By Maria Nilsson

Talks with Rebecca Olive.

You know when you meet someone and not long after it becomes clear that they are going to make an impact to the way you think about things? It actually happens to me quite often, I’m pretty easy to captivate with some intense eye contact and good question asking. However, I’m swooning if you’re doing something that is remotely conducive to bettering our world. Perspective, I would say, is a very valuable aspect to this topic, because without it, not much would change, we are stagnant; conservative; aloof, without it. Perspective is our friend. A very special teacher passed on a sentiment to our cultural studies class one day, which has helped me to understand how we can be open to changing our perspective. He introduced the term, agile thinking, meaning to be accepting and understanding of other people’s meaning systems, though to stay analytical. So basically, not to dismiss others perspective, or to try and dominate and convince them of yours, but to explore why it is that they have acquired that perspective, because hey, our experiences shape what we think and why we think that. What I’m saying here is - talk to people! Engage with people you might not often find yourself interacting with, be open to understanding different ways of thinking and why their world is why it is. Be an agile thinker, be culturally sensitive, be culturally literate.

The impactful someone I was meaning to introduce before I went on a tangent, is Rebecca Olive (Bec). Bec has helped inspire and influence my ability to question why things are how they are. Bec is a University Lecturer at UQ, writer, author of blog, and most importantly here, a surfer. Bec, most notably, focusses on women in surfing, and investigates the differences between media representations of it, and the lived experience. I recently spoke to Bec about a few things, like what she is currently doing in Cardiff, England and her analysis of Mick Fanning’s shark encounter in terms of masculinity, and what she thinks about women still being sexualised in the surfing industry. We’ll get to that later, but first, let’s just talk a little more about Bec before we get into the interview.

I was lucky enough to be taught by Bec at University where her passion and integrity as a cultural studies academic is furiously infectious. Bec has Inspired me to constantly question and explore social injustices that aren’t so obvious to the eye, to question why prejudice and discrimination can quietly permeate almost any social, cultural or political topic, and sometimes goes left unnoticed. To GST on female sanitary products and equal pay to female sportswomen, there’s always a platform waiting to be created. Though, the female discourse is strengthening, as a result of remarkable women like Bec, who are exploring and exposing the inequalities that have, unfortunately due to social conditioning, been silently existing for decades. It is up to us, empowered women, to empower other women. Like Bec elaborates on, how do we not only celebrate the differences of women’s bodies in surfing while also bridging the gap between women who may feel excluded from the surfing community? Women of colour, LGBTI+ people, women who are less physically able, women who want to but are quite frankly, scared or intimidated, perhaps even by other women?

Rebecca’s research investigates recreational physical cultures in the field and through social media, focussing mostly on women in action/lifestyle sports and cultures, favourably, surfing. Bec takes a feminist cultural studies approach to theories of power, ethics and pedagogy who is interested in how we influence cultural change in everyday physical cultures towards a more inclusive representation and participation. Growing up in Byron Bay is at the forefront of Bec’s motivation to investigate how women experience surfing, both through lived experience and through what is represented in the media. In contrast, as a female surfer, I know is a very different picture. This reminds me of Lauren Hill’s short film: Pear Shaped, a satirical, very light-hearted but insightful exploration into the absurdities that often occur in the life of a female surfer - snotty nose, rogue tampons, nip slips and all. This film touches on the dichotomy between media representations of female surfing and the real thing.

Below is a slight insight into the fantastic mind of Bec, where we find what her motivations are behind studying women in surfing and why it is such a challenging thing to investigate. Here, hopefully you will engage with topics that you have never really thought about before, motivating you to question why you haven’t thought about it and, well, even change your perspective.


Photo by ©julienbinet

Hey There Bec,

How are you, and where are you at the moment?

Hi Daini! I’m great! I’m in Cardiff participating in the Institute for Women Surfers Europe event. It started today and it’s already great. Then I’m off the Leisure Studies Association conference next week to talk about the ocean.

