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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa
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Thu, 7 September 2017

If they sell surfing as an empowering force, why do surf brands disempower women with their marketing imagery, asks Cape Town surfer Melissa Volker in the wake of the Billabong furore.


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POOR JUDGMENT: Or blatant sexism? This was the image that started the whole online furore.


Recently Billabong got themselves into murky water by trotting out on their website the tired trope of "sexy-girl-pouts-on-the-beach" while "athletic-boy-pulls-rad-move-on-wave". Karen Knowlton let rip in this article on her blog, and for good reason.

To Billabong’s credit, they absorbed the lesson from the ensuing social media storm and changed the photo. But is that the end of it? Or is it just a plaster on a more widespread, festering sore?

I had a look around and, despite the outrage, noted that other surf brands are still plodding along with that type of marketing. Is it because this hyper-sexualized patriarchal style of marketing is the best way to sell a product?

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SIDE BY SIDE: Billabong changed the offending image, replacing it with this one.


Former Billabong rider Keala Kennelly reminds us on The Inertia (Read her hard-hitting piece here) of one of the most ground-breaking and successful ad campaigns in history, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Instead of suggesting their product makes women more beautiful or desirable, it focuses on attributes that already make women beautiful.

Media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beautyThe campaign was derived from a study Dove conducted on American women about self image. While happy to rate themselves above average in their ability to manage their lives (such as driving or parenting), only four percent of respondents rated themselves above average in beauty. And 68% agreed that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve”.

I decided to do a smaller, unscientific study of local ladies who surf about how they feel about their bodies in surf apparel, particularly swimwear or a wetsuit. Not one of them said they were happy with their bodies as it was, and 87% said they would change something about their bodies if they could. Nearly half said they worry about their appearance at least once per surf session.

While most feel fairly comfortable in a wetsuit (the ultimate Spanx right?) not many feel good in swimwear. One surfer said she rarely appears in swimwear without covering herself with a sarong. Another went so far as to say she would only ever appear in a bikini on a remote island.

Misguided visual presence online of what surfer girls are meant to look likeWho made us feel this? Who made us feel only one kind of beauty is good enough for surf apparel? Veteran surfer and surf event producer Tasha Mentasti feels there “is such a misguided visual presence online of what surfer girls are meant to look like”.

When brands put up hyper-sexualized images of women not doing anything, while the guys rip / stand in a huge barrel / take to the skies, what is the message? Is it that women belong on the beach, a decorative symbol of eternal youth and slimness, benign and demure, while men belong in the water, aggressively hunting waves?

Not very empowering. This begs the question: does the ocean itself transmit this message? Does the act of surfing disempower women? I reached out to women wave riders to find out.

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DIONY SUSS: Diony Lalieu, 42, won the WP Champs for her age group. Photo Grant Scholtz


Longboarder Diony Lalieu “grew up with the notion that surfing was only for boys. Like rugby was for boys. Strange how we believed in all that hogwash. I have been an ocean addict all my life but there I was, for the first 29 years, sitting on the beach, when I could have been surfing.”

My greatest delight was seeing the pride in my little girls' facesThat has changed. Diony explains: “as a 42-year-old woman, I do not feel any barred entry on any level. The longboard fraternity is welcoming and inclusive. I was ... coaxed into [competitive surfing] by a very convincing friend. At first it was awkward and I was so self-conscious.”

But last weekend she won the Western Province Champs for her age division (Divas 40-50): “My greatest delight was seeing the pride in my little girls' faces. I am setting an example about going forth and conquering and that following your dreams can lead to amazing things, not only for yourself but for making the world a better place. I have surfing to thank.

"So do I feel empowered by surfing? It has helped me find my true purpose. It has taught me to walk without fear and that there is nothing you cannot do.”

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HUMAN LEAGUE: Keala's surfing does the talking. Are your ears sore? Photo WSL / McKenna


"I wanted to learn to surf years ago,” says Janine (not her real name), “My husband ... wasn't interested so it didn't happen. We got divorced when our daughter was only two, and [this] left me completely devastated. It has been a really long rough ride for me but I have struggled through and done my best for my daughter. I always sat on the beach watching and never really thought that [surfing] was something I could do.

