Women in Sport: ‘Surfing Is My Feminist Origin Story (in That I Left for the Arts Swiftly, and Remained Angry)’, by Holly Isemonger

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This is the fifth and final piece in a week-long series about women’s experiences in sporting culture.


We crowded around the TV in a sweaty demountable and watched footage of the high-school surfing team. I saw stringy boys in black wetsuits ride wave after wave; I was waiting for footage of me, which arrived unexpectedly spliced into the year-ten boys’ semi-final, although I wasn’t surfing. I was emerging from the water and onto the shore—like girls I had seen in Tracks magazine—fiddling with my bikini and slowly walking toward the camera up onto the beach. I had no idea I was being filmed. There was no footage of me surfing. I was thirteen years old. It was at that moment I realised who I was, or more accurately, what I was and it had nothing to do with surfing, but was intimately entwined with it.

In high school I was a surf rat, like Lockie Leonard, the eponymous teen protagonist of Tim Winton’s young adult book series. We studied the books at school and followed Lockie as he navigated his way through shredding and acquiring a hot girlfriend. His world seemed familiar to me; shredding and hot girlfriends were the top priorities of most boys in my life. One formative moment occurred when these two interests collided: after school, my boyfriend paddled out to me in the lineup and said, “You know we broke up, right?” (I didn’t know). “Yeah,” I said. Small tears slid into the salt water on my cheeks. He didn’t notice (thank god), because he was no longer looking at me. He had already snaked me and had priority for the next wave. I wasn’t his hot girlfriend, and I was not shredding.

Tim Winton has long been the literary mascot of Australia’s surfing culture for both the urbane literary set and surfers themselves. He has won the Miles Franklin award four times, he’s taught in school curriculums, his novels have been adapted for film and TV – he is basically Australia’s most beloved novelist. He has also become something like Aus-lit’s hippie guru. You can almost see his wispy locks in the brassy light as he drops perfect mantra quotes like, “I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings,” or, “Everything we do in this country is still overborne and underwritten by the seething tumult of nature.” Despite Winton’s ubiquity, there has been little critique of his depiction of women. Australia hasn’t questioned the repercussions of taking this masculine nostalgia as our most adored national narrative.

Growing up, I knew I could surf and I did. But I also I knew I could never be the surfers that were so carefully arranged on my school books and bedroom walls. Seeing that video of me in year eight taught me a profound lesson that I’m still trying to un-learn: although I couldn’t be the surfers I idolised, I could be desired by them (and in my home town that’s significant currency). In the narratives that surrounded me I could see girlfriends and hot girls – I couldn’t see me.

I’m not here to unpack why the Australia fell so deeply in love with Winton’s world. His skill is obvious and his brand of wistful macho-romanticism is perfectly tailored to Australia’s literary mythos: man vs. bush (Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson), man vs. farm-life (Les Murray) and Winton’s contemporary iteration – man vs. the surf (he’s a bloke, but he’s sensitive!). Australia’s perpetual need to look back to the sharpness of youth where the water was crisper and the girls hotter is unsurprising. There is enough grit in the sentimentality and force in the narratives to make Winton’s tales feel real, raw and true. And maybe for some people they are true, but they are likely a white guy, and often they are your dad. My aim is to draw attention to how the male-centric nature of Tim Winton’s oeuvre perpetuates an Australian myth of surfing that, in reality, is unavailable to at least half the population.

Winton’s takes a Werner Herzog approach to nature: the ocean is indifferent and often brutal. “I love the sea but it does not love me.” If you dare wade into its waters, you can experience the sublime. If you are a woman the stakes are higher because if you are not brilliant you are the worst, if you don’t look good you are invisible, if men can see you they drop in on you. To surf big swell is hard – even with intense training my weedy boyfriend can pin me down, let alone the ocean! None of this is mentioned in Winton’s narrative. When Winton talks about surfing he talks about spirituality, contentment and a raw connection with nature. Winton’s tales of the surf are deeply solipsistic.

