My two older brothers were obsessed with skating growing up. They were infatuated with hugely accomplished skaters like Tony Hawk and Bam Margera – both pioneering (male) figures in the industry. I remember them spending the six long weeks over the school summer in Swansea’s Victoria skatepark in complete carefree bliss. Scraping and re-scraping their knees, scuffing their shoes and eating ice cream.
I happily sat at the side and watched the boys being boys, and never did little me think much about getting on the board myself. Deep down, I never thought it was something I could do – at least not very well, anyway. Having never really occurred to me until now, why have I always considered skateboarding a boys sport?
The sport of skateboarding has finally been acknowledged professionally, and as of this year was meant to be making its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo games, with both male and female athletes competing. Despite a handful of prominent female trailblazers dotted through the sport's history (Patti McGee in the 60’s, Peggy Oki in the 70’s and Cara-Beth Burnside in the 90’s), professional skateboarding and its media coverage and sponsorship in the past have been saturated by men. Once a sport portrayed as ‘boyish’ and too rough for little girls to be involved in; the skating scene is finally changing.
There are various theories about the origins of skateboarding, but it is generally held that the sport began in the 1940’s on the west coast of the USA when metal wheels were attached to a narrow wooden board. In the 1950’s, plastic replaced metal as the material of choice for the wheels, and the first ‘Roller Surfboard’ became commercially available, which in turn developed into the skateboard that we know today. The sport was a hit with the younger generation and grew in global popularity during the 1980’s and 90’s.
Attending an arts university; I see my fair share of skater boys roaming the hallways. With the rolled-up beanie hats, baggy jeans and oversized, probably vintage workwear jackets; the style is effortlessly cool. The same goes for skater girls – if you ever see one.
Someone who knows what it’s like to be a girl in a sea of skater boys is Toni Hauf, an Erasmus student studying in London from Augsburg, Germany.
“Sports used to be decided into feminine and male sections: yeah, sure, you’re a girl, go ahead and do anything, but board sports? No way!” she said. “Skating has for a long time been viewed as un-feminine, probably because of the whole culture it stands for too: from invading spots that aren’t legal to skate at, to wearing baggy jeans and skate shoes. It goes the other way around for men to make it in feminine sports: gymnastics for example was for a very long time pretty exclusive too, let’s not forget about that.”
According to organisation Skate Review, as of 2017, in the US 77.1% of all skaters were male. For many girls wanting to get into the sport; it’s the fact that it has always been seen as ‘boyish’ that makes it harder to break into it.
“My male friends used to go together,” Hauf said. “We live together, and they urged me to come with them. My boyfriend was really into skating, but I didn’t want to be the kind of girl that does something just because her boyfriend liked it, even though I was interested. This offered me a way to get into it anyway.”
When skating first began, the communities of skaters were heavily dominated by men. “The first woman to ever be portrayed in Thrasher magazine wasn’t until 1989!” Toni told me. Cara-Beth Burnside was the first woman to be featured on the cover of Thrasher in 1989 and became the first woman to have a signature skate shoe in 1999. At 35, Burnside was named Transworld Magazine's Female Skateboarder of the Year. “Although I feel like change is coming it’s happening slowly.”
However, it’s groups like Girls Can’t Skate that are taking a stand against the gender gap in the sport and making conscious efforts to shake the stereotypes with girls in skating. Started as a WhatsApp group by Kellie Simpson, skateboarder and co-founder of the organisation – it has since helped hundreds of girls across the UK break into skating. With the support of huge companies like House of Vans in London, the skateboarding brand has filled a group of railway arches beneath Waterloo station with concrete bowls and mini-ramps, and a girls’ skate night has been running since 2015 to get more women using the space. When it first started, you’d be lucky to see 30 girls taking part. Now, you’re more likely to see 300. As the nights have grown, everything from yoga sessions and DJ’s to nail art and stalls selling skate gear have been added to the mix.
Hauf acknowledges this. “There aren’t a lot of communities as open-minded as the skate community.” Toni said. “If you go to a skate park by yourself it probably won’t take long to get into a group of people, get some tips about your failing nose-grind or hit a joint together (it might be a cliché but turned out to be true many times). Everyone knows the struggle of getting a trick done, and the whole community has a strong bond because of challenges like this.
“Unlike other sports you can do it anywhere and anytime,” she adds. “You don’t need a lot of equipment or a whole team to do it, and it feels much more like hanging out with your friends than going to the gym. And the feeling you get when you land the trick you’ve been trying for what seems like ages? No words for that.”
Even if participation in the sport is still male-heavy; in the last decade some huge changes have come about. From all-girl skate crews, to guys encouraging their female friends to join in – no longer do you need to be a tomboy or ‘boyish’ to be accepted as a part of the crew. Now, when I think of the skating scene and how far it’s come, I’d like to think that if I went with my little sisters to Victoria Skate park these some ten years later; that their skinny legs would too be scratched and bruised up from their many attempts and fails to get on the board.