Well, not really. But when you surf and you’re a girl, it sure feels that way at times. Even though there are more female surfers than ever before, it seems like some men still aren’t happy about sharing the water with women. Besides being totally beyond me, I find it abhorrent that a person could honestly believe that any part of the great outdoors is off limits to anyone, particularly just because of gender.
But sadly, some men still make it difficult for women to share the water. My personal experience with SGD (Surfer Girl Discrimination) ranges from funny to downright enraging. And even if you don’t get harassed, some men seem to think you’re out there for their own recreational activity; there’s more than one type of shark in the water, if you catch my drift.
I think part of certain mens’ reticence has to do with stereotypes of what they think a “surfer girl” is supposed to be. When I was growing up, the only female surfers that were referred to in everyday culture were Gidget and….Gidget. Advertisers anxious to cash in on the healthy, sun-drenched California Girl image often had surfer girls in print ads. There there were, on the beach, standing on a surfboard that was on the sand, holding some beautifying product or alcoholic beverage. Bless their glowing, glistening blonde little hearts. Most never actually set foot in the water. (It would ruin their hair! ) The closest I can think of a portrayal of a girl actually surfing was via the crude power of superimposition. Essentially cut and pasted into the “water”, Gidget was all smiles on the board. She was also almost supernaturally dry, complete with a sweet little bow in her hair.
In essence, the image was that of a girls who were at the beach, entertaining men with their girlishness between sets. They weren’t really surfers. In a way, they almost mocked surfing. So maybe for men, it’s a shock when a girl actually is interested in surfing and gets in the water, hair be damned.
The first time I ever experienced SGD was literally the first time I ever got on a board. I was ten and at the beach in Carpinteria with my father and his friends. My dad told me to get on the board as a laugh while we were playing nerf football down at the water (oh, 1970s, how I miss you.) He took me out where I sat on the board. I still remember my legs weren’t long enough to even span the damn thing and he pushed me out. I can stil hear him, and the rest of the guys back on shore shouting, “STAND UP, STAND UP, STAND UP!!!” Much to my surprise, I did. I stood right up. And I was still standing when I reached the guys on shore, calmly just stepping off as if i’d just gotten off an escalator. I’d managed to ride in the perfect 2 foot wave. As if it had been ordered up special just for me. My dad’s friend turned to him and said, “Holy shit. That’s pretty good……….for a girl.”
If there were a phrase I could ban from every language forever, that would be it. I’ve heard it plenty of times in the years since.
Ingrained sexual insults aside, from that first time on the board I was hooked. It was like flying. Except in water. And to my surprise, the more I practiced, the steadier I got. And the steadier I got, the faster I could go. And the faster I went, the more of a rush it was. I spent every summer virtually living at the beach.
The week before I turned 16, I started going to Hammonds Meadow in Montecito. The locals there were fierce and people called it Hammondcide to go to “their” beach. I’d even heard that Michael Douglas got a beat down there once in the late 1970s. (Though I might not blame anyone for that….)
I just desperately wanted to surf there. The view was amazing and the waves were exactly my height and speed. So I bravely went and hung out alone for a week, just sitting on the sand with a book, watching the guys master their sets as they came in, one after another. It was all very peaceful. Nobody gave me so much as a second glance. What could these people who warned me against it possibly be talking about ?
The day I came to the beach with my board, I found out.
As I walked down the beach with my oversized board over my head, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was looking at me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it until this guy came up to me and said, “What the FUCK do you think you’re doing?” I pretended to ignore him completely and avoided eye contact. In the naive way that only a 16 year old can, I assumed just my RIGHT to be there was enough. I got in the water and surfed for a while until a guy in his mid 30s dropped in on me (on purpose) from the left. I had a huge gash on my inner calf from his fin.
I limped out of the water, furious. Battling tears and bleeding, I ran back to the road. I thought about calling my dad, but knew he’d kill me for going to Hammonds. My best friend tried to talk me out of going back, but that just made me want to go more. How dare these guys, who were old enough to know better, try and keep me from a beach I’d grown up near? Why shouldn’t I be allowed there?
I skipped a week while my cut healed and the day I went back was the day I got my driver’s license. I was on a high that day, turning 16, feeling like a real woman and a bit of a badass for being able to drive myself legally to the beach.
The taunting was much the same at first. But this time one of the guys walked backwards in front of me the whole half mile down the beach, taunting me. Asking me in a girly voice if I thought I was a surfer. I pretended like he wasn’t there. But when I was finally about to turn towards the water and go in, he pulled down his trunks, pointed to his dick with both hands and said, “You have to have one of these to surf here, honey.” That was the first time I ever saw a guy naked. My heart now displaced into my throat, I ran into the water and almost got hypothermia waiting until I was absolutely sure they were all gone. I never went back to Hammonds again until I was 32 years old.
I often think about that guy and wonder what on earth he was thinking. How – if he was such a man, such a great surfer himself – could he possibly have been threatened by a teenage girl? Maybe it had absolutely nothing to do with some kind of macho, local-only bullshit. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to expose himself to a teenage girl.
Thankfully, I never had another experience quite like that one and not every man-surfer experience has been bad. Far from it.
For every jerky guy who has given me flak, there are many more men who have been more curious than offensive and more positive, too. Most of the time, men are more interested than afraid and most of the comments and reactions I’ve had from men have been really great. I think times have changed for the better, though we still have a long way to go to be taken seriously. Companies like Roxy, which couldn’t have even existed outside of the last couple of decades, has managed to bring girls’ surfing not only mainstream but pro. But it still promotes the ideal of being a girly-girl who has an alarming affinity to hibiscus flowers and bling first and surfing second.
Over the years I’ve thought about what, as a girl, I can and can’t do in the water. I’m pretty much the same as any man when it comes to surfing. I get up on the board, I get wet, I ride the waves as best I can, I have fun and then I come in, tired and happy. I’ve only been able to come up with one thing I can’t do just like a guy: I can’t hold my board with one arm. I simply don’t have long enough arms. I’ve never been able to do it. So I carry my board over my head or across both arms.
And I never wear a bow.