Breath’s narrator Pikelet recalls the experience of surfing as

The blur of spray. The billion shards of light … I was intoxicated. And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

For Winton, to be in the surf is to be one’s true self, at your most authentic and free. It is the purest form of life.

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I adore surfing. Many of my formative experiences occurred in the ocean (my first reo, when I did my first backhand slash, when I nearly drowned, when I spotted sharks, when my leg-rope got caught around a lobster pot, when I grasped a piece of swaying kelp and kissed a cute boy by a reef, etc.) Despite this, I never felt free, I never felt authentic and surf culture constantly reinforced it.

In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger draws on the tradition of European oil painting to illustrate the difference between nakedness and the nude. He writes, “to be naked is to be oneself”: to be able to express yourself openly and be recognised for who you are. Winton’s surfers are “dancing themselves across the bay with smiles on their faces and sun in their hair”. He writes, “to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared” – in short, they are naked. Berger elaborates on the distinction:

to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise.

Winton assumes that all surfers are naked, that they are the embodiment of freedom. This assumption is why I bristle at his writing.

As I watched Ways of Seeing, I recalled the moment I saw myself on screen in year eight. I’m reminded of Erin Hortle’s essay in which she describes nailing a perfect ride only to hear her fellow male surfers say “Imagine seeing her do that in a bikini.” (A comment that no doubt many, many women have heard.) These are moments when we should have been able to be ‘naked’. Hortle should have been able to express herself with the same the unbridled delight as Winton’s surfers dancing across the bay and seen as who she is – a surfer.

Considering how elite female surfers are portrayed in the media, Berger’s observations are prescient. You may be world champion, but if you’re a woman you’ll be portrayed as a ‘nude’. Berger continues,

To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise, which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked.

There is something deeply unsettling in Berger’s description: the surface of your skin, the hairs on your body, are severed from you. They are transformed into a disguise by something you can’t control. You are stitched into a costume that is made from you: your face, your shape and skin, but it doesn’t belong to you. You are alien and yet yourself.

This might seem like a plot from a body horror movie but it’s just Steph Gilmore’s promotion for the Roxy Pro Biarritz – and the sad reality is that it could be any number of ad campaigns featuring female pro-surfers (e.g. Sally Fitzgibbons, Laura Enever, Coco Ho, Lakey Peterson, Sage Erikson). For Gilmore, the ‘disguise’ is controlled and owned by her sponsor, who will in return will pay the costs of competing on the World Championship Tour (which is estimated to be $40,000 a year) and more.

The Roxy Pro Biarritz promo is built from surfaces: skin in soft light with clothes sliding over it, water glistening on it, blonde locks falling onto Steph Gilmore’s back. As the camera documents each surface of her body, it replicates it and detaches it from her with the purpose of making it saleable.

Alana Blanchard famously posed in a raunchy video with her boyfriend, Australian pro-surfer Jack Freestone for Stab Magazine. On the cover of the magazine she is featured kneeling in a blow-up kiddie pool wearing stilettos while he squirts a garden hose nonchalantly in her direction; in the ‘short film’ that accompanies the shoot she is in the kitchen, nude, with the exception of an apron; then she is in lingerie posing for Freestone who is on the couch and still mysteriously nonchalant. Stab captions a still of her in the film saying, “Ms Blanchard, the essence of beauty and marketability.” To recall Berger, “the sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.” Stab publishes intermittent ‘feminist’ articles discussing the plight of female surfers, yet they are also publishing heinous sexualised content – at a much faster frequency than their pro-women content.

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Objectification of women as a means of selling a product is nothing new. Where it poses an acute issue for surfing is that it uses professional surfers for selling the product. Though Blanchard is currently ranked 195th in the World Surf League, she is sponsored by Rip Curl, Reef, SPY Optic, Sticky Bumps, GoPro, Rockstar, Channel Islands and Royal Hawaiian Orchards and has a net worth of $2 million. Blanchard cops a lot of flak for her sexualised persona, but it’s a cunning choice. In 2014 she was the highest paid female surfer in the world despite her lack of competitive success. If I look deep inside my grimy, weak, feminist soul don’t know if I would turn down a career of getting paid to look great and surf.

