Is It Okay If Female Surfers Sexualize Themselves?

I recently re-evaluated my stance on the sexualisation of women in surfing today, exploring the idea that it’s now less brand-driven and more self-perpetuated. Social media is a platform from which surfers can promote themselves to a global audience, but with our modern culture of consumerism and #lifegoals, the unattainable values of the beauty industry are now evident in our beloved sport. Could fighting for athletic respect and equality, whilst self-publishing sexualised social media posts be seen as contradictive? Nicole Grodesky, creator of the delves deeper into the subject and gives her take on whether this use of social media reflects the ethics of the surf feminism movement.

Anya: What is your stance on the sexualization of women in surfing today?

Nicole: Sexualizing women in advertising has proven to have negatively affected a young women’s self-confidence.

This is a loaded question, I have so many thoughts. I always default to Jean Kilbourn and her stance on objectifying women in advertising. It’s a basic concept. Sexualizing/objectifying women in advertising have many effects.

Sexualizing/ Objectifying women in advertising do the following:

  1. Sends a message to women that their economic value in society is based on how sexy they are.
  2. Puts pressure on women to sexualize themselves even when they don’t want to.
  3. Sends a message to men that women are objects to possess, therefore perpetuating a violent rape culture that exists throughout the world.
  4. Objectifying a woman devalues women as human beings. They are considered the second sex and less than a man. Objectifying women pushes the notion that women are “the second sex” and less than men by making them not even human. Examples of this would be the notorious Reef ads.

Anya: Do you think that some female surfers could be perceived as self-sexualising themselves? e.g. On Instagram by sharing bikini shots unrelated to surfing?

Nicole: Yes for sure. It’s different when women are in control and sexualizing themselves vs. not wanting to be sexualized and feeling like they have to do it in order to get sponsors and/or attention, but at the same time, they are taking advantage of the dominant culture norm of toxic masculinity and the patriarchal capitalist society that has developed over the centuries. It’s like an “if you can’t beat em, join em mentality” if you ask me. It’s a slippery slope.

I’m not one to judge a woman and tell her what she should and shouldn’t do, but one should be aware of the ethical and social issues they may inadvertently be enforcing.

Questions a woman should ask herself, am I encouraging men to objectify women? If I am encouraging men to objectify me, am I encouraging rape culture? What type of role model am I for 12-year-old girls?

I’ve heard that at local surf contests young girls are more worried about their Instagram followers and how they look in a bikini vs. their surfing performance. Let’s be real, boys don’t have to worry about this. So there is an obvious double standard here and it’s very superficial in nature.

Things have evolved with the WSL in the last four years. The women are portrayed as strong passionate athletes and are great role models for the next generation of female surfers. There are women on tour that are beautiful and show themselves looking strong and fit in their bathing suit, but not giving in to the pressure of sexualizing themselves.

Anya: Are these images promoting female empowerment, or could they confuse the message of Surf Feminism?

Nicole: There are many layers to feminism and not all feminist will agree on this issue. The third wave movement supports sex workers saying that if a woman wants to be a prostitute or a stripper then she should not be controlled and should be allowed to do that for a living.

This concept follows the notion that women are colonized by men. Everything about a woman is controlled by men. What they wear, how they do their hair, shave their legs, shave their vagina, where they work, what color they should wear, what toys they should play with, etc. So telling a woman that she should not pose in a bikini to gain follows and money, is another annoying way society controls women.

For me, I’m in the middle. I’ll say that I don’t think we should tell a woman what she should and should not do for a living, so I support that. But my opinion is that sex work is a by-product of women historically not being encouraged to participate in capitalism. For example, not too long ago women were not allowed to attend college, and when they were finally allowed, they were encouraged to get degrees around things like homemaking or child care, not science or engineering. I could go on and on about the struggles that women have faced in the workplace with sexual harassment and lower wages.

The moral story is that women haven’t and still don’t have the same experience as men in participating in the economy.

So to answer your question, it’s a little bit of both. But until everyone, men and women, understand the history behind social economics and how women are treated in the workplace and education in the past and now, it will be in the middle. The goal is to educate people so they understand why women sexualize themselves, why it’s empowering and also why it’s not empowering at the same time because of the history of how women were not allowed to participate in capitalism, government, etc.

Anya: Do you think sexualizing images shared by surfers themselves, affect audiences’ perception of that surfer’s athletic ability?

Nicole: It definitely separates it. There is a quote in an article by Holly Isemonger where after a woman shredded a wave some men were overheard saying “Imagine her doing that in a bikini.” So yeah, sexualizing women perpetuates toxic masculinity. I’m not a man, but I’m gay and I don’t look at women that way. I’m not pressured to enforce my masculinity or sexuality. That’s essentially what men are doing when they say those things. They are reinforcing to each other that they are masculine, dominant, and straight. I find it sexy when a woman is strong and athletic regardless of what she’s wearing. I personally don’t like it when women sexualize themselves. It’s a turn off for me and makes me uncomfortable.

So it depends on the audience. Is it hyper-heterosexual machismo men? Then yes it affects their perception.

Is it a lesbian surfer like me? Then no it doesn’t affect my perception. I’m looking for power, speed, and flow. I’m looking at how critical the turns are. I’m judging the size of the wave and whether she pulls into the barrel and makes it out.

The theme here is that it’s not a woman’s fault, it’s the culture of toxic masculinity.

Anya: What influence do you think the beauty industry is having on surfing and is the effect healthy for the sport? 

Nicole: This is a loaded question too!  I LOVE your questions! The beauty industry does not have a positive effect on anything and was born out of patriarchy and persists as long as patriarchy exists. If any industry influences surfing the most, I think it’s the porn industry. This all goes back to how men colonize women on how they should look and whether or not they are sexually attractive to men. Women have been socially constructed by men. Gender is socially constructed. Men are victims as much as women, and they’re starting to realize it through feminism. There are many men that still don’t want to change for fear of giving up their privilege, but there are also brave men that are ready to get out of their “man box.”  At the same time, there are women not wanting to give up the opportunity to take advantage of their privileges in the current state and structure of various industries such as the beauty and porn industry. Raising awareness by keeping these discussions going and peeling back the layers will help everyone understand why feminism is important not only for women but society as a whole.


Anya Gilbert
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Anya Gilbert

Anya Gilbert is a freelance Sports Journalist and Content Writer specializing in the surf industry, based in Cornwall, UK. She’s currently writes for publications including Wavelength Surfing Magazine.