“At five or six is when the older boys come, and that’s when we leave.”
Charlie, Olivia, and Matilda are at an otherwise empty Telegraph Hill skatepark, in south-east London. It’s midday on a Wednesday and they’re taking a break from their uni work. Charlie arrives first, her hair back in a ponytail and wearing flared jeans. Olivia and Matilda follow shortly after, the latter wearing a yellow puffer jacket matching the strangely sunny February day. “In the early days we did come at normal times,” says Matilda, “but we realised quite quickly how uncomfortable we were when there’s a lot of people in the skatepark. That’s when the early mornings started; we’d come at 7 am so we wouldn’t run into people.”
When Matilda says people, she mostly means guys. Male skateboarders. The dominant force in the sport/culture. She, together with Charlie, Olivia and a few other girls, belongs to Cheapskates, a female skateboarding crew.
While they’ve moved on from the early mornings at the skatepark, and have built some relationship with the guys at their local, they still avoid prime-time, and wouldn’t dream of going to certain skateparks, such as the newly opened Crystal Palace park, where they’ve jointly put together the description of a place filled with: “angry-looking skaters wearing beanies and North Face jackets,” they say laughing, adding that they know they wouldn’t feel comfortable there.
Cheapskates are still in the early stages of learning, they jokingly warn me they’re “not too good” as we sit on top of the concrete ramp to have a chat, and eat some grapes, before they show me what they’ve got on the decks.
When they do eventually get on their boards, they seem comfortable practising together. But that’s not often the case for a lot of female skateboarders.
Most people in the skateboarding community will agree it’s a highly male-dominated sport. With it’s upcoming introduction to the 2020 Olympics featuring both male and female categories, it seems obvious that there are female skateboarders out there, yet one will still often struggle to catch sight of them around London’s skateparks. Why?
Skateboarding through the ages
Skateboarding first came to be in the 1950s, after surfers decided to bring their unique way of navigating water onto the streets.
It was in the 80s and 90s, after the invention of VHS added the key component of filming to skateboarding culture, that the sport greatly increased its popularity. So how does the scene for female skateboarders in that era compare to that of today?
Someone who knows very well is Lucy Adams.
She’s one of the most influential women in skateboarding in the UK, a professional skateboarder, and three-time champion in the UK skateboarding championships, among other titles. She started skating in 1997, when she says there were a lot fewer people doing it: “If you met somebody in the street, or saw somebody in DCs or Etnies or that type of shoe, you’d feel a bond with them, and you’d kinda’ nod and make an acknowledgement,” she says.
“Nowadays I can turn up to a skatepark,” continues Lucy, “and there could be 50 to 60 skaters there, and I might not necessarily talk to people; we’re all in little fractions, in little groups.”
The male to female ratio seems to have shortened with this massive increase in numbers, but it’s far from reaching a balance.
Professor Holly Thorpe is also an influential woman in the world of action sports, and she believes this imbalance persists today due to the beginnings of skateboarding. Holly has a PhD in women in action sport cultures and is an acting senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.
But Holly has also recently been working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to help them understand how to include new sports into the Olympics, such as skateboarding, in a way that is culturally appropriate, considering the unique cultural values in these sports.
“As a sociologist, we tend to look at the culture of the sport: is it gender inclusive? Does it celebrate diversity?” explains Holly. “And we sometimes need to look at the history of these sports and how they developed. If you go back to the history of skateboarding and how it developed in the US, for example, and you watch Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peggy Oki was there; an Asian-American woman who was there right at the beginning of skateboarding culture with an incredible aesthetic. So there are women in the beginning of skate culture, but in the minority.”
Lucy agrees that the roots of the sport are possibly the main reason it still is highly male-dominated today. “I guess it’s down to the people who started doing it. Someone, somewhere, invented skateboarding and we probably know that person to be a male and it kinda’ just carried on at the time when it was new and people were seeing it for the first time.”
But the skating culture has also changed greatly in regards to style: “In the 80s and 90s there was a very masculine style,” says Holly. “Back in the day when I was starting snowboarding I actually loved being mistaken for a boy. I loved that gender playfulness that can happen in these sports. But for some women that’s totally off-putting. Particularly when you get into those teenage years and they think that they’re gonna be mistaken for a boy or a lesbian – God forbid, a lesbian! – But for some women that was a scary concept, that they had to fit into that skateboarder model or they couldn’t be a skateboarder.”
