I grew up in the time of the belly button piercing. A time when trampolines had visibly lethal springs and kids broke their legs on pogo sticks. It was the late 90s and if you weren’t surfing after school then you were curling up on the couch with your Uncle Toby’s yoghurt topped muesli bar and getting ready for the next episode of Heartbreak High. Most girls sat leg locked sporting their latest Ryan Sheppers’ sweater, his giant sweat banded head splayed across the minimal contours of their chest. The rest stabbed away at inanimate parcels of flesh, mum’s bloodied sewing needle in hand, hoping this was finally the episode where Drazic took his shirt off.
LET ME BE POPULAR
There’s a certain type of person that gets a belly button ring. Turns out that person’s not really me. But because Alison McGaw had one with a big turquoise dangly ring, it didn’t stop me from trying. Alison McGaw was that girl. Skin of bronze and a shiny flaxen mane reminiscent of a scandinavian summer sun. She was every teen boys dream. She lived in the glow of the male gaze, the closest they’d ever come to Summer Bay’s Bec Cartwright. She wore the latest Havaianas and dated the hottest semi-average surfers in the school, the ones that owned white Oakleys and drew Stussy signs on their text books. And somehow, in the time between 8th grade maths and science, I decided that a belly button piercing and hot surfer babes were inextricably tied. A beautiful marriage of accessories that, if captured, could coast me into the sweet stages of popularity, free of high school angst and puberty blues.
It was a weird era, OK. Kids were confused. Velcro wallets were still a thing. People liked break-dancing and there were many many Fast and the Furious movies in development. It was a period marked by the wholesale absorption of surfing into popular culture across Australia, largely driven by the accessibility of Sun-In. A time when there were no SUPs and the most annoying people in the water were swimmers.
A window of starkly confronting contrasts presented themselves pre Centenary; Paddle Pops were still 75 cents and the internet was making lots of noise not yet understood by way of our own youthful ignorance. It was a time of censored exploration, boys had bad manners and according to alcohol everything required incomprehensible amounts of sugar and fluorescent colour. Surfing was a big thing and your gear dictated your flimsy state in the hierarchy of cool, Billabong being at its peak. Yes, consumerism was abounding but people still hated advertising. So, jabbing needles into ourselves with the only high being shiny body adornment was not the weirdest thing going around. And, if someone were giving out awards for self-body modification I would certainly not be receiving Best & Fairest.
I never got that piercing. My mother caught me half way through entry point, with an ice-cube on one side of my belly button and a big shiny Singer needle on the other. Hot surfer boys and beach babe life were a distant reality. I was destined to remain in the inferior land of chubby academia for a few years yet.
THE GOLDEN DAYS
As it does, time goes on. The cycle of life continues, as David Attenborough would say. Beverley Hills 90210 caught a second win and Heartbreak High was probably sold off to some Japanese production company. It was 2005, organic products still hung in the periphery and sun safety was not yet a prerequisite to peer pressure. The internet was really fingering the world for the first time and just like a couple of fondling 15 year olds, no one knew what was coming. A proliferation of discman jokes proved the brink of the digital evolution. But, most importantly, true to Nature’s sick humour, Alison McGaw had well and truly peaked at the age of 14 and by now had inherited her mother’s staunch figure and overall rotundness.
It really was the Golden Days. And for a coastal populace surfers were the be all and end all. With the help of the Marie Claire sealed section we were blossoming into women and surfer boys into mostly immature surfer men. An age where surfers stuck out like a beautiful tanned thumb and the Gold Coast was a somewhat appealing getaway. The majority of us had not yet discovered anorexia but were incredibly aware of the allure of ‘thin’. Life had become more of a contradiction and still, the one thing that was not confusing were surfers. Good old reliable surfers, marked by a certain swagger and a tang on their tongue. Easy to pick amongst the sea of skaters, goths, nerds, metal heads, footy guys and general misfits. Yes, like most confusing times we make life easier for ourselves by boxing people in.
People will tell me that surfers have never been characterised, that it’s a lifestyle, that something something “how ignorant of you to stigmatise”. I know that to be true to a certain extent, I’m not so intellectually lazy to think we’re all made from a specific selection of cookie cutters. But if science and a little thing called semiotics, the study of signs, has taught me anything, it’s that there were intrinsic signifiers around these subcultures, ones that allowed us to make sense of the chaos of an impending digital world. A world that would diversify even the most typical of characters.
If not, why had I felt the need to steal my brothers Rip Curl boardshorts to wear to the swimming carnival? Why were people that still wore Oakley’s now outcasts? Why did I actually start surfing at the age of 17 instead of just finding a surfer boyfriend? Why did I think Manly was heaven on earth when I hadn’t really ventured anywhere else? Why was Billabong going public? Why did I pretend to read surf magazines when really I was way deep in Tom Wolfe and anything from Emily Bronte. Why was Mick Fanning considered good looking? Why was Luke Stedman the hottest man in a young girls world? All things I can only answer like this, “because at the time, it was cool”.