Can you tell me about your research project?

I’m a Lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at The University of Queensland. I’ve been researching women’s surfing for about 10 years now, a project that began with my PhD about recreational women’s surfing. I love it and it feels like it’s a space that is always changing, which is exciting.

My projects are all feminist research about sex/gender politics in recreational physical activities and sports. I’ve focused on surfing, but I also look at other lifestyle and action sports too. Mostly, I want to know how people – in particular women – experience surfing, not just to let magazines and other major media tell us what it’s like because media and lived experience can be very, very different! I use a mix of participation and observation in surfing, interviews with surfers, and media analysis. As well as looking at surfbreaks, I’m also interested in how people use Instagram media to represent themselves and to build communities. It’s a really interesting spaces in which women get to choose how we represent ourselves, so I’m fascinated by the decisions we make with that opportunity.

I have another project called Waves of Fiction that I’m working on with AustLit, who are an online database of all fiction about Australia or by Australians – books, stories, poems, magazine articles, tv shows, critical essays, scripts, and more. I’m exploring this database to know more about how we have come to think about surfing and to see if there are more representations of women’s surfing in the past than surfing culture recognises (spoiler alert: there are!).

I also look at fitness cultures and #fitspo on Instagram, and how women represent and talk about ‘healthy bodies’.

What has inspired you to choose this field of study?

I’m totally inspired by understanding how people see and experience the world, the things we do (practices) to engage with, communicate about and shape the world – that’s culture. For a long time, cultures like surfing weren’t taken seriously as being important to people and communities, and even to national identities, but my discipline, Cultural Studies, is all about lived, everyday experiences and cultures, and treats them as really significant because they’re how we make sense of our everyday lives.

Contemporary surfing in Australia is such a great example of a culture that is individually, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally significant, and which has had a big impact on various kinds of politics in that, as a culture, it was long dominated by young, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and high-performance shortboarding. This is just one group of surfers and one way of surfing, but it really dominated media representations, and lived experiences of surfing in Australia, which made it harder for lots of people (including young white men) to find a place amongst the waves. Surfing is such a joy, but it’s been so hard for lots of people to find access to it. ‘Women’ are the main group I focus on, and I am always fascinated by their various stories of being a surfer.

Byron Bay/Females/Surfing/Masculinity/Social representations – what do you think?

This is a massive question for me! Haha.

Byron is an important surfing place, because it’s so popular and influential. In the 10 years I’ve been researching surfing there, it’s changed a lot - there are a LOT more women now, women are highly visible contributors to the local culture, and the kinds of boards being ridden has really diversified, which is all great. I think women have really been huge drivers of those changes in a number of ways – as surfers, photographers, designers, and business owners, as well as in the water by supporting each other and being welcoming. Instagram has definitely been a big player in how things are changing in Byron Bay too – now you can’t think about surfing in Byron Bay without thinking about women!

How do you think growing up in Byron Bay has influenced your drive to research Women in Surfing?

It’s meant my research is really, really meaningful to me, and it also drives me to make sure I’m making contributions back to the community. This has influenced me across my work because I should always be so careful with the communities and places I research.

Really, it was the starting point for everything because the research I’d seen about surfing suggested that women are completely excluded, marginalised and sexualised, which was true in surf media, but wasn’t really my experience out in the water. I felt like the research was only telling part of the story, and I wanted to show what it’s actually like. Taking this approach led me to a more complicated analysis that showed a range of experiences for women, many of them really positive! 

My research has really stayed focused on Byron Bay, which has made it both easier and more challenging because it’s my history and community. How do I critique the place and the culture I love and which is part of my own life? It can be really difficult. I have a really intimate understanding of so much about the place and community, but then I have to do critical work, which means I have to look the ugly and difficult stuff as well as the wonderful things. I know my surfing community really well now and I love it even with the stuff that isn’t great, but it’s not always so popular for me to talk about. I also have to keep reminding myself that Byron is a bit of a surfing bubble and is really different to other places – surfing in Byron can be very different to surfing in Ballina.

