Waves of change

Wisps of her sun-bleached hair tangle themselves over and over as the wind picks up on Trigg beach. The woman from the female surf group Club Shakas faces the ocean and sizes up the oncoming waves. She looks at me with a huge grin and makes a ‘shaka’ sign with her hand, meaning all-good, before she turns and runs into the water.

The surfing industry, once male dominated, is getting better at gender balance. There is a change in attitudes towards female surfers, a decrease in the gender pay-gap in surfing competition prize pools and women are supporting one another to build confidence to hit the waves. Since 2010, younger women have been the fastest growing group of surfers, increasing by 20 per cent. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of Australian women surfing rose from 218,000 to 258,000.

Many things could have contributed to this shift. It could be the World Surf League awarding female and male surfers competing in events the same prize money. It could be because the health and fitness aspects of surfing reflect what is currently popular and appealing to young women. Or it could be that it’s fun and there’s been a cultural shift towards equality over all aspects of the sport.

Trigg Beach filled with female surfers on a busy day with good swell. Photo: Kate Geldart.

The 2021 film Girls Can’t Surf directed by Christopher Nelius showcases how the treatment of female surfers has made leaps and bounds over time. The film focuses on how a group of female surfers in the ’80s and ’90s revolutionised the sport and the associated fashion industry. Girls Can’t Surf editor and co-writer Julie-Anne De Ruvo outlines why she is passionate about women participating in the sport. 

“I had undervalued femininity for a long time.”

Girls Can’t Surf Editor and Co-writer Julie-Anne De Ruvo

Growing up, De Ruvo says she loved bodyboarding and always imagined she would eventually graduate to surfing. On one summer holiday away on the coast of New South Wales, she finally gave surfing a crack and got to the point where she could stand up. When she returned to her hometown Maroubra, a beachside suburb located in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, she faced insecurities towards surfing.

“When I got back home to Sydney, the thought of going out at Maroubra in a lineup of mostly men was so intimidating that I just never bothered even trying, and stuck to bodyboarding,” she says.

De Ruvo says she figured she would be more invisible and less likely to cop harassment as a female bodyboarder, whereas she was acutely aware of how she would be made to feel being a female learning to surf or surfing badly at a break like that. “When Chris contacted me about the film, I felt it would encompass issues I’d faced personally and had something to say about.”

Female surfers face discrimination in the water and in the industry. After hearing the preliminary interviews for the film, De Ruvo says she re-evaluated the whole mindset she had towards surfing and misogyny. De Ruvo says it made her look at how she navigated it in her own life and realised spending years trying to be ‘one of the boys’ in the film industry and her friendship groups, led to developing her own internalised misogyny.

“I had undervalued femininity for a long time.”

When you conjure up an image of a ‘female surfer’, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I’m sure you thought of someone along the lines of blonde, tanned and conventionally attractive. There is still a long way for the industry to go to break down these stereotypes.

De Ruvo says objectification is the main contributor as to why female surfers face sexism in the industry. “The idea that the value of a woman lies in being attractive to men, manifests itself in many ways such as body image issues and homophobia,” she says.

De Ruvo says that assumptions made on a woman’s athletic ability being inferior to that of a man can contribute to what many successful women call impostor syndrome, the idea that they don’t really deserve the success they have as they’ve been made to feel that inferiority in so many ways, they actually believe it.

Impostor syndrome is the psychological experience that women have when they participate in a sport where they are under-represented. This syndrome can occur when a woman doubts her abilities and fears being exposed as a fraud despite evidence showing she is competent and experienced. Measurements of performance are surrounded by anxiety and even depression. When the individual experiences success, they often discredit it.

“A common complaint is that you still see posters outside surf shops of women and men side by side, the man in a wetsuit riding a perfect wave, and the woman in a swimsuit jacked up her bum.”

There are a number of growing organisations created to encourage women to participate in surfing and to support each other in and out of the water. Club Shakas is a Perth-based women’s only surf club, founded in November 2020 by Jahney Smith and Kendall Walter, to bring women together and build a community where they can connect, have fun and learn to surf.

“The confidence is up, the skills are up, and people are making more friends, it’s very rewarding.”

Club Shakas Co-founder Kendall Walter

As I am sitting on Trigg Beach with both Jahney Smith and Kendall Walter, their laughter drowns out the sound of the crashing waves ahead of us. They both smile in a way that doesn’t just reach their mouth, but every part of their face. They watch the other women still surfing from Club Shakas adoringly, cheering any time one of them catches a wave or even stands up on the board. Any small accomplishment counts.

Walter outlines how far the club has come since its beginnings and the progress women have made since joining. “The other morning, we were out there in the water and there were at least 20 plus chicks, and I remembered looking around and thinking I’m proud of us, I’m proud of all these girls, they’re all stepping outside of their comfort zones,” she says. “The confidence is up, the skills are up, and people are making more friends, it’s very rewarding.”

Surfing WA has developed a similar initiative called the Beyond Waves Program. The program was made to break down perceived barriers for women to surf, such as body image, fear of the ocean and not having any experience in surfing but still wanting to give it a go. Surfing WA office and membership manager Katja Verredyt highlights why she believes so many young women are getting into surfing.

“Throughout surfing history both WA and Australia have had many successful female surfers and these days they are more prominent in the community, so they are becoming role models for the next generation,” she says. Verredyt says the SWA Surf School has a large percentage of girls coming through school programs as well as weekend programs, with girls constituting around 55 per cent of the surf school clientele.

Surfing WA also partnered with the Yallingup winery Aravina Estate to create the WA Surf Gallery. The museum is a celebration of surfing history throughout Western Australia and showcases a variety of surfing memorabilia. WA Surf Gallery curator Thea McDonald-Lee says they decided to make a feature of the Western Australian women who pioneered the way in surfing, and opened an ongoing exhibition called Women of the Waves at the end of 2019.

“I think with things like the Girls Can’t Surf movie coming out, it has been really cool to just open up that dialogue again, get the communication going about what some of the issues are and keep moving forward with it,” she says.

“It’s awesome to be a part of and it has been really inspiring, it feels really special to have a place to tell our story.”