Content warning: this piece contains vulgar language and mention of sexual assault.
GIRL. THE BRAND, NOT THE GENDER.
The year was 2015. Twenty-year-old Emilie Rafnson (she/her) finally made the move: she hopped in her car to pick up her first skateboard deck from a Kijiji ad.
“I always wanted to, but my parents were like ‘Girls don’t skateboard. You’re just gonna get hurt.’ So, I never did,” said Emilie. Throughout Emilie’s teenage years, they were concerned skateboarding would take her away from her other sports and didn’t like the way she dressed because of it.
“But then, I bought a car, and was literally just like, fuck it – I’m gonna go buy a skateboard off Kijiji.” The best part? The board brand was called Girl Skateboards.
“That was the first skateboard brand to ever stand out to me,” said Emilie.
“I thought, ‘Girl, that’s me! It must be associated with girl skaters and there must be girls on the brand’s skate team!’”
Neither were true.
“Nope… There weren’t any girls on the Girl team,” said Emilie.
“That was disappointing.”
TO BE A GIRL
In 2018, Mackenzie Wagoner wrote in Vogue, “The gender bias in skateboarding has been steadily closing, thanks to a generation’s worth of hard-won victories, harder work, and spectacular talent by its female stars.” On a grand scale this may be true, but what does this look like in the skateparks and skate scenes locally? How does this impact the young men, women and non-binary folk spending hours hitting the pavement?
A diverse group of skaters move throughout the skate park, scattered across concrete steps, ramps and rails. On many, long hair comes out from beneath their helmets, flowing down their backs as they ebb and flow around the space. The wheels leave the concrete floor with ease, the board appearing to know exactly how to spin in the air and return back to its position, like an extension of the human upon it.
Two of these skaters are Maddy and Emilie, skaters recently introduced to me by a mutual friend. Maddy Nowosad (she/her) is a 21-year-old volunteer at The Edge Skatepark (the only indoor skatepark in Winnipeg) and founder of The Other Skaters zine and community. She skated for the first time at eight years old but stopped at thirteen because she had no one to skate with.
“I think a lot of people are like me. When I wanted to start skateboarding, I didn’t know any other girls that skated,” said Emilie, who is now 25, a sponsored skater, volunteer at The Edge, and one of the women cruising around the park in front of me. Maddy nodded in agreement. “Every time I had driven by a skate park, I had only ever seen guys. For a lot of female and non-traditional skaters, you don’t know of any skater you’ve ever seen that looks like you.”
Non-traditional skaters refers to those who don’t fit the cis-male stereotype of a skateboarder. This includes skaters who are trans, queer, female, non-binary, or anyone else in the LGBTQIA2S+ community.
Even finding equipment is a barrier for these women. “In Winnipeg, the skate shops just don’t really cater to women,” Emilie said. “Even going shopping for skate shoes is tough because they don’t carry our sizes.”
It’s true. Real skate shoes aren’t just any old runners or sneakers, but shoes with insoles designed for impact, soles designed for grip, and thick upper material to withstand the friction of the skateboard while doing tricks. Regular shoes don’t give as much ‘board feel’ and make for much less control over the skateboard, and these are women who would know.
I asked the pair about what it’s like to be women in the skate world, and Maddy paused as she chose her next words carefully.
“You are always a noticeable minority in the park, especially at outdoor parks. Unless we have the session at The Edge where it’s exclusively for girls and non-binary folks, we are always a minority,” she said. “Last summer we started keeping a record of what people would say to us and how many times each session we would get a comment. Whether it was about being queer or whether it was just about being a girl in the park… we basically couldn’t go a session without something.”
“Even if it’s not directed straight to me, I hear so many loud conversations or comments just full of homophobic slurs tossed around skate parks – and I just write them down in my phone.”
“Not to mention,” continued Maddy, “being asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman in the skate world?’ is often all women skaters get asked in interviews. They may have a video or shoes or a brand coming out, but they don’t get to talk about that fun stuff. They have to answer those questions about their identity,” she said.
