Billabong became a topic of debate earlier this month after a writer on Medium called out the brand for sexist images on its U.S. website. In a post titled “F*** You Billabong. Seriously, f*** you.” Karen Knowlton shared her reaction to seeing the brand’s online homepage, which at the time displayed a men’s side of the site alongside the women’s. The issue was in the drastically different ways that the genders were presented.
The side-by-side photos featured what Knowlton called a male “subject” surfing waves and a female “object” posed seductively in a bikini on the beach.
“Man as subject, shredding waves. Woman as object, back arched and head dropped back for ultimate titillating effect on the viewer,” Knowlton wrote. “This doesn’t even pretend to be an image of a woman having fun on the beach, actually enjoying her beautiful body in the perfect swimsuit. It’s just straight objectification.”
The post goes on to explain the reason behind Knowlton’s fury, which she rightfully points out is connected to the impact this kind of messaging has on girls and women.
“This kind of imagery impacts the psyche of women and girls far beyond whatever marketing moron you entrusted your site to could even imagine,” she reminds readers. “We soak this s*** up, these images that tell us who we are and what we are for, what our bodies are good for. Those of us who do surf have to silence the voices inside our own heads that say we don’t actually belong out there in the waves the way guys do, that we’re not entitled to take up that space, to battle for and potentially take a wave guys are also trying for.”
Within a week of publishing the post, Knowlton received quite a bit of attention, along with supportive reactions from women who were glad she spoke up. But with those, she admits, came others that didn’t understand the point of her rant. In a follow-up post written for the Inertia, she explained how rash her initial post was and the viral attention she hadn’t expected. However, she was glad to see how Billabong responded by replacing the imagery on its site.
In a statement received by Yahoo Style, the swim and surf brand took responsibility for the poor representation and the decision to fix it.
“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,” the Billabong team wrote. “To do that, we listen closely to the millions who follow the brand and, overwhelming, 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.
“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. We feel comfortable that we listened to our customers and the community and responded to their concerns.”
Knowlton’s call to the industry doesn’t exclude other brands, as she explains the issue of sexism that appears throughout all brands in surf shops — using athletic imagery to market toward men while having surfers coyly show their backside in photos marketed toward women. But she urges Billabong to take a step toward becoming one of the first brands to address the issue.
“Media reflects culture, but it also shapes culture,” she wrote. “Companies like Billabong, who have such a wide reach, have the power to shift cultural perceptions of women in sport. They are such a huge company, they could be a leader in this. Billabong could take responsibility for the impact they have, and accept the challenge of making that impact positive on girls and women. Sure it might be tough at first, but they would earn true customer loyalty and be ahead of the curve when other big brands catch on too.”
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