There are many women without sponsorship ranked significantly higher than Blanchard. Is she employed as a model or a surfer? It’s a blurred line. In his Stab article titled ’The Painful Truth of Silvana Lima’s Sponsorship Struggle’, Jed Smith talks to a “marketing heavyweight, whose job it is to control the budget of one of the world’s biggest surf brands” (who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job). The first thing to note is the headline – if Smith was writing about a male surfer, would he use the words ‘painful’ and ‘struggle’? These words are coded as feminine in this context. The article could easily be framed instead as: ‘Lima Does Insane Aerial Manoeuvres on the Reg; Why Isn’t She Sponsored?’ When broached with the question of how they choose whom to sponsor, he replies, “I think it has a lot more do with age and relevance to the young consumer than purely looks.” But let’s unpack that statement. Surf brands are often targeted at teenagers or aim for a teenage aesthetic, so who is relevant to this demographic? Hot. Girls. The logic being: if you’re a girl you want to be them, and if you’re a guy you want to root them (or vice versa).

Surf brands use pro surfers as a means of making their brand authentic. They aren’t merely a clothing brand, they don’t get models, they get real surfers. Yet this ignores how sexualising their female surfers challenges their authenticity as athletes. When you see an advertisement featuring a shirtless male surfer with a gorgeous toned torso mid-snap, his attractiveness doesn’t reduce his skill as an athlete. This is not the case for women. In The Global Politics of Sport: The Role of Global Institutions in Sport, Leanne Stedman notes that audiences “simultaneously constructed and contested women and non-white participants as ‘inauthentic’ or ‘Other’.“ She writes that, “while acknowledging that images of women in bikinis will always be open to sexualised readings, windsurfers read images that pretended the subject was ‘doing it’ as ‘in-authentic’.” To the public, women in bikinis are sexualised; they are models. But what happens if you are a female pro surfer and you are surfing in a warm location? You don’t wear a wetsuit, you wear a swimsuit provided by your sponsor – and it’s often a bikini. What happens when you use elite sportswomen as models? The line becomes blurred. To the audience, the attractive female surfer is ‘pretending’, she is only there because she looks good (which is obviously not true for all surfers on the World Championship Tour). However, Alana Blanchard is one of the highest paid female surfers in the world, and she got there because she looks good. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that is a burden on women created by men.


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There are distinct differences in the way genders are marketed: men are brilliant athletes (and if they are hot, bonus!), for women the message is she is really hot, and she can surf. She becomes more desirable, not for her skill as a surfer, but as a lifestyle accessory to make her personal brand more valuable. This gendered system has its roots back in the eighteenth century. During this period middle class women were becoming more widely educated, however, this was limited to the realm of what Mary Wollstonecraft called ‘accomplishments’: music, singing, drawing, dancing and modern languages – skills that were often used to entertain but never intended for professional use. They were accessories to add to a woman’s value as a potential wife, and this was a period of time when marriage was namely an exchange of money and property. The surfing industry isn’t in the business of wives but it is in the business of money – the idea of Alana Blanchard being both the surfer and hot girlfriend works similarly to an educated woman in the eighteenth century – it increases her potential for monetary gain. The Blanchard brand says: she will surf with the guys, she knows enough about surfing to be chill and she’s hot – she is Gillian Flynn’s ‘cool girl’. And a powerful marketing tool.