IN THE CENTRE AND AT THE MARGINS
“Everyone’s noticing you and it feels like everyone is looking at you, and yet you feel like an outsider. It’s both of those things simultaneously. I know what it feels like, just to be watched.” said Maddy.
The uncertainty and lack of belonging that women, girls, and underrepresented skaters often express when talking about their experiences in the skateboarding community can be explained by Gillian Rose’s concept of paradoxical space, found in her book Feminism & Geography. Objectified, yet not entitled to be there. Watched, but not invited. Self-consciously aware of being judged by the male gaze but feeling as though they should minimize how much space they fill, both in the centre and at the margins of skateboarding culture, all at once.
“That feeling of being at the centre and having everybody’s eyes on me, of being looked at and being different than everyone else there… That’s what kept me out of skate parks for the longest time,” said Emilie.
This tension has complicated effects. Rose theorizes how you can experience being an insider and outsider simultaneously, socially and spatially. Feeling like an insider might happen for female skateboarders who experience a sense of belonging when they feel competent and confident at the skatepark, but this sense of belonging might also be undermined if their visibility as a girl skateboarder generates too much attention, creating a feeling of, once again, being an outsider.
When a skateboard is in hand, women from all over oftenexperience the same phenomenon: the age-old interrogation from a male, “Can you even kickflip?”.
SAME SCENE, DIFFERENT EARS
Naturally, anyone may feel nervous starting out with skateboarding. It’s a scary and intimidating thing for anyone when they’re starting out something new, but that’s not the point.
“There’s an added layer if you’re a woman or anyone who’s an underrepresented or non-traditional skater. There’s a visible indication that you are not the same as the cis, straight, white male skater who’s the overwhelming majority,” said Maddy.
Now back to Maddy’s list of derogatory comments.
“A couple people have been curious or in disbelief and asked me what my experiences have been like. I’m like, ‘Well, I can give you a couple of examples off my list!’ A lot of cis-men don’t believe it’s actually that bad, but when you pull a direct quote off the list, they’re like, ‘Oh shit, that actually happened?’” she mimicked with a laugh.
“They always say they’ve never said anything like that, or even that they’ve never heard those things yelled before, but we still hear it every time we skate,” said Maddy.
“It’s because they’re not actively listening for it,” Emilie chimed in. “It’s not directed at them. They don’t pick it up the same way we do.”
AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S JUST BUSINESS
Mimi Knoop, an accomplished pro skater who founded the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance and sits on the board of USA Skateboarding, says women still aren’t equally represented in magazines, skate videos, and sponsorships, and there is a real gender pay gap in the industry. Professional skateboarders primarily make money through sponsorships and competitions, while other sectors such as equipment, products, clothing, fashion, media and skate shops also offer careers.
Thrasher Magazine is the longest-running, best-selling skateboard magazine of all time. The publication features skateboard and music-related articles and interviews, photography, events, and skatepark reviews. Since its creation in 1981, less than one per cent of Thrasher covers have been women. There are 489 covers.
Visibility is growing, however, and Thrasher recently released their “Honor Roll 2020: The Top Women and Non-Traditional Skaters of the Year“, putting women and non-traditional skaters in the spotlight.
Bigger skate brands and shops often have teams (a.k.a. skate teams), a crew of skaters who are chosen for their skill, personality, style, and marketing potential. Joining this type of team is what it means for a skateboarder to have gone pro.
On the Nike SB team, six out of 55 are women or non-binary. On the Adidas Skate Team, just one out of 27. Antihero Skateboards? Zero. Powell Peralta? Zero. Santa Cruz? Two out of 15. Converse? One out of twenty. Vans? Seven out of 50. Women and non-binary people make up a total of eight per cent of skate team members.
The title of “Skater of the Year” is bestowed to one skater annually by Thrasher Magazine. Starting in 1990, the accolade remains one of the most respected awards in skateboarding culture around the world. In 30 years, a woman has never been awarded.
“Even the top women simply get paid less than the top men. A lot goes into this, including target marketing, customer base, audience, etc. – it’s a business at the end of the day. Skateboarding was largely marketed solely to young boys and men all of these years,” says Knoop.
