He'enalu. Fa'ase'e. Se'egalu. Surfing.
When you think of surf's history, do you picture girls as part of it?
Surfing has existed for over 1,500 years and has almost always included girls. It has also been a harbinger of change, opening doors to girls and women worldwide as it spread from its ancient Polynesian roots to the competitive sport it is today.
Journey with us through surf culture — from ancient times to today — to discover the story behind the legend. We’ll look at the challenges faced, the gear, the guts, the glory, and how modern surfer girls are changing our world. Girl Museum presents, Surfer Girl.
Surfing began in Polynesia and Hawaii, as early as the 3rd or 4th century CE. Polynesia means 'many islands' and refers to over a thousand islands across the central and south Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Aotearoa (New Zealand). The hierarchical culture of many Polynesian societies dictated that the ruling class had the best beaches and boards, but commoners could gain prestige by their ability to ride the surf. Surfing was a sport where anyone could succeed.
Hawaii was where the first real surf culture developed. All members of society participated, and Hawaiians had as many names for the types of waves and breakers as Eskimos have for snow. In Hawaii, surfer girls were called “wahine” and were equal to men in the sport.
A major part of why women were allotted a place in surf culture came from Hawaiian mythology and history. Dr. Ian Masterson’s essay, Heʻe Wahine I Ka Lani: Goddess in the Surf, explores the place that these mythological and legendary female surfers hold in Hawaiian culture.
Anuhea K. Jumawan, a student from Windward Community College in Hawaii, explores the mythology and history of surf culture in her video below:
As Jumawan stated in her video, the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s changed surf culture forever. Descriptions by sailors and explorers opened the Western world to surf culture. Yet European arrival also brought diseases, a new religion, and traditions that changed Hawaiian culture and, with it, gender norms. Within 100 years after the first Europeans visited Hawaii, the population had significantly declined and surf culture had disintegrated.
Yet the Western world also took an interest in surfing. By the early 1900s, surfing was part of American popular culture. Led by the surf clubs established by Duke Kahanamoku and Henry Ford, surfing returned to its roots with shorter boards and simpler riding techniques -- and excluded females. Surfing was now a men’s sport. Though women began surfing again as early as the 1920s, the sport was segregated and women were kept out of the spotlight for most of the twentieth century.
However, it has since come to light that some figures, well known for other famous feats, were also into this niche sport. One female surfer was Britain's most famous crime writer, Agatha Christie, who learnt the sport during the First World War in South Africa. As she stated in her diary and letters to her mother, "Oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seemed to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves."
It wasn't until the Boom Culture of the 1950s and 1960s that interest in women's surfing increased. Yet being a “surfer girl” was restricted to the image of Gidget, from the 1958 film, and from surfer music like that performed by The Beach Boys. Gidget and other films of the era featured surfer girls who adhered to gender norms: their adventures focused more on their romances with boys than on their achievements as surfers, and they were still expected to eventually become wives and mothers. This image was perpetuated into the twenty-first century, with films such as Blue Crush and novels such as the Luna Bay series. Though some of these featured surfer girls who became professional or competitive surfers, the girls continued to be oddities in a male-dominated sport and their stories filled with romance.
Yet surf culture did embrace professional and non-professional surfer girls. In 1963, Linda Benson became the first woman to surf Waimea Bay at the age of 15. Four years later, the Western Surfing Association’s new AAAA division included four women: Joyce Hoffman, Joey Hamasaki, Margo Godfrey-Oberg, and Cathy Lienherd. In 1968, 15-year-old Margo Godfrey-Oberg won the World Title; she would win the title again in 1977, 1980, and 1981 before becoming a surf instructor in Hawaii.
As Rebecca Olive noted in her study, Imagining Surfer Girls: The Production of Australian Surfing Histories:
"...I see Australian surfer girls visible in many artefacts from the surfing past. I see them in the iconic 1966 film Endless Summer. There are Australian girls surfing in bikinis and flirting with the boys. I see girls in the extra footage in the documentary about Australian surf history, Bombora, which was released in 2010. I see them in the background of photos of the travelling male surfers of the 1960s and 70s. I read about them as wives and girlfriends in letters the now well-known men shared during that period. I see them in the personal photos that women show me on occasion. I hear about them in the stories that men and women tell me of their youth surfing along the east coast of Australia."
Yet these women also faced social pressures to become quintessential wives and mothers. One such woman was Mimi Munro, who describes her experiences in this interview with Will Lucas:
Girls around the world have found that surfing is their culture, their sport, their key to empowerment and happiness. It may also be the key to cultural change. Ishita Malaviya, India’s first female surfer, and Darci Liu, China’s first female competitive surfer, are just two girls who are questioning cultural norms and helping to introduce a new generation of girls to the power of surfing.
But this doesn’t mean that girls face any less hardship in surfing. Rebecca Olive discusses how the way girls are represented impacts what we think of surfer girls today in her study of Australian surf culture, Imaginging Surfer Girls: The Production of Australian Surfing Histories. In it, she calls for us to remember surfer girls of the past in order to inspire surfer girls in the present:
"Excluding girls from how we remember the surfing past means that girls continue to be left out of the ways we represent and imagine surfing today. From my experiences with surf media, many people just don’t think of including young women in their publications, which has ongoing impacts on whether or how women are able to be included as surfers and in surfing culture. It limits the potential participation of girls, by making it harder for them to imagine doing so."
