Skateboarding in 2016 is a lot of things. Popular, super-skilled, commercial, almost in the Olympics… one thing it isn’t is punk or remotely alternative. Brands are the puppet-masters. Almost every council has a skate park. Heaps of kids from primary school-age and up have skateboards, with many parents shuttling them to skate lessons on the nights they’re not playing football or learning the guitar. Skateboarders are no longer misfits with no mates; they’re the well-liked kids with the pretty girlfriends.
In many ways this is a triumph for skateboarding, but it’s hard not to think that something has been lost along the way. Yet on the women’s side things are very different. The scene is still small, with few participants, very little money involved and barely any outside recognition or brand support. And it’s so much more interesting for that.
As the editor of Kingpin Jan Kliewer wrote this week, while interviewing the Swedish skater Sarah Meurle: “At a time where skateboarding is so accepted and trendy I feel like female skaters are the only real underground skaters left, facing many of the obstacles older skaters still romanticise, like being an outcast, being different and/or underground… it’s [still] about full on passion for what you love, letting the strange looks of others roll off your back, doing your thing on the fringe."
Sarah Meurle, who he was interviewing at the time, agreed, saying: “Female skaters are sort of where skateboarding was in the 80s or early 90s, rare and being looked at as different. It’s a tight community, the chance of meeting a female skater while travelling for example and not having any friends in common with her doesn’t really occur. I think one effect of skateboarding being so big now, is that all of a sudden the women have become more interesting than the men. Because they haven’t been exposed as much."
Skateboarding wasn’t always a bro fest. Patti McGee, the first ever female pro, was on the cover of Life Magazine back in 1965, while Peggy Oki was on the Z-Boys Zephyr team in Dogtown in the 1970s, alongside Tony Alva and Jay Adams. But in the 80s skate brands dealt with the dwindling popularity of their sport by more aggressively targeting that notional teenage skater boy which they still sell to today. Cara-Beth Burnside still bagged a Thrasher cover back in 1989 though and Elissa Steamer inspired many of today’s women skaters in the early 90s.
But a women’s scene as such never took off, though today it might well be about to. And not because of any brand seeing the potential in women’s skating either, the growing depth and talent is thanks to a cluster of women who got bored of loving skateboarding yet feeling there wasn’t a space within it for them, so they decided to do something about it.
As the US pro and X Games Street Skate Gold Medallist Lacey Baker says: “We have to make things happen for ourselves because nobody is going to do it for us! As a community of girl shredders, it's so important to do this shit for ourselves, to create a space for us where there wasn't always one."
The best UK female skater of this millennium, now the chair of Skateboard England, Lucy Adams, agrees. She says:
“I think the reason women have had to do it themselves in skateboarding is because things just weren't happening or if they were, they weren't happening in the right way! For example, girls practice times or comp times at events used to be early doors before anyone else was even up! It was always an afterthought and it showed. The really good girls events that have developed as a result put the focus on girls and take everyone's needs into account."
"Female skaters are the only real underground skaters left, facing many of the obstacles older skaters still romanticise, like being an outcast, being different…"
Lucy Adams set up She Shredders, a girls’ only night in Brighton, which has won awards for getting girls into skating. She says: “Girls’ nights have become a 'thing' because the evidence shows that it’s working. It makes women feel that there is a space for them to give it a go!"
Another pioneering UK skater is Jenna Selby. She started skating at Southbank in the late 90s. In 2001 she founded the Girl Skate Jam contest to give girls a chance to compete with each other and in 2005 she set up the female board brand Rogue Skateboards. She’s since filmed two European girls’ skateboard films. I asked her where her motivation came from?
“Skate parks are great places but can be daunting, even for the most foolhardy female when you’ve got 30 lads flying around. Lack of media coverage also plays a big part in encouraging women to do their own thing. There are lots of incredible female riders out there but only the occasional shot or clip appearing in a main skate magazine – even now with so much content available online."
“When I first started out there seemed to be a large proportion of girls who disappeared from the scene when they hit their teens, I believe mainly due to lack of female role models to identify with. There are very few board companies in the UK who have female team riders (aside from Rogue which is female-specific, Lovenskate is the only one that actually comes to mind)."
“To counteract this, over the years, female skaters have organised comps and set up female only skate nights to promote female skateboarding because really there is no one else who will."
