Women Influence Surfing Culture: More Camaraderie and Fun

by Madison Salvati
The WIP Summer Intern

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Young surf campers displaying confidence and joy after a fun day of surfing. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Surf Lessons.

With the rise of women’s surfing in recent years, women no longer are shadowed by the male athletes who once dominated the waters. Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore, Bethany Hamilton, and Maya Gabeira are prime examples. Unfortunately, even as women give surfing more than a handful of talented girls, the media and the surfing industry portray an image of women’s surfing that has nothing to do with riding waves.

This was apparent in this summer’s promotional video for the Women’s World Surfing Championship Roxy Pro in Biarritz, France. The video (embedded below), sponsored by Roxy, features five-time ASP World Surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore topless sprawled half-naked on a bed and later in the shower. There is no sign of any waves, or of a competition for that matter, and her face is never shown. Instead, the ad focuses only on parts of her body. Before I could exit the browser in defeat, the video flashed to Gilmore walking down the beach and later paddling in the water, leaving the viewer with little indication that this is an advertisement for the Roxy Pro.

Noah Greenberg, psychology professor at California State University Monterey Bay and the owner and operator of Carmel Surf Lessons, tells me in an interview, “Girls are couched as athletes [and] models, so instead of the best athlete getting the prize, the prettiest girls get paid the most.” Who knew that modeling and having the “right” look would play a part in the salary of an athlete capable of dropping off the face of a thirty-foot wave? Does it really matter what a surfer looks like if she can ride the monster waves like those at Mavericks and Peahi?

According to Darcy Roland, a writer for surfing’s online network The Inertia, “by 2017, the global surfing market is expected to be a $13.2 billion industry … [and] women are one of the primary consumers. Ironically … the men have more events and they also earn more prize money.” Not only do women have to worry about looking sexy while riding waves to earn the money they deserve, the men they ride alongside are still paid substantially more. Roland continues, “[A] male winner gets about $100,000 an event compared to the female winner who earns about $40,000.”

But as equality in the water has been skewed, so has the media’s idea of what women bring to the water. It is a shame that Roxy, a brand that supports women in sports, has not capitalized on the many positive ways women have transformed surfing in recent years. Krissy Montgomery, founder of Surf Sister surf school in British Columbia, tells me, “Women make the lineup way more relaxed. Smiles are contagious and having women in the surf definitely mellows out the guys!” Greenberg agrees, “I think boys might behave better when girls are around. I often say if women ran the government I don’t think we would be at war.”
The goal of Surf Sister is to make surfing less intimidating and more accessible for women. In the decade since they began teaching women to surf, “the number of women in the water in Tofino [British Columbia] has gone from just a handful of dedicated ladies to almost a third of the surfers in the water being female on any given day.”

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A young surfer carrying surf boards after teaching a surf lesson. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Surf Lessons.

When asked what kind of influence she thinks women have on the dynamic in and out of the water, Montgomery believes that “women really embrace the fun and camaraderie of surfing, rather than trying to prove themselves or impress anyone in the water. I love watching my friends get a great wave as much as I enjoy surfing one myself (well, almost…) and it’s really about sharing that experience with each other.”

In an interview with Dionne Ybarra, founder of The Wahine Project, she tells me, “Women surfers bring about a dynamic of inspiration in and out of the water because of what it takes to be out there with the men.” The Wahine Project is an organization that gives young girls, who otherwise might not have the opportunity, the chance to learn how to surf.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time women are [outnumbered] 10 to 1 to the men. We have to prove ourselves every time we paddle out and we have to be stronger to catch the same waves. We have to defend our capability in and out of the water too. There is no other sport where the exact same unpredictable conditions are set up for men and women to both meet and in order to catch the wave a woman has to do it equally to be able to ride it.”

Like Montgomery and Greenberg, Ybarra believes women have influenced the line-up in similar ways. “Women bring their smiles to the line-up and a stoke that is contagious as well as camaraderie with one another.”

Whether women are inspiring other women to challenge the traditional surfing culture or simply providing an aura of calm in the water, women’s surfing is much more than women clad in skimpy bikinis, let alone their underwear! Unfortunately, since the Hollywood days of Gidget, the women’s circuit that is portrayed through the media has been twisted and manipulated. And similar to the video ad for the Roxy Pro, if I flip through an issue of Surfing Magazine, the photos of women surfers are risqué and graphic as women pose half-naked in bikinis or in nothing at all. No surfboards or waves are in sight.

This is where the image of women and what they bring to the surf scene is tragically misinterpreted. Though their efforts and capability in the water do not go unnoticed, most of the surfing industry’s main consumers are men, and women surfers have fallen victim to the beach bunny image created by one swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated after another. In more ways than one, world-class women surfers have been objectified and condensed to girls with pretty faces and beach-blond hair.

Ybarra tells me, “I admire the women I surf alongside that come from all corners of the world, who only do it for the personal stoke and for the experience of sharing it with one another.” The women who push past the muck of the media and surf just to feel the water pass under their boards are the surfers who are most rewarded.

As Greenberg tells me, “I often say surfing is like life: to me a good surfer tolerates frustration [and] accepts . . . what Mother Nature has to offer. [This] can assist in the humility of the surfer’s character.”

It is frustrating to think about how much women have to tolerate to surf. Being the talented athletes that they are, everything that the media and the surfing world has cooked up about them pales in comparison to the stoke of winning huge world titles and surfing just for the sake of surfing. Although so much of the world seems to miss out on what women actually bring to the water, the women who are out there proving themselves each day are making their mark.

The controversial promotional trailer for the Roxy Pro Biarritz 2013.

About the author: Madison Salvati is a senior at Carmel High School. She has a well-known affinity for journalism and writing and has written for her school newspaper, The Sandpiper. In her spare time she enjoys photography, in hopes of one day working for National Geographic Magazine or Surfer. She has had a passion for the ocean her entire life and has only recently begun to appreciate the sport of surfing. While she still has yet to apply to college, she hopes to major in English or Journalism and continue pursuing her passion for writing while taking pictures in her spare time. Madison spent the summer working as an intern at The WIP.

Posted in Arts & Culture, FEATURE ARTICLES
2 comments on “Women Influence Surfing Culture: More Camaraderie and Fun
  1. MikePalshaw says:

    Ms. Salvati does an excellent job of calling attention to this glaring inequity in the perception of and expectations for women surfers. As a father of two girls, I have a keen interest in seeing my daughters admired for their accomplishments and intellects, not their outward appearance. Educating readers about the harsh discrepancy between male and female athletes’ portrayal, as this talented young writer does, is the first step to eliminating such crude, one-dimensional depictions.

  2. KellyO says:

    Fantastic article! It’s great that organizations like Surf Sister exist to get young girls involved in sports, especially since the statistics brought up in the article might seem so discouraging for young girls who want to become professional athletes.

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