“But now I think we’re not seeing that,” continues Holly. “We’re seeing Nora [Vasconcellos] skate in lavender jeans, [in an Adidas documentary] but we’re also seeing women completely not embracing any of those traditional female marks as well. And it’s not just women. Some men can play with aspects of femininity. Where in more traditional sports, men have to be big, strong, and masculine, in skateboarding they can have a different type of aesthetic and move in very beautiful ways. Sports like skateboarding can be a space for gender playfulness, where young women and young men can play with femininity, masculinity, and the fluidity of it, I think that’s awesome and we’re moving in that direction; they’re like ‘No, no, we’re pushing the boundaries a little bit’ and that can help defy stereotypes as well of what it means to be a woman who skateboards.”
Holly sees a major shift in how women have been depicted in skateboarding culture through the decades too.
“What we see in skateboarding culture now is no longer reliant on what we saw in the 90s, which was through two main sources: the skateboarding magazines and the videos. Those were edited and produced by men, so we saw fewer women in those and we saw them framed up in the ways men wanted to frame them.
“Now we have social media and I think we’re seeing a wave in women skateboarding because of that. Women are filming themselves, or filming each other, and they can produce their own types of representations in some cases, which gives more space to represent themselves the way they want to, and to support each other.”
Cheapskates, who use Instagram to showcase themselves and connect with other skateboarders, feed into this. “Cheapskates is a very picture-based concept with memes and stuff,” says Matilda, “so it makes sense for us to use Instagram. It’s especially quite a nice platform because it has a lot of diversity, and it’s an easy place to find other girl skaters, and see what they’re doing.”
“We’ve met so many people through Instagram,” says Charlie. “Basically everyone we know in the skate community is through Instagram.”
Yeah, pretty much everyone,” agrees Matilda. “It’s an easy platform to get people to interact with.”
Not a Covergirl
Although female skateboarders are taking matters into their own hands and representing themselves on social media, the lack of coverage and the less than equal way women are often depicted in mainstream skateboarding culture stand out.
Take Thrasher. Even if you don’t skate or know anything about it, chances are you’ve heard of the magazine and brand.
Thrasher started as a skateboarding magazine and is now one of the most influential and mainstream skating clothing brands, with many non-skateboarders wearing branded t-shirts and hoodies as a fashion statement.
Jorge Higgins started skating when he was 14. He has since then helped run events both nationally and internationally and is a skate instructor in London. Jorge says: “Thrasher is the original skate magazine, it’s been around the longest and they make some of the best videos and do the best promotion, but everyone knows about it because it’s also a clothing brand.”
Yet Thrasher doesn’t exactly give a lot of representation to women skateboarders. The first woman to appear on a Thrasher Magazine cover was Cara-Beth Burnside, in 1989, eight years after the magazine was first published. Since then, women’s faces on Thrasher covers have been scarce. 2017 saw Lizzie Armanto as the only woman for the whole year’s covers on May’s issue. No women in 2016.
There are less female skateboarders than men, so it’s understandable that there would be fewer women featured, but the representation is practically non-existent.
The brand has, however, featured women as part of one of their t-shirt designs. Thrasher first came out with the “Oh God! Why can’t my boyfriend skate?!” t-shirts 24 years ago. 297 issues later, according to Thrasher, this has become the longest-running t-shirt design of the brand, without counting the magazine logo t-shirt itself.
So what is the problem with a slogan like this?
Jorge says: “It’s a very macho sort of joke, isn’t it? The owner of Thrasher is profoundly known for being a bit inappropriate towards everyone. It defines the idea that not many girls come skating, and that when girls come to the skatepark they don’t come to skate, they come to eye-up guys.”
Artist Robin Eisenberg was commissioned by Thrasher to do the re-make illustration pictured above of the original t-shirt design, but says she never intended for it to be a pushback for female skaters.
“I guess for me, as someone who has only ever drawn female skateboarders, my brain immediately thought of it as a scenario where the woman in the picture is a skater herself and is wishing her boyfriend was also a skater and not so square. But, I’m not sure whether that was the intent/idea of the original shirt.”
Robin continues: “I agree so much that there is absolutely not enough representation of female skateboarders – it’s something that I think desperately needs changing. I do feel like it is moving towards that change, which is wonderful, and I hope that it just keeps shifting. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to work on a lot of skateboarding art/projects that feature women as the central character (and not as a less prominent element alongside a skateboarding boyfriend.)
Thrasher were contacted but did not comment.