Surfer girls of today don’t just battle enormous ocean waves, all around the world these girls also have cultural expectations, stereotypes, and pressures from their own environments to grapple with. Every day is a challenge.
Cori Schumacher has been surfing competitively since she was 8 years old. Since then, she has won multiple shortboarding and longboarding titles. Besides her impressive prowess as a surfer, Cori has also gained acclaim for her activism for women in surfing against negative media stereotypes. While the reigning 2010 Women's World Longboard Surfing Champion, Cori chose to boycott the 2011 World Tour on moral grounds, because one of the events was held in China, a country that is guilty of human rights violations, particularly against women.
Kadiatu "KK" Kamara
Kadiatu, or KK, is the only female surfer in Sierra Leone. Born into civil war and a survivor of the Ebola epidemic, KK's love of the waves has kept her going since her father's death in 2014:
"Surfing always makes me happy. It always makes me forget about my problems at home."
KK is a student, supporting her family by making hats and bags to sell to tourists. She surfs in the early mornings and evenings, and is now the star of A Million Waves, a documentary short by Daniel Ali and Louis Leeson who wanted to tell her story. View the trailer for the film in the video on the right.
Yasnyiar Bonne Gea
Born in 1982, Bonne is an Indonesian surfer who has been crowned the Indonesian women's champion five times (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012) and Asian Champion in 2011 and 2014. She is featured in the documentary Nias - Point of Change, which explores her home island and how Bonne broke social and traditional taboos in order to pursue surfing and eventually become sponsored by Billabong. View the film's trailer at left.
FLUX is a documentary essay that examines sexism in a modern surf culture where “female surfers are portrayed not as athletes, but as objectified, beautiful bodies.” Alongside this, the documentary displays how both girls and women can be affected when they don’t fit into the tall, slim, blonde, heterosexual and beautiful category and highlights how 95% of us do not fit into these categories and the documentary yearns towards a more diverse media representation.
The film was made by Chapman University’s Sarah Lee, Chad King and Mia Montanile for Project W.
According to the filmmakers, “As talent becomes an accessory to beauty, the sexualization of women in surf media creates damaging effects for women surfers everywhere.”
Into the Sea
Into the Sea is a documentary about how three young women - Irish pro surfer Easkey, Iranian pro snowboarder Mona, and Iranian diver Shalha - are introducing surfing to Iran. The girls use their passion and belief in the power of sport to break down social and cultural barriers in Iran, demonstrating how surfing was accepted and practiced by the local Baluchi community in the remote southeast. View the trailer for Into the Sea in the video on the left.
Their success in Baluchi led to the formation of Waves of Freedom, a non-profit organization that uses surfing to break down gender boundaries and create strong female role models in the sport who are forces of communal change. Their work has also attracted surfing tourism to the country, helping encourage positive engagement with local culture and community.
Surfing gear is more than a simple board. It incorporates technology, sustainability, innovation, and sometimes multiple generations of surfers.
“Surf Betty” is a brand of boards designed by NSP for girls and women to surf. Essentially the main differences between these boards and normal boards are the size, which has been made more ideal for women by generally being short and thinner and have more stereotypical female based patterns. Whilst they are heavily genderised, the importance of having boards suited for women riders, particularly beginner surfers, is crucial and it helps to invite girls into the water.
Sustainability and Surfing
In the Spanish region of Murcia, the brother and sister team of Angel and Gloria Rodriguez Arnal formed richpeoplethings, a company that makes surfboards from recycled wine corks. Their mission “is to create value-added products from raw material that would otherwise be value-less waste. Connecting the corks is our current project and goal; we want to collaborate with social organizations that use surf as a tool with kids, as a therapy, or to help people who just need to smile.”
Team: The Grover Family
Gear doesn't include just the material parts of surfing. It's also important for surfer girls to have a supportive team, and most often that comes from their families and fellow surfers.
1964, Linda Baron (Grover) was first introduced to surfing when her Dad, Gean, took her to The Daytona Beach Surf Shop to buy her first board. Linda went on to be a successful competitive surfer for the Daytona Surf Shop. Linda’s experience with surf gear included working with Disney to test a wave machine that was designed to go in front of their Polynesian Hotel in Orlando, FL.
Linda and her husband Dave, now in their 60s, continue to be active surfers. A phone call from Linda to their daughter April, a professional surfer, led to April appearing in the MTV series Surfer Girls.
There are many risks associated with an extreme sport like surfing and with the ocean. From fear of sharks, to injury, to chilly waters, to cultural aversion to the ocean and swimming, brave surfer girls overcome so much to promote the sport they love to others, and doing it safely. As surfer girl Michelle Sommers cautions,
“Surfing isn’t just about riding a wave; it’s about safety, etiquette, proper board and wave selection, weather and swell conditions, and other important factors that you should be aware of.”
Surf Instructor Michelle Sommers did not begin surfing until her late 20s. After many of her female friends had approached her for surf lessons, Somers saw the need for a female instructor to work with other women one-on-one to overcome their surfing fears,
“I understand the intimidation that most women have when it comes to learning to surf. Learning the basics about safety, etiquette and how to surf builds confidence, which then allows the person to enjoy the learning process instead of becoming frustrated. I hear many excuses from people about their hesitation to learn to surf, most are based on fear.”
Michelle has been honored as a Featured Athlete for Athleta in January 2011 and serves as the Executive Director for the Eastern Surfing Association.
