As a surfer, I find myself conflicted. Slowly, gradually, I’ve become disengaged with the battle that rages for the benefit of my own gender, the campaign against the sexualisation of female surfers.
This in itself was frustrating. Guilt crept in; my brain questioned why I was zoning out. But I felt uncomfortable. The passionate message of surf feminism I heard and supported wasn’t reflected by what I saw. I felt the good equality fight was losing its leverage.
Now before I open a can of worms I should make it very clear, this is my bottom line: Women are the bomb; we’re strong and sexy and deserve to have equal opportunities to make equal money however we like. We share an incredibly special sport where style and fluidity are valued almost as highly as strength and speed. We live in a time when female empowerment is globally enthused, collectively reactive to ridiculous political movements and backwards gender-related injustice.
But I’m not interested in feminist rants and don’t want this to become one; I’m interested in everyday actions. And the on-going reality is that we must be mindful to continually demand respect and change perceptions, in an industry predicted by Global Industry Analytics to be worth $13.2 billion. Lauren Hill’s new surf short, Pear Shaped, represents perfectly a female surfer’s fight to shake off sexist stereotypes and women all over the world gave her a spiritual fist bump for it, including me.
So why am I bored? Because I don’t see many surf brands regularly pushing controversial campaigns, but I constantly see female surfers publishing images of themselves for self-promotion that are as sexualised as the ones they’ve rallied against. This is why I’m torn; women should be able to publish what they want, without the risk of negative judgment. But these images present the concept that female sexualisation in surfing is now often self-perpetuated.
It is possible that this self-sexualisation could be seen as a contradiction to the messages of wellbeing, empowerment and positive self-image female surfers also try and endorse. When social media posts match the structure and look of those of other industries devoted to promoting unrealistic beauty and lifestyles, it drags people’s perception of women’s surfing into negative territory. Constantly showing off body image increases the individual’s value as a product. So does the sexualisation of an athlete diminish the perception of their ability? I think so.
It can be difficult to discern between whether the sexualisation of women in general is empowering or depreciative. Whether surfers are clad in bikini’s or skin-tight neoprene, it is a given that they will be regarded sexually, whether intentionally or not. Our uniforms naturally lend themselves to appreciation; I definitely check guys out when they jog past towards the water; my friends and I call them wettie-talents. We just don’t whistle.
But using images of our bikini-clad booties to sell us as surfers on social media, rather than those of our surfing ability provides leverage for brands to do the same. Of course, bikini’s must be advertised because they’re our gear and women can make hella’ lotta dollar doing it. This is not a problem; go make your money however you want chica and I won’t judge you for following the terms of your sponsorship deal. You’ve got to work. But I don’t believe that fighting for athletic respect whilst posting sexualised images without that product-advertisement label will get you esteem.
If some of these images had been used by brands today, they’d have received a bitch-slap so heavy from the female surfing community, it would tarnish their entire marketing campaign. Remember when Roxy used Steph Gilmore’s derriere for the 2013 Biarritz contest? The backlash was intense and I believe Roxy listened. Gilmore is an athletic surfing goddess and we wanted to see her surf.
Excluding the pay gap in professional surfing (I’m not going to go there), I see evident movements towards equality. Women are now recognised Mavericks Titans, Big Wave Award winners and ambassadors for the progressive quality of surfing. Carissa Moore and Coco Ho have been busting airs for decades and we’re finally starting to see them spread widely on social media. They’re not surfing like men; they’re just surfing like athletes.
So let’s take a moment to congratulate ourselves. Of course there are leaps and bounds to be made, but women are in this for the long run and brands are beginning to respond in a respectful way. Making positive noise, surfing hard and having self-respect will earn it from others. But let’s take pride in practicing what we’re preaching for the sake of equality, and have continuity to our efforts. Contradicting ourselves through what we post on social media in fighting for further equal recognition weakens our message. Surfing is what matters, and you’re a sexy ass mother F for loving it. So don’t cover up, but keep captions relevant and post wisely. I beg you.
Covere photo: Alana Blanchard // Instagram