Imagine standing on a surfboard, sun beating down. You catch a wave and fly towards the shore. It sounds great, right? Your mind is probably conjuring up images of pristine beaches, rolling waves and a welcoming community. While surfing is amazing, and I’m an avid surfer myself, it has also made me painfully aware of my gender identity.
Sexism in surf culture has an interesting rollercoaster of a history. At first, it seems that surfers were treated fairly equally. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that women were pushed to the sidelines by the popularisation of a new type of wooden surfboard whose length and weight made it difficult for them to surf with. Additionally, the development of the sport towards surfing the biggest waves possible also relegated women surfers into the shadows because they were deemed unable to surf such big waves – hello there, sexism. Fast forward to the 2012 Rip Curl Pro competition where the prize money awarded to the women surfers was only approximately half of the amount given to the men. The World Surf League has a history of paying women athletes less than their men counterparts at every contest worldwide.
But there is more, surf magazines used to primarily feature men and boys surfing, while girls in bikinis merely lounged around in the background. In the instances when women were shown surfing, sponsors would usually favour models who fit the stereotypical beauty standards, rather than featuring actual women surfers – effectively putting beauty ideals over physical prowess. This hypersexualisation of woman’s bodies by the surfing industry also has a heteronormative root where certain professional women surfers say they were pressured to present themselves as heterosexual – even if they identified as lesbian. Once Keala Kenelly came out as lesbian (the first professional surfer to do so!) three of her four sponsors left her. The underlying narrative here basically says that it’s fun to see you in bikinis but it’s not enjoyable just seeing you charge giant waves. Cases of sexual harassment from sponsors and managers are also unfortunately common.
However, it’s not only in the professional realm that surfing is gendered. While it’s difficult to find reliable statistics concerning gender barriers in recreational surfing, I know what my own personal experience has been thus far. I’ve heard from friends that there does indeed exist inclusive surf spots, but this is unfortunately something I have yet to encounter.
I currently live in Cyprus where I’ve been riding the waves for more than two years now. In my first year, I was one of the only women surfers at the local beach. Men would constantly try and push my board when I was paddling to catch a wave. When you’re out in the ocean, the only thing you have is your board, so touching the one of a stranger without permission is incredibly intrusive. Combined with belittling remarks that left me on the verge of tears, I ended the first year struggling with an internal rage so powerful I felt like I might physically combust.
The difference was that men were treated like they knew what they were doing. For example, a rumour started going around saying that my surfer friend — a man — must have started giving lessons. The punchline was that I couldn’t possibly be surfing with him as an equal, but only as his student. I was desperate to find a healthy way to cope with the blatant sexism I was experiencing.
Happily, there was a huge increase of women surfers in my second year. I’m now recognised by enough of the locals that they no longer “take over” my sessions. However, the more ingrained in the community I become, the more exposed I am to its darker side; in the space of one summer, I’ve had to face multiple instances of sexual harassment from other beachgoers. Meanwhile, competition for the waves is becoming increasingly fierce and aggressive. As a woman, these factors often make me feel like I don’t belong. And yet, the waves keep calling me back.
The morale of this story is to be as headstrong as possible. Use your stubbornness to keep pushing into environments that are dominated by men. Slowly but surely, they will become safe spaces. Until then, hang loose!