The waves almost feel like they are cleansing me from my past“Some moms got in the water and encouraged me to try. They showed me a few tips and I was hooked. That was three months ago and I have loved every encounter in the water. The waves almost feel like they are cleansing me from my past. It has also been so amazing to realize that I can do this. I have learned a new skill and I have done this on my own.

"Even better, my daughter has seen me learn and grow. [Surfing] is something that we can do together on the weekends. So far there has not been one day that hasn't been a good day in the water, even when it is stormy or rainy. The ocean has helped me to heal and grow.”

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ALL IN THE SLIDE: Surf brands, take a look. Take a moment. See anything? Photo Scholtz


Another surfer, Bronwyn, who started surfing aged almost 50, agrees: “It's restored balance to a busy life as a single mom. It's something just for me, a space for meditation, connection, relaxation, reflection. I get to take a better version of myself home to my kids. It's also a very positive and ongoing challenge and reward - popping up quicker, learning new moves, feeling my body grow stronger - super empowering!"

Cheree Thomson, who has surfed and worked in the industry for many years, says that surfing empowers women “in SO many ways” because it “continually tests you and pushes your limits, making you able to do a lot more”.

“You learn to put your fears in the back of your mind and not concentrate on them. You learn to let your adrenaline take over and have an amazing time. And when you get out of the water you feel like you have accomplished so much personally - that is really empowering.”

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IT'S SIMPLE: We need brands but mostly as tools to fulfil our destiny. Photo Courtesy Amy McIver


Sue calls herself and her friends “surfragettes”. She says surfing gives her perspective, calm, and balance. “I believe surfing gives girls and women a space to be free from gender social expectations, especially of appearance and behaviour. Then there's our group of women friends who surf together. We spend a lot of time encouraging each other.”

Grew up with the notion that surfing was only for boysCheree agrees that women’s surf clubs and women’s events create a sense of camaraderie. At the recent La Muse Classic “so many girls who felt unsure of why they had entered [had] an amazing time. It was such an inclusive event.”

Many women I spoke had to overcome fear of the ocean to start surfing. That in itself is incredibly empowering. Hannelie, who overcame crippling fear says, “[It’s] the best thing that ever happened to me. Surfing truly is a lifestyle … being part of the bigger picture, without being judged. I don't have to prove myself to anyone.”

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So, brands who still put women on the beach in a bum shot or as a pretty accessory to the stuff you are selling (in 2017)? You’ve missed something at the core of what you do. The ocean is a shifting mass of power. Storms infuse it with energy and that energy pulses across great distances to shore.

As we get to know the ocean and respect her moods and her tides, she shares her power with us. We feel it in our palms as we paddle out, we feel it under our boards as we take the drop. She releases her energy and uplifts us, she makes us stronger, she reaffirms that we can do what we set out to do.

Surf brands, you could be working in tune with the ocean to empower women like surfing does. Instead, you choose strategies that take our power away. You are denying yourself an inspirational message about what happens when real women surf real waves.

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ROLE: What Bernie Shelly does in the water makes us want to buy that wetsuit. Photo Scholtz


Show me a woman like Bernie Shelly styling and I will want that wetsuit because I aspire to be like her when I’m seventy. Show me a mother getting her toes on the nose and I will buy that bikini. I want to be refreshed and mindful when I am reunited with my daughters on the beach.

Show me a young woman taking off on sizey waves and I will want that capsule. I want to keep conquering my fears.

Show me a sisterhood, laughing, encouraging each other while paddling out and I will want those rash vestsShow me a sisterhood, laughing, encouraging each other while paddling out and I will want those rash vests. I want friends who will bring out the best me I can be.

Dove recommends we talk to our daughters before the beauty industry does. Surf brands, don’t make us talk to our daughters before the surf industry does.

We are happy, healthy, real women who are exhilarated and renewed by surfing. Treat us the way surfing treats us. Treat us the way the ocean treats us. Empower us, uplift us. Take the energy from this marketing storm and use its power for good.

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