Miscellaneous / Noteworthy Nellies / Solidarity and Sisterhood

The Female Surfer Paradox

A surf teacher at Surf Sisters school in Tofino, B.C., instructs students.

By Judi Zienchuk

Images courtesy of Surf Sister

The world of surf is a land full of sun, sand and waves – void of all worries. It’s a tight-knit community that spans several generations with young surfers (groms) beginning their careers before their seventh birthday and old-timers still catching waves at 93-years-young. It includes writers, photographers and film crews.

With all of this involvement, one area of the industry’s still lagging behind: the world of women surfers. Even in cities like Tofino, British Columbia, which has one of the highest numbers of female surfers per capita on the planet and is the birthplace of surf schools like Surf Sister that promote gender equality, surfing is still “very much a boy’s game.”

“When I first started out, they didn’t even make wetsuits and equipment for girls,” says Surf Sister’s owner, Krissy Montgomery. “I had to borrow hand-me downs from my guy friends.”

These differences care clear in one of surfing’s biggest international competitions: the ASP World Championship. It accepts 34 male surfers to compete in 10 events, but only takes 17 females to compete in seven. The prize money awarded for surfing event also varies significantly between genders. Men and women both compete in the Breaka Burleigh Pro event held in Burleigh Heads, Australia where they are surfing the same waves and being judged on the same criteria. Women, however, are competing for a prize of $40,000 while the men are competing for $95,000.

Striking variances like this are unfortunately common. Only 22 per cent of total industry prize money is awarded to female surfers. While $40,000 is nonetheless still a large sum of money, the average cost of equipment and training required to compete at a professional level is around $50,000. This means that even the top woman surfer in the world will not be able to support her surfing career on prize money alone.

Professional women surfers also have a tougher time finding companies to sponsor them.

“There’s always the issue of finding funding,” says Montgomery. “Companies open their pockets to guys, but are more stringent towards girls.”

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This is if the girls can even get into the competition at all. When Tofino was selected to host Coldwater Canada in 2009, Montgomery and her fellow surfer girls were excited to show off their skills. This enthusiasm was short-lived, however, as she soon found out that, once again, the competition was going to be a boys-only event.

“We felt a little slighted that there wouldn’t be a female event,” says Montgomery. “It was just the history of competition in the area – it’s all about the guys.”

Unwilling to face defeat that easily, Montgomery and her team from Surf Sister, as well as members of the local community, banded together to create Queen of the Peak, an annual women’s surf contest in 2009.

“The community has really embraced [Queen of the Peak],” says Montgomery. “It’s a really inclusive event. We have competitions for surf grommets as young as five and six, as well as events for older women. We also have pre-qualifying events for guys, so we don’t exclude anyone. It has been pretty well received.”

Inclusivity is nothing new for the Surf Sister team, as although they mainly target female surfers, their enrolment for men versus women is split about 60/40.

“We’re not looking to exclude men,” Montgomery explains. “We just want to create an environment where men and women are equal in the water. I think people are just happy to see a female instructor because we have a difference approach to the sport. We keep it light, fun and don’t have the same degree of machismo many of the boys do.”

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Despite all of the success within the community, Surf Sisters still struggles to get funding for Queen of the Peak. For most surf events, the majority of these sponsors come from surf brands like Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and O’Neill. For widely followed male events, finding sponsors usually isn’t a problem and the top surfers receive top funding. For female events (which tend to have smaller viewership), these brands look more towards girls’ appearances when choosing who to sponsor and which events to support.

Many girls find that the industry is trying to brand female surfing as a world full of bleach-blonde California girls. Surfer Magazine even featured “Most Photographed Surfer” over “Top Female Surfer” in their article on the Surfer Poll and Video Awards (one of the biggest surf awards nights).

This issue is less prominent in Canada because of the colder weather. Simply put, wetsuits (which are required in water temperatures that range between three to 15 degrees in Tofino) just aren’t sexy. While this has saved a lot of Canadian girls from being pushed to the stereotypical image, the “rugged Canadian girl” image Montgomery finds most of the surfers embody attract a far smaller market, meaning funding is lower, and companies are few and far between.

With all of the work Montgomery puts into Surf Sister and Queen of the peak, day-to-day life can get a bit crazy. She brushes this off as just part of the surfer lifestyle, however.

“Canadian girls are just a rugged bunch. We don’t care that putting on a wet suit is kind of ugly, its just who we are,” she says, noting the on-site coffee bar at the school as been a bit of a lifesaver.

The world of female surfing is still far from perfect, but with surfer girls like Montgomery working to make the industry a more accepting place and encouraging girls to get out onto the waves, men and women will hopefully one day be able to surf the waters on an equal level. M

45 thoughts on “The Female Surfer Paradox

  1. You may have thought of this already but may I suggest trying sponsors that are more female orientated? If the usual culprits won’t sponsor female surfers then maybe companies who market towards just females IE clothing, cosmetic types might be more interested than Billabong and O’neill. Once the bigger companies see te growth in female surfing competitions they will come a knocking. Thanks for the article🙂

  2. It’s not just surfing. Despite the advances in recognizing women’s sports, both amateur and professional, women continue to be short-changed. How many TV viewers were there for the NCAA women’s final? I don’t know but I’m sure much fewer than for the men’s. When I was a teen, I remember the only athletic gear that was widely available for girls/women was for dance. No running shoes, no sports bras, no bike shoes. At least in those respects we have come a long way.

  3. With blogs so awesome like yours, perhaps the world will listen and see that female surfing is a positive thing for the future. I know here in San Diego female’s surfing is a big deal, I hope it spreads universally.

