What it’s really like to be a woman who surfs.
Cori Schumacher is a three-time Women’s World Longboard Champion. In 2011, she boycotted the ASP World Tour’s China event citing human rights concerns. She lives with her wife in North County, San Diego, and refuses to be sponsored so that, instead of being a mouthpiece for a brand, she can talk about what it’s really like to be a woman who surfs.
My mother approached me when I was making a shift in my surfing career at the age of seventeen. She had come with a dire warning, one born of her many years as a competitive surfer. She had been discussing my future in professional surfing with the mother of a well-known local surf icon.
I could feel the weight of my mother’s stare as she warned me that my two oldest friends looked too much like they could be lesbians – “not that they were” – and hanging with them in public was potentially damaging for my pro surfing career. This message had been drilled into me since I was very young, through surf magazines, stories from other surfers and sponsors themselves.
Imagine how crestfallen I was! I had done everything that I could to avoid this type of stereotyping. I kept my hair waist length, exercised every day, restricted my diet to water and fruit when I was told that I was filling out too much. I dressed ‘girly’, flirted with guys, I mean, even the media had recognised my hard work. Surfer Magazine, in the late 1990s, described me as “the quintessential California surfer girl.” But it simply wasn’t enough! Everyone knew that to be questioned as a lesbian, even by association, meant no sponsors. No sponsors meant no exposure, no media and no ASP World Tour.
I experienced a profound sense of anxiety that often got in the way of my surfing ability and was made worse by the environment I experienced while on tour. I remember being asked who I was hanging out with by those “concerned” for my career, listened to a friend describe how a judge had encouraged her to fix her hair “so she would be given higher scores”. I can recall constant conversations about weight and working out, strange exchanges with surfer boys (“If I wasn’t married…”) somehow being validations of worth, and the ever-present knowledge that all this (plus the gruelling, constant self-monitoring it caused) was what you had to “tough out” if you wanted to make it as a successful female professional surfer. What had started as a tailoring of my self-image to fit the quintessential California surfer girl archetype in order to fit the branding of surf companies had become a very confusing burden that ultimately impacted my ability to remain on tour.
What is the quintessential California surfer girl archetype you might ask? She is a white, heterosexual girl with a sun-kissed tan, and blonde flowing locks framing eyes the colour of the sea. If this sounds familiar, despite being printed nearly twenty years ago, you shouldn’t be surprised. It is the image most associated with surfer girls because it is the image the media, Hollywood, and surf brands have consistently presented to the public, for a long time.
This image had its first outing after Frederick Kohner’s 1957 book,The Little Girl with Big Ideas, was made into a Hollywood movie,Gidget, in 1959. Large numbers of young people were so inspired by the movie that they crowded to the beach. Not only did this movie mark the birth of the archetypal female surfer, it also heralded a major shift in surf culture. What had once been a small group of deviants rebelling against the austere, conformist, post-WWII sensibilities of their parents, morphed rapidly into a booming beach lifestyle industry oriented around a commodified surf fashion style. Suddenly, it was hip to be a surfer, and women and men alike could purchase ‘the surfer look’ as it was presented to them in the media and movies.
The archetypal surfer girl was carried forward on this wave of surf industry success to new generations. In 1996, Roxy introduced the boardshort for women, redefining female surf fashion during a time when there was a surge in the female sports industry (sales for women’s athletic shoes topped men’s for the first time in 1994 and by 1995, women were spending $6 billion compared to men’s $5.6 billion). Roxy was able to take its surf fashion into the mainstream with the help of bikini-clad models and the brand’s icon and spokesperson, Lisa Andersen. Andersen was a four-time World Champion, tall, blonde, white, photogenic, and clearly heterosexual (she bore her first child before she won her first world title in 1994). I remember repeatedly watching an MTV special when I was young that showed her glowing shyly, then shredding right-handers to Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’, while young men gave her the requisite ‘hotness’ nod, insinuating in a confiding tone, “Most guys have got her poster on their wall.”
The nineties saw a tremendous growth in the surf industry due, largely, to the emergence of the female surf fashion trend forged by the bikini-clad ‘Roxy girl’ image. Thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals, surfers like Serena Brooke, Megan Abubo, Keala Kennelly, and Layne Beachley, enjoyed more exposure than past generations of professional female surfers. The image of the surfer girl during this time shifted from the waif-thin to the athletic, and saw women charging giant waves on the ASP Dream Tour. Like this new generation coming up, it was lauded by surf media as a Golden Era for women’s surfing.
I hoped that this new generation of female pro surfers would not have to deal with the type of anxiety about their bodies I had to deal with during my time on Tour, and that I had watched my peers suffer through – to the point of extreme anorexia to get advertising exposure, in one case. I hoped that they would be able to focus more on their surfing ability rather than being burdened by a sexually available, blonde, fit image that took much time and money to maintain. But, as I began to discover last year, the trend of focusing on the bodies and sexuality of female surfers seems to have grown worse. When I speak with Darlene Conolly, who conceived and managed Surfline.com’s women’s section for nearly four years, about the current state of women’s surfing, she notes that “the infighting, eating disorders, and competing to be ‘the whole package’ has created this horrible, insular environment in the competitive scene. It is much worse than it used to be.”
Why is the surfing environment worse for women today? Female surfers have always had to deal with this one particular archetype and excessive focus on their bodies, after all, and surfing is a particularly unique activity whose ‘uniforms’ are necessarily skin-tight and often scant. What could be making the scene worse, as Conolly had observed?