Fears of Surfing
I’m always amazed at the fears that people have when it comes to surfing. There are risks associated with surfing, and simply being in the ocean, but many are minimal. In any sport, you need to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks, and if the end result is worth it. Once you ride your first wave, you will agree that when it comes to surfing, it’s definitely worth it!
I understand the intimidation that most women have when it comes to learning to surf. Learning the basics about safety, etiquette and how to surf builds confidence, which then allows the person to enjoy the learning process instead of becoming frustrated. I hear many excuses from people about their hesitation to learn to surf, most are based on fear. Use the arrow to the right to explore eight of the common ones.
1. “What about the sharks?”
There are definitely sharks in the ocean. After all, it is where they live. Think about the fact that we are going into their environment. Sharks do not hunt us as prey, and most shark bites actually are a result of mistaken identity by the shark. To them, we may look like a tasty seal or other aquatic animal. They are not waiting in the shadows for us to paddle out just so they can get a tasty lunch. Sharks mind their own business and try to stay as far away from humans as possible. I have actually seen a few and felt some bump into me while standing in the water but they always rapidly swim away. Some people are so fearful that they will not go into the ocean at all. They are missing out on all the fun and pleasure the sea has to offer. Just as in our everyday lives, you must face your fears in order to overcome them to progress in life.
2. “I’m too old, too overweight or too out-of-shape.”
Surfing is a very physical sport, but you should never say you “can’t” do it. My grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Can’t means you don’t want to!” I’ve given lessons to many women who are in their 60s! If you want to learn to surf, begin training for it now by getting yourself in surfing shape. You need to focus on upper and lower body strength and endurance, as well as core-training. Just like training for any other sport, if you begin to see the results, you will stay motivated. Soon you will be paddling faster, popping up quicker, and riding the waves longer. Some of the best bodies I’ve seen are shaped by surfing on a regular basis! You do have to work hard for things that you really want out of life.
3. “Surfing is too dangerous.”
Surfing can be dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing or are out in conditions that you should not be. Make sure you take several lessons with a competent and knowledgeable surf instructor. Surfing isn’t just about riding a wave; it’s about safety, etiquette, proper board and wave selection, weather and swell conditions, and other important factors that you should be aware of. Never paddle out in conditions that are too big for you, and know what you are capable of. As a beginner, riding a small, knee-high wave is just as much fun for you as a head-high wave is for a more experienced surfer. Remember, you don’t have to prove anything. It’s all about having fun and enjoying the ocean. Being prepared is essential for everything that you do.
4. “Falling is going to hurt!”
Every surfer wipes out (falls). As a beginner, it will happen many times. Luckily, water is very forgiving. Sometimes you may feel like you are inside a washing machine but if you know how to relax and not try to fight it, you will be fine. If you’ve taken surf lessons, you will know how to protect yourself when you do fall to avoid injuries. The more confident you become will allow you to change your mindset from “Oh no!” to “Okay, here we go!” and your wipeouts will not be as intimidating. Learning to expect the falls, and the many bumps and bruises, will allow you to not be as fearful of them. It’s about how you deal with these falls!
5. “Surfing is too difficult to learn.”
Good surfers make it look easy, don’t they? The truth is, surfing has a very high learning curve but that shouldn’t intimidate you. There is usually a lot of frustration when people are learning to surf but you need to understand that it is a progressive sport. This means that you begin with the basics and once you master each new thing, you move on to the next. The biggest mistake that people make is that they go out in the wrong conditions with the wrong board. If you have the right-size board for your paddling ability, go in the right conditions and take a lesson or two, you will have so much fun trying. You will quickly realize that paddling through whitewater, catching your own waves, and getting to your feet takes a lot of endurance, patience and practice. Don’t expect to be the next pro surfer after your first lesson, but if you train hard, get in the water regularly and have fun, I promise you will be thankful that you ignored your fears and went for it! And when you catch that perfect wave — and ride it all the way in, you will turn around and go right back for more! Knowing what to expect is important so you do not become easily frustrated. Every time you paddle out, you will improve, even it’s just becoming more stable on the board. If you see results, you will hopefully keep pursuing to become better.
6. “I’m going to look silly.”
Of course you are going to look like a beginner when you paddle out the first few times. You have to remember that every surfer you see was a beginner at one point and they didn’t look so great! The important thing for you is to gain the knowledge through several lessons, or with experienced surfers. This will give you the confidence so that even if you’re not riding a bunch of waves, you will look like you know what you’re doing and gain respect from others. I always tell my students to focus on the basics and worry about your surfing style or gracefulness later! You are going to be a beginner at many things throughout your life. Don’t let the fear of looking silly stop you from doing what you really want to do – traveling, pursuing a new sport, going in a different career path, etc.
7. “I can’t see the bottom to know what’s in the water.”
Many places that you will surf, especially along the East Coast of the US, will not allow you to see straight to the bottom of the ocean. Just like I mentioned about sharks, we are venturing into an environment filled with living creatures that do not want to be messed with. Fish will swim away from you, crabs will scurry in the other direction and even jellyfish will wish that they can move on their own in order to stay clear of you. There are definitely dangers in the ocean, especially if you’re surfing over reef. You have to be aware that sea urchins sting, little fish can bite and rocks can cause injury. The key is to know your surroundings and plan accordingly. This comes with local knowledge of a surf break that you will develop if you surf there regularly. If it’s a new area to you, ask a lifeguard or take a surf lesson with a local. There will always be unknowns in your life but these are the things that make living exciting!
