To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
In between the lines of text in surf magazines; in between the commentary and sound bytes in surf competitions; around the edges of surf advertising: there is a silence. In that silence is a message. It is a message only if you look for what is missing. What is missing is outrage. And in that lack of outrage is an implicit agreement that women’s surfing is not really important in surfing.
The ASP is maintaining a structure that disadvantages female surfers and encourages blatant sexualisation of women. This exploitation is being used to market the sport even as women are treated as inferior and told they are not really deserving of decent competition locations or prize money.
This is not the line you’ll hear through official channels, of course. Women are told their time is ‘coming’. They’re the next big thing. Some of the people who are saying this actually genuinely believe it. But many of the arguments given for women getting less respect in the meantime, seem to focus on the idea that surfing isn’t as big for women; that women don’t attract sponsors; that women don’t surf as well as men. There seems to be no suggestion that the sport’s treatment of women is to the detriment of female performance in surfing.
Women are consistently being used by surfing to sell the sport to men. What impact does this have on women’s surfing?
Surfing has sexualised women to the point where surfing media no longer recognises the extent to which women are marginalised in the industry. In this article by Emma Rogan, Sam McIntosh, founder of Stab Magazine, was genuinely surprised that an audience found his depiction of women in surfing disturbing.
Focusing on appearance in magazines, in advertising, in competition commentary, and constantly suggesting that surfing is ‘glamorous’ is a way of forcing female athletes to put emphasis on appearance, in order to satisfy gender expectations within society. This distraction can serve to steer energy away from athletic perfection in order to serve commercial interests. You’ll twerk on a beach for attention, wear inappropriate gear in cold water to show off your body, get photographed naked in a magazine- all because if you just prove you are worthy of attention, you might attract a sponsor, and then you might start to be taken seriously.
Sex sells. Until it doesn’t. And then, you give less money to women. They don’t surf exactly like men, partly because they also have to satisfy expectations of their sexuality and appearance, so you get to justify it that way. Here’s a third of the prize money that the men get, and a photo shoot for a magazine. Right after they bend over that chair, of course, and look sexy. And so the cycle continues. Conform to this, you might get that- eventually.
Female professional surfers don’t have representation in the ASP to challenge this imbalance. Search in vain for the Women’s Tour Manager giving Roxy a blast for promoting ‘sexy’ to the detriment of women’s surfing. She’s only the Deputy Commissioner for the ASP. The Deputy Commissioner for the ASP has no comment? Women earn a third of what the men win as prizes and cope with inferior locations while she remains silent. If your tour manager can’t seem to advocate for equality, what do you do as an athlete?
Hell, what do we do as an audience?
The way surfing treats women is a message to everyone. If they’re not standing for equality then neither are we. Advocating for sexism demands less of everyone in society. As an audience, our silence is considered complicit. We give power to the exploitation of women in surfing by watching and not speaking up.
Yes, we are all outsiders, jumping in with an opinion on surfing’s impossible wet dream. But then, there is ample evidence of a tradition in society of defining others, where any form of diversity is put in a box, labelled and ignored. Surfing is good at this. There’s a reason why it is so homogenous and has persisted with outdated attitudes. That’s the cost of our silence.
Of course, when you speak up, you will be defined as an intruder by the community. Have your surf snaps ready. Speak surfy surf please. Show respect for that anonymous handle masquerading as a surf editor masquerading as an anonymous troll masquerading as some russian doll internet phenomenon that you’re not meant to link to their actual work as a surf editor, thanks very much. A moment’s silence, please, while the professionals on twitter step up and put us in our rhetorical place.
And may that be the only moment of silence we hold for such vapid, superficial stupidity.
Consider the consequences of continuing to stand mute on the sidelines for fear of being challenged. That sound? The impossible sound byte of stupidity you hear? The comments you read? That’s the sound of unchecked privilege. Take a moment. That is the current value of surfing.
What is valuable in surfing is not an aerial move or a point or an online debate. It is not even the thrill of your first caught wave or getting barrelled. No, what matters in surfing is its community.
He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people!
~Traditional Maori Proverb
The way we treat people is the true measure of success. Surfing? It’s marginalising women in an effort to conform to society. If that hasn’t worked for society, why should we hold such low hopes for surfing? Why shouldn’t we demand more of the ASP?