Ghost Shapers In Stilettos

StilettosIllustration by Noa Emberson

This is not a lesson in history. But when Susan B. Anthony was a young girl, she asked a male schoolteacher how to do long division and he said to her: “A girl needs to know how to read The Bible and count her egg money — nothing more.” That slight was probably not the first to provoke her into a life of campaigning for women’s rights, equal pay and suffrage. Nor was that situation any more unique than any injustice women have been dealing with since day one. But luckily, for as long as women have had to work within an unjust system, there have been the rebels subverting it. Brave girls who know it ain’t just a man’s world. From Cleopatra to Joan of Arc to Harriet Tubman to Amelia Earhart to women in Saudi Arabia saying, F–k these rules — I’m driving.

But it was the late Brontë sisters, J.K. Rowling and other keepers of the nom de plume that inspired an underground network of women surfers in the mid-90s to hold that first planer. They learned — with measurable opposition — in various shaping bays around Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, with some as far afield as the North Shore, Cocoa Beach and Australia. The ones that weren’t turned away or laughed off were still made to wear baggy, oversized coveralls to hide their forms. Were made to tuck their hair under their collars to conceal their sex. Were made to don oversized dusk masks to veil the softness in their faces. The head shapers were afraid that their clientele would find out that they had women shaping in their factories. It just wasn’t normal; men made boards for men, and that’s how it’d always been.

But the thing is, the women in those bays learned astoundingly fast. They picked up those raw Clark Foam blanks and felt an instant connection. With their hands, they shaped them into something different. Something better. The paradigm really shifted when one mischievous young woman forged a very reputable shaper’s signature onto her own finished blank before it got to the glasser. This particular blank, however, was ordered for a very reputable professional surfer, one in the running for a title. A week later this surfer got his board and surfed a ‘CT event at G-Land. He won and no one had ever seen anything like it. How he’d take off at Kongs, turn through Money Trees and then sit on the foamball all the way through Speedies. He told the shaper he wanted 10 more boards just like it, that he’d never felt a connection with a board like that before.

This network of women was in communication. They even organized — though covertly — and called themselves the Guild of Female Board Makers. Others in the guild pulled the same stunt as the first one, with similar results. Soon, they told their respective head shapers what they’d done and although the shapers were furious, the feedback was too tremendous to let them go.

These were the Focus and Good Times days and surfing had taken an abrupt turn for the radical. Men were suddenly flying and spinning and wrapping roundhouse cutbacks into barrels and floating over Pipeline end-sections. There was something about those boards. The rails were never more forgiving. The curve and outline, so sensual and pleasing. The term “responsive” came into vogue whenever the pros described their feel. Nothing felt more right beneath their feet on a wave, more true beneath their chests when stroking into bombs. Thus, everyone in the guild was kept on as ghost shapers, under the condition that they’d remain concealed, covered and hidden from public knowledge.

Until.

Until one morning a few years later, a shaper walked into his factory with sleep still in his eyes to find his ghost shaper already there, shaping her most magnificent creation yet. The shaper dropped his coffee cup, the sound muted by a droning, electric hum. A woman stood before him shaping at the t-rack with her hair down and top off, in a bra and high-waisted denim leggings, seemingly levitating above the shavings, rail bands and debris in 6-inch black heels. Foam dust collected in her cleavage. Her wild hair blew back with the rush of the planer, stringer shavings and foam chips clinging to the strands. As she clutched the tool, through the white powder, her painted nails glowed a brilliant vermilion. The guild had revolted.

This woman wasn’t the only one to come in early that day. And the shapers just couldn’t bare it. They couldn’t have their team riders, their world champions and frequent buyers know that their best boards were being ghost-shaped by women. It just wasn’t natural. All the women that day were asked to leave, before the finishing touches on their last boards were made, and to never return. The incident was swept under the rug as quickly as the foam chips.

But now and then.

Now and then a few pros from that era get on a board that feels strangely familiar. One that moves beneath their feet like an old dance they’d once learned and forgotten. One that’s as stable on the foamball as being cradled in a mother’s arms. One, with a feel beneath their feet as bewitching as a woman’s touch.

—Beau Flemister