There are a lot more women skating today than there were when I took up a board way back in the pleistocene era of the late 80’s. Of course, by that metric “a lot more” could actually mean “any”, but I digress. The more random distribution of y chromosomes at the skate park nowadays is a net positive all around. When I’m Jumping through the social media hoops and browsing skate related pages and blogs, shots of women absolutely killing it are more common than ever. I find that pretty inspiring...until I scroll down to the photo captions or, even worse, the comment sections. Cliched double entendres using the word “grind”, and well-meaning but knuckleheaded captions about how “sexy” or “hot” a woman who can skate is, are mingled with fawning but nevertheless condescending marriage proposals and lamentations regarding the lack of skateboarding skills of peoples’ various girlfriends. Its all very predictable and very pathetic. I know people say riding a skateboard means never having to grow up, but this isn’t really what they mean.
If skaters really want to integrate our culture, this kind of rhetoric needs to go the way of 38 millimeter wheels and size 60 pants. The sprinkling of truly chauvinistic knuckleheads in our culture is one thing, but many of these skaters fumbling all over their own tongues to exclaim how “sexy” a female skater is in a photo caption or a comment thread actually believe their admiration (or, more accurately, ogling) comes from an earnest, positive place: this type of guy, in his hormonally confused head, thinks he is giving a message of encouragement to prospective female skaters by objectifying them. I understand where this mind state comes from. Guys who put these kind of captions on photos are oafishly trying to express that women who choose to ignore social barriers and skate possess a special sort of sexual appeal by virtue of their attitude and talent. There’s also a masturbatory sort of self-congratulation in such statements, as the author is simultaneously proclaiming his own perceived liberation by pronouncing how attracted he is to unconventional women.
Here’s the problem with this well-meaning but horribly condescending attitude: Women skaters don’t need any man’s validation. Even if they did, asserting the “sexiness” or “hotness” of a woman ripping it up would not be the way to do it. Women aren’t out there taking the slams and bashing the coping in a quest to be “sexy”. They are doing it for the same reasons us men are: to have fun, to push their limits, and to express themselves. Sexiness is not the metric any man uses for fulfillment on a skateboard. To think a woman is any different is inherently offensive. When a killer photo of Lizzie Armanto pops up on a facebook page with a caption about how “hot” her layback grinds are, and the accompanying comment thread is dominated by guys verbally extolling her shred-related attractiveness instead of talking about how much fucking style she has, the ultimate effect is not encouragement, its a public disservice announcement telling women (and parents, and spouses of women) that even by skating and making headway into our so called inclusive and egalitarian culture, young women are still, in men’s minds, crammed into the same old boxes and binders they were probably trying to escape when they picked up a skateboard in the first place.
Here’s another free tip for the troglodyte set as well: a woman’s clothing doesn’t entitle you to run your mouth either. Despite all the nonsense society in general pushes about body images, women, even skaters, have the advantage of being much more pragmatic about what they wear when they are being active. If a woman shows up at a session in stretch jeans and a sports bra it’s not because she’s hungry for the lascivious attention of the surrounding curb squirrels, its because that shit is comfortable. Think about that next time you’re wringing out your cotton DGK t-shirt on a 90 degree day with 90% humidity.
So, men are being idiots on the internet. Who cares, right? Well, in a world where Youtube videos, Facebook pages and twitter feeds are quickly rivaling, if not surpassing, magazines and DVDs as the primary outlet for consumption of skateboarding’s images, I think it does matter. Admittedly, in the non-virtual world of skateparks and spots I always see skateboarders conducting themselves with due decorum and a rough sort of class when women barge their boys club and slap urethane on concrete. I never hear catcalls or vicious trash talk, but this reality isn’t reflected in the messages going out to the social networks and blogosphere, the places where many women thinking of grabbing a board for the first time are getting their initial glimpses of the more accomplished female skaters that can inspire them. Instead, the message being transmitted is this: riding a skateboard is an invitation for men to scope you out, so, when you show up at the park, get ready to be sized up and gaped at no matter how fucking good you are.
Gender regressive behavior doesn’t just discourage women from skating, it also throws up a barrier between the men and women who already do. Riding in the parks alongside women I often find myself thinking twice before throwing out compliments and encouragement. This is a shame. First, there is always the danger of misjudging someone’s skill level and slipping into condescension (a blunder that can just as easily occur when skating with the very young kids), but even worse, I know that these women have seen the same hormonally tinged, knuckleheaded comments that I have and that they may very well have drawn their own conclusions from them. Will a sincere expression of appreciation for their abilities be tinged with a suspicion that that honest praise has an ulterior motive? Male skaters’ linking of a woman’s ability on a board to their sexual desirability, no matter how well intentioned, just breeds defensiveness on both sides of the gender gap. Women pushing themselves on boards don’t want to deal with the feeling in the back of their mind that a guy who is encouraging them might be working his way up to hitting on them, and men with their heads in the right place don’t want to worry about being seen as some sort of creeper just because they are genuinely stoked by a female ripper destroying their favorite spot.
There’s nothing wrong with finding a woman who skates attractive. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that the fact she skates makes her even more attractive. If two people meet and fall in love, or even just lust, while skating together, that’s not a bad thing either. Likewise, women who skate don’t need to be sheltered or protected from the knuckle draggers of the skate world. They can handle themselves just fine, but if men truly want to transform skateboarding from the perennial sausage party it has been for the last few decades and into something more diverse, they need to stop presenting skateboarding as a meat market. A lot of us started riding a skateboard as a way to escape the social pressures that told us how we should look or dress our cut our hair in order to be popular with the opposite sex. Skate spots were our places to escape scrutiny and insecurity. Women shouldn’t be denied that same solace simply because some men still think “sexy” is the ultimate compliment every woman, on board or off, desires to hear. Your bros don’t skate to be sexy, your sisters don’t either. The bottom line is this: Think before you type, and don’t say anything about a woman skating that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to a skater with a penis.