People I meet through my work assume I’ve always surfing because I grew up in Byron Bay, but I didn’t start surfing until I was about 26. Growing up in Byron though, surfing was all around me as part of the town and I did spend my childhood hanging out at the Maddog factory though – my mum worked out there in accounts from when I was about 7 or 8. I only knew a couple of girls who surfed anyway, and I thought surfing was really blokey and gross, so I wasn’t interested. The guys at Maddog would have taught me if I was interested though. I finally got interested when I saw a friend longboarding and thought it was really fun, and then I learned with girlfriends. Once I got out in the water, surfing was much more fun than I’d thought it would be and I loved it! But I stayed fascinated by why surfing seemed (and had been in the past) so dominated by men.

What do you think of the current social, cultural and political climate of Women in Surfing today? Locally and globally?

While surf media continues to languish in sexist (and homophobic and often racist) imagery, the story in the water can be really different. I’m really frustrated by surf media, but I’m really excited by everyday surfing culture, where women are leading so many changes. I think this is true in pro surfing too, but that’s happened more slowly than in recreational surfing.

Through various media representations of women in surfing, what aspects still irk you the most?

Surf media remains focused on hot, thin, sexy female surfers, and it’s still really hard for women to get sponsorship and thus to be able to compete if they’re not willing to sexualise themselves. Instagram is different and women are really promoting themselves as surfers not just sunbaking, as well as highlighting the robust community of women who surf. I like these changes on social media, but there is part of me that worries about it too. Media is always so shiny and beautiful and happy, but surfing is much more complicated than that.

I think it’s even harder for women because there is so much pressure to always be so positive about women’s surfing and the changes that are happening, but sometimes I just feel really angry or frustrated or sad or humiliated, and that really is part of being a woman who surfs too, and I don’t’ want to give too much credit to a surf magazine who runs one cover of a woman surfing but continues to mostly not talk about women’s surfing any other time. Why do we give them so much credit? I don’t mind positive reinforcement, but if it’s not supported by real change (which it often isn’t) then it’s just marketing for their publication. I also get angry that we give so much credit to the more dinosaur-like men for ‘trying’ to change their attitudes. As Yoda said ‘Do or do not. There is not try.’

One last thing is really tricky to talk about, but I think on Instagram most of the images are still of generally thin, blonde, happy white women in swimmers, or what Krista Comer calls the ‘superfit, clear-eyed surfer girl’. Of course, in our warm, subtropical surfing world, it’s normal to surf in swimmers and bikinis, so it’s hard to critique it, but distribution of content on Instagram is based on ‘likes’, and in truth, these still go to the prettiest, most feminine women.

You can start to see how my work can get tricky, especially when I talk about my own community.

Tell me about your investigation on Mick Fannings shark attack in SA and the connections to masculinity?

Yes! When this happened, I was transfixed, and watched the footage over and over, and then went down a rabbit hole of looking at all the media footage afterwards and in the weeks following.

I was never a Mick fanning fan, but the way he dealt with the media really blew me away. How on earth was he so open and professional the whole time?! Then I noticed that there were different ways the media and surfing responded to him – either promoting him as a role model for a ‘new masculinity’ (i.e. vulnerability) or as a hyper masculine shark puncher. The same event produced such different interpretations! I’m also working with some colleagues on the question ‘What about the shark?’ There was so little concern for the shark, which didn’t attack Fanning but who got punched anyway. Don’t mistake me here – it would have been terrifying and I’m not criticising Fanning’s response and I would never want to have this experience! But there is a lot to think about in terms of how we think out identity, about our safe access to the surf, and what we have rights to over other animals who live in the sea.

Throughout your research, what have been some poignant and progressive moments? Any memorable encounters?

