This post is by Cori Schumacher.
The largest surf brands, the majority of which are located in Orange County, California in close proximity to each other (e.g. Quiksilver, Billabong, O’neill, Rip Curl, Volcom), exert control over the content of surf media. Representatives and CEOs of these companies have been known to walk into the main surf media outlets to influence what audiences/consumers see in the surf media. They do this by using their advertising dollars as leverage to stifle stories and sponsoring surf trips with hand-picked surfers and photographers that are subsequently featured in surf media.
Stories that flirt with controversy are used ubiquitously in the surf media to stir up aggravation, hostility and web traffic, rather than provoking thought or sincerely addressing controversial issues. The most glaring example of this was the handling of the untimely death of three-time world Champion Andy Irons in 2010.
Surf writer Brad Melekian broke the palpable cloud of quiet that surrounded the death of Irons. He did so by risking a move outside of “surfing’s wall of silence” to publish his controversial exposé on Irons’ drug addled history and Billabong’s (Irons’ main sponsor) knee-jerk press release stating that his death was caused by dengue fever. Even after Melekian’s article was heralded by surf fans for its critical perspective, only one other media outlet, TheInertia[dot]com, dared to cross the line in the sand. The Inertia is an online surf media outlet that is run strictly off subscriptions and intentionally avoids accepting advertising dollars from the surf industry in order to remain independent.
I had a first-hand experience with this phenomenon at the beginning of 2011 when I participated in an article for Surfer Magazine that tackled the perniciousness of homophobia in surf culture. It was a piece of journalism that was well written, well researched, well sourced and timely. The staff journalist pulled quotes from various professional surfers, ASP leadership, and surf industry executives. Those who participated were told by the magazine editor that the piece was scheduled to be published in February of 2011. It was never published. I requested an explanation for why the article was not printed, but I never received any feedback from Surfer Magazine and without the courtesy of a response, I can only assume (given past patterns) that the article was killed in hopes of stifling dialogue. Maintaining and directing the image of surfing through the media is of paramount importance. This is most obvious, not through those stories and images that are printed, but in the limited amount of content that provides dissident opinions, voices or viewpoints.
What is this carefully constructed and closely monitored image? A quick content analysis of any surf print magazine or online surf site shows surfing to be an activity primarily composed of: white, risk-taking, heroic, relatively stoic elder men or their goofball younger counterparts, healthy, clean and carefree, athletic and heterosexual. Surfing certainly isn’t touted for its diversity. The issue of racism in surfing, though counterintuitive given its roots in Hawaii, is prevalent. The recently released documentary White Wash tackles the ubiquity of racism in surf culture.
One group that seems to have had a modicum of success penetrating the projected image is female surfers (there were more pictures of women in the June 2011 print issues of Surfer, Surfing and TWS than non-white males). For every one picture of a woman in these three print issues, seven of men could be found. For every one shot of a woman actually surfing, there were twelve and a half more images of men surfing. Unfortunately, in both image and content, the surf media is right in line with mainstream sports, whose own media often trivializes and minimizes the accomplishments of female athletes.
The above may be a deceptive snapshot, however, given that the June print issue of Surfing Magazine spent two pages advertising its swimsuit issue and the Nike 6.0 Leave a Message women’s surf film. This film prompted a story in the June print issue of Surfer Magazine along with ads in each magazine. The film was much anticipated and promised to highlight a “new generation” of female surfers who were pushing the boundaries of women’s surfing. What the film amounted to was a twenty-minute, rapid-fire advertisement for Nike 6.0. Though there were moments of inspired surfing, the all-male film crew could not avoid the gratuitous girls-in-bikinis wrestling match in the sand and the “come hither” glances and model poses that reinforced the 2011 trend of hypersexualizing the image of the female surfer.
In 2011, top female surfers posed nude for ESPN’s body issue, frolicked topless and inviting, posed in Playboy, and, under the supposed protection of a play on words, brushed the edges of soft porn. What began as the year fans would see “a new generation of women pushing the boundaries of surfing” saw the new generation instead, pushing the boundaries of the sexualization of the female surfer, all under the watchful eye of an industry that praised them for “embracing their femininity.”
The hype of the surf industry and the surf media would have us believe that this attractive, shrinking-bikini-clad, flirtatious, ever-younger crop of emphatically feminine ladies is more empowered than ever, but if this is true, why do these women consistently get stuck surfing the worst conditions in contests? Why do they feel they have to surf in a bathing suit adding to still-existent body image issues? This is not an easy task with the force of the ocean seeking to tear the suit off with every shift of the body. Why are female pro surfers losing their most prized events on their professional surfing world tour (the tour that determines the official professional World Champions), while the male pro surfers continue to keep theirs? In canceling women’s events in places like Hawaii and Fiji, where the waves are some of the best in the world, and centering the women’s professional surfing tour around locations that offer mediocre, weak-energy waves, the pro tour offers viewers a very unequal vision of women’s and men’s pro surfing. This is equivalent to binding the legs of the best female ballet dancer in the world before sending her on stage to dance alongside her liberated male counterpart in the world’s most prestigious production of Swan Lake. Ultimately, the entire production (the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour) is weakened because of an inbuilt handicap.
