Yet despite this, most of the highest profile, highest paid women defend modelling and posing in bikinis as their choice, while avoiding more challenging questions about what that might mean beyond their own career - for the opportunities and expectations for the women who come after them, as well as for surfing more broadly.
To be honest, I find all of this really difficult to write about because on one hand I think it's great that some women are able to take the attitude that they can do what they want and promote themselves in this way, and I also understand that they have the threat of the loss of sponsorship and promotion held over them. But on the other hand I feel like there's still so much bullshit to be negotiated about how and whether posing in their bikinis is even a choice they have anymore and that the women on the Tour have responsibilities to think beyond their own careers and to look at the bigger picture regarding the growth and perception of their sport. Because as sportspeople, they should be respected for their skills and achievements. They should be respected for their abilities in the waves. They should be respected not because they are beautiful or sexy, but because they are talented and have worked really, really hard to be where they are as athletes. And while the companies that pay and promote surfers have responsibilities in all of this too, I've pretty much given up on them changing their approach.
So it is refreshing when some like Carissa Moore - 21 years old with two world titles to her name - does engage in these discussions. And she does. She recently published a piece in Surfer Magazine where she talked about making choices about how she represents herself and why. She talks about how she sees the possible effects of her choices on (especially) younger women who look up to her as a hero and role model. You can read the whole piece over at Surfer, but this is my favourite bit:
I’m not going to wear the small bikinis. That’s not me. I’m going to take the more athletic approach. I love surfing, so I want to inspire people through my surfing. I’ll admit, two years ago, I did a sexy photo shoot with a magazine (though I made sure I wore more clothes than a lot of girls who’d done similar shoots in the past). I looked at the pictures and they were beautiful—probably some of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen of myself. But I looked at them and thought, “Young girls look up to me right now because I don’t do that stuff.” I wear clothes. I’m sexy because I leave stuff to the imagination, and I let my surfing do the talking. I ended up pulling the plug on it. The photos never ran. It just wasn’t me. But that’s not to say that Alana or some of the other girls’ approach is bad—in fact, I think it’s great that we all appeal to a different audience. That’s great for our sport.
More than anything, I want to leave behind a Tour that is thriving for the next generation.
This is not to say that the young women who look up to role models are stupid and uncritical and don't understand the influence and power of media, because young people are smart, educated and savvy and often they have a really great understanding of these issues.* And it's not to say that it's even fair that Carissa Moore feels that level of responsibility, but that's the thing with fame and success - it comes with lots of benefits, but it also comes with obligations.
But you know what else... those obligations can lead you and other people to really great places.
For me Carissa Moore is awesome because she is an amazing athlete, but also because she speaks up. And this is important beyond being a good role model for younger women. It's also about standing your ground and demanding respect from the people around you. I loved her response to Dusty Payne's comments a couple of years ago, where he banged on about how shit women are at surfing, and how they don't deserve the money they make because, according to him, the guys are better. Here's a snippet of his articulate brilliance:
His comments in a follow up interview with Transworld Surf showed how lots of people see the focus on beauty and sex appeal in relation to the women's abilities. (This is kind of long, and it pains me to republish so many of his words, but I think it's worth posting here to show the kind of attitude I'm talking about.)
So, you know, this is in the women’s issue, so obviously, we’ve got to talk about your comments in Lost Atlas. Do you ever regret your comments in the video?Oh, this is gonna get me in trouble. Do I regret it? It wasn’t really a serious quote. Well, I guess it was kind of serious. Shit, how am I gonna get out of this? I kind of regret it. Chicks do surf good, but I just think it’s crazy that chicks are getting paid as much as some of the dudes, as much as the bottom tier of the ‘CT. And some of the chicks are making more money than those guys, and those guys are pushing it one hundred times harder. Not saying that the chicks aren’t pushing it very hard, they’re doing great, but they… It’s just crazy.
It’s a good point because, to be honest, women’s surfing in the last few years has come a long way.Oh yeah, no doubt. But at the same time, men’s surfing has progressed in leaps and bounds, so much further. For a minute there it was almost like the ladies are catching up, and then all of a sudden they got left way behind.
Do you think this is because of innately physical differences, or they just aren’t pushed to try as hard?If you look at pretty much any sport, if you put a guy and a girl up against each other, the guy will out do the girl to a huge degree. Men are just built more physically to do physical sports. Not taking anything away from the women; they are insane athletes. There are women athletes who I respect, and in surfing, they’ve come so far and are surfing unreal. I wish I could surf like that right now. I’m just saying that for a guy on the ‘CT to not be making as much as the ladies on their ‘CT is crazy to me. Because the things the guys on our tour are doing are just ridiculous, and the women just aren’t there.
Sometimes it seems like the marketing side of women’s surfing focuses so much on their physical attractiveness as opposed to their ability.That’s true.
And the ads—there’s no way guys would pose for that. I can’t imagine Stab asking any of the guys to pose nude for photos.Exactly. They’re way more attractive than the guys. And that’s great. Women are supposed to be more attractive than the guys. But in surfing, that’s kind of a recent development. A lot of the women in pro surfing in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, they were pretty masculine, and all of a sudden, the tour is made up of these gorgeous, tan girls in thongs. It seems like sponsors may, sometimes, be rewarding attractiveness over ability. There’s no doubt. They’re attractive, and that sells a lot. You know, a guy in a thong is not going to sell much.
If Nike called tomorrow and offered to double your salary, but you had to surf in a thong or one of those high-cut wetsuits, would you do it?No way. I’d tell ’em I’m moving to Oklahoma and I’m never gonna surf again.
What’s your take on Carissa Moore’s wildcard in last year’s Triple Crown?My hat’s off to Carissa for winning the world title, first of all. I was really cheering for her to win, and I’m so stoked she did. I’m really proud of her. But, you know, the guys are really good at surfing these days, and for a world champ to go and try to compete against some of the top men in the world, it’s just going to be really tough for her. Honestly, I would have rather seen one of the former world champs from the men get in instead of her, but I’m glad she got to go and compete against the men. And she beat poor Alain [Riou]. But, personally, I would have rather seen someone like Derek Ho get in.
After your comments from Lost Atlas came out, did anybody call you out on it?Carissa’s kind of given me grief, and she called me out at the Surfer Poll last year, and that was pretty funny. And this one time I was walking over to the Billabong house, just to hang out with Granger [Larsen], and I was trying to open the gate, and you have to open it from the inside because there’s a code on the outside. And this girl pulled up on her bike, she’s like, “Oh, you have to reach over the inside.” So I reached over and opened the gate, and she looks at me and goes, “Are you Dusty Payne?” And I was, like, “Yeah.” So she doesn’t say anything and just walks in the gate before me and Dean Morrison and runs up the stairs and turns around and looks at me and says, “You shouldn’t say those things about women’s surfing.” Dean looked at me, and we started laughing so hard. That was about as bad as it got, so it was really just funny.
Is there anything you’d like to add?Yeah. This is no disrespect to women’s surfing. I don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way. The girls are surfing insane, and whatever I said in Lost Atlas was not meant to be taken the way it was. Sorry to all the women surfers. You girls are great. But, men are just great surfers, you know?
Nice, Dusty Payne. Real nice. Carissa Moore totally rocked her response in an awards speech though. She explained how she had taken Payne's comments as inspiration to motivate her during the year.
Carissa Moore is a high profile and successful surfer, and by speaking up and talking about the world she travels in, as well as the implications of her position with that world, I have no doubt that she will, at the very least, leave behind a Tour that is thriving for the next generation.
*You should check out this interview between Tavi Gevinson and Lorde, who illustrate just how switched on teenagers and young women are.