8. “I’m afraid of the waves.”
Ocean waves breaking can be very intimidating but in order to be a surfer, you must face this fear to get over it. You should be comfortable in the ocean and a strong swimmer before you decide to surf. Your confidence in the waves will build as you progress with the sport. Taking a lesson should include the basics as far as handling yourself in the waves, and how to do this with a surfboard. Beginning your surfing experience in smaller waves will help you get more comfortable. One mistake beginners make is attempting to paddle out in waves that are too big for them to handle. The ocean is always moving since there are currents, whitewater and waves, and you must be able to deal with all of it in order to become a proficient surfer. Deal with your fear by using common sense. When in doubt, don’t paddle out. There should always be a healthy fear and respect of the ocean as it can change in a second. If conditions become too much for you while you are in the water, simply paddle yourself to shore. The worst thing you can do is be in a situation that is puts you and others at risk. Always listen to your instincts as they tend to be right most of the time.
- Braving Icy Waters
- Challenging Cultural Fear
- Chasing the Big Ones
- Surfing through the Snow
- Overcoming Trauma
Some girls however appear fearless and continue to push not only their own boundaries but the boundaries of surfing, pursuing waves so big many professional surfers wouldn’t go near. One such surfer girl is Maria "Tita" Tavares.
Born in 1975, Maria began surfing at the age of five, using a finless surfboard made from a discarded wooden door. She began competing just three years later. By the age of 19, Maria was named the Pan American amateur champion. She become a full-time professional surfer at the age of 21, and was named Rookie of the Year in 1999. Maria is often mentioned as the first female to regularly complete aerial maneuvers.
Mary Horrell: Against All Odds
This is a tale of how a 19 year old girl finds herself surfing in Wales in the snow.
I was born and bred in a thoroughly landlocked location in England, and at 18 moved to a university which was somehow even more landlocked. However, before I put pen to paper and officially signed up to University, I had actually signed my heart and soul away to a sports club, unknowing of the change it would make to my life: the surf club.
The idea that I might enjoy surfing had begun many years ago on my sunny (sometimes) summer holidays to Cornwall, where I would spend near endless days body boarding with my dad and sisters. It was something I always loved doing: the power of the ocean, the salty hair, the way that as soon as I got out of the water I wanted to get straight back in. So when a cool looking girl with a surf board asked me if I’d like to join the club and finally learn to surf, I of course said yes, picturing myself bleached blonde, tanned and hanging ten in now time.
Fast forward a month, and I found myself on a surf trip actually attempting to surf and finding the power of the ocean just a little too strong. The salty hair in my face was very annoying and instead I yearned to go back in, lying straight on the beach shattered after, nose dripping with snot. It was safe to say my first attempt at surfing was a disaster.
The friendships I made on that very first trip, however, were not and this was what in turn persuaded me to go on the next surf trip, in November. It was here where I had my first bit of success. I had managed to time the wave with my paddling and wobbling whilst getting to my knees and then to my surprise my legs. Woosh. The rush of air against my face as I moved with the wave. The feel of… oh no I’d already fallen off, but that first feeling of the wave catching my board and pulling me towards the shore, that was enough to keep me surfing through thick and thin.
Through the times when every wave is breaking on you no matter where you position yourself, and through nose dives, the sand in all kinds of places it shouldn’t be, I have been convinced (by my equally mad friends) that surfing in January, where there is snow forecast, is a great idea and always will be. I feel it will always be, as long as I have a good wetsuit, a board, my friends, and a little bit of surf.
Andrea Kabwasa learned to surf at the age of 32. She had recently left an abusive relationship, and found that surfing provided a form of therapy she could find no where else. As Andrea stated in an interview with Liquid Salt magazine:
“Surfing saved my life…. When I discovered surfing, I was trying to recover from the psychological effects and residue of an abusive relationship. Surfing gave me joy and happiness when I hadn’t felt happiness in years. So, for me, surfing is happiness, love and self-empowerment. The act of interacting with water cleansed my inner spirit. Before surfing, the lens from which I viewed life was pretty dirty. I was filled with low self-worth and, at times, I made some pretty self-destructive choices. Surfing redirected that energy in a positive direction. When I surf, I feel beautiful. I’m a starting to feel beautiful on dry land too now.”
Andrea now uses surfing as an inspiration for her art, as shown in the video below:
There are a wide variety of competitions for a surfer girl to participate in, both on the national level in many countries as well as internationally. Some have well-known corporate sponsors, such as Billabong, O’Neill, and Roxy Quicksilver, others are held by surfing organizations. Competitions can take a surfer girl around the world, and lead to acclaim, prize money, and valuable sponsorships.
For example, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) is the governing body for professional surfers and is dedicated to showcasing the world’s best talent in a variety of progressive formats.
Every year, the ASP hosts the Ford Supergirl Pro, the largest female surfing competition in the world and the only ASP 6-Star Prime Women's contest in North America. Below are the highlights from the 2013 Ford Supergirl Pro.
For more videos of incredible surfer girls and competitions, check out our YouTube playlist for Surfer Girl.
Modern Surfer Girls
Today, surfer girls are incredible inspirations whose passion for this centuries-old sport shines in all they do. The surfer girls in this section represent some of the diversity of surfer girls all over the world. They surf for fun and empowerment. They are professionals and ambassadors for their beliefs and non-profit organizations that aim to make the world a better place through surfing. They are also explorers and teachers, whose passions are an inspiration to all whom they meet.