Female athletes are nearly always paid less than men – this is nothing new. Australia’s female hockey players, cricketers, and Rugby League players are all paid under the minimum wage. Female AFL players just got a pay rise to a whopping $8,500 for two seasons – that could barely buy enough coke to supply a footy boys’ weekend. No wonder Blanchard is willing to capitalise on her looks. If I had to choose between a measly stipend and a real wage I would take the Blanchard route. Sponsorship provides an important safety net for surfers, if they suffer an injury or a losing streak, they can still afford the cost of the tour. Or if being world champion isn’t a realistic goal, it can just make them a shit-tonne of money. For those who don’t look like Blanchard, there are fewer options. Former pro Rebecca Woods was dropped by her sponsor Billabong in 2010 after slipping to tenth in the rankings. She says,

at twenty-six, I was ninth in the world. They [Billabong] had three other women who were on the World Tour. And my time was pretty much up. I did spend probably about $20,000 to $30,000 of my savings in the last two to three years that I was on tour. That was really disheartening.

In 2014, Blanchard was the highest paid female surfer in the world despite finishing dead last in every event that year.

The surf industry creates a perpetual loop that supports beauty and marketability over talent and achievement (which is not to say the two can’t align, Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons being examples). But this means that many surfers who don’t fit a certain sexualised (white) aesthetic are ignored, and those who aren’t ignored are not taken seriously because of their image, which has been forced on them by the institution that dismisses them. Women are locked out of the industry through a sexualized economy, and Tim Winton’s narrow definitions of who a surfer can be lock women out of a cultural narrative.


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Sally Fitzgibbons, Lauren Camilleri and I at the 2004 Gromfest.

Young women early in their career, often teenagers, are the ones that fall under this sexualised gaze most frequently. At the age of nineteen Sally Fitzgibbons was featured in a promo by her sponsor Red Bull, and it’s shot like porn in a naughty-teen-gets-fucked kinda way. The following year she featured in a spread for Stab, which bore the title ‘Sally Fitzgibbons is Crazy Stupid Hot’. The interview is the ultimate in hate-reads: he asks her about her cute accent, if she likes her tan lines, and follows up with hard hitting questions like, “Is your stomach your crowning glory, even though it’s not a crown? What things do you do to it?” This is a woman who perforated her eardrum mid-heat at Fiji’s brutal Cloudbreak, defied doctors’ orders, continued to surf and won! The interviewer then asks her why she won’t drink alcohol, and encourages her to do it, despite her explicitly telling him multiple times that she doesn’t drink (she has training regime not made for us mortals). She is an athlete; don’t get her to change her fucking diet. The interview seems like it’s written by sleaziest guy in the dankest bar, well after 2am.

Laura Enever participated in a similar spread for Stab, too; she was nineteen at the time, and it is particularly unsettling. The headline reads, ‘She looked at me with an absolute smirk on her pretty face’. She is naked in the image below: the shadows that stretch over her body are the only thing keeping it from being X-rated; the photo screams ‘post-coitus’. The interview that follows is similarly patronising and worryingly predatory. The interviewer asks, “were you specifically warned about the Stab shoot? That we were devils? (Laughter detonates).”

Enever: I was! I was! I heard from Alana (Blanchard) and Bruna (Schmitz) who you did the photo shoot with last year. They told me how they were freaked out about how you, like, tried to get them naked. I’d been warned a few times, but it’s fine, because you guys are a men’s magazine and it’s an amazing magazine. At the shoot, I was told my first couple of photos weren’t sexy enough and that I had to take some clothes off, but it ended up being really cool.

When we hear rumours or accusations of men misusing their power over younger women (usually in relation to film or photography) – it’s not front and centre, the manipulations occur outside of the frame. One of the most galling elements of this exchange is that it is published as entertaining banter. Enever says that the shots came out fine, and that she wouldn’t have let the photos run if she wasn’t happy with them. The young women are at the beginning of their career and the older men are the gatekeepers of the surfing industry. Stab exploit this power dynamic for their own gain.

