Fragments of surfing bodies

As someone who is interested in the ways people, experiences, ideas, relationships and places are represented - in how we come to know them - social media fascinates me. What we're all willing to share, to repost, to like, comment on, and talk about offline, gives lots of insight into other aspects of our lives and thoughts and relationships.

Each social media - e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter - is different and allows us to do different things. For example, one that I use and study (a little), Instagram, claims to offer a behind the scenes look into people's lives, allowing us to share fragments of our days with each other. And for me, that's certainly the best of it. When I was living in New Zealand, Instagram let me remain a part of my friend's daily lives in a mundane way. Yes, it's all selected and filtered and cropped and edited and reframed to be as pretty as possible, but when it comes to people I know, I could read through all that, situating their posts against my long relationships with them and their families and homes, and against what I know of them through their emails and phone-calls.

Still, we all prefer to post the best of ourselves. Of course.

The fragments we see on Instagram are much more complicated, commercialised and professional than the cheery sales pitch. And if it's like that for people like me and my friends, well, when it comes to celebrities and famous folk, so much of how they use social media is an explicit and targeted exercise in marketing and branding. Social media offers an incredible opportunity to sell themselves and to make money through endorsements and sponsorships. I'm don't need to talk about that today, other that to establish that that things we see famous folk post online are usually done so to be consistent with their own brand. It can be more than that too, and for many celebrities and sports stars etc, it's a great way to reach and be in touch with fans and followers and other interested observers. Like me. When it comes to celebrity, social media is offers a seemingly direct way for fans to access the lives of those they admire, obsess about, aspire to be, or are simply curious about. Instagram, and other social media cuts out the editorial processes of traditional media.

I'm not entirely sure what all of this means yet. In a superficial ways, it does seem to diversify the kinds of images we see about different cultures, bodies, and places, which is great. Take women's surfing (just, you know, an example off the top of my head). On a small study I did of women's surfing accounts, I found that Instagram has offered the chance for various women and girls - sponsored, non-sponsored, wiht bog and small followings, and of various capabilities - to present themselves as surfers in their own way: there is an abundance of images of women surfing in a way that continues to eludes magazine publication; women position themselves as holding in depth knowledge about surfing culture, practices and places; and they highlight the ays that other women shape and define their surfing worlds, with men a part of their surfing world, but not all of it. It's pretty cool. Of course, since so much of social media is driven by quantifiable likes, we often end up with the same images anyway; Filtered, processed, angled, well-lit, and often still focused on bikini-clad, heterosexy, female bodies.

Still, the Instagram accounts of the women I looked at are far from the huge, sponsor driven accounts of female elite-athlete surfers.  The primary images of women's surfing, especially on the bigger accounts at that stage tended to still often be of hot female bodies in bikinis. The accounts of the pro female surfers have a different agenda, which is mediated by the need to maintain sponsorship, and media presence and so on. Essentially, their use of Instagram is often mediated by their job, and the need to conform to the happy, cute, girl-next-door, ideal of female surfers.

But every so often, even on the most professionalised, most sponsor-driven accounts with the highest followers, little non-scripted slivers from behind the scenes shine through. Every so often we get the feeling that it's not media teams running everyone's account, but that individuals themselves still choose and post the images.

A few weeks ago, I was killing time, looking on Instagram and I saw a post in Alana Blanchard's feed. Alana Blanchard has over 1.9 million Instagram followers and is one of the most promoted and highly paid women surfers in the world. This is not only because she surfs really well - and she really does - but also because she's very willing and happy to pose in bikinis - very small bikinis - and to play up her sexuality. You know the drill. She giggles and flicks her hair and has perfected looking over her shoulder back at a camera that is angled at her butt. She's also willing to say that she loves these tiny bikinis because they're what everyone wears and that they stay on better in the surf, a statement that continues to blow my mind.

The photos and captions on Alana Blanchard's Instagram profile are evidence of all of this. You can go check it out off you feel like it. Her images are a bit more mixed lately, because she's currently 30-something weeks pregnant, which is very exciting for her and her partner. She's also still totally heteronormatively gorgeous and posing in bikinis.

Her posts usually sell a life of ease and glamour and fun and play and surfing and modelling, and these kinds of images of her non-pregnant body remain interspersed through her recent pregnancy updates as well. There's nothing unexpected about that - it's social media marketing for her personal brand after all. But recently a sliver of something else slipped through. Something that is consistent with a lot of first time mother narratives, but which I found a little unexpected, given her defence of her girly, sexy, femininity. 

(This post is from August 17th)

While Alana Blanchard has never pretended she isn't playing a media game for her own gain, I've never seen her talk about her sense of self and her body in this way before. Usually, as in the Sports Illustrated video and Surfer profile I liked to above, her self-confidence is highlighted. That she is so confident is no surprise and it's great to hear! But I've never seen her talk about body image in this way - about the pressure to, as she puts it, be thin enough.

This is just an edited, framed up fragment of a moment of a though of Alana Blanchard's life. But to me it feels as well as though there is something more there too. This fragment feels more like a little fissure or a crack through the media persona that Blanchard has so carefully crafted; a little view to something not unexpected, but unusual for her to admit.

The pressure to be thin enough. But thin enough for what?

Thin enough to be the most famous female surfer? Thin enough to be coveted for surf magazine, underwear and Sports Illustrated photo shoots? Thin enough to be the face of Rip Curl? Thin enough to exude the confidence she usually feels?

These questions in response to this little glimpse into how Alana might or might not think and feel about her body and the industry she is part of aren't an accusation, nor are they anything approaching glee that she too feels pressure to be thin enough. I feel no glee at all about that. Instead, they're a fascinated consideration of this insight into how Alana Blanchard might really think and feel about the world she lives in and the pressures she faces, despite the need to always present herself otherwise. 

When I read this particular post of Alana's, it felt like a refreshing breeze that has found its way through an accidentally opened window. As much as I try not to, it's easy to forget that celebrities are people like me, with all the attendant negotiations of various pressures. In Alana's case, she's making a living from her looks and her skill as a model, as well as her skills as a high performance surfer. And it is a tricky negotiation. As one surfer noted in a 2012 issue of Curl Magazine about the sexualisation of women surfers, Alana's body changed shape and lost power as she shifted into more full time modelling. Again, it wasn't a criticism, but an observation on the conflicting demands of what a professional surfer's and a model's body should look like and/or be able to do. 

And this issue is not new. As well as the discussions in that Curl Magazine, other professional women who surf have talked about feeling this pressure: Carissa Moore has famously talked about it in Surfer Magazine and to The Inertia. To be good at surfing, there should be no pressure for Alana to be thin, to worry that she's thin enough. Physiologically, it is not necessary. The worry about being thin is something else, something that is part of, but not uniquely of, surfing culture. But surfing culture and surf media, certainly don't make it easy to escape the feeling that surfing and thinness are and should be connected, even at the most high-performance levels. 

In the end, my point about the damaging nature the links between thinness and surfing and being female, and how this all peeked through the fragment of a day posted by Alana Blanchard is not aimed to critiquing Alana herself. As always, it is aimed at the industry and media that have encouraged her into a position whereby her, and other women's, thinness is their financial and cultural capital. 


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