The activity of surfing itself promotes a healthy, active physical culture. Through surfing, young girls have the opportunity to experience a deep connection with their bodies that can help them fend off a society obsessed with women’s bodies as sexual objects for men’s consumption. When abdicated to the overwhelming androcentrism found in and around the surf industry, this opportunity ceases to be an empowering experience and instead, can add to the body-anxiety that is so damaging to girls and women.
When I was a younger professional surfer, anorexia and bulimia were (and perhaps still are) problems for female surfers. The reason for this revolved around an entrenched and accepted view of the “feminine” being thin and without musculature. The most tragic aspect of this was that women who were aware that other women had these problems would rarely speak up. A large group of women supported this unhealthy image of the feminine, either by actively engaging in the behaviors ourselves, or by being de facto partners to the status quo through our silence. More emphasis was placed on how we looked than on how well we were surfing. This was true individually as well as institutionally.
Beginning in the ‘90s a new generation of female surfers began to recast the athletic female body in a positive light. These ladies first had to overcome the institutionalized, androcentric view that strength and athleticism were not feminine. They had to change their minds first and then the minds of those around them. The results of their struggle directly influenced how acceptable being a strong, competitive and athletic female surfer is today. It was by overcoming a stifling image of ourselves that we were able to refocus and literally, reshape women’s surfing. For awhile, this was accomplished under the noses of the largest surf brands. Women’s surf magazines sprang up, along with all-female surf schools, women’s surf shops and women’s clothing lines. Advertising shifted away from the too-thin female surfer and female surfers began to surf stronger.
This movement fell short of placing ability over image precisely because of the entrenched, androcentric perspective that values a woman’s looks as an indication of her femininity and the need of the surf industry to tightly control the image of surfing. The emerging female surfing economy finally grew large enough to attract the attention of the industry. The major surf brands effectively shut down the women’s surf magazines, like Wahine Magazine (denying advertising dollars and shifting this money to surfer-girl media newly introduced through the main surf publications where the surf brands could control how female surfers were presented), and began producing their own lines of women’s surf clothing. Retail stores felt the same pressure. Female surfers remained excited about the shift but unaware that this play was being made behind the scenes. Meanwhile, emerging all-female surf brands slowly disappeared, all-female surf shops closed their doors and only those surf schools that worked with the main brands remained. The four main brands effectively assimilated the movement. Then, they began the task of shaping the image of women’s surfing that would be most beneficial to growing their consumer base.
The current image (long hair, fit, athletic, slim-but-not-too-slim, flirtatious and heterosexual, always smiling, younger and younger, sexy, and skin-bearing), continues to feed into the status quo for female athletes that emphasizes ability as an accessory to beauty. It is unchallenging to the dominant male sexual economy and it is fueling the current re-emergence of the sexual objectification of women in surf media.
Though female surfers as a group may have had some success penetrating the dominant stereotype of “surfer,” they have acquired their own burdensome stereotype along the way. The troubling thing about this is that the foremost professional female surfers seem unified in their support of the status quo. How much of this is due to internal competition for the few resources (sponsorships and media coverage in a male run sport) female surfers do have? How much of this uniformity is due to the oligarchical, controlling influence of the surf industry? The ladies are, after all, employed by these same surf companies through sponsorships. How much is due to an internalization of sexualization by the girls themselves? Are we to assume that women’s surfing is exactly how we are fed it, given what we know of how the surf industry controls the image of its surfers?
The image of female surfers that emerges is not the surfer’s view of herself (to what extent she has had an environment in which she might explore her own understanding of herself is questionable) but a tailored image that neatly fits into the androcentric values and expectations of the surfing world. Instead of accepting the current image of female surfers as empowered simply because they are wearing bikinis and say they want to… and shredding… we should keep analyzing behind the scenes and pushing for more institutional change from the bottom-up.
Cori Schumacher has spent more time in water than on land. She began surfing at five years old and competing at eight. She is a three-time Women’s World Longboard Champion (2000, 2001, 2010), two-time North American Women’s Longboard Champion (2008, 2009), and Women’s Longboard Pipeline Pro Champion (2009). She also holds multiple amateur shortboard titles. Cori is an advocate, tackling various issues including the persistent gender disparity, heterosexism and homophobia in sport.