By taking a look at any core surf magazine, watching recent all-girl surf films, like Nike’s Leave A Message, or simply viewing the marketing campaigns of many of the top surf brands, it is easy to spot the new trend: the hypersexualisation of the female surfer. Or, to use the words of Derek Rielly from Stab Magazine, “These new gals are hotter than fish grease… [a]nd tote-ally [sic] hetero!” This emphasis on heterosexuality is a persistent theme in how female surfers are valued. Conolly described the narrow margin pro-female surfers have to walk between presenting themselves as ‘athletic’ but not ‘too butch’ and ‘sexy’ but not ‘slutty’. The boundaries of this margin are maintained, more by innuendo and suggestion, by peers, the media and sponsors. Self-monitoring, body anxiety, and ‘lesbian baiting’(or the disparagement of those female bodies that, perhaps being ‘too athletic’ for this new generation’s image, are brushed off as ‘lesbian’ and largely ignored) serve to restrict the female surf image. Though I can think of plenty of girls that could have been described as ‘totally hetero and hotter than fish grease’ when I was a young competitive surfer – like Daize Shayne-Goodwin or Sanoe Lake – the spirit of the nineties in both surf culture and society-at-large was less sexualised in general.
The portrayal of women in the nineties as physically strong and healthy inspired many women to jump into surfing (illustrated by the success of all-girl surf schools like Surf Diva), and offered them a chance to create an identity that was centred around ability rather than image alone. These activities, while offering a more active, healthy lifestyle, can be truly empowering in practice. However, if image is emphasised and valued above ability and performance in the competitive realm, it is possible that a competitive form of shape-shifting will arise (distorting the spirit of achievement found in this realm). This is the exact tension within women’s surfing currently. For example, when Stephanie Gilmore posed nude forESPN, what followed was a stream of evermore provocative images (some less tasteful and more passive in their posing) from her peers. Each one of the women who participated in these photo shoots did so for their own reasons. It is too simplistic to say that they are being exploited. The question I keep returning to is: how will this impact younger girls who are constantly exposed to this trend?
In 2010, the American Psychological Association, in their Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, reported effects that include mental and physical health issues (linking sexualisation with three of the most common mental health problems for girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood), mind and emotional effects, as well as negative impacts on women, boys, men and society as a whole.
The Volcom Europe Girls marketing team is keenly aware of the impact their images and campaigns have on younger girls. One way they have set themselves apart is through their use of narratives. By “letting our athletes and ambassadors share their talent, stories and unique lives through ads, blogs, videos and interacting with the rest of the Volcom Girls out there in the world” ambassadors are showcased as “artists of their own lives… walking their own paths,” says Lina Stenvall, European Girls Marketing Manager. This ethos is funnelled into their marketing campaigns. Their Spring 2009 ad campaign, which Josie McNamara (Josie Clyde before marriage) European girls Marketing Manager worked on (currently on sabbatical to care for her newborn baby girl), featured a storyboard that was poetic, artistic, capable and independent, while many of the campaigns of their competitors emphasised themes that were easygoing, trivial and contradictory (using words that might be empowering, yet paired with silly or fragile photos, or vice versa). The line separating the Volcom Europe Girls marketing team from their peers is subtle, but profound in its impact, especially given the frequency young girls and women are subjected to trivialising advertisements in mass media that do more to induce a general mind/body anxiety than actually inspiring young girls and women to participate in transformative activities.
Noting this growing trend of the hypersexualisation of athletes in mass media, Senior Director of Women’s Marketing for Under Armour, Adrienne Lofton-Shaw, commented to Marketing Daily, “What we get really frustrated with is advertisers who talk about beauty in terms of how you look, not what you are made of…”
Though marketing can have a positive influence on the culture and norms that shape our youth, one must always ask whether campaigns simply co-opt female-empowerment rhetoric to boost sales (‘commodity feminism’). It is important to consider the amount of money required in the purchasing/(re)constructing of one’s image, as well as the amount of free time that must be spent on the body in order to shape it. Body shape itself has become a marker of class, beyond, yet intimately tied to, race (documentaries such as Whitewash, show how entrenched racism is in surfing). An elite, leisure-class body shape in today’s consumer culture is identifiable much the way an expensive handbag or luxury car is identifiable. Either one has the time (money) to spend at the gym/running/surfing, or one does not. A working-class body does not look the same as a leisure-class body, regardless of what clothes it. We, both men and women, have been schooled by consumer culture to desire and value the leisure-class, elite body. When asked if having a baby has changed McNamara’s perspective on marketing she replies, “I think that what interests me has probably changed. I am more interested in companies who see a bigger picture – I want to buy products that are going to benefit my baby and not damage her.” The litmus test for marketing campaigns is a simple one: how many girls and women are inspired by marketing campaigns to actually participate in sports activities?
When Conolly departed from institutional surfing in 2009, she found that the further away from the media, surf industry, and competitive realm she travelled, the more personal freedom she felt. Before she left Surfline.com, she was barely surfing. She says that nowadays, she is “falling back in love with surfing” with each day that passes. The stifling body anxiety and self-monitoring that she said once enveloped her dropped away as she surrounded herself with a supportive community of non-competitive surfers and embraced new styles of surfing as an expression of herself. It was in riding new types of boards that she began to truly redefine herself. “These days, the board I choose to ride is my identity,” she says.
It is important to remember that in shaping the image of today’s female surfer, we are also shaping tomorrow’s female surfer. The environment they will encounter is the gift that we leave them, both ecologically and culturally. My hope is that surfing culture is more healthy, more empowering, more ability oriented, not less. I quit surfing completely when I was twenty-four years old. It took me six years before I set foot in the ocean with the same passionate love I had when I was a child. I’ll never forget that day; the day the ocean, surfing, and the freedom it has the potential to be, returned to me.