29 April 2012

Surfer Girls Rock

Dawn patrol in eastside Santa Cruz. The lineup swells from a few to 17 guys... plus me, the sole surfer girl. Then a woman paddles out on a soft-top longboard, free brown hair still dry, stopping on the inside where I'm waiting for my last wave. We exchange smiles, and she tries for a couple small bumps but they pass her by. I say "here you go," when a slightly larger wave comes toward her, and as she turns to paddle for it, she offers "we could ride it together!" inviting me to drop in on her. Surfer girls rock.

While there are fewer women who surf than men, rising stars like Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore, Sally Fitzgibbons and Courtney Conlogue surf on par with the boys. Yet they are relegated to the poorest waves in shared contest windows, and largely absent from the phallocentric surf magazines. Instead of glossy photos of these pro surfer girls ripping, at this time of year, many of those magazines lure male eyes with annual swimsuit issues, posing women in barely-there bikinis sexily on the beach while a guy rides waves in the background. As Miss Representation (trailer below) points out:
No matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look.... The exploitation of women's bodies sells products, magazines, etcetera. 
Some women and girls buy into the myth that their worth is measured by their bodies and not their abilities. Others contribute to their objectification, like Stephanie Gilmore who posed naked for ESPN. Sponsors of women's surfing, while providing an opportunity for competition, also focus on the body, using their athletes as models. While pro male surfers can look less than pleasing, it seems an unwritten rule that for a woman to be sponsored, she must eye-candy: pretty, preferably blond, and hot in a bikini. Olympic swimming medalist Amanda Beard recently disclosed in her book, In the Water They Can't See You Cry, that her fit, athletic body was deemed to fat to advertise swimsuits, so she was forced to diet unhealthily and suffered damage to her self-esteem.

What we need are women who will buck the media onslaught to stand strong and be recognized for their abilities and accomplishments instead of how they look. We need women to support and encourage each other, like the longboarder in Santa Cruz, and to celebrate our achievements, like Stephanie and Sally chairing Courtney up the beach after she won the Commonwealth Bank Beachley Classic.

When the surfing magazine swimsuit issues hit the stands again this year, I gathered a few of my friends at Linda Mar beach in Pacifica for a photo shoot of real Nor Cal surfer girls. We don't surf in bikinis because the water is too cold, but even if it was tropical, many of us would choose more practical rashguards and board shorts. Because it's about surfing, not sexy.
Surfer girls rock.

An edited version of this post appears on TheInertia.


  1. Great post. Couldn't agree more. I see girls paddle out in bikinis and I groan to myself: here come the Blue Crush girls. Serious surfer-girls wear rashies, even when it's hot, cos yeah, you get a lot of chafe. I also smile to myself because the Southern Ocean is cold and they won't last long in the water, which means more waves for me! Go on girls, keep wearing those bikinis.

    What saddens me most is that women themselves are their own worst enemy in this regard - the culture of competition that flourishes, and is encouraged, between them. Competing for what? Men's attention? Who needs it? Obviously many women do - so sad.

  2. It's definitely my goal to be able to surf out of a wetsuit but I don't know HOW ladies surf in their bikinis! I don't know about you but that would be an uncomfortable resurface the first time I get beat by a wave. The frigid waters of the pacific northwest will never allow anyone in anything under a 2/3 wetsuit though so that goal won't be met soon!
    I love the message this post sends and I also love that the pictures of the girls surfing look like more women then the bleach blonde tiny things in a bikini that cover magazines.

  3. I am one happy camper to have found this blog. Cynthia - YOU rock! This post in particular resonated with me. I love surf sessions with my girlfriends at the crack of dawn - lots of laughs. And it seems very true - whenever I meet a new woman in the water, there is an instant sort of friendship formed by just a smile and a offer to share a wave. Nice work on your posts, Cynthia. I am a new fan! Can't wait for more!

  4. I am back! Sharing this post with my surfergirl friend, Tara. I love this post (we have a similar chapter in our upcoming book SurfdateBook.com).

    A handful of us ladies got out of the water last week and we met a woman at the top of the stairs in the parking lot at Swamis (local break). She was done surfing and was putting on her bra over her swimsuit (love that!). She continued to get dressed but struck up a conversation with us. With the biggest grin - she asked if we had a good surf(yes we did). Evidently she did too and she just wanted to share the joy of the moment with us. She was on cloud nine and had to tell us about it. It was great!

    We have all been there - you know that high after a good surf? It was so cool. I loved her energy and enthusiasm. Funny how she waited for us ladies to pass to start talking about her session - sharing it with the guys would not have been the same.

    Surfer Girls ROCK!

  5. This was a great post!! Thank you Cynthia for your insight!! I only wish more women would be more comfortable in their own skin and just surf for the pure joy of surfing rather than having to look "cute"...

    Thanks again!! Keep the stoke!!

