By guest blogger, Liana R.
There’s an arbitrary expectation in athletics: girls should avoid getting hurt, but not boys. Why should girls avoid the same risks that boys are encouraged to face? Typically, the more “extreme” or higher risk a sport, the more male-dominated it is (e.g. longboarding, skateboarding, BMX, long-distance hiking). But in reality, if a boy breaks his wrist, it hurts, he goes to the hospital, gets a cast, and heals. If a girl breaks her wrist, it hurts, she goes to to the hospital, gets a cast, and heals. There is no difference between a girl and a boy getting knocked over, scraping knees, bruising, breaking bones, or getting concussions. But there is a double-standard in which the risks and consequences deemed appropriate for boys are deemed inappropriate for girls.
When I say “boys” and “girls,” I do mean children. This idea starts in childhood and extends far beyond (check out Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano’s excellent book, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is not Equal in Sports, for more on this topic). We have even gone so far in some sports as to establish rules limiting the risk of physical harm to women. In women’s hockey and lacrosse, players are not allowed to body-check other players, unlike their male counterparts. It seems to me that safety should be a priority regardless of gender, so why do we expect girls to be kept a little more safe than boys? And why are we so willing to throw boys into situations where they are at risk for injury in the first place? This teaches girls to be more cautious and to internalize a higher standard of safety than boys, and encourages boys to be reckless with their bodies – an expectation harmful to all people.
While many people use longboards casually to get around, longboarding as a competitive sport is all about downhill speed racing and tricks – check out this video by Spanish group Longboard Girls Crew:
High speeds, minimal padding, skin on pavement – yup, longboarding is a dangerous sport. It is also a highly male-dominated one.
Downhill boarding is absolutely thrilling. In super cool longboarder terms, it’s actually called “bombing hills.” There are few things as satisfying as finally conquering a steep hill from the very top. When you’re flying down a hill, you must remain acutely centered. Losing focus can result in a fall and serious injury. At high speeds, time slows down and you become hyper-aware of your body’s slightest shifts and movements.
My older brother taught me how to longboard when I was 16. He is annoyingly thorough in anything he teaches, so he made sure I mastered the skill of controlling speed, direction, and balance before tackling bigger and steeper hills. I think he saw me as his personal project. He showed me how to take apart my wheels, open up the ball bearings, and clean them with acetone – a lengthy and finely detailed process. Together we scoured different brand websites, comparing size, shape, and materials of different boards, trucks, and wheels, discussing which qualities allow for sharp carving, high speeds, stability, or agility.
Longboarding defined my high school years. It was my main social activity and I mostly did it with a crew (all male) of great friends since childhood. It was fun, casual, exciting, and I never felt like I stood out or was treated differently from the rest of the group. When we finally got our licenses, my friends and I would drive around our hometown seeking out the biggest and best hills. My friend Dylan and I spray painted “bomb hills not countries” on our boards like cool hippie rebels.
Boarding was more than just a social activity. I was also paid to longboard by an engineering company developing technology that would help professional surfers train. The engineers wanted me to emphasize carving (winding back and forth to control speed) because this most closely mimicked the movements of a surfer in the water. They attached sensors and cameras to my legs and board, as well as the insides of my shoes. Feeling like some strange bionic creature, I boarded down long steep hills, carving in wide arcs, while the sensors tracked the movement of my legs, feet, and ankles, as well as my shifting weight. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
It wasn’t until college that I really became aware of the sexist forces at play in the world – in relation to longboarding but also in general. I began to board with a new group of all male boarders. Boarding with this group couldn’t have felt more different from boarding with my high school friends. This new group was intimidating and for the first time I felt hyper-aware of being the only woman.
Two specific phenomena began to impact my confidence and my relationship with longboarding: benevolent sexism and stereotype threat.
Benevolent Sexism (aptly abbreviated to BS) plays a large role in the double standard for risk-taking that I laid out earlier. BS states that women are wonderful, delicate creatures in need of male protection. I’ve been told to “be careful” while boarding by countless passing male strangers. It happens when I’m alone, but also when I’m with other longboarders. A man will single me out as the only woman in the group, ask if the board is really mine, and then tell me to be careful. I wish I were kidding. BS also states that women should be put on a pedestal – but only when they fulfill the expectations for their gender. Violating gender norms can result in hostile backlash. I’ve been called a bitch and a dyke for ignoring or rejecting a man while I’m longboarding. I’ve also been accused of longboarding to “look cool” and to attract/impress men. Longboarding for fun and fulfillment apparently isn’t a legitimate reason for a woman to board.
Stereotype threat describes the fear and anxiety one experiences in the face of potentially fulfilling a stereotype. When I board, I often fear that by falling or messing up, I will confirm the image of a girl who can’t really board and shouldn’t be trying in the first place. I worry that by failing, I will send the message “girls can’t board”.
Boarding with this new group in college made me extremely nervous. I feared exclusion, disdain, and mostly, that I would fulfill a stereotype. Even though I logically knew that I had years of experience, I became extremely self-conscious in the group and would play it safe to avoid messing up. It became natural and expected that I would go down the hills last. My anxiety would interfere with my balance and concentration. What makes stereotype threat so insidious is that it has been empirically proven to degrade performance (read the linked article to learn about stereotype threat and women’s math performance).
Remember what I said about encouraging boys to be reckless? In college, I was often amazed at the willingness of some male longboarders to throw themselves down a hill without knowing the first thing about boarding. In short: they were all confidence, no skill. I saw falls, road rash, broken bones, and concussions… but that’s considered the sign of a good longboarder?
With men, we often confuse confidence with skill, and risk-taking with aptitude. Just because someone makes it from the top to the bottom of an impressive hill without dying doesn’t make them a good longboarder. In my opinion, a good longboarder is someone who has bombed all the same hills but never fallen on a major run, remained in control, and never suffered more than some scrapes and bruises. But hey, that’s just me.
Side note: when someone did need the emergency room, guess who was the only one to take him. Me! The girl with the natural caring instincts and maternal sense of responsibility, of course!
My sophomore year of college my friend Shea and I had had enough of the male-dominated longboarding scene on our campus. We decided to create a women’s longboarding club, which we called Gravity Bombz (no real meaning, just sounded cool). Gravity Bombz’ mission is to promote women in sports and to provide a non-judgemental place where people of any gender can learn to longboard or build on skills in a fun and supportive group. The club is currently in its third successful year. Creating and running Gravity Bombz was the perfect outlet for me to fight back against feeling powerless, and to empower other women.
Next time you see someone on a longboard, observe carefully. Do they appear stable or wobbly? Do they look awkward when they push? How’s their control over steering through a crowded or pot-hole riddled sidewalk? Are they longboarding in the rain or through puddles (doing so rusts your ball bearings, as serious longboarders know)? That overconfident guy you see boarding to class every day might not last one second on a hill. That self-conscious girl you see right behind him might be an excellent downhill boarder.
GRAVITY BOMBZ 4 LYFE.