Everything can be explained by this single statement. Anything that matters to us in our formative years can be associated with this. ‘Cool’ had undeniable weight in our lives and surfing was fucking cool. Surfing was the shit. Just like Skylines were cool to dickheads, surfing and all that related to it allowed us to figure stuff out. Identifying others in this way gave us passage to identify ourselves and our place in the greater world. Similarly, having a surfer boyfriend allowed us to feel a part of something. We belonged and like traffic lights, we knew when to come and go. When things were vague or ‘orange’ we knew when to slow down. Surfing made sense. We understood surfing “because it was cool”.
COOL DONT PAY THE BILLS
By 2009 I had over indulged. For years surfing and surfer boys had been my gateway drug. I was the fat kid at a child’s birthday party that circled the food table like a shark. My brain had been baked in a salty oven and it needed to cool.
I was in my early 20s, I had in some small part imprinted my name on most Australian surf mags and to be fair, many surf journos were lyrically experimenting with their writing styles, and it was good. A sense of raw authenticity was emerging with styles mimicking that of Bukowski and Kerouac. It was cliche but it was a pleasant dilution. But even still, with this diverse injection of flavour, the world of surfing was small, and I longed for big.
Beaches, bikinis and sunsets took a back seat. Surf commerce was dying a slow death. I wasn’t interested in who the hottest surfer was and my superficial views of ‘surfers’ was at an all time high. The metro-sexual trend had taken full effect and surfing suddenly represented narrow-mindedness, lack of ambition and an obstacle to personal growth, for this reason I didn’t want to be with or date a surfer. Instead, I spent time with tech heads that filled my brain with concepts like augmented reality, visionaries that broke down mental barriers, and writers whom opened my mind to philosophy. I started engaging with people I never usually would have associated with. The world was a different place, it was bigger, scarier but exciting, it became a place with more opportunity.
Sometimes I think the shift was about the coin. A drift subliminally related to money. When I was 21 my brother asked me “Do you really just want to write for surf mags? There’s not much money in that.” And at the time I thought, yeah this is the best, what a great lifestyle as I collected shrapnel from bottoms of bags for a morning coffee. Money prevails. Money talks. And I was listening to that debilitating internal echo of “cool don’t pay the bills, honey”.
OOOP THERE GOES GRAVITY
Listening to people flex their intellectual muscle can often be much more of a show than a process of learning. It’s amazing how unbearably obnoxious life becomes the more educated and evolved you become, plus the further you distance yourself from saltwater. And, while I’d been away from surfing and it’s cultural intricacies for quite some time, I’d also failed to realise that that too was in a state of constant evolve, for the good.
It’s 2015 and the reality is, I’ve missed surfing. I’ve missed the ease of life that surfing so casually brings. I’ve missed the tan. I’ve missed the daily dose of naturally occurring magnesium; the most powerful relaxation mineral readily available to us. I’ve missed the menagerie of colourful characters that inhabit this world of surfing, whom are now a diverse bunch of creatures that see the sport as an achor and not a box. I’ve even missed the odd dickhead that’s still doing burnouts in his ‘98 Skyline in the car park. And, without leaving shallowness in the 90s, I’ve really missed the man babes.
Of course, people don’t really run belly button piercings these days, and believe me I’d judge you if you did, but I do think it’s become a beautifully disorganised motley of intrigue. Sure, you can sense someone’s a surfer, but you can’t really define them by it, just like you shouldn’t define someone by their job or who they date. Cool then and now are two totally different things. Cool is about the new, unexplored, anything that will ‘blow your mind’ instead of your gear. It’s about a personal sense of awe over the collective. Let’s not forget the influence of the world wide web and how for surfers, that has made a big world small and a small world big. Allowing the sport and lifestyle to access innovation, technology and locations like never before. The fact surfing is becoming more and more diluted, a sobering hybrid with other sports, is testament to the fact it’s more of a lifestyle than a culture in which to assimilate.
Sure, I’m older and wiser and I don’t care about accessories anymore, so my epiphany is hardly isolated. But, surfing again made me feel grounded, it restored something I felt I’d lost. ‘Cool’ was just a pre-meditated sidekick to surfing I didn’t really understand. I’ve stopped blaming surfing for my season of creative conflict, and I thank it for pushing me outside of my comfort zone. And while this ‘great return to surfing’ may sound pretty soppy and lame to you, I’m loving it, because to me, right now, it’s fucking cool.