In 2020, Girl Skateboards signed on Breana Geering, the very first female skater on the team since their establishment in 1993. That makes one out of 14.
The phenomenon goes beyond big-name skate brands and exists within Manitoba’s skate culture. Sk8 Skates, Scam Skate, Recovery Skateshop, Two Zero Four Skateshop and The Business Boardshop have zero women and non-binary people on their skate teams.
I reached out to the business owners about this, and while each owner was warm and open to this conversation, it boiled down to almost the exact same reason for all: women and non-binary people have never come to them to ask to be on their teams, so it hasn’t happened. None of them had plans to proactively pursue inclusion and diversity; these minority groups would need to take it upon themselves to apply to be on their teams or be sponsored.
“IF I WOULD HAVE KNOWN”
It’s not about every woman or non-binary skater being famous, getting all the sponsors and making the most money. It’s about every woman or queer skater believing they could if they wanted to, and knowing the odds aren’t against them.
“If I would have known about girls sesh (girls and non-binary session) at The Edge when I was a kid, oh my gosh, that would have been amazing,” said Emilie. The skatepark buzzed behind them with the sounds of boards and shoes continually hitting the concrete.
Women have been skating for a long, long time, social media has simply offered a more accessible platform for sharing. Skate organizations and collectives like The Skate Witches, The Skate Kitchen, and Skate like a Girl, among others, have helped the increase of girls on skateboards in media. Many women in skateboarding are pushing for more visibility in general – for all non-traditional skaters – because chances are, they grew up only seeing men skateboarding too.
COMMUNITY OVER COMPETITION
Delving into the topic of non-traditional skaters was like a snowball effect. Every article on women in skating ended up acting as a goldmine for further articles, resource links, and references on the topic, developing an interconnected web. What I found was women and minority skaters supporting other women and minority skaters.
A highlight was finding a master’s thesis from the University of British Columbia, called “You’re doing it wrong”: skateboarding, gender and the right to the city by Kerria Gray.
Through ten in-depth interviews with skateboarders in the Vancouver area, Gray explores how class, race, sexuality and gender complicate the progressive relationship between skateboarding and the public. It explores how minorities who struggle for power, safety, and equality in society (with a focus on women and non-binary people) engage with this struggle through skateboarding.
Kerria Gray writes about the sense of belonging created by female and non-binary skateboarders: the most notable efforts being the creation of their own media, by skating with other women and non-binary people and by seeking out female role models.
Gray writes that the inclusion, celebration, and empowerment of people of colour, women, non-binary, trans, lesbian, gay, queer, and all the many intersections of identity both through skateboarding and in skateboarding culture, matters greatly. Skateboarding provides important resources to its members, including a supportive community; visibility; a means of building confidence and self-esteem; a safe coping mechanism during difficult times; and ultimately a freedom from many of the ways that mainstream society marginalizes people.
One theme rings loud and clear throughout every piece of writing, podcast material, footage, or interview: these women and non-binary people are dedicated to fostering radically inclusive skate communities, platforms and spaces.
The Edge Skatepark, located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is Canada’s longest-running indoor skatepark, serving the local skate scene since 1992. Notably, it is Winnipeg’s only indoor skatepark, a much-needed space when winter weather eliminates the opportunity for four-season outdoor skateboarding. It is a program of Youth for Christ Winnipeg, a non-profit charity providing access to recreational activities for youth in Winnipeg and its surrounding communities. “The Edge Skatepark is welcome to ALL,” reads the skatepark’s website. The bright and sprawling space overlooks the corner of Higgins and Main and hosts a different program each night of the week.
Maddy pulls her Rude Girls hoodie over her head and puts her long black hair into a bun. I ask her to tell me about Thursdays at The Edge, also known as Ladies Night – but most commonly and fondly referred to as simply girls sesh. A smile spread across her face before the question was even out of my mouth.
“I’m just smiling thinking about it because it’s like, my favorite place to be. But it’s not just The Edge – it’s that we’re surrounded by these people. That’s my favorite place to be. It has helped me so much to see what it looks like to have confidence. Seeing all these amazing women, it is so empowering.”