- Wahine Project
- Mercedes Maidana
- Mira Manickam
- Bethany Hamilton
- Anali Gomez
- Lisbeth Vindas Diaz
- Diah Rahayu
The Wahine Project is girls-only, nonprofit educational program for girls between the ages of 7 to 17 that aims to eliminate the barriers to girls in surfing and help girls learn skills that will empower them to be responsible global citizens. Girls are given surfing lessons and excursions, lectures and field trips, and ocean recreation activities that awaken them to their own potential. The girls are also taught ocean conservation, physical conditioning, and responsible citizenship. In doing so, the Wahine Project helps girls use skills learned in the ocean to overcome everyday challenges and achieve their fullest healthiest life.
Mercedes is a Motivational Speaker, Business and Abundance Life Coach and Patagonia Surf Ambassador. She is a three-time consecutive finalist at the XXL Billabong Big Wave Awards, nominated as one of the top three female big wave surfers in the world (2009/2010/2011).
Through her work as a coach, Mercedes guides women to go for their dreams and take action steps to live life to their highest potential. Mercedes is based in Hawaii, and travels the world surfing while inspiring others to follow their dreams through her motivational talks and writing. She is currently working on her first book, a guide to manifest our dream life.
In this talk from 2012, Mercedes talks about how she manifested her dream of getting sponsored by Patagonia to travel the world surfing and her current work as a motivational coach:
For more info about Mercedes and her work please visit her website at mercedesmaidana.com
Mira Manickam is a self-described “surf ninja hip hop adventurer.” She is an athlete, rock climber, artist, and environmental educator. In 2012 and 2013, Mira travelled up the coast of Brazil on a solo girl surf safari, documenting her journey through her blog, surfergrrrls.com, and original hip hop videos celebrating the music and surf culture of Brazil. Below, Mira shares with us the story of how she became a surfer girl.
As a little girl in New Jersey, I loved summer trips to the shore. I bodysurfed in the tumbling shorebreaks till the sun went down, and as I sat in the backseat of my parent’s car travelling the hour and half back home, sunburnt and exhausted, I dreamed of one day living right next to the ocean. My dreams came true when I moved to Northern California just five minutes from Rodeo beach, a gorgeous wild patch of ocean and cliff just a few minutes north of the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco. But the tumultuous rocky Rodeo Beach did not match my childhood fantasy of gentle New Jersey waves. The wind was chilly, the water was cold and rough, and very few people actually got in it. It didn’t take long to figure out that if I wanted to enjoy this majestic ocean on my doorstep, I was going to have to do what the locals did – and learn to surf.
Some people say that Rodeo Beach, or “Cronkite” as the surfers call it, is not a good place to learn due to the steep quick nature of the waves. But Cronkite was my home break, and convenience dictated that if I learned anywhere, I would have to learn here. So my third week in California I bought a good wetsuit and a used surfboard for 40 bucks. At first, I just paddled out every day after work to get my butt kicked in waves I didn’t understand. But every time I got out in the ocean, I would understand it a little better, and every now and then I would manage to stand up and catch something. About four months into it, I rode my first perfect left all the way down the line. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve broken boards, ripped wetsuits, gotten stitches, charged a lot of waves, got beaten up pretty badly by the ocean, and also hit some amazing moments speeding down stretches of unbroken green water on perfect shoulders. I’m proud for getting out there and learning mostly on my own, and earning my stripes in a male-dominated sport at a male-dominated break.
I didn’t have to surf long to notice that the mainstream surf media – the big surf magazines and the big surf company ads on tv and the internet -- portrayed female surfers in a very different way than how I viewed myself. Women surfers were portrayed as sex objects rather than athletes. Butt shots of skinny blonde girls in bikini’s outnumbered photos of women ripping waves and looking strong. I also noticed that there were NO images anywhere of brown girls like me. I know there are brown girls who surf – in fact, the world’s very first female surfers were brown women from Polynesia – but you would never know it from the surf media. All in all, mainstream surf media left me feeling alienated and unwelcome.
I wanted to create my own surf story, true to my 6-foot tall, loud-talking, half-Indian, nerdy-athletic, hip hop adventurer self. And I wanted to inspire other girls and women to live their own stories, whatever they may be.
So in the summer of 2012, I embarked on a surf journey of my own design. For years, I’ve wanted to go to Brazil, a country with a beautiful language, some of our earth’s most precious natural resources, and a musical tradition that had long inspired me. Brazil also has a huge surf culture, many high quality surf breaks, and is home to some of the best female surfers in the world. It was my time to dream big, and with the help of a generous award in honor of the late Yosemite adventurer Matt Baxter, and many crowd-funding supporters who believed in my vision, I embarked on a solo girl surf safari up the coast of Brazil. I am a rapper, writer, and musician, and I planned to document my journey through a blog and original hip hop videos, that I would make in collaboration with local musicians I met along the way. My goals, in addition to surfing my heart out and learning to samba dance, were to create new media that would celebrate the strength and diversity of women and girl surfers. I named my project Surfer Grrrls Brazil.
This video explains the inspiration for my journey:
This adventure was a big leap of faith. I had never done anything like this before, and many of my friends thought I was a little crazy. I did not know anyone where I was going, and my plans were not very detailed. I wanted to play it by ear, make friends on the journey, and see where the universe took me. I only knew that I would start in the surf island of Florianopolis in the South of Brazil, then move north to Rio and then Salvador.
