Female surfers make waves despite barriers

Female surfers make waves despite barriers
Cathy Young, of the Wahine Kai Women's Surf Club, shows teens how to stand on a board at Bolsa Chica State Beach. (Scott Smeltzer / Huntington Beach Independent)

When Cathy Young was a teenager in the 1970s, she wanted to surf.

But girls were not welcomed on the waves back then.


"I had a teacher who said to me, 'You can't do that — that's what boys do,'" the 53-year-old Huntington Beach resident recalled. "And I was like, 'No, really I can!' I didn't realize at the time that she meant I couldn't do it culturally."

Now the 36-year surf veteran catches waves four times a week in the summer.

One thing she can't help but notice is that there are a lot more women in the water today.

Despite women's role in shaping the sport, professional surfing routinely pushed them to the margins. But things are starting to change. Above, Taylor Pitz surfs in Laguna Beach.
Despite women's role in shaping the sport, professional surfing routinely pushed them to the margins. But things are starting to change. Above, Taylor Pitz surfs in Laguna Beach.

"The whole culture has changed," said Young, who heads the national Wahine Kai Surf Club for women. "Now it's considered cool."

Although surfing has long been considered a male-dominated sport, women are now seeing more equality on the waves, including greater rates of women's participation and the World Surf League committing to parity in prize money between the sexes.

At the same time, many female surfers still struggle with residual gender barriers.

"The sport has a long, fairly shameful history of sexism," said Matt Warshaw, author of the book "The Encyclopedia of Surfing." "And it's still not over."

According to Warshaw, sexism was not always a part of surfing. "In ancient Hawaii," he said, "queens surfed and princesses surfed. It was just something everyone did."

It wasn't until modern times that the gender gap started to emerge.

In the early 20th century, wooden surfboards were long and heavy — measuring 15 feet long and weighing nearly 100 pounds — which prevented many women from taking up the sport.

But by the 1940s and 1950s, Malibu surfers had developed "girl boards," also known as the "Malibu chip." These were made of balsa wood and were easier for women to handle, Warshaw said.

"As soon as these boards were handed out to the girls, the guys started borrowing them and taking them out to surf because they were smaller, lighter and fun to ride," he said. "And all of a sudden the girls couldn't get their boards back because their boyfriends wanted them. Those girl boards became the basis for the first modern surfboards that we have now."

Despite women's role in shaping the sport, professional surfing, which came on the scene in the 1970s, routinely pushed them to the margins.

For example, the 1977 Assn. of Surfing Professionals World Tour featured an event in Australia sponsored by Coca-Cola. Twenty-four men competed for a total prize purse of $16,000, while 12 women competed for $1,600.


Even factoring in the fact that twice as many men competed as women, the women's total prize money was still a fraction of the men's. In addition, the top male finisher received a $6,000 prize, while the top female finisher received $1,000.

Even as recently as 2012, women competed for only about half the prize money that was available for men. In the Rip Curl Pro competition in Australia, 36 men competed for $425,000, while 18 women vied for $110,000.

When I first started surfing 18 years ago, I was usually the only chick in the water, and now I see 20-year-old girls shredding at Huntington Pier.

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Recreational surfing also has a legacy of unfriendliness to women.

"The [Huntington Beach] pier is territorial," Young said. "Some of the guys — and it was usually the younger testosterone guys — would harass me."

In the 1990s the sport began to change with the rising popularity of professional female surfers such as Lisa Anderson and the introduction of women's surfwear companies, particularly Roxy, the sister brand of the Huntington Beach company Quiksilver.

"When I first started surfing 18 years ago, I was usually the only chick in the water, and now I see 20-year-old girls shredding at Huntington Pier," said Kelli Koller, owner of Seventh Wave Surf Shop in Long Beach. "A lot of that has to do with corporate surf. The big brands — Quiksilver, Billabong and Roxy — played a huge part in catering to women and putting women on the scene because they funded contests."

But even as "corporate surf" brought some women into the sport, it excluded many others.

"Roxy is catered to young, skinny, perfect-bodied pretty girls," Koller said. "A lot of the girls who surf are not necessarily that type."

Koller is working to develop a bikini and wetsuit line that will fit more diverse body types.

Advertising also focused on this over-sexualized image of female surfers. A 2013 Roxy commercial generated a firestorm of controversy when it showed a nearly naked — and faceless — world champion Stephanie Gilmore in bed, showering and dressing. But not surfing.

This year the top-ranked Brazilian women's surfer, Silvana Lima, explained her difficulty securing sponsorships, which are crucial to funding professional surfers' travel to international competitions.

"The surfwear brands, when it comes to women, they want both models and surfers," Lima told the BBC in an interview this year. "So if you don't look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which is what happened to me."

But some things are starting to change.

The World Surf League, formerly the Assn. of Surfing Professionals, announced in 2014 that it was implementing a new policy of parity in prize money between men and women.

"This season, the prize purses are $551,000 for the 36-man field and $275,000 for the 18-woman field — $15,305 per surfer for both the men's and women's events," Dave Prodan, vice president of communications for the WSL, said in an email.

Although the top women will not get paid as much as the top men, Prodan explained that it was the women's choice to allocate prize money more evenly, while the men decided to top-load the prize money.

Younger women are also gaining greater access to competition.

Samantha Cendro, a senior at Huntington Beach High School, competed in the National Scholastic Surfing Assn.'s state contest this month and will go to the national competition in June.

"I never felt like I couldn't get into a contest because I was a girl," she said.

Even as Cendro herself represents more women's participation in the sport — in 1987 just three girls were on the team; today there are 25, said her coach, Andrew Verdone — she also sees younger girls becoming increasingly involved in surfing.

"I've noticed even through the seven years I've been surfing that there are more girls, even young girls in elementary school who are going out with their brothers and dads," she said.

Gary Sahagen, president of the Huntington Beach Surf Club, also observes more women surfing now than ever before.

"It's pretty clear that women are here to stay, and they're definitely going to have their spot in the lineup."

Kandil writes for Times Community News.



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