  4. I was a power volleyball player: same deal. The clothing is revealing and as long as men can see skin, their brains short circuit. “Wow, she’s got a righteous serve” becomes “I see boobs” in their psyche in one glance. This is a powerful marketing tool and the industry knows it. It’s all about the numbers. If you want large crowds to turn out and spend money on your sport, you can either beat your head against a wall trying to explain to them the value and skill of the sport, itself, or you can promise them nipples poking through brightly colored Lycra. Trust me, having giant double Ds never improved my game or furthered power volleyball’s cause, it only gathered drunk male spectators.

    Don’t believe me? Why is it that men’s sport promo photos often only show the torso of the star players but in women’s sports, it’s a full body shot accentuating her sexual characteristics? Why are nearly nude female athletes draped across the cover of GQ but you never see a naked football player holding a helmet in front of his clusters on the cover of Oprah’s O? Why do women’s athletic apparel ads talk about how the gear will make her look and feel while men’s ads talk about how the gear will help him perform? Why are female fitness models’ poses designed to make them look sexy but male fitness models’ poses merely expose the men’s muscles? Because men plunk down the vast majority of the money for sports, that’s why. Follow the money, ladies.

    You can’t change men’s biology but you CAN inspire women to get involved in athletics. When their numbers are large enough to get the attention of those wanting to make money off of it, you’ll see change. It’s about dollars, not sense, pun intended.

    • I agree that this is unfortunately the sad reality. I don’t think men escape completely either though. Especially when it comes to being featured in magazines like GQ, they need to have some type of physical appeal. However, for men, this can also translate to a more naturally athletic look, where bulky muscles that are a natural byproduct (most of the time) of being an athlete become the feature. In these situations, women get the unfortunate end of a double standard..

    • you can’t change men’s biology? this is the flimsy ass excuse we (yes WE – both men and women) have been using to excuse lousy sexist and mysoginist behaviour for hundreds if not thousands of years. I think there’s a pretty short rope between “men stare because they’re horny and they can’t help it” and “men fight each other and aggressive because they can’t help it” to “men perpetrate acts of sexual violence because it’s their biology and they can’t help it”. you make some amazing points about inequality but then you resign yourself to the fact that men are men and nothing will ever change that, when we have all been using the sheer fact of biological sex to excuse shitty gender norms and inequality for centuries. imo, we need to stop restricting ourselves to our biology, and acknowledge that even if hormones DO give us different behavioural cues, society legitimizes or regulates these cues, and has been vastly if not violently biased against women for a very long time.

  5. I think maybe there are less females than makes competing to be on the pro circuit so less numbers in the comps creates more of a competition to get a spot. Hopefully we can get the number of female surfers up and change that. I’m not sure whether its because parents don’t like putting their young daughters in the ocean? Boys are perceived as tougher so they get thrown into sports like this, but parents tend to be a bit more protective of the daintiness of girls. Throw them all in while they’re young, I say. I wish I had been!!

  6. Thank you for writing this post. It was a nice update on what is happening in the world of surfing. Im from San Diego, California. I grew up knowing people in the tight knit surf community. Although, I don’t surf myself, Ive always really admired the women who went out there and wanted to perfect their moves in the ocean. It is actually very relaxing and meditative to watch a line of surfers patiently waiting for the right wave, then grabbing hold of the right wave to be one with the ocean and the moment. To you ladies who have a love and dedication to surfing, I say rock on.

    • Haha! I get exactly the same relaxing feeling waiting for the perfect wave to connect with – I think anyone who understands it can consider themselves part of the surf culture🙂

  7. It’s a pity that female athletes in all sports seem to get short shrift compared to their male counterparts. It’s bewildering that there isn’t more of a market for female pro sports, and aggravating that looks always end up playing into any attempt at making it viable. Still waiting for the male equivalent of lingerie football to make an appearance.

    Loved reading about women’s surfing, though. I’ve been dying to learn, and now that I know about Surf Sister I might be one step closer to giving it a go.

  8. I think this is the problem that women have in most male-dominated sports; the lack of funding I think is partly because of (as you say) lack of viewership, and also partly an attitude that women are either just playing at it, or can’t possibly be as good as a man – so they can’t possibly deserve the same prize money or funding. Eventually, this will even out, but it will probably take a while. After all, we’ve had how many centuries of patriarchal culture against less then a hundred years of acceptance of women in previously male-dominated roles? It takes a lot to change that kind of cultural inertia.

    One thing I was really glad to read about Surf Sister was that they were not excluding men. We can only achieve equality together – by emphasising that it’s about the sport, not about the genitals; skill and commitment matter, not chromosome type. Some women’s sport groups, instead of trying to be inclusive, try to build their own little women-only bastion with No Boys Allowed; I think that’s both sad and short-sighted. By excluding men, potential friends and comrades are shut out – and if women have already put themselves in a women-only enclave, it gets so much easier to close the borders and cut out female participation completely.

    Keep going, keep being inclusive, keep working towards inclusion and equality. You are doing brilliantly, and you fail only when you give up.

    • I completely agree with the importance of inclusion, especially in the surf industry, women would only get further from being accepted as equals if they, themselves were to expect different treatment/keep themselves separated.

  9. I think this is just silly. I think women are as capable in sports as men. Not all of them, but just like not all men are capable of sports either. I think we should all give each other a chance. Not to prove we’re worthy of the “honor”, but simply to be included in sports as much as guys are. You have a surfboard, I have a surfboard, let’s catch some waves.🙂

  10. Pingback: | Surf Sister Surf School (Tofino Surfing Lessons)

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