My first gift from the universe came three days before I left on my journey. I still had no idea where I was going to stay when I arrived in Florianopolis (or Floripa) as the locals called it. But as I was packing, a chance encounter with an old friend put me in touch with a professor of feminist literature at the University in Floripa. A few emails were exchanged and in 24 hours, without knowing a thing about me, she offered to house me for as long as I wanted! This generosity was just a precursor to what I would experience when I landed in Brazil.
I stayed based in Floripa for a couple months. My friend Miho was supposed to join me on this leg of my journey, but a shoulder injury and a sickness in her family prevented her from coming, so I was on my own.
I spent my days exploring the beautiful island, bumbling around on the tectonically slow local bus system, crashing through jungle paths, biking up and down hills, all with my surfboard in tow, looking for surf breaks. In Floripa, I was still learning many things: how to speak Portuguese, how to play Brazilian music, how to make beats on my computer. I was still even learning how to surf on a shortboard! Luckily I made lots of grrrl surfer and musician friends and who helped me out. With my new surfer grrrl friends Aloha and Marina, I went to the first ever all girls surf contest in Brazil and met female surfers from around the country.
I was so inspired that I decided to join forces with my new skater friend Dani, to write a English-Portuguese rap celebrating fierce surfer and skater grrrls, which we recorded with a group of local musicians and poets.
After Floripa, I headed north to Rio de Janeiro, a beautiful city built among rainforest-covered mountains, lined with crystal sand beaches on the edge of the sea. I stayed in Rocinha, the largest favela in South America. For many decades Rio’s favelas, were known as neighborhoods of great poverty and brutal living conditions. Many favelas were contested areas where drug lords and police fought each other, and regular citizens were often caught in the crossfire. Today, while poverty, organized crime, and police brutality still present great dangers, the people of the favelas are transforming their neighborhoods into safer and stronger communities, while the rich street arts culture for which the favelas are also known, continues to thrive.
One transformative project is the Rocinha Surfe Escola – A surf school where local kids come for free lessons, and where they can fix up old boards and then keep them. I spent most of my time in Rio hanging out with the tight knit community of kids at this surf school, helping them with their English, making music with them in the evening, and acting as an informal “surf supervisor.” Only a few brave girls surfed in Rocinha, where social barriers against girls surfing seemed a bit stronger than in Floripa. I felt extra inspired to go out every day there, so I could be a role model.
My final stop in Brazil was Salvador and the coast of Bahia. In Bahia, African traditions are strongly preserved in the music, culture, and food of the region, including in the pumping, electric music of Samba Reggae – a rhythmic style played by huge drum orchestras on the street. One evening, after a great surf session, I was walking through the cobblestone streets of old Salvador, the capital of Bahia, when I heard an amazing drum beat coming from a few blocks away. I rushed towards the big full sound, which I guessed was coming from a huge drum orchestra practicing Samba Reggae in preparation for carnival.
When I rounded the corner, I found to my surprise, that this super-rhythmic make-you-start-dancing-whether-you-like-it-or-not beat was being produced by a drum orchestra of young girls! And they were rocking it!! Everyone in the street was dancing as the girls smiled and swayed back and forth to the rhythm. I knew then and there that I had to sample their beat for my next surf rap. At the same time, I was living in a very musical neighborhood, where every day a little girl would sit on the porch and practice playing and singing different rhythms while beating on a Tupperware lid. I admired her dedication, and it reminded me of the way I went out every day to surf, on big days, small days, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. I wrote this song inspired by the surfer and drummer girls of Bahia!
To read the lyrics or download any of these songs or videos, visit
my Bandcamp site.
Learn more about my adventure at www.surfergrrrls.com
Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer, a motivational speaker and an author who turned what could of been the end of her dreams into a positive movement. Many thought her dreams of being a professional surfer would never come to fruition after she was attacked by a tiger shark at the age of 13, leaving her without her left arm. But just one month later she was back in the water and has since won several surf competitions.
She has her own charity, “Friends of Bethany”, which helps young people who are missing a limb feel positive and able again. She wrote her autobiography Soul Surfer, which after much acclaim was turned into a movie in 2011. Bethany continues to inspire many people with her words as well as her surfing skills.
In the video below, Bethany joins fellow amputee Alyssa Cleland to share some surfing inspiration. Video courtesy of the Surf Channel Television Network.
Anali Gomez is a female Peruvian surfer, whose nickname is "La Negra." Born to a fisherman in southern Lima, Anali is now a competitive surfing star who won the Latin American surfing championship and became the first-ever Peruvian to be a world runner-up in the youth category. She was crowned ISA world champion in 2014 and won gold at the 2015 Pan American Surfing Games.
Besides being a surf star, Anali actively calls out the racism she has experience during her career. Despite her triumphs in the surfing world, Anali told the press:
"Unfortunately, I have no sponsors, I can't get out [of Peru]. That's how it is, it's still a bit racist [here]. In surfing, brands support the blondes, [choose them] for covers."
Anali also dedicates her time to helping underprivileged children and youth practice surfing.
