Ignorance is bliss
I’m staring to get the feeling that I might be one of the most privileged surfing women in
I come from a town where surfing is a large part of the community identity and never questioned as being a worthwhile pursuit. I get to surf at some of the most beautiful point breaks around, which break long and clean and consistently, and most of the time there are any number of women out in the lineup. In fact, on occasion women almost equal the number of guys in the water. I am not saying I live in a surfing nirvana – there are problems and bullying and bastards - but I feel that I am in a privileged position where I am accepted and even encouraged at the breaks I frequent. Until recently, however, I didn’t really understand how privileged.
A friend recently challenged my blissful ignorance and slammed home the realisation that the surfing life that I enjoy is not the norm. In fact, it is not even real. In fact, I am rejected repressed, scorned, objectified and barely endured. I am an object of laughter and ridicule that must perform beyond any skill-set that the men need possess, just to be accepted as a surfer. On top of ripping in the water, I need to be physically beyond reprimand, a living version of one of the bikini models who adorn the mags and films guys pore over as a non-water-based part of their culture. My friend points out that to most men, I am merely a figure of ridicule and amusement that can only come to any use as someone(thing) to laugh at as she fails in her wave pursuits, to perve on as the opportunity arises and maybe to fuck her and talk about it with mates the next day – or at least to imagine doing so.
Cool. Now I feel awesome about myself. Thanks.
It’s true - I have sugar-coated many things so that I can keep surfing – and as I reflect on how I experience being a woman in the surf, I feel a little sad. There are few surfing times and places that I am not, most significantly, a piece of flesh, and these are the times which I choose to focus on. But it can’t be avoided. There in the carpark, eyes watch me as I strip out of my clothes and step into my bikini. I used to feel embarrassed by my consciousness of being watched, now I just try to ignore it. I have gone so far as to be purposely more naked than I used to, often forgoing the use of a towel to shield my nakedness from the boys and men in the carpark. I take off my knickers and pull on the swimmer bottoms in the open as an in-your-face response to the embarrassment and excitement that my body causes (even one of my girlfriends gets really embarrassed when she surfs with me. As we change near the car and my body is exposed – only for fleeting moments – she cringes and wishes I could be more modest. I am shameful even to the girls!). Then, on the beach, I can see the other surfers looking at me, reading me, just as I do to them. How is she holding her board? What is she wearing? What sort of board does she ride? Is she wearing a legrope..? As I paddle to the lineup, I try so hard to make it out easily and not get caught in the whitewash, which would be evidence of my inexperience and my lack of strength. As I reach the lineup and take my place (on the outside), I’m quickly aware of any other girls in the water. Sometimes men will paddle close to me to check me out and decide if they like what they see – my arse, my breasts, my stomach, my swimwear choices are all up for inspection and interpretation. I know that when I go for that first wave, eyes will be on me, checking to see if I make it, if I’m strong, if I can turn, if I can nose-ride. If I don’t make it..? Well, it’s just best to. If not, it can be hard to get waves after that.
Whether consciously or not, the guys seem to me to be much more liberal with their perspective on whose wave it is when there are women in the equation. Ladies are much more likely to be dropped in on, but also, I am slightly more tolerated if I drop in on someone. Sometimes. After all, how can you be angry at someone who doesn’t really know any better?
My friend, Julia, talks openly in the lineup about the guys hogging waves and snaking and dropping in. She’s been surfing this break for nearly 20 years and is well-known as being assertive.
“The guys seem to be dominating,” she’ll say to me. “Let’s go shake things up!”
She’ll paddle off to the rock and the main take off point, which I usually avoid as it’s too aggro. She takes waves from the guys and drops in, if she feels it’s her right and she certainly won’t let anyone snake her. I love Jules. She encourages me to be more assertive too,
“You’ve been sitting here for ages, Bec. Just take some waves.”
In her surfing world, she makes men the ‘Other’, referring to the guys as ‘them’,
“Sometimes I’ve had enough and just start to act like them.”
She sees herself as a strong one, a right one, an owner of the space. She doesn’t see why the lineup has to run the way the guys manipulate it to.
Being so aware of other people’s attitudes to your own identity is far from liberating - it makes you feel limited, self-conscious and small. You feel acutely that you are a sidelined figure of curiosity who is open for inspection by prying eyes of the (in this case) male, white, hetero majority. Awesome.
And I am so affected by it. My surfing world is defined by it.
I choose to surf the breaks I do because in these lineups, I am NOT an oddity. I feel more normal, like a person and a surfer. Yeah, I’m still a women/chick/girl/female surfer, but I am not ridiculed or made to feel like I don’t belong. In the water, in the carpark, and at parties and pubs after surfing, I am a part of this surfing community. These lineups are sites of safety and community that, perhaps, are a little bit utopian in their composition. And, so yeah - these are the places that, right now, I choose to surf. Other local breaks are not my scene. I have discussed with many friends how uncomfortable they make me feel, and there are some breaks that I simply refuse to surf at as I know that I would not be able to get waves at all. I am not proud to admit, I choose the easy option.
What the fuck! THIS is no way to think, to surf, to live. This is no way to feel. More importantly, this is no way to be treated. The little (and not so little) creeps who populate the town and the lineups that I avoid have done such a good job of making me feel unwelcome, that I have simply accepted it and acquiesced to their cultural dominance. I have allowed them to effect my choices and my feelings of safety, acceptance and confidence as a surfer. I have given in to their dominating definition of these spaces and places. I have let myself feel inadequate and small and limited the way I live my surfing life.
But is it going to be useful to hold onto this shame and anger? Nah. However, it’s certainly important to wake up and smell the dogshit, and to make efforts to move beyond the status quo, because that is the only real choice I have. To be honest though, I don’t really want to. I would have preferred to stay in my state of blissful ignorance. But where would that get me? It would keep me in exactly the same place, surfing the same waves and feeling the same, illusory sense of belonging and acceptance, looking no further than the end of my nose (pardon the pun).
So all this pain is actually freedom. The self-consciousness I feel in my surfing is an assurance that I am doing new things and moving beyond what is allowed and accepted and tolerated. It means that I am stronger and braver than I thought or hoped or believed. And that sucks too, because the only courage that is respected and admired in surfing is the kind that sees you put yourself in harms way - the kind of bravery that sees you risk your body and your life to take off on bigger more vicious waves (But then, even that’s only important if other people see you I suppose). The kind of courage that is defined by the monotonous, hyper-masculine narrative of surfing’s established history and myth. My surfing courage represents pushing myself beyond boundaries even such as those (physical danger, of course, being relative) and into emotional territory. It affects the way that I am seen not only as a surfer, but as a woman or a girl or a chick.