A large portion of our society is defined by labels, and the life of a surfer is no different. Professional, amateur, ripper, kook, grom, local, poser, shortboarder, longboarder, sponger – all are labels used to remove people from the general category of “surfer” and identify them according to more specific characteristics. I never really took the time to dwell on the extent to which labels affect people until a recent interaction I had out in the water.

After about half an hour of struggling to get my beer-saturated muscles to remember how to keep my out-of-shape ass afloat, I finally managed to drop in on one of the larger waves of a late-afternoon set. It was not until I stood up that I realized the size of this wave was a smidge outside of my comfort zone. I looked down through the shallow, low-tide water at the unwelcome sight of jagged rocks and decided to try to ride this one out rather than bail early.

Thankfully, luck was on my side that day and I managed to ride away without an up-close and personal encounter with the bottom of the ocean. Although a minor personal victory, the incident put a proud smile on my face. As I was paddling back out, someone in the lineup decided to congratulate me with the comment, “Good job, girl.”

Although I was flattered that someone else had considered my exploits noteworthy, the addition of that last word “girl” caught me off guard. Yes, I do realize that I am in fact a girl, but I fail to see the connection between my vagina and the fact that I can ride a wave every once in a while without eating shit. Something about that label seemed to insinuate that staying vertical would be commonplace and expected of any man, but for girls this is an event worth commenting on.

I don’t want to come across as just another man-hating feminist. Trust me, I like men, a lot. I’m also pretty sure this guy didn’t mean to put me down in any way. Perhaps I am just sensitive because, for the past nine years, I have been struggling to break into the “surfer” category rather than always being identified as “a girl who surfs.” Just when I thought I had made some headway in this quest, some dude I don’t know inadvertently halted my progress.

Labels are an easy way to identify a person without taking the effort to get to know who that person really is, which is exactly the problem I have with being labeled a girl surfer, or anything else. You would never compliment someone you don’t know by saying, “Good job, old guy.” Why do I have to put up with “Good job, girl”?