08 June 2009

Sexism in Surfing

Yesterday at the Jetty I was waiting for waves in a sizable patch of questionable water, brown-tinged foam mixed with feathers floating on the surface, from which I should have paddled away, fast. Today I left work early and am trying to calm my queasy stomach by nibbling saltine crackers and blogging for distraction.
I've long been troubled by the entrenched sexism in surfing. Flip through any surfing magazine, and the only women you'll see will be in bikinis on the beach, not riding the waves in glossy photo spreads. The articles are overwhelmingly by, for, and about male surfers. Carissa Moore recently made history as only the fourth woman ever to make the cover of Surfer; number three was 12 years ago. The rare women who make the cut to be pictured surfing instead of sunning must be pretty, clad in a bikini and preferably blond.

The July 2009 issue of Surfing has a good crop of examples. A female subscriber from Santa Cruz is mocked and dismissed by the editor for expressing discomfort with the annual swimsuit issue and questioning its purpose. A surfing event calendar features a chest-up photo of bikini-clad women and exhorts (male) readers to go to the beach on International Surfing Day because "there may even be girls. Real. Live. Girls. Enjoy." The regular "Whipped" section has a sexy shot of a real (male) surfer's girlfriend/wife/beach bunny (bikini again, so tiresome). On one of the final pages, two-time women's Pipeline pro champion Alana Blanchard is photographed, not demonstrating her prowess on a wave, but on the beach from the back, faceless, in a tiny bikini.

Contrast this with snowboarding magazines, which seem to feature the genders roughly in balance, and give recognition to skilled women in the field. Perhaps the explanation is that the newer sport of snowboarding does not have surfing's history as a male bastion, but it makes me sad that in 2009 we have made so little progress from the 1950s.

Compare the women on the ASP world tour to the more numerous and higher-paid men. It seems a de facto requirement to be model pretty to make it as a top female surfer, but the guys can be hard on the eyes and need only to surf well. Surfline makes a nod to women, but keeps them segregated in a special section with liberal use of pink text. "Surfing, The Manual: Advanced," a book I picked up recently, has 18 contributors, but not one woman. Not one!

It isn't just the media that is phallocentric. As I've said before, I have a hell of time finding decent wetsuits designed to fit a woman my size. O'Neill fails for example, and Hotline is my only source, until this winter when Matuse will stop catering to men only by adding a female wetsuit to their line. I've also ranted that all gloves and adequate booties are made for men so they don't fit properly and lead to shorter winter sessions. The lack of options is puzzling since, according to this article last year in the NY Times (curiously not updated), women comprised up to 5% of surfers in 1990 but by 2000 had doubled or tripled that percentage. Google has failed me in finding a current figure, but 25% seems reasonable. Surf gear outfitters are missing a substantial segment of their potential market in choosing to market bikinis to women over serious water gear.

But what's the reality in the water? I personally haven't experienced overt gender discrimination while surfing. I don't believe my encounter with Angry Guy at Pleasure Point would have gone any differently if I'd been male (perhaps he would've hit me, but I was already bleeding so there was no point). I guess we just need the surf media and manufacturers to catch up to the times. Women are surfing in increasing numbers and we're not going to just sit on the beach watching the guys, so give us some respect and recognition and sell us what we need to have fun out there.


  1. Yes it is very biased to males as are many aspects of life but it is completely awesome to have women out there in the line up as it changes the vibe which can get ridiculously testosteroney (new word). It will change through the weight of numbers in time.
    You might like to follow Rebecca's blog as she is doing a thesis on women and surfing.

  2. Whoa Ramsnake had a great idea - I was also going to point you to Rebecca's blog.

  3. Thanks, I'll check it out.

  4. Oh yeah sexism is surfing exists because women are taking waves from guys and they don't like it. hahaha Check out our comic blog depicting this very humorous issue. If you don't laugh then you're just gonna cry.

  5. Women in surfing are out numbered. That's part of it.
    A different set of skills and strength.
    Women surfing kayaks are showing major skill, strength and
    courage actually challenging men's dominance.
    Board surfing women might make the advances.
    I really like your blog. Surf and coastal knowledge, photos,
    your doing a great service here.
    As an old surf dog I might wonder about one thing.
    I am not, and have never been "Surfer-boy".
    I think you must actually be Surfer-"woman', rather than the
    cutie version, surfer-"girl".
    You are a waterperson and surfer. I can see that.
    Keep Surfing and all the best to you.

  6. Hey, you're as old as you feel, right?! Glad you enjoy the blog.

  7. Hey there surfergrrrl! I'm the above-mentioned Rebecca (thanks everyone!!) and can I just say...

    Nice post!

  8. Hey Surfergrrrl! I really really loved your post and I agree so much. I just recently saw the new issue of Sports Illustrated and I was a bit miffed on that as well. I don't think the top women surfers should give in to sexism and do those racy photoshoots, it just perpetuates the problem. Anyways, I love the comments and I also have a blog called Wavedivas on blogspot so check that out and I will defiantly check out the other suggestions above. Cheers