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Flashback: Surf. Sport. And She.

When did women begin riding waves?!

Written By: ChelseaMarie

You cannot separate the beach and the bikini. The two are associated like peanut butter and jelly. However, over the past few decades, women have created a stronger association between surf, “she,” and sport, than ever before!

In truth, women have been conquering the waves for centuries. While the beach may be filled with bathing beauties, the ones who were remembered were out in the water. Women are highlighted in ancient chants for their escapades and courage. The first female surfer is reported to be Mamala, a Polynesian demi-god. Mamala was said to be brave, beautiful, and even embody the features of a great shark. Females in Hawaiin legends are depicted as pioneers and heroines in their adventures on the waves. Back in 1905, Princess Kaneamuna’s surfboard was uncovered at her burial grounds in Hawaii, and is rumored to date back to the late 1600s.


It was tourism that first skewed female surfers’ image toward an emphasis on swimsuits rather than sport. In an effort to portray Hawaii as hospitable and safe to travelers, visitors were prefaced with illustrations of exceptionally relaxed beach life. Tourism did not feature the women who were braving swells, but instead focused on women wearing flowers and skirts, greeting guests and performing dance. Magazines began utilizing the “beach bum” of a woman as a marketing tool, for both men and women’s surf gear. The 1959 movie, Gidget, accentuated the stereotypes. While women were crushing waves, the media had tunnel vision on showcasing high-waisted bikinis and boards that would fit an entire women’s rowing team.


The truth came in with the tide though. Despite the lack of recognition, women continued to make themselves known across the globe out on the ocean. From California to Australia, women were entering surf competitions, earning local, national, and global titles, and soon inducted into Surfing Walks of Fame. The 20th century saw a pipeline filled with females, the way it once was historically in Hawaii. Girls were increasingly less bullied back onto the beaches and restricted from riding the giants. At a tender age of 15, Isabel Letham became one of the first females whose name was a household conversation. She was asked to surf tandem with Olympic male swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, but soon entered big wave surfing on her own. Joining her was Faye Baird Frazer, Mary Ann Hawkins, Shelley Merrick, Marge Calhoun, Wendy Botha, Sarah Gerhardt, and Margo Oberg, slated as the first true professional female surfer.

Toward the end of the 1970’s, the A.S.P. annual circuit had a division for females. The Pacific Coast has developed a championship title solely for female competitors, and women now sit as Board Members of the Surfrider Foundation. “Girl in the Curl” hosts women’s surf camps annually, and there is rising popularity of other surf schools such as SwellWomen, Maui Surfer Girls, and Surf Goddesses. With trends begun by surfers such as Lisa Anderson wearing board shorts with her bikini, to Bethany Hamilton crushing waves after her amputation, women are once again being recognized for their bravery on the breaks, rather than their bodies on the beach. Young girls look to Layne Beachley, Stephanie Gilmore, Sofia Mulanovich, Megan Abubo, Alana Blanchard, Pauline Ado, and many others, for inspiration both in and out of the water.


Though we have come full circle as magazine covers and labels, such as Roxy, are associating surf with “she” and sport yet again, a gender bias still exists in the ocean. Female competitors receive less sponsorship and often are left to fund their travel and event fees all on their own. Some women competitors have raised money or partnered with male professionals in order to afford to compete. Female surfers have begun lobbying for women’s divisions across the globe, and finally the Western Surfing Association stepped up, giving women better waves at competitions and adding more events specific to women competitors. Furthermore, the Association of Surfing Professionals increased prize money for women.

Females have received adoration and exposure along the ocean, but they continue to fight for respect in the ocean. Tearing across the tides in shorts, with boards decked out by big companies, scorched and shredding waves, women refuse to remain decorative in the surf scene. From the 1600s to now, healthy, strong, spirited women have shown their audacity by fearlessly entering the waters even when they did not have the support of male colleagues. They have taken risks physically and emotionally to achieve equality in the surf world. All bodies contain water; all bodies float; all bodies should board and be rewarded with the same rights.


“See? She surfs the sea, sun-kissed, smooth and spirit free. Surf is sport, sport is she, for undertow will not drown thee. Tides roll in, balanced and poised, she’s in the curl, make some noise. The waves crash, the crowd roars, the cynics sinks, while she soars.”

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