New opportunities for female skaters
This feature is the final installment in Women Of Action, a new series about women in action sports rolling out this spring on XGames.com. The series explores the often-underexposed issues surrounding females of all ages and abilities and covers a range of stories, from the changing tides in women's professional surfing to profiles on some of the most powerful and talented women you've never heard of to blurred gender lines in motocross racing. Below, we look at the changing nature of coverage surrounding the world of women's skateboarding.
They said there was too much skateboarding in it, that female skateboarders were too gritty, too unfeminine and too alienating to the teenage girl jeans-buying demographic advertisers were paying to attract. And anyway, the number of females who actually participate in action sports was too small to care about. To keep it alive would be an act of charity, and publishing was a business, not a passion project.
And so it was that SG Magazine -- short for Surf, Snow, Skate Girl -- the last internationally distributed, major-publisher-backed, airport-newsstand-carried women's action sports magazine ceased to exist.
SG was my baby; I led the editorial overhaul of the magazine that eventually resulted its untimely demise. Our mission statement was simple: Sometimes a girl needs to see other girls do something first to know what's possible, and to be inspired to up the ante and try to be something more.
We set out to find photos of women pushing it at the highest levels of action sports and sent them into the world like messages in a bottle, hoping they would wash up on the shores of faraway towns where isolated girls could find them on a newsstand and realize they weren't the only ones.
Skateboarding was tough, though. Aside from the occasional image of six-time X Games medalist Elissa Steamer, most major skate mags didn't run photos of women skateboarding. So no one shot them because there was no money in it.
So we hired a dedicated skate photographer. To make room for the photos he brought back, we ripped out the magazine's fashion section so we could fill those pages with action shots instead. Then our advertisers showed up with torches and pitchforks and quickly put an end to it all.
That was nine years ago. Though a social-media revolution loomed on the horizon that would soon change everything for everyone, that particular sun had not yet risen. No new magazines cropped up to replace ours, and shortly after SG folded, the economy crashed, taking away the girls' divisions at the few skate companies that had them.
And so, like all good things that exist and thrive whether or not anyone is paying attention, women's skateboarding went back underground.
"Last weekend we went to the Lincoln skatepark in L.A. and there was a girl there visiting from Mexico. She saw Nora [Vasconcellos] and started freaking out -- a full fan-out. She was so excited to see Nora because she watches her on the Girls Skate Network. I swear she almost started crying."- Lisa Whitaker, Girls Skate Network/Meow skateboards founder
During the dark years, in the absence of traditional media providing coverage of females in skateboarding, women began to seek each other out online. It was slow going at first, and largely focused around one website called The Side Project, created by veteran skateboard filmmaker Lisa Whitaker.
"Around 2003 I started The Side Project because I wanted to learn web design. I needed content to fill out the pages and most of the stuff on my computer was of girls I'd been filming -- you know, my friends," Whitaker says.
"I started getting emails from girls around the world who had just stumbled upon it. The Internet was fairly new at the time so there wasn't anything else out there for girls who were skateboarding. The feedback I got from girls, seeing the impact it made, made me want to actually make it something and keep it going," she says.
Fortunately for girls who didn't stumble onto Whitaker's site, Facebook emerged soon after.
"When Facebook came on the scene, suddenly you could find other female riders. It opened up a whole new world," says Jenna Selby, who founded Rogue skateboards in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s. "Not only could girls meet others in their respective countries, they could also link up with others around the world. There have always been great role models in the female skateboarding world ... now here was a new platform for them to get themselves known without the need to rely on print media."
Facebook may have opened the door, but the pace at which the connections were taking place was still slow going until the end of the '00s.
In 2009, pro vert skateboarders Cara-Beth Burnside and Mimi Knoop (the duo who, not incidentally, were the driving force behind the X Games raising women's prize purses to match men's in 2008) started a skate company called Hoopla.
"Cara-Beth used to win all the contests but never had any travel support, and there were no companies really backing anyone else," Knoop says. "The idea was to create a brand that was going to support the girls who skated for it."
Around the same time Hoopla was launching, the skate shoe company Osiris was cutting its women's program, and its suddenly former women's brand marketing manager Kim Woozy found herself unemployed with unexpected free time on her hands.
"When I was at Osiris we started seeing younger girls getting into skateboarding and blowing people's minds, like Leticia Bufoni," says Woozy, founder of Mahfia.tv, a video hub for women in action sports. "There was this whole generation coming up, but the missing component was media. After SG there were no magazines, there was nowhere to get it. So we started a website, kind of like an online magazine."
The last piece of the media puzzle fell into place when Whitaker changed the name of The Side Project website to the Girls Skate Network.
"I've never been one to be like ... 'girl power!' That's not me at all, and most of the girls that I skate with are the same way. Yes, they are girls who are skateboarding, but to call it girls' skateboarding seems silly. It's just skateboarding," Whitaker says.
