For the past 24 hours my inbox has been full of abusive messages from online trolls. Their messages range from just plain offensive to the genuinely frightening. The reason? Six-year-old photographs of me in a bikini have ended up all over the internet and in several national newspapers. To explain how this happened in a concise and logical way is pretty difficult because fair logic doesn’t apply here.
To try to explain: I was asked to comment on a recent rule change in pro surfing that prohibits photographers from gratuitously zooming in on female competitors wearing bikinis. As a former competitor I was happy to comment on this, having experience of being zoomed in on many times. I referred this news group to a blog post I’d written on the subject, where I discussed the hyper-sexualisation of women in the media, the objectification I have experienced and the importance of overcoming this unconscious bias to move away from a potentially damaging archetype of female surfers. I also discussed the fact that female cold water surfers are not being represented by many surfing media outlets.
My blog post was twisted in the story, and the story was then copied in the wider press. In a week where Brazilian politician and activist Marielle Franco was shot dead, a car bomb killed 14 in Somalia and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continued to grow exponentially, there was a picture of me in a bikini, next to headlines such as, “I never get coverage now I’m covered up”.
As a female athlete, I have often been asked to comment on various issues and my words have been taken out of context before. In the past I have kept quiet, but I am not a young girl any more: I will stand up and have my voice represented clearly and correctly.
This latest incident has made me angry, and it has also made me determined to do better, to make more effort to use my platform for those women whose voices are not normally heard, in sport and elsewhere.
There are some extra details the newspapers didn’t care to add to my “story”. Although I surf in a thick winter wetsuit in west Ireland, I have not stopped wearing bikinis in warmer climes. Only two days ago, I proudly posted a photo of myself in a bikini made from recycled plastics. I do really like my wetsuit; not only does it keep me warm, it keeps us all equal, it emphasises neutrality. I’ve made the personal choice to opt for leggings or a long-sleeved rash guard more often to protect myself from the elements on holidays, and I also feel this is more respectful in Muslim countries such as the Maldives. Photos of this type of gear, oddly enough, are not the ones that ended up in the media.
For me, surfing has become a place of unselfconscious freedom and expression, a way to heal depression and anxiety, and to remain present and grounded. I would love for everyone from all walks of life to have the opportunity to participate and enhance their life in this way.
So why are so many media outlets not representing female surfers – and female athletes in general – from certain groups? Sport is supposed to set you free, not make you feel objectified and as if you should fit into a pretty little box to participate.
There is a need for more female role models to make sporting culture more healthy, empowering and diverse. I am not talking solely about myself in a wetsuit here; rather I am speaking about a whole world of female surfers that are not being represented: female surfers around the globe, of different races and religions, surfers with disabilities, surfers from the trans and non-binary communities, surfers in conflict war zones and impoverished communities – to mention a few.
We have to make some big decisions in life about who we work with, especially in the modelling and athlete world where you are personally endorsing brands. Given the opportunities now, I try to mainly work with brands that clearly align with and represent my personal beliefs on fair trade, sustainability and equality. I wish I had realised the importance of this at 18, not 30. When we know better, we do better. I also realise I am now privileged enough to make these choices; many people would not be in a position to turn down good money based purely on their principles.
One of the main things I have learned from this experience is the tough skin that our leaders and role models, be they athletes, politicians or celebrities, must have. People in the public eye are constantly judged and the internet leaves us so vulnerable. There is a real and very damaging disconnect between people writing offensively and the human being on the receiving end, a person with their own story and their own trauma.
Some days I am a fragile mess, but I am a work in progress. I know I want to help create a world where women and men are valued as equals and our differences are celebrated, a world where all people strive to make the world, both environmentally and culturally, a better place. I have spent the last couple of months living off my credit card and working towards producing a documentary film series on the strength and resilience of female surfers in places like Gaza Palestine, Haiti and India, the aim of which is to reframe a narrative that often excludes these women.
I hope the work I am doing now helps prepare the next generation of female athletes to surpass me in every way. If the result of my work, and of me speaking up, leads to a misconstrued truth and an inbox full of trolls telling me to shave my armpits and eat some cake, then I guess I will just have to continue to rise up for what I believe in. The recent hostility I have received shows me that our work as women is far from over.
If you need me in the meantime, I’ll be fighting the patriarchy from my iPhone 4.
Oh, and #metoo.
Sophie Hellyer is an environmentalist, surfer, brand ambassador and model. She is the former English surfing champion and now lives on the west coast of Ireland.
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