day regardless of her sexuality. This set a new precedent for the surf industry’s tolerance of queer women.
Wright is a pioneer. She paves the way for the acceptance of queer women in the surf industry.
Like Tyler Wright, many women who surf reject the mainstream surf industry’s portrayal of the female surfer because it does not reflect their personal experiences as female surfers. Over time we have started to see more and more push back against the surf industry’s model of the female surfer amongst recreational surfers.
I had the chance to speak with surfer Annelise McBride, who started surfing in Rockaway Beach NYC in 2011, about her experience as a woman who surfs. When asked about her feelings towards the Roxy brand she said: “I felt like the way they presented women was so girly...Quicksilver shows men ripping and girls hanging out on the beach.” She didn’t feel like the imagery Roxy used accurately embodied her relationship with surfing, similar to Tyler Wright’s sentiments that come through in her Instagram posts (McBride, Interview with author). She did not fit in with the “girly” image that Roxy was putting out. When I asked how and when she learned to surf, she emphasized that she was introduced to the surfing world by other women. “When I first started looking to start surfing...two girls were eating in the café I was working at in Williamsburg talking about it” (McBride, Interview with author). Their conversation piqued her interest, and they explained to her that she could head out to Rockaway if she wanted to learn. “I would just go by myself and follow other people and see what they were doing...after a year of doing solo trips I started meeting people...grew my friend community” (McBride, Interview with author). Ultimately, she emphasized that “a lot of women that do surf in New York are newer to the sport, exploring together. She furthers that she “looked up to [my] mom” who, when “she came out for a surf...had a minivan” and ate a scoop of peanut butter” from the jar, “an authentic image” of a woman who surfs in NYC (McBride, Interview with author).
Annie’s surfing experience was oriented around the community and other women who were serious about the sport who encouraged her to join, and Roxy’s inauthentic and superficial portrayal did not coincide with her relationship to the surfing community.
The frustration amongst women surfers with the mainstream surf media’s portrayal of the surfer-girl has paved the way for female-owned smaller businesses with a new and authentic vision of the female surfer. These smaller businesses advocate for a realistic representation of women’s bodies and the surfing lifestyle in their advertisements and mission statements. One of the firsts of these brands is KASSIA + SURF, started by World Longboard Champion Kassia Meador. Meador “left sponsored surfing,” aka her former brand Roxy, to build a brand “by women for women” (Kassia Surf). In my interview with Kassia, we had a conversation about the portrayal of women’s bodies by mainstream surfwear companies and the function of surfwear in the water. She strongly believes that the problem with Roxy and other mainstream giants is that they enforce one image of female surfers that does not sit with all female surfers. While some women may feel affirmed by a sexy portrayal with a lack of surfing in advertisements because that is the way they engage with surf culture, there are other women who do not feel represented by that imagery.
Meador said that she is “not judgemental of [mainstream brands], she is just observing” the way they advertise women who surf (Meador, Interview with author). However, she states boldly that “new things would never happen if we stayed on-trend” and followed what the surf brand giants were selling to women surfers. For her, that “stuff doesn’t feel natural” because she wants to “create wetsuits to be empowering.” She believes that surf gear should give female surfers “more energy to experience yourself in your highest vibration.” “I just want to surf all day,” she says, and she hopes that her surf gear will allow women to do this. At the end of the day, Meador wants to offer women who surf another option when it comes to surfwear in an effort to maximize women’s comfort in their own skin while surfing.
In the first image, the two women are quite literally leaning on each other, demonstrating solidarity, trust, and empowerment. This sisterhood was present in Blue Crush in the opening scene, but the handsome football player was tacked on to the story of that girl gang. In this case, the women are not dependent on men, and while they are not surfing, the water that surrounds them is still a prominent force in the image. In the second and third images, both women are connecting with the natural environment that surrounds them and they are focused on their craft. Both images capture a sense of adventure, individuality, and self-exploration. Women are not objectified in these images as they were in the Roxy ads of the 1990s, or the Rip Curl ads that Wright posted on her Instagram, they are empowered. We can call this a sort of evolution of the good parts of Blue Crush, the parts that characterize sexual liberation.
Another brand such as Seea, is “dedicated to the pioneering women who first braved the waves, and to every woman who has ever searched for a suit that is feminine, comfortable, and fun...strikes the perfect balance between surf function and style,” push back against the sex-selling images of mainstream surf culture (The Seea). In fact, Seea is one of Annie’s favorite brands because of the “community they’ve been building in women’s surfing...selling fun and being supportive....not selling bodies” (McBride, Interview with author).
Even though it is possible that the male gaze will not be eliminated from the surf industry because of its history, we have witnessed a progression in competitive surfing. In September 2019, the WSL (World Surf League), which organizes almost every surf event worldwide, announced its decision to equalize prize money for its male and female athletes on the dream tour. As Carla Herreria, Hawaii based Huffington Post reporter explains in her article “World Surf League Offers Equal Prize Money For Female Surfers,” historically, the WSL, previously the ASP did not only not offer equal earnings from winnings to men and women, but also gave men priority over the better waves in events, and did not allow women to participate in certain big wave events. In 2011, only 22% of the total prize sum went to female surfers on tour (Schumacher, “The Menace of Surfing’s Stereotypes”). Additionally, Herreria points out that while men on tour can get sponsorships for just being good surfers, women have to be good surfers, have to be pretty, and have to be feminine enough to receive sponsorships most of the time, something we have seen since the 1990s with Anderson and Menczer. While it is harder for women on tour to make a living than the men on tour, the WSL is comparatively more progressive than other sports organizations and is truly pioneering an agenda to equalize female athletes (Herreria).
