By Shami Sivasubramanian
When 13-year-old Melbournite Olive Bowers wrote to Tracks magazine about its sexualisation of female pro surfers, it caught the attention of surf communities and mainstream media nationwide.
The self-proclaimed “surfers’ bible” featured a ‘Girls’ section containing not female surfers but bikini models.
“I urge you to give much more coverage to the exciting women surfers out there, not just scantily clad women,” Olive wrote to the magazine’s editor, Luke Kenndey.
This week, the Bondi View opened the conversation on surfing culture to our own community.
Nicola Atherton, a former professional surfer and the newest female addition to the TV show Bondi Rescue, finds the ongoing sexism disappointing, especially for young girls entering the sport. She blames public relations and sponsorship representatives.
“A lot of the surfbrands will tell you that being a world champion isn’t the aspiration of the everyday girl,” Ms Atherton said.
“The gypsy-boho, idyllic-location, girlie, carefree attitude is what they believe their target market demographic aspires to. I’ve heard them say many times about credible surfers that they just can’t market them.”
Ms Atherton said she was influenced by sponsors from a young age and pressured to look “a certain way”.
“They told me to lose weight a few times and that’s hard when you’re young. Especially when your goal is to win or be competitive.”
She worries for the future of female surfing, too, and fears that young girls lack positive role models.
“I remember when I was that age and there were surf girl mags dedicated to women in professional surfing. And they were really positive role models for me. So when I look at today’s media in relation to women’s surfing, it’s almost pornographic in a way.”
Surf school director Brenda Miley has made it her mission not to get mad but to get even. She started Let’s Go Surfing 21 years ago to encourage more women to participate in surf competitions. In 1999, Ms Miley founded the Bondi Girls Surfriders Club and was the National Women’s Director of Surfing Australia for several years.
“There wasn’t even women’s surfwear or wetsuits at all,” she recalls. “You had to wear boys’ stuff!”
Ms Miley says the issue of objectification is not limited to surfing, but is symptomatic of a broader ongoing struggle on female representation.
“Opening up the conversation about women’s sexualisation is a much bigger picture. Because that’s everywhere in life. Just keep getting out there and surfing.”