Are women less gnarly?
by Emily Fath
About a year ago a grom asked me why girls are less good at downhill skateboarding. This caught me totally off-guard and at first I was completely taken aback. "What a ridiculous question," I thought. Pretty sure I felt my blood pressure rise for a sec while I regained my composure. But then, I realized how awesome it is that he felt comfortable enough to even ask me this in the first place. He wasn't kidding, he just wanted to "know" and was willing to be vulnerable enough to ask me a very risky question. We need more open discourse on the things people are afraid to talk about, so I began to think about his question and why he might feel this way in the first place.
I’m not a gender studies major or a biologist, but I feel like there are a lot of factors and theories as to why there are fewer women in downhill skateboarding, and why they may be perceived as being less skilled in general. I want to lay out a few of those real quick before I get to my main tinfoil hat theory:
First off, our entire community needs a disclaimer or something, but in our case the enigma that is North Carolina is most relevant here. Our perception of what it means to be "good" at downhill skateboarding is highly skewed when we’re surrounded by the talent that we are. Something weird happened in 2014 where a ton of people picked up longboarding and a ton of people dropped it several years later, but then a large proportion of the people who stuck around got really, REALLY good, and then there was a great migration to North Carolina...NC aside, the entire community is pretty jaded at this point from seeing videos of dudes skating heavily trafficked highways, etc. Luckily it seems like there’s about to be a new influx of beginners, but this is just speculation.
Women are a very small proportion of the community in the first place, which means there's a lower chance that someone who reaches god-tier status is going to be a woman. And then when you combine this with the fact that the community in general is pretty OP right now, and that we have exponentially raised our expectations since 2014, it makes sense that women would be perceived as just “less good” even if that’s not innately true. We’ve seen Emily Pross compete with the men. Recently I’ve also really been enjoying watching Anna Pixner throw huge toesides on Instagram.
I am a conspiracy theorist about tiny feet. I think that people with smaller feet on a standard-sized board have to adjust way more in order to get the same amount of leverage while turning, which makes for a more difficult riding experience. Obviously this is not a main factor. We've seen the videos of small children absolutely ripping on adult-sized boards. But I did the math one time and someone with men’s 5/women’s 6.5 feet standing on a 9.5 inch wide board is the equivalent of a guy with size 10 feet standing on an 11.5 inch wide board or something like that, which is kind of crazy if you think about it. I didn’t do the truck math though because I’m lazy. And I don’t think that a 9-inch wide slalom board (still made with dude feet in mind) is the answer to all of our problems either (which is also part of why I'm stoked on my Faceplant custom).
Anyway, imagining that there might be some truth to the statement that women have a more difficult time with downhill skateboarding than men, here is one possibility for why that might be (from the anecdotal perspective of a white woman, because that's all that I can be at the moment):
Reinforcement of gender roles stifles desire for risky activities like downhill skateboarding, even though it’s really, really fun.
Gender norms are sneakily reinforced from the time that we're small children. Little things, like how a caregiver reacts to a child the first time they skin their knee, can have a profound impact. Praising a little boy for how well he's toughing it out, versus coddling a girl, discouraging the behavior that led to the skinned knee in the first place, or fretting about the unsightly scab, is going to create different perceptions about the the situation and shapes how the child will think about skinned knees moving forward. If you treat someone like they’re fragile they will start to believe that they’re fragile, and then they will grow up to be fragile, and this seems to be more of an issue with women for some reason.
Growing up, boys and girls are praised for different traits. In the same way society is doing men a huge disservice by encouraging them to suppress their emotions, women are discouraged from taking risks, being assertive, having self-confidence, and having other traits that are kind of necessary for pursuing action sports. So, by the time a lot of women are adults or even teenagers, something like downhill skateboarding isn't on their radar. It just doesn't even sound good at this point. And if it does, their threshold for risk-taking might be lower than a lot of dudes who have been encouraged to take risks their whole lives.
Tangential: I still remember the time when I was 11 years old and I got in a "spit fight" (exactly what it sounds like) with my friends on the playground. Our principle scolded us, saying "that's not very lady-like." I wonder what he would have said if we were a group of boys. I mean spitting on each other isn't cool regardless but I do wonder what he would have said.
But also, personality is probably a thing.
Personality probably has a role here as well, meaning: regardless of how gender roles are reinforced, there may be something innate about a person (or at least something irrelevant to gender) that makes them more or less likely to want to do something like downhill skateboarding (if this weren’t true we would see literally every single white dude skating downhill). Here’s my purely anecdotal case study: My sister and I were raised by a software engineer who I'm pretty sure wanted boys. We'd toss the football, play baseball in the yard, play videogames (Twisted Metal 3 was a big one in our house), play with playdough, Barbies, miniature kitchens with plastic foods, etc. We were encouraged to be ambitious and praised for stoicism (read: suppressing our emotions). Anyway, I got into downhill skating and my sister did not, but she did become a videogame designer which is a heavily male-dominated field. Our parents didn’t try to box us into stereotypical female gender roles which I believe is what allowed us to freely pursue male-dominated interests, but I think it’s just our personalities that led us to two totally different flavors of male-dominated interests.
