Butts over Barrels: The sexualization of female surfers

Darby MooreBy Darby Moore | gargoyle@flagler.edu

While spending a winter in Rincon, Puerto Rico, I learned so many things. I learned to watch for sea urchins when entering and exiting the water. I learned which food trucks were the best for a quick lunch. I learned exactly where not to park a rental car at certain surf breaks.

Sadly, I also learned about how the rest of the world perceives female surfers. I learned that they are not seen as surfers at all.

I learned that female surfers are more closely compared to professional models than professional athletes.

When paddling out at Wilderness, a powerful reef break intended mostly for locals and more experienced surfers, I felt small. Not because of the heavy sets breaking in pristine waters, but from the stares of locals set upon me.

Standing barely over five feet, with blonde hair and white skin, I could see why I would stand out. Yet after traversing through rough waves crashing over jagged rocks and reefs to reach the lineup, I realized why locals were staring at me.

“Are you lost? White girls don’t surf here, mama. But they do look good on the beach,” a seemingly seasoned local man snarled at me in the water.

For the rest of that session, and to this day, I could not get that man’s words out of my head. I thought to myself: how could someone truly think that girls don’t surf…that they just look good and sit around in bikinis?

I decided to look more closely at the way female surfers are portrayed by several surf and lifestyle brands. I also decided that these brands were the reason for why female surfers are not seen as surfers.

Perhaps the most glaring offense in this misrepresentation of female surfers was committed by Red Bull, a brand which associates its energy drinks and other products with extreme sports like surfing, skateboarding and BMXing.

Red Bull recently released a video featuring a photoshoot of professional surfers Sofia Mulanovich, Sally Fitgibbons, Nadia del Col and more. Filmed by photographer Agustin Munoz, these female surfers were portrayed as other professions in a playful shoot.

When viewing the video, my stomach began to churn with disgust.

Fitzgibbons, ranked second on the Women’s World Championship Tour (or WCT) of surfing, was photographed as a soccer player. Laying in bed wearing knee-high socks, a jersey and skimpy underwear, Fitzgibbons is barely recognizable as she grins towards the camera through a mask of gaudy make-up. Her obviously styled locks swing back and froth as she toys with a soccer ball for the camera.

It is repulsive that Fitzgibbons, arguably the most talented female surfer in the world, would be objectified in such a manner. More disturbing than the sexual nature of the shoot is the fact that Munoz believed that portraying Fitzgibbons as a sexy soccer player would be more appealing than accurately photographing her true profession.

Perhaps more troubling than this fact, is that many have no idea who Fitzgibbons is.

Yet, professional surfer Alana Blanchard, ranked a disappointing 17th of 18 qualifying surfers on the women’s tour, is one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world.

Blanchard boasts a whopping zero heat wins for the 2014 season, as well as an average heat score of 8.24.

Fitzgibbons sports the highest statistics on the tour, despite falling second to world champion Stephanie Gilmore. For the 2014 season, Fitzgibbons locked in 31 total heat wins, averaging an impressive score of 13.89 each heat.

Conversely, Blanchard captivates the public eye, dominating the surf with her sex appeal. Sporting 1.1 million followers on Instagram, Blanchard dwarfs Fitzgibbons’ 234,000 followers. This is but one measure of Blanchard’s popularity in the sport.

It is sad to think that a professional athlete like Blanchard can fail in every competition of her sport’s season and become the most adored and recognized name in the game.

Blanchard’s popularity shows that in the world of women’s surfing, appearance has come to far outweigh talent.

Blanchard had the potential to do wonders for the sport, including gaining attention from the general public towards women’s surfing. While successfully gaining that desired recognition, Blanchard has failed to make the transition from being seen as a sex symbol, to a strong, sexy athlete.

As long as sexuality is placed as the premiere qualifier for popularity in the world of women’s surfing, the sport will not been seen as just that: a sport. Female athletes will not be seen as much. Outsiders will continue to believe that females don’t surf, that they simply sit on the beach in bikinis.

Until the female surfing industry rearranges its priorities for popularity, it will remain a glorified modeling industry.

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