Cheapskates see cases of misrepresentation in the media, or lack of it, happening across other online magazines as well. “There are hardly any skate mags that share female content,” says Matilda. “Most magazines or online platforms don’t tend to have many female skaters, it tends to be female-based skate groups, or skaters, who promote themselves [on social media] and when it’s a female skater, she does tend to have a bigger audience than most male skaters. So they’ll have loads of followers but not a skate mag that features them.”
For Holly, the representation problem of women in skateboarding is tied in with over-sexualisation, “that stuff has been around for so long. Naked girls on the bottom of skateboards, those kinds of graphics… Skateboarding has always been a space for young, patriarchal, masculinity, where the homosocial relationships between young men often require the excluding or marginalisation of other men who don’t fit into their type of grouping, and often, women,” she says.
From a pro skateboarder’s perspective, the issue seems to be taking a more optimistic turn, though. “Media representation has been disappointing, but it’s looking so much better,” says Lucy. “I don’t really remember a female cover here in Europe of any of the major players, especially in the UK, there’s never been a female on a couple of the national magazines, although they’ve been featured quite heavily in it now, and over the last five years.”
Lucy continues. “Brands are really into it [now]. I have magazines wanting to work with me and I know there’s loads of other girls who are getting those inquiries now that just weren’t happening before. It’s nuts the amount of time I’ve been featured in mainstream magazines such as Women’s Health & Fitness, or Just Seventeen, but I wasn’t necessarily being featured by any of the skateboarding press, so definitely things are changing, and it’s really good.”
This shift is resonating at the skateparks. In London, Girl-Only nights have been sprouting up around some of the capital’s most notorious parks, Bay Sixty6 and House of Vans.
Cheapskates head to the monthly Girls’ Night at House of Vans in Waterloo, where they’ve been hosting these events for the past three years. The house is flooded with girls all ages and the DJs are blasting female anthems that echo through the re-purposed tunnels of the skatepark. Cheapskates seem a bit uncomfortable at first, the ramps are busy to the point where there’s almost no space to skate. They eventually find their space and start practising a trick.
“Things like the Girls Skate Night at House of Vans really help,” says Matilda. “You get a completely different adrenaline rush, if we went to House of Vans when that wasn’t on we probably wouldn’t do anything.”
“They’re really nice,” agrees Olivia. “There’s a lot of girls like us who are intimidated to go to the skatepark, who are usually quite early in their learning. It’s just felt very supportive when we’ve been and a nice, fresh, positive experience. It feels nice that these spaces like House of Vans are making an active effort to get girls involved; it feels like its a supported movement rather than just girls trying.”
Holly Thorpe also sees these events as positive, “[they] can be a very supportive way to help [girls] take up the skill and evolve it so when they go to the skatepark, they feel a bit more confident to own or negotiate that space. Because skateparks are really unique spaces where it’s not like ‘okay, your turn to go!’. You gotta stand there and have confidence to drop in, and roll through, and navigate the space.”
From a local perspective, Jorge, who continually skates around London’s parks says: “They do a lot of all-girl sessions in skateparks now. I understand that for a lot of girls if there’s only guys around in the skatepark it’s a bit intimidating, due to what you can hear and what guys have said in the past. So it’s nice to encourage certain girls to go there and get confident.” Though he adds that he worries that “girls might only get comfortable when skating with girls”.
The difference in numbers when comparing female skateboarders’ presence at the skatepark and at Girls’ Nights is quite dramatic. Below is an representation of the number of female skateboarders observed at Southbank skatepark on five different days, at different times, over a two-month period; the numbers amounted to four female skateboarders, as opposed to 38 males, making 90.7% of the space at the skatepark male-dominated. On the same time period, just a few blocks away, the Girls Night event at House of Vans saw a turnout of 350 female skateboarders in just one evening.
Female skateboarders might be missing from the streets, but they’re certainly still there.
One of them is Kayleigh Hurst. She started skateboarding when she was 12 and it’s one of her biggest passions. “I wouldn’t say girl nights are necessary,” says Kayleigh, “I would say they’re crucial. We need them more than anything. There’s nothing better than being with a group of girls and having that closeness, that connection, and just not being around loads of guys laughing and giving dirty looks.”
“Being a female skater was often very intimidating,” Kayleigh continues. “I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, I’ve just fit in with the guys, but even I’ve felt like you haven’t got a place there, you don’t know where you stand. You try to play within but it’s harder. But then you see people like Lucy Adams or Lacey Baker [American professional skateboarder], you watch them skate and you know they’re skating because that’s who they are, and that’s how it’s meant to be.”
