Surfing’s sexism

A look at hidden messages and stereotypes


There are many inequalities between men and women in numerous kinds of sports. Those inequalities aren’t only money questions relating to differences in sponsoring, income and prize money at competitions. They can also be observed in the structures and the images of a particular kind of sport. To reveal gender inequalities one can ask: “Through which images is the sport promoted?”, “Who are the public representatives of the sport and are those representatives representative?”, “Are women depicted in the same way as men or is there another focus regarding female photography?”, “Are those sport images objectively showing the sport’s practice or do they display and enforce gender stereotypes?

Before sexism (as a form of discrimination) is implemented in financial, political, economic, cultural and social structures of a sport, its prejudices and stereotypes have to be accepted by the people, have to be inhaled by their mindset. Only if that is the case, (unconscious) prejudices won’t be distinguished from reality anymore. Thus, a mixture between the real characteristics of the sport and its actors on the one hand and prejudices and stereotypes on the other hand evolves in people’s minds. A tool for the generation of prejudices is the use of above mentioned images, symbols and every kind of media.

The surf industry serves as a good example for this abstract analysis of sexism in the sport domain. Surfing is a very young sport. It began to spread around the globe in the 1980s. Slowly and in a sudden exponentially, it became more and more commercialized. Surf schools, surf academies, surf education centers, surf labels, surf competitions, surf clothing, surf shops, surf mentality was launched and promoted. And of course, there wasn’t only the exotic, relaxing, newly promoted Hawaiian lifestyle that people fell in love with and tried to adapt, but there was a whole industry that developed hand in hand with the attractive surf lifestyle. Such an industry could doubtlessly only survive and be pushed forward by the use of advertisements, promotions, posters, souvenirs and statues or memorials. All those kinds of media plant certain images in people’s minds, among them: gender related stereotypes. Quantity wise it’s clear that the amount of men depicted on photos, memorials, etc. in the public is at least double, if not triple, the amount of women. But apart from that, analyzing the content, the hidden messages is very insightful.

If there’s a foreground and a background, it’s normally the man that is filling the foreground. Men are depicted in a muscular way, with angular faces and the accent is put on the upper part of their body – the six pack – a must-have for the sport’s promotion. Their look is powerful, ambitious, cold and heroic. It’s as if the surf industry made constant use of superman in order to promote itself, its money flows, its actors. Men have to appear as a masculine ideal – physically and emotionally strong, self conscious and certain about their aims. Very often men are depicted lonely. It creates a certain romantic – the lonely soul, that is at sunset riding big waves, risking his life, trying to find peace in the nature, in the waves, only with his body and his mind being present – no need for society, no need for a woman (as can be seen on the poster below). Also, it can be observed that there is no contact between the viewer and the masculine protagonist on the poster. The man is painted in action. With his eyes, he focuses the action, respectively the waves. Hence, the observer is excluded from the act, only observing but not participating through eye contact or any other form of connection. This lack of connection creates distance which again lets the man appear as a powerful figure. In contrast to that, the naked woman looks at the observer. Her function as an accessory is evident. The contradiction is clear. On the one hand the man, an acting subject that is very distanced from the observer, on the other hand a woman whose nakedness and eye contact indicate simplicity, perhaps vulnerability.

Or, (cf. The statue above) one is shown a lonely soul, looking down to the beach, to the waves, that appear when the sun rises. Though, the man’s view doesn’t show sentimentality or passion, but strength and power. The focus is put on his face which conveys force, governance and control that he is able to exercise over the waves. One has almost the impression that the god of surfing is depicted, that is able to rule over wind, weather and waves, the god that is standing above the ocean, positioned at its fringe, at the highest point of the cliff in order to preside over the ocean’s wideness. Again, there is no eye contact between the observer and the statue (which is normally very often the case, especially regarding historical figures). Additionally, the breast that is pushed forward, the arms that are pulled back and the upper body that is leaned forward and the straight head create the impression of superiority, of dominance. The observer may feel intimidation or reverence. When one perceives the statue, he*she associates masculinity to superiority. This is how a stereotype is unconsciously created.

Women, in contrast, are normally placed in the background. The focus on women’s depiction is not set on the face, but on the body, respectively the breast and the buttocks. Although, typical surf clothing would consist of a wetsuit, women are rarely shown in such body-covering, unintrusive, discreet sportswear. Contrary to that, they are illustrated almost naked, with little clothes (which is not representative for the sport and its clothing at all, because the less clothes, the more dangerous the sport is; cf. Poster above). Often the breast is only covered by the woman’s hair or flowers or other (often nature-related) utensils. This sort of cover is associated to exoticism, a wild and uncivilized way of life. The sex is either not shown, or slightly hidden behind a piece of textile. If that was the real clothing of a female surfer, she’d immediately lose every piece of cloth when diving under or being caught by a wave. She’d be cut by the reef, hurt by the fins of her board or the inconceivable wave energy that would be pulled toward her. It is clear, that regarding this body- focused woman presentation, the intention is not to show a woman practicing surfing, but to expose the woman’s body.

Other female characteristics that are accentuated in women’s surf photography, are the hair (often long, curly and attractive), the narrow, slim body, the unimposing, faultless, perfect, soft face (that resembles the one of a doll), the full lips, and the big, pretty eyes. Women’s faces regularly express a bit shyness, innocence, passivity. The woman in the background could be an accessory, a decoration to contrast, and thus emphasize, the man’s characteristics. According to that, she practically serves as a stylistic device, as a means of emphasis, of accentuation. But not only this is the consequence. The inconsiderable, monotonous facial impression deprives the woman of her individuality. She is displayed as a number, an anonymous figure, an object. There is no intention of showing her personality, her characteristic traits. What the promotion industry could do instead, is to display a significant (sentimental or excited or anxious or uncertain or determined…) facial expression, referring to and giving some information about the woman’s character. Though, the transformation of the woman as an acting, feeling and thinking subject to her as a passive, serving object is clearly a sexist pattern. It tells the story of a dominant, superior (superiority with regard to knowledge, physical and mental power) man, and a submissive, inferior woman. This gender hierarchy can only exist and be maintained by the combination of power and prejudices. In worldwide social, collective structures men still have more power than women, they are able to make use of that power (consciously or unconsciously) whenever they want to achieve their aims. Prejudices are likewise spread by means of images, symbols, public speech, briefly all kinds of media.

To conclude, the surf industry promotes very particular images of masculinity and femininity. Those images create stereotypes and prejudices in people’s minds. They enable and contribute to a sexist thinking, feeling and acting. The first step of revealing them, is to watch closely, to look at hidden messages and question them.

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