Dani Gallacher, who runs the blog Girl Skate UK, agrees. She says: “The growth of female skateboarding, in this country at least, has been massively driven by a DIY ethos. Ladies all around the country are now starting to take it upon themselves to start up nights at their own parks, as a means of getting more beginners and young ones into the 'sport', as well as creating a regular meeting place for those who already participate."
“[The growth] is also hopefully due to gender stereotypes in general being broken down across the globe, not just in sport but in all walks of life."
For Jenna Selby, there are massive pros from that DIY ethos. She says: “It means girls aren’t tied to doing anything in a particular way because they aren’t doing it on behalf of a company or organisation. The individual who organises the events or creates the films can essentially do exactly what they want to."
For Kim Woozy, founder of women’s action sports channel, Mahfia TV, the internet played a big part in bringing women skaters together. She says:
“In the beginning there was a desire (and necessity) [for women skaters] to fit in under the umbrella of "men’s" skateboarding because there just weren't enough other women involved. Skateboarding was counter culture back then and being a woman meant being a minority within a counter culture community."
“However over time, the female skate community grew much bigger and just in the past five years we have new tools and resources (internet/social media) to identify new participants and communicate and connect with them."
We now have women’s events, skate companies, all-female films, non-profit organisations and more. And Kim Woozy feels that unique female gender traits have made all this possible. She says: “In the end, women are the ones that care about women. We are very capable, much more social and have much smaller egos than guys -- so we have a huge advantage when it comes to being self-sufficient and working with each other."
Not all skaters feel that women necessarily need their own agenda though, as UK skater Helena Long says:
“Girls only skate nights, films and brands are more there to encourage women to see that skateboarding is for anyone and everyone and completely inclusive…[they are] more there for those that aren't as confident to skate amongst the guys (hopefully only to start with) because of course it is quite a male-dominated world. However, guy or girl it doesn't matter you'll always be part of skateboarding and welcomed with open arms."
Sarah Meurle also never felt the need for a girls-only space to skate. She told Kingpin: “I think the most idiotic comments I would face [when] walking with my skateboard down the street would be from guys who don’t skate themselves. The skaters have usually treated me with respect… I was more nervous going to the all girls’ skate evenings by myself at Bryggeriet than I was going with my friends from school. I just wanted to skate with my friends, who were all boys, at the time."
Erika Kinast is the development director of the remarkable NGO Skateistan, which seeks to educate and empower kids in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa through skateboarding. She’s also a long time skater. Her view of the evolution of women’s skate is:
|“One really cool thing about women's skateboarding being so small for so long is that you knew anyone who was sticking with it for a long time wasn't really doing it because they could make a career out of it (not that there is anything wrong with that), but they just genuinely loved this thing. That's makes for a pretty special dynamic and pushes the scene along in a really interesting way. For me, it's always been a lot of fun and has taken me on some crazy adventures with some really special people." |
One such crazy adventure took her to Afghanistan to work for Skateistan. There, she has seen first hand the impact that individual girls can have on skateboarding, and skateboarding on them. She says:
“Pretty much any girl in Afghanistan who has ever picked up a skateboard has made a huge change in skateboarding. They've also changed how the rest of the world thinks about skateboarders and skateboarding. How cool is it, that despite everything, Afghanistan has the highest percentage of women skateboarding in the world? The 50 per cent female skateboarders in Afghanistan have proven that it's not that women aren't interested or can't take part, it's just that there are certain barriers that need to be overcome to get and keep girls involved."
“And these girls have influenced much more, not just with Skateistan but I think there has been a huge change in expectations and assumptions about women in sports more generally, which has been sparked by the improbability of girls skateboarding in Afghanistan."
“One really good example is Tin in Cambodia. She's a talented skateboarder and such a good person and a lot of young people really look up to her. I've heard her speak about how skateboarding is for everyone and how important it is to encourage each other. She puts herself out there in so many ways, be it filming a skateboard clip or speaking at public events about Children's Rights or gender equality. She's already done so much for women in skateboarding in Cambodia and she's only 22. It will be exciting to see the whole next generation of girls skating in Cambodia that have been inspired by Tin!"
The future of women’s skateboarding won’t be obvious or brought to us by shiny corporate sponsors. It’ll be made from within and all the brighter for that. I know I’ll be watching and you should too.
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