Surfing, as most every other sport, is often presented as masculine. And just as with every other sport, the women/men disparities there are visible. Nevertheless, it is one of the rare few that’s been evolving more and more toward equality. There are some zones of resistance, however, in which women are refused a place equal to that of men — in particular by objectifying them.
Society typically makes use of a certain kind of representation of women in surfing, most of the time presenting them not as athletes but as objects useful for selling products. At the present time, however, there are also many surfing contests with professional surfer women who are truly respected and who show us how hard it is to get there.
However, we cannot deny the sexism in society and all the obstacles women and girls encounter in their effort to evolve in life. Surfing is not spared the sexist clichés that imply that a woman cannot be as strong as a man. Despite this, surfing is one of the leaders in sports in its progress towards gender equality.
Surfing started in Hawaii, and was then promoted to the rest of the world in 1778 by James Cook. Originally, surfing was practiced by women just as much as by men.
Nowadays, the evolution of the feminization of surfing can be seen also thanks to the help of the World Surf League (aka the WSL). The WSL declared last summer that when the 2019 season began (it actually began a few weeks ago in Snapper Rock on the Australian Gold Coast, and continued on Bells Beach), women surfers would be paid a win prize equal to that of men surfers. That was a huge step in the world of surfing, just as it would be elsewhere in the world of sports.
All surfers around the world, especially the professionals, salute this initiative. Stephanie Gilmore, 7 times world champion, said: “I hope every sport will do the same as the WSL does for surfing. I actually hope that one day, we will be able to look behind us and tell ‘wow, that’s the first sport that paid equally women and men, and that’s surfing! It would be epic!’ “
The WSL also organized a “Rising Tides WSL Girls Program” during the first event of the season on the Gold Coast. It was a surfing session for young girls mentored by professional surfer women — an effort to break down some of the barriers that women and girls face when trying to become champions, or even to participate in competition. There is this kind of “glass wave” that sometimes does not encourage girls and women to go further, even though they have the capacity.
Moreover, there are more and more women in the professional sphere who are truly inspiring and encouraging girls and other women to either start surfing, or to give the best of themselves on their board. Stephanie Gilmore, Lisa Andersen, Rosy Hodge, Kelia Moniz, Justine Dupont — but also new and very young surfer girls like Leila Riccobuano, Maelys Jouault and Mafalda Lopes — encourage girls and women to put on their wetsuits, take up their boards, and rip it in the ocean.
Another great surfer who really shows us that women can achieve many goals in surfing is Bethany Hamilton. Hamilton is a 29-year-old professional surfer, raised in Hawaii. She is a true role model for women in surfing. At the age of 13, she was attacked by a shark and lost her left arm. Despite this, she continued surfing. Even though it was difficult in the beginning, she and her parents developed a certain kind of surfboard that allowed her to finally stand up, take off, and surf! She still continues to surf, and is a real inspiration in women’s surfing.
Even though there are more and more actions being taken to encourage women to surf, and even with more and more models, legends and professional surfers to look up to, there is still sexualization of women in surfing. Tessa Thyssen broke up with her sponsor because it was more profitable for them to have an ad with a girl with 28,000 followers on Instagram (surfer or not) than a wonderful surfer with only 7,000. Thyssen also said that her sponsor never would have dropped her if she had posted a picture of her bottom in a bikini. Actually, according to many surfers, some sponsors really base their sponsorships on the beauty of a surfer girl and not always on their ability to actually surf
The sexism in the surfing sphere amounts to a “glass wave” that does not encourage women and girls to surf, nor to develop their capacity to surf. But sexism applies also to all of the representation of women. The Miss Reef calendar, published until 2016, showed “the sexiest surfers” — pictures of surfers and bikini-clad women who were not surfing, but just posing in ways considered sexy.
All in all, there are of course women and girls in the water, and there are more of them today than there were years ago. But there is still not enough diversity in surfing — neither concerning women in general, nor including women from a diversity of other countries.
All the groups and actions in favor of women surfing must continue to fight sexism in surfing, and maybe other sports will then do the same. And maybe we can correct the thinking that men are more capable of competitive physical activity than women are.
The clichés about women surfers are conveyed by society, and by commercial campaigns in particular, far more than by the surfing sphere itself. We see brands that often have nothing to do with the sport creating a certain “style” of the sport by caricaturing it. The risk lies in the fact that the stereotypes and standards conveyed by society are easily internalized by the individuals who are targeted — making these women objects before turning them into athletes.
The “glass wave” is close to breaking. But it would actually happen — and fast — if all the glass ceilings, in both sports and society, were at once to break.