Question Time: Does sex actually sell surfing?

Have you watched this Carissa Moore video yet? We stuck it on the site yesterday and if you haven’t seen it you should check it out.

In it the former ASP World Champ and strong 2013 title contender from Hawaii is asked by Zach Weisberg from The Inertia about sex appeal and surfing and her answer broke my heart a little bit:

To be honest I’m a little undecided. I think it’s great that the girls in our sport are so attractive and they’re athletes and they rip…and if you ask anyone on the beach their favourite surfer it would probably be Alana Blanchard. That’s great she brings a lot of eyes to our sport but I’ve definitely been on the opposite site of the spectrum. I’ve definitely been criticised for my looks, last year I gained a little bit of weight, I wasn’t doing as well on tour and you hear comments like, “She’s had one too many cheeseburgers and it’s hurtful you know?” But unfortunately we’re in a sport where you’re in a bathing suit the whole time…

How must it feel to be Carissa Moore? You’re a mould shattering surfer, the youngest ever ASP Women’s World Title winner (in 2011), and the youngest girl to ever land the cover of Surfer Magazine, yet your average Joe couldn’t give a flying f**k as they’re too busy drooling (the nicest way of putting it) over Alana Blanchard’s Instagram. When they do turn their attention to you they don’t say: “Awesome air, that girl rips!” They say: “She’s had one too many cheeseburgers…” What a messed up world. It would be enough to make me want to throw in my rashie or give pro surfing a swerve at least.

But she doesn’t do that. Not even close. On the contrary she ramps it up (above, winning this year’s Vans US Open of Surfing) and when she won her ASP World Title in 2011 and was sponsored by Nike (like all Nike surfers she’s now on their other brand Hurley), they released this awesome clip. It totally celebrates her as an athlete, which made me feel a whole lot of love for Nike and her.

It’s a shame more brands don’t get involved in this kind of thing rather than peddling the tired old let’s sell the blonde, sexy surf girl stereotype. Especially as more and more studies are showing that it doesn’t actually make women buy stuff anyway.

Cori Schumacher explored this in her excellent Beyond Gidget feature for us last year, citing a study by Ben Barry [a Canadian women’s health advocate who runs an model agency that specialises in diverse shapes and sizes]  which showed that: “women’s purchase intentions increase up to 300 per cent when exposed to diverse body styles and types in advertising.”

Then this week ESPN showed the film Branded, which sought to ask “Will sex appeal always supersede women’s achievement?” and in a related ESPN blog post Kate Fagan quotes a study from Janet Fink, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who says: “Grassroots studies are showing that consumers, when deciding whether to buy a sports-related product, respond more to advertisements that portray female athletes as — get this — athletes.”

She adds: “Another thing we are finding… is that each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualised way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability.”

Fagan goes on to suggest new ways in which women athletes will be marketed which include a wider range of athletes being endorsed, not just the sexiest and prettiest. She cites Nike sponsoring US basketball player Brittney Griner, the first openly gay athlete on their books, and a Gatorade ad for soccer player Abby Wambach looking “tough, sweaty and strong”.

Finally they cite Nicole Lavoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota and associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. She says: “If girls see more images of female athletes as athletes, then it shifts their thinking. That’s the game-changer. It opens up the idea that we can see and celebrate all female athletes.”

I love the sentiment, it makes me feel genuinely optimistic for the future of women’s sport but would it work in surfing?

This cool response to the ESPN piece by Sea Kin (and tweeted by Cori Schumacher) breaks it down nicely saying: “Sex doesn’t sell sports. It just sells sex.” She also mentions interesting research by University of Minnesota sports sociologist Dr. Mary Jo Kane which shows that “sexy images of female athletes may make that woman a bigger celebrity but they don’t translate into a deeper interest in their sport.”

So has the recent sexing up of surfing sold more surf apparel and/or got more girls to take up the sport? Or has it just made them Alana fans or in the worst case scenario wonder if they’re hot enough to wear a bikini? It’s difficult to know but I love the idea of a broader, more honest notion of what a surfer girl can be so maybe we can finally, as Cori Schumacher said move Beyond Gidget . I’m pretty sure Carissa Moore would want that too. What about you?

Tell us what you think below the line or on our facebook or twitter and we’ll round up the best comments early next week.

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