But how do these events themselves play into gender segregation in skateboarding competitions?
“Sometimes there’s the argument that at an elite level,” says Holly, “if you have female skaters competing over here [at female-only events], that takes the pressure off those other skating competitions and skate media to cover those events, or to include women in the male-dominated events, because [they may think] ‘they’ve got that thing over there so we don’t actually need to change our structures over here.’ Rather than saying ‘this is an open event, and we need to find ways to create space for women.’
Jorge has seen different sides of the argument. “People will complain that a girl is getting sponsored for being half as skilled as someone who is sponsored as male,” he says. “But some would also argue that there’s a different build for males and females. For me, I don’t see it, ‘cause I see girls who skate just as hard.”
“There was a competition a few years ago,” Jorge continues, talking about the 2017 North Carolina Downhill competition, “where Emily [Pross], a professional downhiller, was the only female who wanted to race, so they cancelled the female opens and didn’t let her compete. So she put her full-face helmet on, changed her leathers to a male’s leathers, snuck in and won the race. So why couldn’t males and females race together?”
When organising his events in London, Jorge says: “I prefer doing our events mixed gender, because I think it’s more appropriate. I like competitions where everyone can skate together and whoever does something cool can get something for free.”
So could these girl-only events at the skatepark be harming female space on elite competitions? “I think it’s not an either-or situation,” says Holly. “People like Mimi Knoop, she’s been a top female skater in the US for many years and a few years ago set up the Women’s Skate Allegiance, and has been pushing really hard with a clique of female skaters to make sure women have space in those events.
“They recently got access to a big street competition in the US, Street League, which traditionally kicked women out, so we’re seeing changes there because of this collective female action which is something to be applauded.”
So what is the solution for skateboarding to become a more inclusive sport?
“I think sometimes,” says Matilda, “guys forget we are girls in a space that is male-dominated and that sometimes, it’s just nice to have that introduction in a way, and that sometimes they need to make us feel comfortable and welcome, because we feel like we’re not welcome here. But as soon as someone’s like ‘Oh hi, are you okay?’ we feel like we can come in.”
“I think that’s where the uncomfortable feeling comes from, in knowing you’re sort of alien in the space and you don’t really feel like you should or can belong there,” says Olivia.
Holly explains how she sees the skating culture changing for female skaters.
“Afghanistan has more girls in skateboarding than any other sport there because there’s an organisation that doesn’t buy into skateboarding being a boys’ sport. And because it’s not a country that has a history of skateboarding, so boys and girls who come to this programme don’t have this idea that girls can’t do it.”
“In skating cultures,” Holly continues, “in the small town where I grew up, I looked around and I didn’t see any other girls skating, so I felt like it wasn’t a thing girls could do. Now, little girls growing up in towns across the world might not see girls around skating, but they can flick on YouTube and see that there are other amazing girls skating all around the world, so they don’t feel alone and they can get that inspiration.
“But there’s also boys watching those videos and going ‘Man, girls rip!’ It’s not just what girls imagine they can do, it’s also what boys imagine girls can do, and that helps change that boring, old-school, gender dynamic where boys can be physically capable skaters and girls are on the sidelines cheering them on and being girlfriends, we’re moving from that and girls at skateparks is no longer a crazy thing. When these girls rock up at skateparks and they own the space, those boys are also changing their perceptions of what girls can do and what skateboarding is all about.”
When asked for advice to girls who want to start skating, Kayleigh says: “grab a board, come find me, and let’s do it!”
According to Holly, the Olympics will help change skateboarding culture. “They might be a great thing in terms of creating this change, because of the visibility they’ll get as a woman standing on a podium or ripping on skateboards. Little girls around the world are gonna go like ‘Whoa, let’s give skateboarding a go!’ because they’ll see it in a new light. And once the product is selling for women in skating, then the ripple effect will hopefully come back to the female skaters themselves, who very few have the type of financial support that male skaters have.”
Cheapskates agree about the potential impact of the Olympics for female skateboarders. “It’s going to be a really great platform for boosting the profile of female skaters who are often not thought of as professionals, and for encouraging younger girls to try picking up a board. ”
We’ll have to wait and see if the Olympic Games do have a large impact on increasing the numbers and presence of female skateboarders. Until then, hopefully, the efforts being made in the skating community to invite more girls to join in and be visible will continue to increase, so that female skaters will no longer be missing from any skatepark.