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Billabong Publicly Responded To Criticism Over THAT Photo, But Here’s Why The Debate Must Continue

The recent faux pas highlights deeper issues when it comes to sexism in the surfing community...

Photo: Billabong

Billabong found themselves in some trouble recently, after they used a contentious image as their main website header. The photo above, taken from their website, caused outrage online because of it’s depiction and sexualisation of Billabong women.

Whilst the female sexualisation issue is always an ongoing debate within the action sports industry, Billabong’s mistake brought it to the forefront of the public’s attention once more. Freelance writer Karen Knowlton was not one to let Billabong off the hook, taking to Medium to air her angers in an article titled ‘F*ck You Billabong. Seriously, f*ck you‘.

Knowlton notes how unapologetically sexualised the image is; it doesn’t even pretend to show an athlete surfing, or having fun and being goofy on the beach whilst they happen to be wearing a bikini. It clearly shows us how Billabong views their female athletes and consumers. The men are seen as hardcore surfers whilst the women are objects of lust and desire. They are sending the message that transitioning from a beach babe to a badass ripper is never going to happen.

Photo: Billabong

On the back of Knowlton’s piece, New Zealand news site Stuff received a statement from Billabong in which they responded to the criticism, stating;

“Billabong Women’s aims to get the balance right between the hundreds of athlete, advocate, fashion and lifestyle images that we use on our websites and social media channels every day.

“To do that, we listen closely to the millions who follow the brand and, overwhelmingly, the feedback is positive. When it’s not, we’re very open to other views and perspectives, including about imagery or placement. Recently, we took the feedback and made a change to our website.

“We’re up for a respectful conversation, but we don’t encourage or respond to people who verbally abuse our staff online, in person or who encourage others to do so.

“Billabong invests very significantly in supporting and promoting professional female surfers, using a range of imagery they’re comfortable with. We’re proud of them and the stories we tell.”

“They feature heavily in all market-facing material and regularly on the landing pages for our global websites. We feel comfortable that we listened to our customers and the community, and responded to their concerns.”

Subsequently changing the header image to feature a girl actually surfing, Billabong kept their response on the polite side and managed to save themselves from any more drama, however the fact that they even put the image up in the first place reflects the deeper attitudes and problems within the industry.

Photo: Megan Villa

When looking for evidence of deeply rooted issues around women in the surf industry, the impracticality of bikinis is something that really sticks out for me. They are designed to flaunt the female figure by being made from a tiny amount of material, just about enough to cover what needs to be covered, but definitely not surf friendly.

“The last thing that we need is for a surf company to tell us that we should be wearing the tiniest bikini possible, because we’ve got the rest of society to tell us that.”

The amount of times that I have surfed in a bikini only to wipeout and resurface wondering whether my modesty is about to be compromised cannot be counted. Why is this not being thought about? How can a surf company make bikini’s that most people aren’t actually able to surf in? It seems that the industry is yet to move towards the attitude of function and practicality over beauty.

Some bikinis even have the word ‘tiny’ in their name and that is not what we need. Actually, the last thing that we need is for a surf company to tell us that we should be wearing the tiniest bikini possible, because we’ve got the rest of society to tell us that.

This kind of advertising is actively encouraging us to be lusted after, but I am definitely not sexy whilst coming out of the water, trying to pull my tiny bikini in all directions to cover myself, with my hair plastered to my forehead, and I shouldn’t have to be.

Photo: Billabong

Despite the fact that Billabong have strong female athletes on their team, two images were pitted against each other with only one gender on a surfboard. The direct comparison between these two images says that men and women are not equal when it comes to who can rip the best waves. It suggests that their female athletes are not even worthy of picturing. They didn’t even separate them by putting them on different parts of their website, but instead put the two in direct competition with each other. Knowlton describes her own feelings of feeling less entitled to be in the water as a woman and how Billabong put this feeling into a picture. They took what is unspoken within the industry and said it loud and clear.

Look at the company’s athlete profiles and you will quickly see that around half of the pictures on the profile of each athlete show them sexily modelling rather than surfing. For example, Courtney Conlogue (pictured above) is a world tour championship surfer yet she is still seen sexily looking over her shoulder instead of surfing. She is one of the best surfers on the tour, yet she and many other athletes are destined to be known for their sultry looks and wet, slicked back hair possibly over their surfing talent.

If Billabong really “invests very significantly in supporting and promoting professional female surfers, using a range of imagery they’re comfortable with’, perhaps they should put their words into action more often and genuinely present their female athletes to be as badass as the guys.

We are living in a time of female empowerment, so where’s all the power?

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