Recently, Surf industry giants such as Roxy, Billabong, and Rip Curl maintain the greatest hold on the image of the surfer girl because of their overwhelming visibility and control of the surf industry seem to be assimilating to 4th Wave Feminist women’s empowerment (as seen in the WSL, non-mainstream surf companies, and in recreational women’s surfing). In their effort to assimilate, it seems that their current presentation of women’s bodies walks the line between empowerment and upholding a patriarchal ideal. A recent image that appeared when I clicked on the bikinis tab on the Roxy website is below:
The women in the image have fierce looks on their faces and they are actively power posing. There is a sense of solidarity that comes through in that the women are touching and their energies seem to be feeding off of each other at the same time that they maintain their own individual power. What’s more, is that the women depicted have different skin colors. At the same time, each of their body types is the same—flat, muscular stomachs, thin legs, and prominent collar bones. Overall, this imagery seems to be progressive in that it is empowering and body-positive, but regressive in the sense that there is no variety in their body types. This demonstrates to viewers or those that may want to purchase a bikini, that if they do not fit these body types, they cannot fit into surf culture. This alludes to the exclusive nature of surfing and how it can be discriminatory based on body type and physical ability. This trend is also evident in advertisement videos released by Roxy and Rip Curl, in 2018 and 2017 respectively, to show their new collections (Roxy, “2018 ROXY POP SURF”; Ripcurl, "Tyler Wright | Bombshell Series"). I can appreciate their efforts overall, but there is room to grow and explore how to best reflect the experiences of actual female surfers.
In order to create the best representation possible, it is fundamental to understand that surfing is tied to self-expression and femininity, but these are different from objectification by the male gaze. In other words, there is a distinction between women celebrating their bodies and assimilating to the male gaze. Leah Dawson, a female surfer and surf filmmaker affirms the relationship between her femininity and her identity as a surfer. In her 2015 video for The Inertia, an outdoor culture magazine, she alludes to the mystique of surfing that she finds empowering on a personal level because of the way it lifts her own confidence and spirits. She said with conviction in an interview with The Inertia that “my biggest compliment is not that I surf like a man, but that I surf like a woman” (The Inertia, “Leah Dawson Might Save Women’s Surfing). In this statement, she debunks the idea that surfing should be classified by masculine characteristics that sociologists Ford and Brown establish in their research (see section II)...remember, Lisa Anderson had to surf like a man to gain entry into the surfing world and to be taken seriously as an athlete.
As a woman who surfs, Leah Dawson does not want to be held to the standard of male surfers. But, she does maintain that her surfing is related to her gender because it is a big part of her identity and self-expression. Dawson rejects the male gaze’s domination in the surf industry and in surf culture but does not want her female identity to be removed from the sport. For most women, most of the time, surfing just isn’t sexy. But, that does not mean it isn’t feminine. As Lauren Hill explains while reflecting on her 2017 video “Pear Shaped,” a parody on the demands of the surf industry, she tried to “combat” the “sexy angel” (Hill, “Surfing Isn’t Sexy: Thoughts on Body Image from a Female Surfer”). She depicts women with tampon strings hanging out of their bikinis, struggling to take their wetsuits off, and just having a good time together (Hill, “Pear Shaped”). There is something about the video that is feminine and authentic but not in a way that is controlled by the male gaze. This is the kind of imagery that characterizes 3rd Wave “sexual liberation” or 4th Wave feminist women’s empowerment.
I would like to see more empowering and realistic images of women who surf become more mainstream, but the difficulty in getting these images to become the images in surf culture is that the mainstream sexualized culture will remain if everyone does not actively try to dismantle the present system. In other words, the question is whether or not we can say 3rd Wave liberation or 4th Wave empowerment has been achieved if the mainstream surf industry’s standard is still present. Brown and Ford refer to the “complicity” of “men and women who might not actively promote hegemonic masculinity but do not attempt to challenge it or change it either” (90). Many women and men who surf, recreationally or professionally for a major sponsor do not actively push back against the male gaze when it comes to the images they post online or the photoshoots they participate in. This is complicated by the fact that “many women have come to occupy comfortable positions in the patriarchal order that rely on their ability to submit themselves to masculine subordination that nevertheless furthers their own social, cultural, and especially economic interests” (91). As Scout Fisher of Sea Kin Magazine analyzes in their 2017 article “WOMEN, SURFING AND THE REBIRTH OF THE SEX OBJECT,”
It becomes a question of who holds the power when women maintain an image that fits the male gaze by their own free will: the women themselves or the male-dominated surf industry.
Fisher writes: Under the guise of exercising the right to “choose”, free from exploitation, women worldwide seem to be embracing their femininity while, simultaneously, their objectification remains unchanged. The idea is that when girls have the ‘power’ to choose actions that repeat gender expectations it is okay because they are aware of the assumptions that shape these choices.....in the debate of sexism and empowerment we must ask “who has the power?” So who holds the power when there is a male director, male advertiser, three male photographers, and 3000 internet consumers, all probably men, defining the parameters within which liberation is expressed? (Fisher).
While women may believe that they are choosing to “repeat gender expectations” for their own reasons, we cannot ignore that the surf industry has the ability to “define the parameters” of their “liberation”. In the process of creating boundaries of expression with the images that are put out, “objectification” still exists. In other words, women are deprived of complete control of their expression when they look they must present is limited to a certain ideal. This explains the problem inherent to the complicity of even some women in surf culture. If some women “choose actions” that enforce the male gaze, then other women are limited because an expectation is created that they have to fulfill. This is an example of how the patriarchy divides women into constituents and pits them against one another.