So many! The best bit of my job is getting to talk with so many different people, and to hear about their perspectives. I think it’s so generous when people agree to do an interview with me, and that they are willing to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences. The interviews in my PhD really changed how I understood surfing.

I also love when I can speak back into surfing culture. My work is a critical take on surfing, so not everyone wants to hear it, but once they realise I’m on the side of surfing, that I LOVE it, they are willing to listen. And when I hear from women that my work has meant something to them and their relationship to surfing, well, that is so, so amazing.

Any bad ones that’s made you go ‘ah, this is why I chose to dedicate an area of study to this stuff’?

Also, so many. A colleague and I got yelled at by a conference organiser on the Gold Coast last year, who didn’t like that we were talking about sexism in surfing. That wasn’t great. And I got grossly hassled online for a while a few years back, which was also really distressing. But I’m learning to embrace these moments as indications that I’m hitting a sore point.

There is a lot of violence and aggression and exclusion in surfing, and it’s horrible, but it’s there and it happens to many people, not only women. I think it’s the worst of the culture.

At the same time, I know that I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone else. I’m always aiming to be kind and welcoming, but I often fail. Some days I get frustrated and angry and selfish and I yell and I fail at being kind. I’m never proud on those days, but to pretend that I’m perfect would be to lie to myself. Being honest about how inconsistent and contradictory we can be is helpful in being more compassionate to more people for more reasons. The days when I let waves go and take as much joy in the waves of others are the days I leave the water most fulfilled and happy.

Any comments about the recent image at the Billabong Pro Junior series in Ballito, SA on the weekend with Zoe Steyn winning half of what male winner Rio Waida took home?

It’s unacceptable! I was stoked to see so many people responding with outrage. The justification by organisers is the stuff of the past, and I imagine we will see these kinds of pay disparities continue to even out. The arguments that not as many women compete aren’t very compelling – 1. They deserve equal pay for their work and even though they’re young people, competing is work and; 2. men and boys have had many, many years longer to build a body of competitors, and women need the same incentives and rewards to be available for many, many years to build momentum as well.


Photo by Daini Stephenson

What do you want to see change for the future of women in surfing?

I want to see – and I do see – various women leading the changes in surfing. They’re pushing the boundaries, they’re creating new businesses, they’re telling new stories. Even more powerfully in my eyes, they’re changing perceptions and assumptions in lineups and surfbreaks and opening new spaces of all kinds of people to participate and create changes of their own

You can add anything else you want to say here if you want?

I argue strongly and often that women are leading many of the changes I see happening in surfing. There are many claims to feminism and feminist politics, but I worry that a lot of these are attached to our capacity to wear what we want and be proud of our bodies. These things are really important, and I will always argue for women to have these freedoms, but we need to make sure that as we gain ground, we aren’t creating or replicating new kinds of exclusion. Women of colour, trans-people, LGBQ+ people, people with mobility issues all face different challenges than women like me – white, straight, able-bodied, heteronormative. We need to do better than stop at feeling like we can do what we want, and to think about how the ways we act might make things harder for other women, for other people.

Also: what do you think Atmosea could do more of in regard to promoting equality amongst the female surfing landscape?

It’s hard for companies to I think Atmosea does some really great work promoting the relationships women share with each other as surfers, and at using different kinds of women and bodies and showing lots of women surfing in everyday ways. I love all of that so much. But feminism is more than female friendship and dancing and having fun together, and it would be great to see Atmosea reach out to or promote the participation of more diverse kinds of women – women whose visibility and access is more difficult than mine, than ours. It might not be as part of a marketing or social media project because their swimwear might not suit, but that might be something they can address in their designs by talking to women with different needs. I don’t know! I think it’s tough to keep pushing out boundaries and politics. I find it tough and I do it for a job! But it’s a challenge worth facing, and it’s great to know that Atmosea is interested in doing just that.

 Words by Daini Stephenson