Second-Class Waves And Sleazy Ads: Why Women Are Still Fighting For Equality In Action Sports
Even in the 21st century, women are still chronically underexposed in the worlds of skating and surfing. We investigate why...
Early one morning, a mother brought her three young children to the skatepark where I was riding. Her 7-year-old son strapped on a helmet and pads, picked up his skateboard, and dropped down a ramp. His two sisters, one slightly older and another younger, had to settle for make-believe.
The girls ran around the nearly empty park, carving the bowls on small sneakers instead of wheels, and giggling as they darted out of my way.
They were getting an early schooling in the difference between female and male boardriders, a disparity of opportunity and exposure that impacts all ages.
Amelia Brodka experienced these differences as a little girl when she wanted to have a go at skateboarding for the first time. She tried to ride her brother’s board, but he discouraged her by saying she wasn’t doing it right.
Later, when she was twelve, Brodka’s family attended the X-Games in Philadelphia and she saw girls skating the vert ramp. As she explains in her feature-length film, Underexposed: A Women's Skateboarding Documentary, that was the start of her skateboarding obsession; she wanted to do what those other girls did.
"I don't understand why companies don't use photos of a girl wearing their apparel in the middle of a smith grind?"
For me, the defining moment came from watching Blue Crush, a thinly-plotted film that revolves around a female surfer striving to win a big wave contest at Pipeline.
Watching the main character Anne-Marie shred on the movie screen is what inspired me to sign up for my first surf lesson. If she could do it, maybe I could too. I’ve now been surfing for more than a decade, still motivated by that example.
There’s no doubt that girls and women have fewer opportunities to see others like them ripping in the skatepark or on the waves.
Pick up any surfing or skateboarding magazine. How many female boardriders do you see? For that matter, how many women do you see who aren’t posing seductively to sell a product?
Many companies that market to female athletes don’t seem to understand that women would rather see their products in action than merely displayed on models.
While making Underexposed, Brodka conducted an informal poll. She took print ads for a shirt and showed them to women on the street - non-skaters who were interested in the culture and fashion. One ad showed the shirt worn by a model, the other by a woman skating. Two-thirds preferred the ad with the skateboarder.
When I asked Brodka what changes to the skate industry she thought would be most beneficial to encourage girls who want to skate, and to support those who want to make a living at it, she replied via email, “USE SKATEBOARDERS INSTEAD OF MODELS TO PROMOTE YOUR WOMEN'S LINE, PLEASE!"
“I don't understand why companies don't see the advantage in using a photo of a girl who is dressed up in their apparel and looks beautiful and powerful in the middle of a smith grind," said Brodka.
Skate brands would become more authentic, while empowering and inspiring girls and women. “When someone feels inspired by your advertisement, they are more likely to buy your product," argues Brodka.
The surf world is no different
In the surfing world, Roxy was widely denounced last year for its contest teaser video that lingered on an faceless female surfer’s sexy body without ever showing her riding a wave.
Former world longboard champion Cori Schumacher delivered a petition to Roxy headquarters, signed by over twenty thousand people from around the world, asking the company to stop using sex to market its products.
While Roxy essentially had no comment, it seems to have backed down from that level of overt sexualisation in its advertisements.
The short film Flux: Redefining Women’s Surfing shows Kahanu Delovio, a 15-year-old surfer girl from Hawaii, who wants to focus on her sport but is already feeling pressure from her peers to wear smaller and smaller bikinis while practicing it.
"Only 5 per cent of women have the body type advertisers see as ideal"Only 5 per cent of women have the body type advertisers see as ideal. This leaves female surfers feeling like they have to conform to that image, even when it’s not feasible for their body types and has nothing to do with their skills as surfers.
While the industry often focuses on their sex appeal, women who want to compete in skating and surfing lack sufficient exposure of their athletic prowess in magazines and contests. This means fewer role models for those who want to pick up the sport.
To some extent, this dearth of positive exposure can be attributed to the historical male dominance of the sports. However gender bias does not fully account for the disparate coverage of male and female riders.
The skills gap
Former professional surfer Holly Beck told me that she prefers to watch the top men surf because their manoeuvres are a level above anything the best women can do. They’re simply more exciting to watch.
In skateboarding as well, Brodka says there truly is a skills gap between the best female and male riders. It’s that gap that made Brodka initially reluctant to have her skating shot by a staff photographer for a legitimate skateboarding company.
