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Health, Sports & Psychology

Surf culture

Updated Monday 19th July 2010

To some, surfing is a sport. To others, it's an entire way of life. To others still, the culture defines their wardrobe.

Surf culture could reasonably be described as what social scientists call a ‘subculture’. According to Jon Stratton, the American surf subculture as it emerged after World War II was ‘rearticulated as the living of a myth of leisure’. By this, Stratton means that surfing culture drew upon certain ideals of leisure (sunbathing and playing in the ocean) that are normally seen as the antithesis of work. The idea here is that the ‘endless summer’, which can only be afforded by the most affluent, and is therefore ‘fantasy’ for most of us, is ‘made real’ within the surf community.

The mainstream consumer culture, supposedly rejected by surfers, according to Stratton is embedded in the ‘leisure’ pursuit of surfing – after all, the expensive boards, wetsuits and ‘time off’ have to be paid for. However, most surfers would dispute this analysis and there are some interesting counter-arguments that suggest surf culture is genuinely oppositional. For example, it rejects capitalist materialism and social conservatism in favour of a more ‘spiritual’, ‘existential’ or ‘symbiotic’ existence. For this reason, perhaps, it is difficult to describe surfing simply as a kind of sport, or leisure pursuit; there is arguably something mythological about it, but not in Stratton’s sense. It’s this added dimension, as well as the images of gleaming boards gliding across great curves of water, the youthfulness of (many) surfers, the visible physicality and the pleasures of surfing, that appeals not just to those who surf.

The popular appeal of surfing might be traced more to music trends than to representations in films. The Beach Boys (and others such as Jan and Dean, The Surfaris and the Ventures) were instrumental in creating a particular image of surfing; youthful, romantic and adventurous. Classic songs like ‘Surfing Safari’, ‘Surfer Girl’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ provide a soundtrack to the image of surfing, and particularly surfing Southern California in the 1960s. Not all of the Beach Boys’ songs were about surfing, but they were known for embracing surf culture (or at least an image and attitude popularly associated with surf culture) – this despite the fact that only one member of the band, Dennis Wilson, actually surfed.

In recent years, High Street fashion has drawn extensively on surf attire and a number of companies have become incredibly successful selling surf wear like board shorts and tee shirts – mainly to people who don’t surf. Some of these companies, like Quicksilver, Ocean Pacific and Rip Curl, originally started selling either boards or wetsuits but were able to increase profits by selling the image of surfing – and designer commodities – to a wider fashion market. Popular surf culture now feeds a vast international industry, popular across a wide range of people – men and women, teenagers and forty-somethings – all across the globe.

A surfer's view of a wave Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dreamstime

A surfer's view of a wave.

How realistic though, is the popularised image of surfing? I grew up in Southern California and spent much of my childhood at the beach, but I never learned to surf. There are probably lots of reasons for that, but one of them was that I was a girl – and during my childhood and even as a teenager, it was generally accepted that surfing was very much for boys. (Not so much today, however, as can be seen from these clips from the ‘Gidget Pro’ surfing championships.)

Importantly, too, surfing was predominantly a youth activity. When there was a nice swell (good surf) the dedicated surfers at my school got up early (seriously early – 5:00 in the morning) and surfed before class. As they graduated from high school and went to college or got jobs, the demands of a surfing lifestyle conflicted with studying or working. Older surfers aren’t exactly rare, but they aren’t as common as younger surfers. Surfing is also physically demanding, so it becomes more difficult to surf with age – although the stand up paddle board may prove to increase the length of a surfing life.

There are some surfers who spend their lives and make their livelihoods surfing, but mostly surfing is a part-time recreation. Taking the broad view, it is probably fair to say that surfers come from all walks of life. However, some social science research has shown surfing to be a predominantly middle-class pursuit, with most surfers coming from wealthier backgrounds. Surfers are also predominantly white – and, despite changes to equipment technology and cultural attitudes to women surfers, predominantly male. And yet the people who buy surfing attire may not fit any of these categories. Wishing to identify with a populist surfing image and actually knowing anything about surfing don’t necessarily go hand in hand either.

So what are people buying when they ‘buy into’ the surf image behind the board shorts or bikinis? Social scientists would argue that they are using these commodities as part of an expression of their identity. Like the Beach Boys, individual consumers seek to create an image of themselves (for themselves and for presentation to others) that speaks of a certain way of life, regardless of whether they ‘live’ that life.

Does this matter? For some surfers, yes. Mimicking the culture of surfing without experiencing surfing itself seems superficial, even hypocritical, or just plain daft. Don Redondo is a legendary, and most probably fictitious, surfing guru. In a classic pronouncement, Don Redondo says: ‘You wanna know ’bout surfin’, you surf…you don’t surf, you don’t know nothin’ ’bout surfin’.’

For others, surfing is one thing, popular surf culture another. Or, to think of it in a different way; in a capitalist world, it is to be expected that any activity will be commodified. The laid-back, romantic, somewhat rebellious image of surfing is easily packaged up and sold to consumers – at an impressive profit. It is difficult to not to embrace the romanticising of surf culture, and this is what the international surf fashion industry and other commercial products trade on. One of the most enduring and popular Guinness adverts shows an older surfer of the legendary ‘Don Redondo’ stock and, against the backdrop of horses crashing through waves, tells the surfer’s story of waiting.

Although populist surf culture is certainly mainstream, commercialised and very much globalised, both as recreation and as an industry, this is, arguably, nothing to do with surfing. Local surfers make their break their own and create their own legends. On a global level, surfers maintain a sense of community through homegrown (as opposed to Hollywood) surf films and competitions.

When I grew up, surfing – and surf culture – was an escape; from school, from parents, from mainstream culture. The technologies were pretty simple; a board, some wax, and someone’s elder brother who had a car big enough to haul the longboards to the beach. The excitement of catching a big wave was tempered with the (sometimes forced) serenity of waiting for a decent set to come in. You could buy ‘the clothes’, but most people didn’t bother and boards were borrowed, traded, handed down and endlessly repaired.

At least that’s what I remember. The water was always warm, the summers really were endless... and the Beach Boys played in the background as set after set of perfect waves rolled up to the shore.

Taking it further

Y157: Understanding society explores the concept of society, beginning with family life and concluding with worldwide social movements.

DD101:Introducing the social sciences is the ideal introduction to the topics of psychology, social policy and criminology, geography and environment, politics and international studies, economics and sociology.


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