Breaking Waves: Pacific Women in the Sport of Surfing

Phoebe Cohen, Scarlet Staff

As we move into spring, it’s almost impossible to ignore summer looming on the horizon. Thoughts of sunshine, sunscreen, and socially distanced beach days are slowly starting to become more common, and for many thoughts of beach related games are on the mind. 

For the beach, sports like surfing are all but expected. The coastal image of a surfer dude catching a wave is the first image anyone gets when they think of surfing. The second image would probably be a bikini-clad blonde girl running down the shoreline with a surfboard under her arm. This latter is exactly what organizations in the Pacific are trying to deconstruct. In recent years, groups in the Pacific have been working to make and create space for female surfers to grow and erase the barriers set up in the athletic sphere to keep them out.  

For many female surfers, the way they are viewed as professional surfers isn’t about how they coast a wave. It’s instead about what they wear doing it. In New Zealand, often, women are sexualized by the surfing industry, and professional surf careers are more centered around posing in bikinis than actually surfing. According to Pacific Surfer Kelly Murphy, fashion is oftentimes prioritized in the portrayal of female surfers over their skill. “The way you looked in a bikini, that was often more important than your ability.”

For the women who actually get on the water, the space isn’t welcoming. Male surfers can commonly ‘drop in’ on female surfers, cutting them off from a wave, oftentimes aggressive in the ocean in a way that doesn’t cooperate with common etiquette. The sentiment that women don’t belong competing in the water has been rooted in cultural expectation. The traditional expectation was that girls should be helping the elderly or doing household chores. These cultural expectations have been historically rooted in several, small Pacific Island communities until recently.

Through programs and initiative, groups have come together to teach surfing to potential female surfers, breaking down athletic barriers in the process. Organizations in the Pacific like Solwata Sista and the Aotearoa Women’s Surfing Association teach young girls about topics like surfing, self defense, sexual health, and literacy. These groups have pulled women together from many backgrounds, which has helped diversify and expand the movements beyond the capacity expected. In New Zealand, indigenous women are able to partake in a sport that was previously inaccessible, while working class women have the chance to speak with ex-professional surfers.

The growth of the community has had plenty of effects on the youth. Younger boys who previously teased young girls for trying to surf are now more welcoming. At the same time, older women feel more in touch with the environment that has birthed their distinct cultures. Surfing has proven to be an effective outlet for the cultural expectations that many of these women face daily.

Sports should be a way of escape for women, as much as it is to the dominant male population that indulges in the same sports. Sexualization in the mainstream sports media reaches way past surfing. We see it in other sports like tennis and volleyball, where not unlike surfing, the way in which a woman looks is perceived to be more important than her skills. Anna Kournikova, one of the top grossing female tennis players has never actually won a title. Her net worth was garnered almost solely through endorsements that highlighted her sex appeal to the masses. It’s another example of how much farther we have to go in deconstructing women in sports. 

Ultimately, the work of female surfers in the Pacific has contributed immensely towards breaking down athletic stereotypes. Women surfing together has helped carve out space for them to participate in a male dominated sport, while working together has made many women feel empowered in a place they once were not welcomed in. Breaking down these barriers isn’t a one and done thing. It takes years; these organizations formed as early as 2017. Even now we are not living in a perfect world. 

These organizations work to lift up female voices in a sport where their voices are less valued than their bodies and the way in which they look. New Zealand Surfer Danielle Clayton says surfing is “such a great thing to be able to experience,” since it helps soothe the soul. No longer is the image of the Pacific female surfer strictly of one in a bikini. Now, more than ever, it’s the image of an athlete, who cuts the waves with true skill.