How skirt-boarders will take over the world, and why they haven’t yet already
This story originally appeared in the March 2019 print edition of The DePaulia
Often ignored in a male-dominated subculture, female skateboarders have taken it upon themselves to provide their own outlets of representation in media — creating videos, websites, clothing companies, “zines,” and girls-only skate groups.
Many female skaters have breathed a sigh a relief when House of Vans opened this year in Chicago, giving the city its first platform for female-focused groups like Meow Skateboards, Villa Villa Cola, and Girls Skate Network. These networks are celebrated by female skaters, as mainstream skate media often shuns them and supports perspectives that skating is not for girls.
Where does idea come from that women can’t skate? Surprisingly, people justify it in a range of ways. “Maybe because it’s a bloody sport,” says Amaan Malik, a 21 year old former-pro skateboarder. “You get injured a lot. It hurts. It’s that testosterone or that masculinity that makes you want to do that.”
Malik’s vague references to gendered body chemicals has little credibility, nor do other scientific arguments behind the same claim.
“It’s because men hold their weight in their shoulders, and women in their hips.” says Emily Kuperman, a 20 year old female skater.
Kuperman makes a good point, that the differences and anatomy between men and women might necessitate a different approach to learning a new trick. However, no anatomy is better or worse.
“Look at all the other balance-centered sports,” says Natalie Porter, a librarian and scholar on female skating in Canada, “that include both genders — dance, gymnastics, diving, snowboarding, skiing — all of them are focused on balance which is different not just from male to female but from body to body. None is necessarily better or worse than the other. Just require different approaches from person to person.”
The idea that anatomy or biology has something to do with men being more dominant in a sport than women is a dangerous one with a great deal of history behind it. In the 1800’s doctors considered women to have weaker bones, and that sports were dangerous for them. It’s pervasive, still affecting even women’s thoughts to this day.
“I understand that skating might be harder for me because I’m a woman.” says Bridget Brownlee, echoing a myth about anatomy, although she has been skating in Columbus in Chicago for 8 years. “Yes I love to skate and I think more women should do it. I do feel though that it’s harder just because of our bodies and the female anatomy.”
Perhaps the problem centers around women comparing the way they skate to men in the first place. “On the professional level, there have been so many girls and women that have contributed so much,” says professional skateboarder Patrick O’Dell, “It’s absolutely insane to discredit them.”
The efforts of the non-profit Skateistan, which provides skate lessons and play spaces to children in Kabul, show how skating has nothing to do with gender. The group reports that the children showing interest in skating are equal parts male and female.
“Maybe they have more girls wanting to skate because they don’t already have these preconceived ideas that they shouldn’t be doing that” says Porter. “It’s so exciting to have all these girls skating now, we can see all these styles and flairs that wouldn’t have been seen before, that require being birthed from that feminine action and mindset, that can’t even be compared to the style of skating before.”
Women have had important places in skateboarding’s history. The legendary Zephyr team — a revered name in skateboarding — was the first team to popularize skate style in the 1970’s in Southern California. They included Peggy Oki, who was skating in the surfing offseason.
Fans of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater will know Elissa Steamer as a member of skating elite, where she still sits, just recently getting signed to Baker Skateboards. Even in the underground, where videos like PJ Ladd’s Wonderful Horrible Life have influenced street skaters for decades, people can see Alexis Sablone rocking it alongside the boys.
However, these are usually token appearances none feature more than one women among nearly a dozen men. And, they are the exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of skateboarding videos which are important to the sports history feature no clips of women.
“People think I’m skating to impress boys, which makes no sense because it’s literally the least sexy sport ever,” says Jessica Hoyne, who has been skating around Chicago since she was fourteen. “And then when I insist that no, I’m not,” she laughs, “Well, then I’m a lesbian. I’m a dyke.”
The past year has seen more progress in the scene of women skating in Chicago than perhaps all years before, combined. A Google search about female skaters in Chicago shows a pitiful result — little more than a Reddit post seeking out any female skaters on the internet to skate (with no replies) and a Facebook group with a few members and no activity in 4 years (the group discussed an girls-only meet-up, although it appears to have never materialized).
The House of Vans has brought a fresh wave of energy to Chicago’s skate scene, which has been dry since Uprise videos 1990s. Along with the establishment of this house, dedicating to hosting affordable events to teach skateboarding and disseminate skateboard culture (and not at all with the interest of selling Vans) comes a female employee who has already hosted two girls-only skate events.
The first, over the past summer, helped beginner females build their own skateboard decks and learn how to ride ramps.
“It was awesome seeing girls not afraid to fall or look stupid on their boards, just because it was only other girls around, who were at the same level.” says Hoyne about the first girls-only event she attended at House of Vans. “Everyone was just laughing. It wasn’t that serious but we were all still learning.”