And more things I don’t know.
There are probably many many other factors. I'm not going to say there's absolutely nothing biological involved either, because I just don't know. Slightly related: I did just watch the documentary Seahorse, which follows the journey of a trans man who quits testosterone for about a year or so to carry and birth his own child. It was crazy interesting to hear about how going off of testosterone impacted his emotions, thought processes, self-awareness, and basically everything. Would highly recommend.
So now, what do we do about it?
Encouragement and support
Encourage and support women, ideally starting as soon as possible. It has to start way sooner than adulthood if we really want to make an impact. Faceplant team rider Timmy B shared a touching story about his skateboarding clinic:
"I’m a skateboarding instructor and last summer taught kids at a summer camp ages 8-14, and when I’d be teaching the girl groups they were always so attentive and curious and persistent. I would have boys and girls who skated before and never stepped on the board and I always encouraged those who knew more to help others.
I’ll never forget this 11 year old girl, Maddy, tried dropping in 13 times, fell to the bottom every time. I’m like "you okay?" All good, she kept going like "I got this," and the rest of the group stopped, cheered her on like, "Maddy you got this, right now, this try." She landed it after 14 trys, threw her helmet off, the whole group was cheering. It made me so happy.
More of this, please."
Ease up on the Gnarly-or-Nothing complex
There's a spectrum of gnarliness in downhill skateboarding. If we can acknowledge the validity of folks all across the spectrum, the community will be way more inviting to a whole host of people, not just women. Honestly, I don't really get heckled or pressured but I really do see guys heckling and pressuring each other. Every once in a while I hear someone get called a "pussy" (yes, STILL) or making fun of someone for wearing knee pads. I also cannot count the amount of times I’ve been at a sesh and heard “let’s go skate some real roads.” (Loosely related: people talking shit about longboard dancing. Let me see you get a sponsor for dancing, then.)
But, just because it's not being directed at me doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact, and I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I also see the effects of this attitude in my groms who are always downplaying their accomplishments just because they're not dropping Cole Trotta runs, even though they would have been absolutely murdering and probably winning slide jams in 2014. They are also literally riding planks of wood at 40mph while talking about how they just want to be "big mountain skaters." They are literally big mountain skaters and don’t see it because they only know how to compare themselves to the best of the best.
I don't know why either people don’t notice these things happening, or they refuse to acknowledge the impact. If you can't bring yourself to be more accepting of different skill levels for the women or other folks who are different from you because you don't have sisters or daughters or whatever and you feel exempt just because you can't personally relate, at least do it for the groms, guys. Do it for the groms. Imagine if we loved all minorities in downhill skating like we love our groms. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Stoke up the beginners
Don't forget to show stoke for beginners and people less skilled than you in general. Make people feel good for their accomplishments. Invite people to hang out and drive runs even if they can't skate a particular road yet. Show honest concern for people's safety and don't make it weird. I think people are afraid to be like, "hey, you probably shouldn't skate this." There are so many other ways to say that. Try: "hey [this feature of this particular road] can be tricky, I'd recommend driving it first just to get a feel," or if someone asks "do you think I could handle this?" respond with something that will help them make their own judgement, like, "if you feel comfortable sliding left at 30mph, then yes." In the end it’s their decision, but you can always help folks look after themselves.
When we get the ball rolling with a little more diversity, it'll be easier to acquire even more diversity, like a snowball effect. There’s something about seeing people that you can actually relate to absolutely killing it that gives you more confidence in yourself. Seeing women racing at Rage at the Ridge back in 2014 is what did it for me (last 2014 reference, I swear). I had a group of (mostly male) friends I met through longboarding that were really stoked on my beginner-ness and begged me to go with them to see actual racing. When I did, there were about 70-something men and only 8 women registered to compete, but that felt like A LOT. I remember gushing to my friend, “that’s AMAZING. She’s so good!” And he told me, “you could be that good. Give it a few months.” At first I didn’t believe him but he kept encouraging me and dragging me out to go skate. And a year later I was registered to skate at Rage at the Ridge.
Tl;dr: actively support all homies, ESPECIALLY beginners, and understand that people might need different amounts or flavors of support depending on their unique backgrounds and circumstances. That last part is key. It can be difficult to understand what others need when their needs don’t match your own, but being aware of this gap is the first step to being more inclusive.