Walking past a surf shop in Southern California recently, I noticed a photograph of a male surfer doing an impressive aerial maneuver. It was part of an ad for men’s surfwear. On the other side of the door a photo of teen girls smiling, their hair and pastel shirts billowing in the breeze, advertised female surf clothing.

The branding was clear: men rip, and girls on the beach look cute.

While surf culture has come a long way in subduing the rampant sexism of the past that tried to relegate women surfers to bikini-clad babes, sexist messaging unfortunately still persists.

Professional female surfers still get complimented for their “feminine” style, even during World Surf League commentary, while those with more muscular bodies often get passed over for sponsorships by major surf clothing brands.

Seven-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore has been asked in at least two interviews whether she wants to have children. One interview was for the Olympic Channel, which represents the Olympic games where surfing and the highly acclaimed Gilmore will make their debut in 2021. I wonder how many times the Olympic Channel has asked unmarried male athletes with no children on the way about their future fatherhood plans.

Despite these frustrating examples, it’s important to acknowledge that women in surfing have come a long way in the fight for equality. The World Surf League’s awarding of equal contest payments for men and women in 2019 marked a momentous turning point for professional surfing and sports in general.

In addition, daring big-wave surfers like Keala Kennelly and Bianca Valenti have carved out an official pro space for their intense, dangerous enterprise—after fighting hard to secure contest opportunities denied them a long time. And I thought it was an encouraging sign when a male newspaper editor recently shared with me in passing his opinion that the only household names in surfing in his home country of Australia are women.

As World Surf League tours remain on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good time to reflect on where the sport could go in championing the identities of its athletes.

Along the lines of the specific topic at hand, I would hope that fans would agree that female pros don’t have to match the stereotypical image of longhaired and lithe to deserve entry to the waves, or to be considered beautiful for that matter. Their style doesn’t have to be “feminine” to be appreciated. They don’t have to be planning families or aspiring to walk down the aisle. They don’t have to be straight. They don’t exist for the male gaze or for anyone’s gaze. And they don’t have to be white.

Female pros demonstrate amazing talent over and over again in the water. In short, they rip. Is there a wetsuit or shirt that can be sold with that mainly in mind? Instead of featuring bikini cleavage shots of pros and pictures of them balancing boards on their fingertips while standing on the shore, maybe it would be preferable to showcase their actual wave performance.

We all know that sex sells. Some women enjoy highlighting their sexiness whatever their career might be, and that’s super cool as long as they feel it’s their choice, rather than a direct or indirect expectation made of them. But when it comes to treating athletes like models, particularly when they rely on sponsorships to make a living as they do in surfing, I think we need to consider the toll that treatment can take and to show concern about it. The answers aren’t easy to come by, but looking more closely at what’s going on is a first step.

Macy Callaghan letting her rail do the talking. Photo: Swilly

Championship Tour surfers Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright, for example, have publicly discussed their body-image struggles. It doesn’t take much imagination to relate to how difficult it must be to compete and pose in bathing suits, especially when physical self-consciousness becomes overwhelming, as it often can for women (and men) of all ages.

Beyond the expectation in much of surf branding to look slim and sweet or slim and seductive, there’s also the implied pressure to appear straight. Kennelly, for instance, felt the need to suppress her sexual identity when she was on the Championship Tour circuit, fearing that she’d lose her sponsors and with them the financial backing required to stay in competition.

While incredible strides have absolutely been made, isn’t it time to allow space for more types of identities to shine through?

Men are often encouraged to forge their own path, without being criticized for it. Women should be, too. Today’s pro surfers and the future ones to follow deserve to feel that it’s okay to be simultaneously female and whatever other adjectives suit them (strong, sexy, determined, tough, etc.)—without apology and without squeezing themselves into a box that doesn’t fit.

Besides, removing these barriers could set more women surfers free to take to the air and the big waves. And maybe that’s the best branding opportunity, still largely untapped, out there. 

Tyler Wright taking flight with a neat slob grab. Photo: Swilly