"At the same time, I'm trying to bring coverage of the girls because it's needed. [Changing the site name] was a hard thing to do, but I saw there was value for people looking for that content to be able to find it easier," she says.
Roughly two years ago, Whitaker, Woozy and Knoop decided to start supporting each other, as their interests were so aligned. Today their trifecta has formed a spearhead that has served to focus the women's skateboarding community online.
Whitaker started uploading her skate videos to a Girls Skate Network-branded YouTube channel. Woozy changed Mahfia's direction, moving from a web magazine format to a web TV hub that focuses on high-production-value videos with an emphasis on storytelling. And Knoop got in the social media game.
"I skate with a lot of the girls anyway so I just started filming them when they were skating," Knoop says. "I've been putting that content up, and it's just escalated over time. It's been really fun to help get them out there because they're killing it and there's not a platform [for people to see it]."
"The YouTube channel has brought more exposure to the girls than the actual website has," Whitaker says. "I'd say 90 percent are watching on YouTube. We go to skateparks now and there are kids who know who these girls are. There are kids reciting things from videos they've seen on the Girls Skate Network. Even the boys at the skatepark know who some of these girls are -- all from the YouTube channel."
"The landscape in general has changed, not just for female skaters or athletes, but for guys too," Knoop says. "Skaters who might not be known at the X Games have this following online now. That's where people are going for content. They're going on their phones and they're watching videos -- not waiting for a big event to tell them what's happening."
"I was at the Phoenix Am when all the ams did the DC demo, and I joined in with them. Thrasher was there and they put a video up on Instagram. My mom came in my room at like 3 in the morning, and I was like, "Why are you waking me up?' Then I looked at it, and it was me skating bowl and street and it ended with one of my favorite tricks, the tre flip, in slow-motion. It was so crazy they actually filmed and put something up about me." - Alana Smith, 13-year-old X Games Women's Skateboard Park silver medalist
Call it YouTube, GoPro or Facebook, or call it a whole new way of sharing media that circumvents the gatekeepers who have historically decided what content does and doesn't make it into the world. Whatever the contributing factors, the result is the same: Women are connected directly to each other now; they don't need anyone else to tell them what's up.
The ability to upload quick and easy mini video edits -- a practice ignited by Instagram's adding video to its platform in August 2013 -- has correlated directly to the growth of female skateboarders' social media presence.
"In the beginning it was kind of a trickle, and in the last year it's bubbling over," Knoop says of Hoopla's social media following, which has doubled since November. She says the same is happening with GSN, Meow and Mahfia.
X Games Real Women gold medalist Leticia Bufoni, for one, has more than 204,000 followers on Facebook, and nearly 122,000 on Instagram. Her 15 second Insta-clips regularly clock more than 10,000 likes and hundreds of comments. "Nitro Circus Live" cast member and skateboarder Lyn-z Pastrana has nearly 100,000 likes on Facebook.
Whitaker claims that she's seen traffic increase substantially on GSN videos the past two years, but that "last year has been the biggest change."
The transition to social video and content sharing may be the key to unlocking a new future of possibility for female skateboarders. It solves the issue of production, which has plagued women's skateboarding from the beginning because there just aren't a lot of people producing content at a professional level.
Whitaker and Woozy both create the videos that get uploaded to their respective online channels. ("If I don't upload frequently, I start getting hate mail," Whitaker says.) Both women admit that while they see more females skateboarding these days, there aren't many girls trying to do what they do -- take pictures or film and create substantive edits that further the story of women's skateboarding.
Being some of the sole creators of women's media is a heavy burden to bear, but the pressure is lessened with social media.
"It's just changing," Woozy says. "Professional photography is an expensive hobby to get into, and the way people are sharing and creating media isn't traditional anymore. I see girls shooting each other, but it's not with a 7D, it's with their iPhone. It's happening, it's just do-it-yourself style."
Eventually -- Whitaker, Knoop, Woozy and the growing network of skateboarding females hope -- this increased exposure will translate into sustainable careers and income opportunities, something that doesn't currently exist outside of the occasional contest payout.
"The core of the action sports industry is not on board," Woozy says. "What I'm thinking is going to happen is more mainstream companies will come in and want to be a part of this market because the numbers are there, and working with them will be the key to the future of growing this."
"Leticia does not have a real board sponsor right now," Whitaker says. "She can get boards on flow, but she can't get any company to put her on the team. It's crazy."
For her part, Knoop says she's "not waiting around for anyone." Through Hoopla, "We're creating content of the top girl skaters in the world. We've been able to help girls with travel this past year, which has been huge because that was the original goal. And if we grow, the sky's the limit."
In the new dawn of this direct-to-consumer age, the only limits on women's skateboarding will be the ones set by women themselves. They -- the publishing gatekeepers of yore -- don't have a say anymore. And with a growing community and increased exposure, female skateboarders are in good company. They're not the only ones.