As a teenager in the 1980s, my first experience of surfing was on a giant woodchip pile at Port Nelson. While I was welcome to hurl my body down a pseudo-wave, the boys never invited me into the ocean. Most often I’d watch them hightail away to the surf, wedged in their rusty Datsun, with that high beam of adventure thick as thieves between them.
Likewise, a friend told me that when she was growing up on a Central Otago farm she dearly wanted to go mountaineering with her father and brothers. “They climbed to the top of Mount Aspiring and I was left to be allowed to drive the tractor around the farm and have a holiday job teaching disabled skiing,” my friend recalled. It was apparent to us that free will was encouraged only between the men and boys.
Adventure sports continue to be dominated by males.
Generations of women have been taught that we are physically more vulnerable … Nothing in our society – with the exception of violence and fear – has been more effective in keeping women in their place.” (C. Northrup)
Surfing culture has not come far beyond Gidget icons and surf chicks waiting for their surfer boys on the beach. The surf industry continues to objectify women, as evidenced simply by picking a surf magazine off the shelf in a shop.
Women who are pioneering in domains previously populated by men, be that adventure sport, politics or law, are acutely aware of the pressure to conform. Asked for some of the simplest ways to see health advances in the developing world, Margaret Chan, then Director General of the World Health Organisation, replied:
This deserves a simple answer: educating girls and empowering women. Nothing pays a bigger dividend, and it keeps paying back, from one generation to the next.”
Words can either erase or empower. In 2017, a festival of short films showcasing women in adventure sports toured New Zealand and Australia. It was called the ‘Dirty Girls Adventure Film Tour’. There must have been a groundswell of protest, as the 2018 title is ‘Gusty Girls Adventure Film Tour’. In fact, the 2017 short films were not about girls. They were all about women, so I suggest a further title change: ‘Gutsy Women’s Adventure Film Tour’.
For too long women have been steered toward being looked after. It is only when we develop self belief, no longer attaching our worthiness to other people’s opinions, that we can truly begin to express our authenticity and share that confidently in the world.
From my now twenty-four years experience of surfing for real, I know that surfing demands the constant assertion of free will. Ultimately, to surf is to engage the will to live at the edge of life. As Tony Chandler writes in his article “The Road to Surfdom”:
From the shore, we merely see dark little specks moving about gracefully through the ocean in unison with the waves, like a swirling herd of wildebeest. Yet up close, competition, predation and a struggle for survival is playing out.”
When I’m surfing, I’m keenly aware of exerting my free will amongst this fray. In other words, I’m aware of overtly competing, and doing so in an environment where women have not been welcome. Surfing, for me, has indeed represented independence, rebellion and even anarchy, values which men and boys have long been encouraged to display.
My plea for the inclusion of women into surfing and other adventure sports is issued with the proviso that women be given room. The comment made by Helen Clarke in Gaylene Preston’s film documentary My Year with Helen, comes to light here: a women shouldn’t get a job just because she is a women, she should get a job if she is the best person for that job. It is the opportunity to exert a will to compete that allows women to experience being at their best.
When a wave becomes yours because you battled for it, or when a wave is no longer currency to give up, that’s when we can embrace our ability for what it is. Trusting and believing that women can exert free will in a position of power, as in the sport of surfing and other adventure sports, is perhaps a first step in supporting the movement toward equality.
Nicola Wilson-Jones writes and surfs in Dunedin, New Zealand. She holds a BN, GrdDipTchLn, IYTA (NZ) Yoga Teaching Diploma and Diploma of Anthroposophical Studies.
- Northrup, C. (2004). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. The Complete Guide to Women’s Health and Wellbeing. London, U.K: Piatkus pp.105 – 106.
- McFadden, S. 2015, ‘The Women of Our Time’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, February, p.25.
- Chandler, T. 2014, ‘The Road to Surfdom’, New Philosopher, Issue 5: Self, August, p.89.
- My Year with Helen, 2017 [documentary]. Directed by Gaylene Preston. New Zealand: Gaylene Preston Productions.
Also by Nicola Wilson-Jones on Corpus: Does yoga support social justice for women?