Women who run with the tides

When it comes to talking about improving the visibility, representation and opportunities for women in surfing, one of the common points made is that 'Women need more role models'. And it's a fair point. Until recently, only the most high-performance, most successful and/or prettiest female surfers were given media coverage, with others left out because they're 'not good enough' or 'too butch'. Of course, historically the people making those comments and value judgements (How does being 'butch' impact a woman's surfing abilities or value? And what does it matter if someone is 'butch' anyway?) have largely been male magazine editors and marketing directors. These days we have a lot more women in all sorts of roles in surf media and representations of women have improved, all of which is awesome, but there is still an alarming emphasis on youth, beauty and sex appeal.

For younger women I think the high-performance, everyone's-gorgeous, role-model issue remains an especially important area of concern, so those conversations and changes need to continue. But for women who are older the whole role model thing is interesting in a different way because there is an assumption that most people find role models in high-performance or competitive surfing, which isn't always true.When I talk to my friends about surfing aspirations or improvements, they rarely refer to professional surfers. In fact, almost never. Instead, they refer to women from their own community, who manage to surf as well as have a career, a relationship and/or kids. Body image and fashion tend to make way for other issues, and often it is the older, more experienced women that get mentioned as models (or not) of how things can be done - of what to aspire to. 

All of this is (as ever) a long way of coming to a film I have been wanting to share here for a long time, 'Women Who Run With the Tides', by Michelle Shearer. And I apologise for not posting it earlier because it's an important film and a really great one as well.  

This short film was shot in Lennox Head, Australia, just down the road from my home digs in Suffolk Park. It focuses on three women - Marg, 64, Sally, 58 and Carol, 50 - who have different surfing histories, ability levels and life situations, but who all share a passion for being in the sea as often as possible. These are the kinds of stories that are common when it comes to tales about men. These stories are important in local, regional and national understandings of surfing, because they contribute to how we remember what happened, who was participating, and what things were like at any one time, but they also have resonance in representing what is possible for various people. As men from surfing's boom period of the 1950s and 60s have aged, their stories have continued to be represented, thus showing it is possible to surf past youth, into middle-age and beyond. But as women struggle to have their most successful surfers make it into the media, older, less skilled women have had no space at all! And this does have repercussions. One friend of mine who is in her 50s told me that she worries about getting older because she becomes increasingly invisible in the surf. The older guys get positioned as 'local legends' with space made for them to get waves. Not always, but it certainly happens. Yet women don't seem to be treated the same way. This friend has been surfing her home break for over 20 years, but these days she's yelled at and dropped in on by young men just arrived to town - men who surf with far less skill and grace, and with much less knowledge of the break itself. 

Michelle's film is a beautiful example of how significant ordinary, everyday role models are for people and for our culture, and after this film was release I know many women had conversations about the women in their community who they look up to. In my own surfing life, I'm really lucky because I have many women I can look up to in the surf. Some of them are friends of mine, some of them I just know them from the surf, but they all provide an example of what it might look like for me to keep surfing as I age. Not only that it is possible to do so, but the compromises I might make, the ways I might be able to continue contributing to my surfing community, and how I might be able to continue doing that in my own style and on my own terms. 


The 'Women Who Run With the Tides' Fcebook page has info on upcoming screenings as well as a way to contact Michelle if you would like.


  1. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Steve's not in the movie is he, waving a great Lennox jewfish around? Howareya 'bec .. do you miss the rainy season, because it's on.

  2. Not missing the rain, but I really do miss those big summer storms. But then, I score these loooong days that culminate in waves under a flaming sky, so you know - give and take :)

  3. Can I say that I my opinion not just women are missing from the radar but all surfers? You get to see only pros flying high or getting barrelled on amazing waves around the world. But pros are just pros. Where are all those people surfing every day/weekend at the home break? All ghosts? That's something in the equation that doesn't sum up.

    1. Yeah, surf media doesn't really represent anything other than high-performance as aspirational, huh. I must say that none of my surfing role models are form competitive surfing, I mean, I admire them, but I don't look to them for a vision of how things might look for me - or how I might like to be. Their skills and commitment to surfing are so different to mine, so it's difficult to relate. I look to people who are generous, friendly, warm and smooth. In this post, I guess I'm focussing on how women are treated in the water at local breaks as they age. In middle age, they often become more invisible than men, until they're very elderly and are again afforded respect. I'm definitely not saying this doesn't happen to men as well - middle age men get less respect from young 'uns, as well, but for women, it's a bit different.

  4. Time is against the traditional male domination of surfing.

    The old "enforcers" are aging, and losing their ability to intimidate others.

    The sheer numbers of new surfers are making the self-identification within a small community that facilitates traditional localism less possible.

    I think we're in a transition time in surfing (and everywhere else!). It's getting steadily more inclusive, while at the same time, quality surfing experiences (good waves with few people) are getting to be an increasingly precious occurrence. In other words, positive social change is inevitable, while actually enjoying surfing is less so.... by the old standards.

    Incidentally, here in Santa Cruz, California, I see older women who are "respected elders" and get waves, other older women who seem to sidestep the issue of visibility by focusing on their own groupings (and seem to get waves). Younger women seem to be fighting it out with younger guys for waves on an apparently equal status, and less-skilled surfers of both sexes take what they can get.


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