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.

On the traces of my country’s identity

On the traces of my country’s identity

„Silence, please “, is what I said when I was standing in front of the curious faces of 8th class students. I did it in a different way than normally. I knew I had to give everything or nothing, otherwise I would get lost in the pubescent crowd. In fact, I don’t know what exactly was different this time, but I could read from the reaction of the students, that there must have been something different, as from one second to another the class was entirely silent. Some students were surprisingly lifting their heads, others looking a bit confused, but everyone was indeed silent, listening to what I was going to say.

I have the feeling that I am biologically disadvantaged. I’m small and my voice is tiny. So, neither my physique, nor my voice create the impression of authority and leadership. I never was a leader, and probably I’ll never be. I’m rather being led by others, or I am trying to resist and criticize the leadership. From time to time though, I tried to grove myself into that new position – the place in front of a class.

And this was where I stood now. However, enjoying the second of silence, what happened next was as well unexpected: a Nazi salute. One boy in the last row decisively stretched his arm in the air. He looked me in the eyes. A smile widened his face. Rapidly he pulled the arm downwards. I was unable to say anything, neither to behave in a certain way. Yes, I was somehow shocked. Gladly, the boy sat in the last row, so that his action did not distract the class or take my authority away. The impact of the Nazi salute was not a social one (related to the classes’ reaction), but a personal one. It touched me, as it would probably not have touched any Romanian. The reason was my historical background, the background of my people – the background of the German people.

I feel that I, as a German, wish to emancipate myself from the past. This doesn’t mean that I want to forget, nor to make people forget what happened, but it means that I want to relocate, to redefine my German identity. I want to redefine patriotism and pride, because I believe that to a certain extent patriotism is precious for the development of one’s identity as well as for the development of a nation’s identity. I don’t want to reduce myself to my people’s past, as I don’t like to be reduced to it by others. When I am not able to promote my country’s beauty, which it has indeed, I realise that I lack some pride, because I’m partly reducing my German identity to the past. When I’m not able to appreciate my country’s language, my country’s mentalities, it’s because I associate a huge part of the “cultural pot” with relentlessness, with discipline, with little humour, with harshness, so I’m reducing this culture pot to my country’s past. When people make a Nazi salute to be funny, even if I know that it’s not meant seriously, I feel reduced to the past. I feel reduced to all these stereotypes the past has generated. I feel reminded of all this indescribable pain my country has caused.

The German past serves other countries as a weapon. A psychological weapon to cease every dispute, to minimize every German voice, to degrade every German reputation, to stigmatise every German opinion. Just recently the Romanian president of German origin, Klaus Iohannis, has been shown with a Hitler beard. Some months before that, the German chancellor has been titled as “Mrs Hitler” in the Turkish newspaper “Yeni Akit”. Some months before that, right wing (extremist) supporters, among them the German right-wing party “Afd” have accused German politicians of acting as Hitler. Only three examples of what turbulent, disrespectful and psychologically destructive comments have run through international media.

And of course, these comments, these descriptions shape the German politics, the German society, the German individual. Political actions that are from my point of view clearly influenced by medial depiction, and thus by the German past, are for example Germany’s humanitarian “welcome policy” when facing the refugee crisis. Or the little investment in military resources in general until these days (I recently read a report about the downfall of the German army – the “Bundeswehr”). Or me as a volunteer, being sponsored by the German tax payer. Why? ( – a question I ask myself lots of times: why does the German state invest millions of euros in young people going abroad? But this is another issue to which I’d like to dedicate a separate article). In either case, it has got something to do with Germany’s international image, with her reputation, with her position in world politics, and hence, with an emancipation of the past.

I believe that in the end, even nation wise, it all comes down to appreciation. Of course, there is patriotism and national pride, but as the pride exists for the own nation, it can also be resented for other nations. I am proud of Europe’s diversity, I am proud of the worldwide individuality. I appreciate many single cultures, especially my beloved French culture! Certainly, countries themselves are searching for appreciation, for national acknowledgement, for particularity – probably a difficult task for the German people.

So, on the traces of my country’s identity, on the effort to emancipate myself from the past, I ask myself what I actually appreciate about the German culture, the German mentality, my German identity. Every country has strengths and weaknesses. While I had difficulties in the beginning of the voluntary service talking about Germany’s strengths, the weaknesses I experienced abroad taught me to appreciate different cultural aspects that I had taken for granted until now. Today, I see the controversial democracy in Germany that is alive. People are arguing, discussing, demonstrating, and using any peaceful means to fight for their opinions. I see debates about discrimination and environmental policies. I see an education that is liberated from religious and political fanaticisms. I see values, socially still not being fixed enough, that make me feel home and willing to fight for. I see a country on its way to emancipation, that doesn’t need the past anymore to be humanitarian. And I feel more appreciation than before, when realising that all this is globally seen not usual.