As looks and marketability continue to play a role in securing sponsorship for female surfers, the sport moves further away from its anti-establishment roots.
Birds wheel in the golden dawn light as waves slap a jagged headland. A lithe blonde woman lolls in her bed, sporting only panties and a glorious tan. She stands by an open window with her naked back to the camera and slips a sheer white shirt on. A few moments later the shirt drops to the ground as she slithers into a shower. Now dressed in arse-hugging shorts, she slides her surfboard into her car. She pulls up in a cobblestone car park. The door opens and a slender leg emerges. She strips to her bikini; her breasts jiggle as she waxes her board. She paddles into the water, arse-cheeks mincing for the camera.
This sequence of footage constituted the promotional video for the Roxy Pro in Biarritz, 2013. At no point do we see the face of six-time world surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore. At no point do we see her trademark grace as she channels the raw power of the ocean into elegant arcs and ruthless slashes.
You might remember this video, and you might remember the outrage it provoked. Or, you might remember the parody that aired at the Noosa Festival before doing the YouTube rounds. (In this spoof, Gilmore is replaced by a geriatric man, adorned with falsies and budgie smugglers to boot.)
Here is Roxy’s response to the exasperation expressed on social media:
All athletes are naturally beautiful, in and out of the water. You certainly don’t have to be sexy to be an athlete, & we also believe it’s not wrong to be an athlete and to be sexy, if you choose to be. We don’t judge one to be better than the other & we don’t believe in excluding one for the other. Thank you for the passionate thoughts shared on the video, & for expressing how much you respect women in surfing.
They missed the point. The video was criticised not because Gilmore was sexualised but because it was supposed to be a promo video for a professional surfing event and didn’t contain any surfing.
A few years back, I was surfing a local beach-break. The particular spot is fickle: it requires a solid south-westerly swell to wrap around the southeast coast of Tasmania, and a northerly, offshore wind to groom the waves. When the weather does line up, peaks of swell drift into the bay and jack up on the sandbank in heavy, hollow a-frames that break hard and fast, and spit spray like blowholes.
It was early June and I was swaddled in neoprene to protect against the currents curling up from Antarctica. I’d been chatting with a couple of older blokes about my upcoming trip to Indonesia. They had been reminiscing about different places they’d surfed over there when a set drifted towards us. They each took a wave, before I got the third of the set, which was by far the biggest.
This wave has stuck in my memory, in part because it is still one of the best waves I’ve had at that particular break, but also because of the way in which those blokes reacted. As I surfed past them, they hooted, and as I was paddling back out, I overheard one say to the other: ‘Imagine seeing her do that in a bikini.’
Comments like this…imply that women who surf are entertainment for the blokes in the line-up – the ‘real’ surfers.
I’d surfed the wave well. I’d felt poised and in control as I dropped into its mouth, as I was spat out the other side. That’s what I was there for, and that’s why this aside disappointed me. Comments like this, even when relatively trivial, undercut women surfers; they imply that women who surf are entertainment for the blokes in the line-up – the ‘real’ surfers.
Last February Silvana Lima – two-time world champion runner-up and eight-time Brazilian champion – caused a stir when she told the BBC:
I don’t look like a model. I’m not a babe. I’m a surfer, a professional one. The surf-brands, when it comes to women, they want both models and surfers. So if you don’t look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which is what happened to me. You’re excluded, you’re disposable. Men don’t have the same problems.
In response to this interview, STAB Magazine ran an article titled ‘The Painful Truth of Silvana Lima’s Sponsorship Struggle’, in which an unnamed ‘marketing heavy-weight, whose job it is to control the budget of one of the world’s biggest surf brands’ made various assertions about Lima’s plight.
While he conceded that ‘looks come into play’ when sponsorship and marketability are concerned, he argued that neither Tyler Wright nor Carissa Moore are ‘the skinny g-string girl’, yet both are ‘fully supported by the surf industry’. He suggested that Lima’s injury and subsequent slippage in the ranks (Lima is currently ranked 44th in world) might be more to blame for a lack of sponsorship than her physical appearance. He didn’t acknowledge the fact that without sponsorship, it’s near impossible to compete on the circuit, meaning Lima was effectively blocked by the system. (Lima isn’t letting this stop her, though; she’s taken to breeding French Bulldogs to fund her surfing career.)
There were a number of photographs accompanying the article, including one of Lima shredding, and there was also an image of Alana Blanchard – currently ranked 52nd and sponsored by Rip Curl, Spy, Rockstar, GoPro and DHD – lounging in lacy black lingerie. The caption for this image read: ‘Ms Blanchard, the essence of beauty and marketability.’