“I knew the level at which the rest of the team skated and I knew I was nowhere near that level," Brodka explains. “The thought of going to shoot with someone who is used to working with guys who are doing much more difficult tricks in difficult spots is nerve-wracking. What if I got to a spot and it took me forever to do something that a guy on the team can do switch third try?"
Skate magazines are looking for the next new thing, a fresh trick for their photo spread, typically something that has never been done before. But since most of the girls haven't caught up to that level, explains Brodka, where do we draw the line between publishable and not good enough to print?
So, what accounts for the skills gap? It partly circles back to lack of exposure and opportunity.
Ever since she was inspired to pick up a skateboard aged 12, Brodka skated and trained hard, culminating in preparations for her first major competition at the X-Games in 2011. But then the women's vert event was cancelled by the organisers.
"For some women, the X Games 2011 made or broke their entire year"
That setback helped to spark her journey to document the place of women in the skateboarding world by filming Underexposed.
Being shut out of the X-Games deprived female skaters of their key event, one many were counting on to get noticed and find sponsors.
“For some women, that contest made or broke their entire year," Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins says in the film. If men are good enough, they can make a living without competing but that isn’t the case for women.
Sponsorship isn't easy to come by
Women struggle financially in pro surfing too. Since ZoSea took over the Association of Surfing Professionals in 2012, the huge prize money gap between male and female surfers on the World Tour has narrowed, although it still has a long way to go to achieve parity.
Additionally, women have a more difficult time than men in securing sponsorships. Last year, one of the top-ranked female surfers resorted to crowdfunding to be able to afford a shot at the world title.
New Zealander Paige Hareb finished the previous year in tenth place, yet she had trouble lining up sponsors to cover her travel and living expenses. Using a Kickstarter variant called Sportfunder, she asked for donations from her fans.
"A lot of female sponsorships are based on looks, personalities and how many followers you have on your social media..."
“It worked well," said Hareb. “I got a lot of support from so many people around the world, and of course it helped me get from event to event and re-qualify for this year with a lot less stress and worry about financial support."
Hareb agrees that women who surf professionally face greater challenges in obtaining sponsorships. “Men can mainly worry about how good they surf and/or their contest results, but I think a lot of female sponsorships are based on looks, personalities and how many followers you have on your social media." She continued, “It’s definitely harder for women and more cutthroat. We almost have to be and do more for less."
"We need more women-only contests"
It doesn’t help that women in both sports have fewer contests than men, and thus fewer opportunities to display their skills. Hareb laments that “when we have events with the men, they get first priority with the best waves so we never really get to show our true potential in the same waves."
Some of the women’s tour locations also fail to provide quality surf on which to demonstrate their abilities. That’s why there was much excitement when Trestles was recently added as a women’s venue, alongside the existing men’s event.
Still, Hareb believes there’s room for improvement. "I would love to see J-Bay on the tour and I would probably take off the Brazil event - we’ve never had good waves there for the event."
She’d also like more women-only competitions, “only because if the waves are really good then we know we would actually get to compete in them!"
On the skateboarding side, Brodka has seen progress since her contest at the X-Games was cancelled. “I am very grateful that we are now a part of more events, [but] I wouldn't say that things are equal yet", she says.
“I think that as we continue to show that women's skateboarding is growing in terms of participants, value and the level of skateboarding, we will start to get more practice time and a prize purse that is at least slightly comparable to the guys."
Getting people talking
The goal of Underexposed was “to get more people talking and thinking about women's skateboarding". That's happened.
It's also enabled Brodka to create a women’s skateboarding event called EXPOSURE, now in its third year, that provides a showcase for female skaters while raising funds for survivors of domestic violence.
“A lot of growth has happened in the past few years, and it is really inspiring!" Brodka said. There's now a new generation of 7 to 16 year old girls who are pushing the level of female skateboarding around the globe.
As a result, more companies, non profit organisations and governments are now supportive of women's skateboarding.
While there is still a long way to go before women are on a near-equal footing with men, opportunities and exposure for female boardriders have come far since trailblazers like Marge Calhoun and Elissa Steamer took to the waves and the ramps. The future is looking brighter for the women of surf and skate.
If you're in the California area, get on down to the EXPOSURE women's skate event on Saturday 8 November 2014 at the Encinitas YMCA in San Diego, California. There's going to be free skate clinics, yoga sessions, amateur and pro vert and bowl events plus pro skater signings.