Where in the hell did the term “surfer girl” come from? What about “surfer boy”? No, no, it’s just “surfer.” I don’t want to come across as radically feminist, but why is there this tremendous novelty to women’s surfing? There’s a mass of groms stampeding toward the water in El Porto, Manhattan Beach, blonde and beachy locks flouncing with each step. But, there’s one grom with bleached hair just a tad longer than the others. She’s the only girl in the flock. I think to myself, good for her. And then, why good for her? I, myself, am a victim of societal stereotypes. I surf, yes, but I surf with a kind of subordination that I know deep in my gut isn’t necessary but on the surface is pretty inevitable. When I’m out in the water, I feel a tier below the boys. But, at the same time, I feel kind of powerful, like I’m dismantling stereotypes. What bothers me, and what bothers the general community of women surfers, is that these stereotypes even exist in the first place. Girls don’t get the respect they deserve on the waves. There’s definitely been an evolution, women gaining a little more eminence among big-wave surfers, but what we need is to transform this evolution into a revolution.
The Lost and Found Collection has epic photos of some of the greats: Lynne Boyer, Margo Oberg, and Rell Sun. But, the ratio of pictures of men versus women is colossal. That’s just how it was. The women in magazines were bikini babes, simply sexualized objects tanning on the beach. What people don’t recognize, though, is that women have been shredding for as long as the boys; they just never got the attention they deserved. But, when images of these women were captured, they emanated a palpable aura of power and strength. There is such rawness to their presence, unadorned and beautiful. They don’t have to try, because their smiles are genuine and untouched.
Today, women surfers have a much greater presence in the media, but their sexualized representation persists, and that is what is most disconcerting. If you don’t have a killer body, a deep tan, or luscious hair, you probably won’t get the consideration you deserve, and that’s just pure honesty. Women surfers have to pose like supermodels next to their boards, and this simply takes away from their talent. They become images instead of icons. Although women’s surfing has conquered a place in magazines and amidst social media, not all exposure is fair exposure. Female surfers aren’t glamorous models, nor should they be; they’re athletes, and they should certainly be regarded as so.
Rell Sunn was a pioneer in the world of women’s surfing. The Queen of Makaha lived in Oahu for her forty-seven years, never drifting from the ocean, fulfilling her middle name Kapolioka'ehukai, “heart of the sea.” She was a vital figure in launching the world tour for women. Sunn, herself, finished in the top eight in the world seven times. Despite her extensive accomplishments, Rell Sunn remained completely humble and gracious and shared the aloha with everyone she met, everywhere she went. In 1983, she was diagnosed with cancer, with which she battled for fifteen years. In the surfing world today, Sunn’s spirit prevails, and her phenomenal accomplishments and tenderhearted personality continue to inspire women surfers. She is able to remind women that success can come with persistence and benevolence. Filmmakers Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker created a documentary about Rell Sunn, called “Heart of the Sea,” that conveys a portrait of a woman who made such a notable impact in the realm of surfing, a supposed male domain. Lagarde said, “Rell is the great reminder to do what you love. She touched so many people’s lives just being herself. She was an amazing surfer, but it’s her incredible spirit and her smile that people always remember.” This makes me somewhat nostalgic for something I never even witnessed. In today’s surfing world, women should look to Rell Sunn and recognize her influence. Success shouldn’t be based on the external, how you look or what you wear, but rather the internal: what you’re willing to do and how far you’re willing to go for what you love.