A native of Costa Rica, Lisbeth Vindas Diaz is ranked the #1 professional surfer in her home country. She's been surfing for over 18 years, beginning when she was 15 years old and borrowed a surfboard from a friend. She's become an inspiration to female surfers in Costa Rica, and has helped bring Costa Rican surfers to the international stage. In an interview with Puravida Boardgear, she stated,
"I'm very proud to be one of the first surfers in Jacó. I am seeing the results of everything I've worked for. It's not something I deserve, it's something I've earned. I worked for it and I'm still here working hard and still have a lot of passion. I want to do really good things for the sport. I hope this sport keeps growing and we get more world champions. :)"
Diah Rahayu is Bali's only native female professional surfer. She started surfing at the age of 14, and is now sponsored by Rip Curl. Check out her awesome moves in the video below, and be sure to follow her on Instagram.
Making an Impact
Surfer girls in the past and present show us that surfing is more than hobby or sport. Surfing is a gateway to empowerment and actions that will help create a better world for everyone.
There are several projects that focus on how surfer girls can make an impact. These range from Brown Girl Surf raising awareness about trailblazing surfer girls around the world to A Liquid Future and Surfrider Spirit Sessions, who provide programs that empower and educate youth through surfing.
Brown Girl Surf is dedicated to raising awareness of trailblazing female surfers and to connect them with resources and support so they can continue making waves of change in their communities. It “envisions a world in which female surfers are connected, collaborative, and engaged in using surfing as a force for personal empowerment and positive social change.”
A Liquid Future is a non-profit that provides free educational programs, surfing lessons, and environmental awareness to the communities of Southern Sipora Island, Mentawais, Indonesia. It was created in response to locals desires for their region’s growth after the arrival of land-based surf tourism in the region. They work with the Mentawai Government to enable locals to benefit from surf tourism and the changes it has brought. Their projects include providing English classes to locals five days a week, enabling the locals to engage in conversation with tourists, as well as swimming and surf classes.
Surfrider Spirit Sessions matches at-risk youth in Hawaii with volunteer surf mentors, using surfing as a metaphor for how youth can live better lives. They provide ocean-based experiential education and mentoring while teaching ocean awareness, environmental sensitivity, and Hawaiian culture. As they state, “Surfing is a metaphor for life. Waves come and go - We learn to respond with courage, balance, and joy.”
Imani Wilmot is Jamaica's "Daughter of Surfing." She started surfing at the age of 9, learning from her father, and went on to become the first Jamaican female to win the Makka Pro International Surfing Championships.
In the July 2011 issue of Teen Spirit E-zine , Imani said, “ to me, being a surfer is a privilege. It really doesn’t matter if you are male or female ‘cause everyone has their own unique experiences with the sport. The only thing I wish, is that there were more girls participating in the sport.”
To help encourage more girls to surf, Imani formed Surf Girls Jamaica, an all-girl surf club, and Surf Like a Girl Summer Camp, in which she teaches girls to surf and holds local competitions.
The Freedom to be Me
“Surfer girls to me, are naturally beautiful, daring and confident individuals, who make great role models!”
-- Ishita Malaviya
Surfing means something different to each individual surfer girl. For those highlighted here, and many others around the world and throughout the history of the sport, surfing has been a gateway to adventure, fame, a community, financial independence, activism, respect, and greater self-acceptance.
It has given these girls and women a connection to the ocean and nature. More importantly, it has made them part of a global sisterhood of female surfers.
The Surfer Girl educational guide is designed for classroom use with students in secondary school and university settings. The activities include discussion questions, analysis of images and videos, creating collages, research and writing about surfer girls, and a quiz!
Download a free copy to share and engage students with Surfer Girl via the link below:
Our Girls in Art podcast for December 2014 features a discussion of how surfer girls have been represented in art from the time of European arrival in the Pacific until the mid-1900s. Click below to listen to, download, and share this podcast. And for more great podcasts on girl-related news and culture, please subscribe to our Podbean and iTunes sites.
These additional resources were provided by Chad King, Sarah Lee, and Mia Montanile to accompany their film, FLUX.
The Representation Project's #notbuyingit app, the first app built to challenge sexism in the media.
Dr. Rebecca Olive's blog, Making Friends with the Neighbours, tackles gender issues in surfing.
Cooler Magazine provides thoughtful articles and perspectives on the state of women's extreme sports, including surfing.
Michelle Shearer's project, Women Who Run With The Tides, seeks to broaden the image of women's surfing.
Surfer Girls in the New World Order by Krista Comer, Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Rice University.
Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing (Adventura Books) by Andrea Gabbard
Surfing: Women of the Waves by Linda Chase
The Tribes of Palos Verdes: A Novel by Joy Nicholson
Surf Diva: A Girl's Guide to Getting Good Waves by Isabelle "Izzy" Tihanyi and Caroline "Coco" Tihanyi
Thank you to everyone who helped make this exhibition possible, especially all our contributors!
The Girl Museum team for this show was Tiffany Rhoades, Emily Holm, and Hannah Hill.
Our banner and button image for Surfer Girl is a photo entitled "Surfer Girl" by Tom Tolkin, modified for our use under Creative Commons licensing.
We do not assert any ownership of any of the images in the exhibition, they were either granted usage rights by our contributors or are Fair Use for Educational purposes. If you have a question or issue with the use of any of these image on this site, please let us know.
Our contributors for Surfer Girl are featured below in alphabetical order:
ASA Entertainment is a producer of action sports events, television shows and content. The company’s events and content feature skateboarding, BMX, freestyle motocross, snowboarding, freeskiing, surfing and music and range in scale from grassroots to global. They are broadcast domestically on 8 networks and distributed to more than 700 million HH globally via 26 international broadcast partners.