I used to work in a local surf shop. For the first two or three years, management insisted that I work in the clothing section and not the hardware section (where the surfboards, wetsuits and other equipment was kept) because ‘that was where the boys worked.’ I’d only be allowed to work down there if there were no males rostered on.
When I was allowed to be in the hardware section, there was a certain type of male customer (generally speaking people I didn’t know from the surf) who, when I approached them to see if they needed a hand with the boards or wetsuits, would smirk and start firing questions at me. I quickly realised that they weren’t interested in buying anything. They were simply testing me.
There was always an underlying aggression to these conversations. It was as if they were irritated that I – a girl – was talking to them about this stuff and were groping around, trying to find a way to pull me up, a reason to say: ‘No, you’re wrong.’
Sometimes, they’d call a male employee over and ask for clarification about what I’d told them, not only about technical things but also information that required no actual knowledge of the surf, like product warranties. I used to read up, extensively, in preparation, not so much to sell products but in order to prove myself to these men – and I hated myself for this.
One day a member of management was setting up a display of tropical water surfboard wax, surf hats, rash vests and the like, and I heard him discussing the merchandising with another male staff member.
‘All we need is to get Erin to stand next to it in a bikini and it’ll be perfect.’
When I did end up going to Indonesia, I travelled to a remote island way out east. There were two surf breaks: a long wave that refracted down the outside reef, breaking bigger and rounder as it went; and closer to the shore, and as such largely protected from the swell by the main reef, a small, soft, longboard wave. They call these smaller waves ‘Squealers’, because they’re where the ‘girls’ surf, and ‘you know what girls are like – they squeal the whole time they’re up.’
I hate the fact that, as a female surfer, you continually have to prove yourself in the water (or out of it).
There were a handful of surfers staying in a homestay tucked behind the beach. I’d arrived that morning and had spent all afternoon surfing on the outside break. In the evening, when everyone was sitting around having a beer, an older Australian bloke showed up. This was the first time I’d met him; he’d surfed earlier that morning but had gone in before I’d paddled out. Speaking slowly, like I was five years old, he asked:
‘And did you surf today?’
‘Did you get a wave?’ he continued, not with a smirk, but with a paternal smile.
‘Out at Squealers?’
The next day, you couldn’t wipe the grin off my face when I surfed past him, hacking at the wave and sending an arc of spray in his face. But, like the conversations with the men in the surf shop, there was something hollow about it, because I hated – I hate – the fact that, as a female surfer, you continually have to prove yourself in the water (or out of it). Over and over again.
Female surfers get paid significantly less than male surfers. Gilmore, for example, a six-time world champion who has chalked up victories in 16 tour events, has earned $US759,150. Compare her winnings to those of her Gold Coast male counterparts, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson and the disparity is plain to see. Fanning, a three-time world champion with 21 event victories has totalled $US2,644,120; and Parko, who has never been crowned world champion but has been runner-up four times and has won 12 tour events, has earned $2,049,100. There’s a whole corpus of articles calling out the gender-pay gap in professional sports, so I’m not going to editorialise these figures here. They speak for themselves.
It can be easy to dismiss the sexualisation and depreciation of female surfers as a necessary evil of marketing. But the reality is that these trends of representation and the associated treatment of women in the world of professional surfing bleed out into ‘real’ world surfing scenarios and affect the lives of women who love the ocean.
It’s easy to maintain the status quo and stay silent about sexist treatment in surfing. I’ve done it when men have made sleazy comments about me – have reduced me to my body. I suspect that if you’re a professional surfer it’s probably easy to let your sponsors manipulate your image, to let them play up your ‘sexiness’ at the expense of your athleticism – to tell yourself: it’s just marketing, it’s no big deal.
But if we’re ever to achieve equality – if we’re ever to get to the point where we’re not men surfers and women surfers but just surfers, if we’re ever to get to a point of pay parity on the competitive surf scene – we have to call it out.
Most documentaries about the origins of surf culture and industry in Australia emphasise its anti-establishment nature. It began as a ‘fuck you’ to the stranglehold the surf clubs had on the beaches. It was real counter-culture. But it’s not anymore. As long as it perpetuates conservative, patriarchal gender politics, surfing will be a reflection of the mainstream. What contemporary surfing needs is radicals, not only in the water but out of it.
Silvana Lima’s comments resonated with me because she didn’t apologise about herself. She simply stated: ‘I’m not a babe. I’m a surfer. A professional one.’ She called out the surf industry, and by extension surf culture, by unapologetically owning the fact that she’s a shit-hot surfer and that she deserves recognition and sponsorship as an athlete, rather than an accessory.
By speaking out like this, she’s shown women surfers a path forward: a new way to both imagine themselves, and to be, as surfers. And for that, I thank her.