Thursdays draw dozens of women, girls, non-binary and queer folks to skate in a space they feel safe in. Emilie and Maddy reflected on one particular Thursday evening in summer, walking into The Edge and barely recognizing even one person amidst the crisscrossing of skaters.
“That was pretty cool,” they agreed, smiling at each other.
Though YFC is a faith-based organization, they acknowledge that “everyone’s journey looks different” and welcome people from all walks of life into their facilities and programming. “All faith-focused programs are voluntary,” and “skaters have no obligation to participate,” reads their site.
While everyone is welcome at The Edge, the Christian organization’s values do not completely align with the concept of full acceptance and inclusivity of non-traditional skaters.
“I felt four years of acceptance from YFC before coming out, but there’s definitely been a shift after that,” shared Emilie. “Even though The Edge staff is super accepting, that only goes so far when YFC’s policies prohibit them from giving me a job because of differing values.”
“There are definitely some LGBTQIA2S+ skaters who don’t feel welcome or included, and I see where they’re coming from,” said Maddy. “There is a difference between feeling comfortable skating in the space, or being accepted by YFC. It’s a tough situation to navigate. LGBTQIA2S+ skaters are definitely putting pressure on YFC to do more and grow.”
In Winnipeg, women’s skateboarding seems to be growing faster than ever before, with new faces showing at girls’ sessions consistently. Thursdays at The Edge have often been at max capacity, even before COVID-19 limited gathering numbers. There’s a lot of girls getting into it for the first time: a young, fresh, and eager generation of girls who believe the odds aren’t against them.
“After my first winter skating at The Edge, the sessions were ending, and they were closing for the summer. I was like, ‘Who am I gonna skate with?’,” reminisced Emilie. “I started an Instagram group chat with all the girls so we could continue to meet up and skate the outdoor parks with a female and non-traditional group. That was four years ago, and every winter more girls would come, and more would want to join the group chat.”
The chat transferred over to WhatsApp, and within the span of a year grew from a 25 person Instagram chat to over 60, and it’s still growing.
THE OTHER SKATERS ZINE
Inspired by the women and queer folks that she was meeting and skating with on a daily basis, Maddy wanted to create a publication to attempt to capture the community she had grown to love. “Almost like a yearbook,” she said, a place to document the faces, talents, thoughts, accomplishments and creations of the community.
Zines represent the local scene existing outside the mainstream.
“Making a zine is one of the only punk things left in skateboarding. Zines are made with your hands. They’re distributed through a network of friends and friends-of-friends,” said Kristen Ebeling, Executive Director of the Oregon organization Skate Like a Girl and co-creator of the successful zine Skate Witches.
As a creative person and communications student, Maddy wanted The Other Skaters to be fun, full of photography, creativity, experiences and words. “I always have wanted it to be like the most collaborative thing possible. A place for cool people to just talk about whatever they want, say whatever they think, uncensored and unprompted,” said Maddy.
The pair imagined a girl walking into a skate shop for the first time and laying eyes on the zine, focused purely on skaters like her. “That would hype me up,” Emilie said, both beaming at the thought.
At first, Maddy planned to print about 30 copies of the first edition at home and give them to friends and fellow skaters at no cost. The more she told people, the more feedback she received urging her to go further. “You can seriously make money off that. People would pay for that; people would even sponsor that! You gotta print a lot,” Maddy was told. Their first issue, released mid-2020, gained four sponsors and was sold at more than five stores. After their second issue, they gained additional sponsors and can now be found in France, Germany, Canada, and the U.S.
Issue 3 of The Other Skaters is set to be released this spring with even more support, creativity, contributors and passion than before.
“The idea was representation and education,” said Maddy. “We wanted to showcase and represent as many different identities as possible, to educate people that these skaters exist… and they’re good.”
With help from the internet, Instagram and their ever-widening network of collaborators, The Other Skaters is helping represent not just girls, but anybody who feels the mainstream doesn’t have a place for them.
And that’s really what skateboarding is about, isn’t it?