Brown Girl Surf is dedicated to fostering a diverse, alternative women’s surf community in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. They provide surf lessons, an online community, and create media that celebrate female surf culture and highlight the achievements and challenges of female surfers.
Anuhea K. Jumawan was a student of Dr. Ian Masterson at Windward Community College. She produced her video, seen in our History section, as the final project for her Polynesian Surf Culture class.
Chad King, Sarah Lee, and Mia Montanile of Chapman University. They created FLUX, an essay documentary that reveals sexism in the surfing industry, under the supervision of Professor Sally Rubin.
Chad King is from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He is studying Directing at Chapman University. His interest in documentary filmmaking stems from his passion for social justice. Chad’s dream job would be to direct films that feature strong, diverse characters and connect audiences through genuine emotion.
Sarah Lee is from Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. For the past few years, she has been undertaking various water-related photo and film assignments around Hawai’i, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. She recently graduated from Chapman University with a B.F.A. in Film Production and an emphasis in documentary.
Mia Montanile is a senior at Chapman, studying Environmental Science and Policy with an emphasis in Ecoloy and a minor in Sociology. Her initial interest in creating documentary films arose after a screening of “The Island President” and was solidified after Professor Sally Rubin shared her documentary “Deep Down” during an environmental science seminar class. Mia hopes to eventually make her own environmental documentary.
Chad, Sarah, and Mia were advised by Professor Sally Rubin, a documentary filmmaker and editor. She recently completed Deep Down, an ITVS-funded feature-length documentary about two friends in eastern Kentucky who find themselves divided over mountaintop removal coal mining near their homes. The film is part of the 2010-2011 Independent Lens national broadcast PBS series.
Will Lucas is the filmmaker behind Surf 64 Productions. He preserves early surfing film and photos and produces documentaries and interviews on surfing history. He focuses primarily on East Coast U.S. surfing and digitally converting old home movies.
Mercedes Maidana is a Motivational Speaker, Business and Abundance Life Coach and Patagonia Surf Ambassador. She is a three-time consecutive finalist at the XXL Billabong Big Wave Awards, nominated as one of the top three female big wave surfers in the world (2009/2010/2011).
Mira Manickam likes to think of herself as a surf ninja hip hop adventurer. She channels her passions for art, teaching, and sport to work towards a better world.. As an athlete, she can normally be found in the ice cold waters of Northern California, charging waves at her favorite break, Ocean Beach. When not surfing, she enjoys rock climbing and training for the American Ninja Warrior circuit. As an artist, she has produced several short documentaries, written a book, produced several music videos, and composes and performs original raps as M.C. Mira Manic in the Bay Area. Her documentaries include “Recruitment Day,” about life in a Southern Thai fishing village, which was broadcast internationally on Al Jazeera- English’s Witness program. Her book, Just Enough, a journey into Thailand’s troubled south was published last year by Silkworm books. As an environmental educator, she has run several programs for youth, including the TEEM program at NatureBridge, and founded the Trees 4 Life urban forestry internship and the Green Guard youth environmental hip hop collective in Oakland.
Dr. Ian Akahi Masterson is an educator, an ocean recreation specialist, and a passionate Hawaiian cultural practitioner. Hailing from Ko‘olaupoko, this O‘ahu surfer has developed college courses in Surf Science, Culture, and Technology at the University of Hawaii’s Windward Community College and at Hawaii Pacific University, where he specializes in place-based, culturally oriented curriculum. Currently he is a Workforce Development Coordinator at Windward Community College, where he is launching a new educational pathway in Ocean Safety Education, Lifeguard and PWC operator training, as well as Ocean Recreation Instructor Training called The Hawaii Ocean Education Academy.
Rebecca Olive is a cultural researcher based in New Zealand. In 2013, she finished her PhD about women’s surfing in her hometown of Byron Bay, Australia, which explored what it’s like for everyday (not professional) women surfers to go surfing in a lineup. Her current work continues to explore how women experience and contribute to surfing culture today, as well as where they fit into surfing history. This includes in online media, such as websites, blogs, and social media. In addition to her research she writes a blog, Making Friends with the Neighbours, as well as for surf magazines including Great Ocean Quarterly and White Horses. She recently moved to Raglan, New Zealand, where she still tries to surf as often as possible.
Sarah Schwind of De Vita Photography for use of images.
Michelle Sommers: “I always loved the ocean but did not begin surfing until I was in my late-20s. I had many fears of learning this sport at that stage of my life. Once I overcame them, I quickly developed a passion for surfing that changed my entire life. I realized that many women of all ages have these same fears so I began offering surf lessons and camps specifically for women. Now I teach hundreds of women and young girls how to overcome their fears and enjoy riding waves!
With a husband and two boys who also surf, surfing is something for our family to always do together. We surf year-round along the Maryland area beaches but also enjoy traveling in the winters to warmer water. I am the executive director for the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) which is the largest amateur competitive surfing organization in the United States. The ESA is where surfers begin the competitive side of the sport.
Through teaching surfing, and the ESA, I have developed great friendships with people who enjoy surfing as much as I do. I have been blessed being able to share my passion of surfing with others. I’ve seen it increase self-esteem and confidence in young girls, and change people’s lives in such a positive way.”
Dionne Ybarra of The Wahine Project. The Wahine Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reaching young girls who would otherwise not have access to resources that enable them to surf. They seek to break down barriers that prevent the participation of young girls in the sport and provide them the opportunity to become proficient surfers and global citizens.