  6. But don't you see how this opinion is destructive to your own goal of female unity in the waves? You're perpetuating male sexism by claiming all women who surf in bikinis are sexually objectifying themselves, and that's a pretty staggering claim. On the east coast, summers bring tropical water north up the coast and the temps vary widely over the course of the year. As a broke surfer girl I can't afford to own a wetsuit for every season; it just makes more fiscal sense to invest for colder water than it does for the sake of coverage. I surf in a bikini and I've seen quite a few other girls in bikinis tear shit up. Why should it matter what they wear as long as they love to surf and have ettiquette in waves? Sure I'd love to own a 2:1 shortie for summer, but because I can't afford to buy one I'm not only degrading myself but all other female surfers? I think that's bs. This type of opinion polarises women, it doesn't unite them under feminism. You're judging women much the same way our male-oriented collective sexuality does, and that perpetuates sexism just as much as mass media, and is just as harmful. I've surfed the 38th parallel in South Korea and about half the female surfers surf in bikinis in the summer. But men don't objectify them and women don't judge them; they are just as respected as anyone else in the water, male or female, wetsuit or not. What you choose to wear when you surf is no indication of your skill or passion; the way you surf is. If you're going to embrace women surfing in the larger scheme of things then you should be supporting all women, not just the ones you deem worthy of your respect based on their attire. For you to even see other surfer girls in such a light isn't a fault of theirs, it's based on your own prejudice that was clearly formed by our male-centic society. Girls with an attitude like that contribute to these issues of female objectification by claiming these women aren't worthy and on such a petty basis I might add! While I see where you're coming from, I have to disagree with your mentality; I think you're just as biased as those misogynist surf magazines you villify.

    1. It's been 6 months since I wrote this post, so I had to go over it again it to see if I really said what you're claiming. I didn't. You're reading stuff into it that just isn't there and your diatribe is misplaced.

  7. So let me get this straight: if a woman surfs in a bikini she sucks and is only doing it to get attention... Hmm that seems like a pretty sexist generalization. It's ideas like that that perpetuate sexism and male-centric ideas about female identity. Women who wear bikinis are unworthy of respect in the water simply because of their attire, not their ability or passion for surfing. That's really petty and shallow. I'm from the east coast so tropical waters move north in the summer and the water temp varies greatly over the course of the year. For other female east coast surfers like myself, it makes more fiscal sense to invest in cold water gear than to simply invest in coverage when the waters are balmy. I surf in a bikini and I've seen more than a handful of other girls tear shit up in the waves wearing a bikini, and I respect them. But because I can't afford to buy a wetsuit for every season I'm degrading myself and female surfers as a whole? That seems just as chauvinist as those surf magazines you villify, and it's for the exact same reason! You're judging a female surfers worth based on her wardobe, not her ability, her love of the sport, or even her manners in the waves. According to this logic, I'm not worthy of your respect as an individual, as a woman, or as a surfer. Your ideas are stemming from this collective male-centric ideology that a woman is only worth as much as what's on the surface, and girls like you perpetuate those harmful ideas. That's not female unity at all. When I surfed in South Korea, a lot of girls did surf in bikinis in the summer, but unlike in the states, they were respected just as much as anyone else in the water because they all shared a love of surfing. And at the end of the day, isn't that what really counts?

  8. As a fellow female surfer and a feminist, I have to disagree with this post and the mentality behind it.
    I'm from the east coast, and during the summer tropical waters move north making summer waters very balmy. Because of this though, there is a lot of temperature variation over the course of a year. Like most surfers, I'm broke. As much as I'd love to own a wetsuit for every season (including a 2:1 shortie for summer,) I can't afford to. For me, and other broke surfer girls it just makes more fiscal sense to invest in colder water gear than it does to buy gear for coverage. That's right ladies, I surf in a bikini, and I have seen many other ladies surf in bikinis and tear shit up in the waves. According to your mentality however, these girls and myself are not worthy of your respect as individuals, as women, or as surfers. Let's try to examine why you feel this way. It would appear while you villify surf culture for objectifying women for commerce, you also judge women based on the same criteria: what they're wearing in the waves. You also objectify women by assuming bikini-clad surfer gals aren't worthy of your respect and on the sole basis of their wardrobe, not because of their ability, passion, or manners in the waves; BUT THEIR WARDROBE. That seems petty and shallow coming from a fellow female surfer. This article out of context may very well come from a chauvinistic male surfer, but the fact that it comes from a fellow sister in the waves is really disappointing. Rather than promoting female unity, you're perpetuating these sexist ideas that a women is only worth as much as her appearance. Rather than look at this situation objectively, you've subversively embraced this male-centric ideology concerning female identity and sexuality, that if a woman isn't perfectly modest she's probably just doing it for male attention, and that could be the only reason and in that case she's also probably a slut. Classic madonna-whore complex.
    When I was surfing in South Korea, a lot of female surfers did wear bikinis in the summer. Interestingly though, they were just respected as any other person in the water, male or female, wetsuit or otherwise. They shared a love of surfing and that's all that mattered to them. Why do we here in America have to put to much pressure on gender?
    Overall I consider this article sexist and inappropriately judgmental and on a basis that you supposedly inherently disagree with! Really disappointing...