Usually when mainstream media picks up on news within the surf scene, you don’t expect a heavy discussion of society’s ills to follow. Most times, it’s a feel-good piece, where someone’s celebrating a major milestone or launching a new project or charity — it’s all very hakuna matata.
But this week, a 13 year-old girl sent waves through the community and beyond, when an open letter she wrote to major surf mag Tracks brought up some pretty complicated issues surrounding women and their representation in the scene.
Olive Bowers’ letter to the editor (which you can read here) asked what seems to be a straight-up question: why are there so many bikini models and pin-ups yet so few female surfers in your mag and on your website?
Here’s an excerpt from the letter:
I clicked on your web page titled ‘Girls’ hoping I might find some women surfers and what they were up to, but it entered into pages and pages of semi-naked, non-surfing girls [...] These images create a culture in which boys, men and even girls reading your magazine will think that all girls are valued for is their appearance.
News outlets that don’t normally follow the surf industry were quick to jump on this, with a bunch calling out Tracks for its representation of women.
And, while Olive’s letter did get a response from the magazine’s editor — telling her about how it was his mom who first got him into surfing and how he’d take Olive’s comments into consideration — we’re not really looking to argue whether Tracks, in particular, is in the right or in the wrong.
Instead, this whole issue gives us a pretty good jumping off point for talking about the more general way girls and women are represented in the surf scene.
Granted, there are surf mags out there aimed specifically at women and giving a lot of visibility to female surfers. But should this kind of exposure be something that happens only in particularly female publications?
Yes, we heap praise on the top female surfers like Stephanie Gilmore, Carissa Moore and others. But there’s also a lot of attention paid to female surfers who also happen to be really sexy. For this article, a Google search of “best female surfers” returned results like “10 Hottest Girls in Pro Surfing,” “Alana Blanchard and the 30 Hottest Female Surfers in Bikinis,” and our personal favorite: “The Hottest Pro Surfer Chicks That Will Make You Hate All The Girls You Know.”
And that seems to touch on the point that upset Olive enough to write a letter in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful women — either being one or enjoying looking at one is just fine. But if surf mags want to be taken seriously as industry publications, they also have to take the athletes seriously, whether they’re guys or girls. And placing a bigger focus on looks than on ability and achievement isn’t the way to go about it. In this regard, we’ve got to agree with Olive:
“I urge you to give much more coverage to the exciting women surfers out there, not just scantily clad women [...] This change would only bring good.”
We love the women who add their talent and hard work to this amazing scene and we think it’s important to send the message that they’re valued and respected for what they can do, not how they look. Otherwise, we may alienate the next generation of female surfers altogether. And what would the surf scene be like without the involvement cool and gutsy girls and women, people like Olive herself?