A lot can be written about sexism in surfing. From addressing issues with sponsorship to conditions for competitions, or the overall portrayal of women as sex symbols and men as vigorous, fearless athletes. But what about the sexism women are exposed to while learning to surf?
To be fair, I’ve surfed with a lot of very helpful men who have given me good advice and treated me with respect. I’ve met great surfers in and out of the water who take me seriously and have helped me improve. But there is a fine line between being nice and behaving in a gendered and sexist way.
At first, I didn’t question my role as a helpless student relying on men for help. The image of athletic, flirtatious surf teachers with their clumsy female students has become so cliche that we never rethink this role allocation. Giving that image some real thought and attention helps you realize the extreme roles at play in the ocean though.
Let me give you a few examples of sexism in surfing I’ve experienced:
Something that repeatedly happens to me is having random guys appoint themselves as my new surf teacher, while I’m surfing by myself. They lecture me about my technique, the board I’m using, or ask if I want to be pushed into waves. What bothers me about this is that we never see the same behavior between men. Do you ever see one male surfer approach a total stranger of the same sex and offer to push him into waves? For me, it’s a reminder that I’m being treated differently in the water. It’s also worth pointing out I’ve never been asked by I woman if I wanted to be pushed into a wave.
The truth is that none of these so-called teachers have ever actually helped me improve as a surfer.
They aren’t trusting that I can progress or improve by myself and don’t help me build confidence. They’ve assumed I wanted and needed their help – all without being asked – and informed me about everything I was doing wrong. At its worse, they’ve physically held on to my board, and with this, took away my ability to control my own actions.
I’ve even encountered guys deciding to join me in the water without bringing their own surfboard. The assumption is they’ll fully dedicate themselves to me catch waves because, well, I must need it. I don’t mind getting good advice from a friend, but if I am not asking for advice, it just comes across as patronization.
Even more shocking to me is the fact that I must be screaming for help even when I’m not in the water. The process of renting a board is the classic everyday example. No matter what I ask for, the guys renting out surfboards always know what’s best, and that is the biggest foamboard possible.
I once asked a guy how he knew what I needed and he mansplained me that he just knew and that I should trust him.
I spent almost an entire year traveling and surfing every day, and during this time I learned a lot about riding waves. I learned how to read the waves and position myself best to catch them. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t. And I’ve learned all these things just like any beginning surfer would, man or woman. Of course, there is still a lot I can and will improve on when it comes to surfing, but I’ve learned that the help I get from men isn’t actually all that helpful because it’s not aimed at making me a better surfer. Rather it’s rooted in their assumption that I am incapable of doing it myself or that I am actually more interested in flirting than surfing.
I do understand that surfing is ideal for meeting people, building trust and a connection in the water, and whatever that may lead to. It’s a game from which both sides profit equally.
But I actually am genuinely interested in learning how to surf and I know many other women are too.
We may not have the same physical strength as men, but we are perfectly capable of making choices about our board, our position in the water, the conditions we want to surf in, and the waves we want to chase. There are plenty of guys out there who respect and understand this, but many others still don’t.
So for you men out there who are truly interested in teaching us how to surf, take us seriously and surf alongside with us, all while motivating us to use the abilities we have.
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