In the nineties, surfing began catering to a male teen audience. Surfing grew even more hyper-masculine, surf magazines started looking more like soft-core porn and today it’s not so different – you can still by a kind of wax called ‘I heart boobies’. In the 1995 Ripcurl Pro, finalists Layne Beachley and Rochelle Ballard paddled out to battle for the title. The bikini contest started as they entered the water. Models in g-strings and high heels began to strut up and down a makeshift runway and soon the majority of the crowd stopped watching the surfing entirely. Some of the judges missed scoring waves because they were leaning out of their tower to try to get a better look at the bikini models. There has been a shift away from the classic image of the female surfer as a cute pubescent girl or chick (think Blue Crush and Gidget). In the present day the image of the female surfer is a strange amalgam of the women in the bikini contest and Beachley and Ballard in the surf. Soft-core porn posing as surf content is a staple of the culture.

Terry Richardson and American Apparel became famous in recent years for their 1970s retro porn aesthetic, and surf culture has taken the same approach in a bid to again regain its subversive highs. In her 1964 lecture, Susan Sontag argued that “pornography partakes of a necessary distance: the readers [or viewer] don’t enter into the internal psychology or reality of the character… They are creatures of endless repition, more machine than human.” When female surfers are sexualised they are stripped of their character, psychology and achievements – just like Burger’s nudes they become all surface, no interior. In a way, they do become machines: the embodiment of male desire. Though the shoots in Stab are far from the kind of porn Sontag is talking about, the aesthetic is there, and so is the effect. The interviewer’s refusal to engage in any real conversation about Enever and Fitzgibbons’ careers and successes as surfers is an example of the ‘distance’ that Sontag mentions. He doesn’t see their interior lives or their present reality: he interviews the images from the shoot, not the actual women in front of him.


Among others, Jonathan Fiske and Konstantin Butz have referenced Roland Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text as way of describing surfing. Barthes pits the readerly against the writerly. A readerly text does not disturb the subjectivity of the reader, and conforms to traditional codes and models of intelligibility, while writerly texts challenge convention, literary codes and cultural positions. A readerly text is pleasurable, a writerly text is blissful. The pleasurable text is a book you pick up at the airport; the blissful text is literature. Fiske writes that “the wave is that text of bliss to the surfie, escape from the signified, potential re-entry into nature, constantly shifting, needing rereading for each loss of subjectivity.” In contrast, the mundane rules of the beach are ‘readerly’ and base. The blissful wave is erotic, free and sacred. The land is pornographic: it is desire and pleasure institutionalised.

This theory bothers me and gets to the heart of why I find Winton so frustrating. Tim Winton is by no means a misogynist, but I’m not a girlfriend or a whore or a Madonna. I’m a mess and I surf and sometimes it’s hard (made harder by the fact I’m a woman). But I don’t see that story, I can’t see me anywhere. Both Winton and Fiske glide over the fact that in the eyes of men, female surfers are always pornographic: we are part of the social coding of the institution. When we are in the surf we carry the baggage of the land, we are the bearers of meaning for men. Which is perhaps why many feel it necessary to make the comment “imagine seeing her do that in a bikini,” or mutter between themselves “should we give the girl a wave?” It’s a reminder that we are visitors – that we belong on the beach, not in the waves. How can I find the ‘bliss’ or Winton’s profound delight when I am constantly reminded of my subpar position in the power structure? Winton’s career has benefited from a mythologised image of the Australian surfer as a white bloke, and he continues to perpetuate it. His stories ignore women, just as the surfing industry does.

I was never going to be a brilliant surfer, but many of the women I once surfed against are. The same girls who paddled out to a crappy beach break on the South Coast are now some of the best surfers in the world. Where is that narrative? Writing this essay was difficult because reliving the experience of existing a floating piece of ass is shitty to say the least – but I wrote it. This essay isn’t going to change the industrialised sexism of the surf industry, but if nothing else, it’s a narrative – one I wished I had when I was a girl.


Holly has been published in Cordite, Shabby Doll House and Voiceworks. She is the author of the chapbook Hip Shifts (If A Leaf Falls Press) and Deluxe Paperweight (Stale Objects dePress) . She can be found at http://hisemonger.tumblr.com and tweets @hisemonger .