OPINION: Once, I skateboarded to work. I don’t really know how to skateboard but I figured if I could snowboard, taking it to the streets was a logical extension.

It turns out concrete is much less forgiving than snow. Halfway down Church St in Palmerston North, I tried to pop an ollie up onto the curb.

Had I ever “popped” an ollie in my life? No. It just seemed like it would be natural. It was not.

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Skateboarder Amber Clyde is using her workshop for young girls as a tool for empowerment.

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Skateboarder Amber Clyde is using her workshop for young girls as a tool for empowerment.

When I arrived at the newsroom, blood dripping down my arm and cradling my wrist, it was to the mirth of my colleagues. That’s until lunchtime, when my boss expressed concern. “You look a bit white,” she said, as I determinedly bashed out a story with one hand.

“Do you think you should go home?”

I never learned to skateboard. At my primary school, it was not a thing that girls did. Gymnastics, yes. Dancing, yes. Netball, yup. Skateboarding – na-uh.

Even trying would have been embarrassing, because if girls want to play any sport that is not deigned to match their gender, they better be damn good at it. I still remember the one girl at intermediate who played rugby.

She was fierce. She had to be. I know this first hand because several years later, when I got up the guts to play, I was trapped at the bottom of a ruck with her. It was not a good time. 

For women and girls, barriers to playing sports remain.

In Auckland this week, skateboarder Amber Clyde, 23, told of how she has been bullied out of skate parks for being a girl. Meanwhile in Taranaki, budding rugby league player Charley Lahmert, 11, was being told she couldn’t play for the same reason.  

Clyde told Stuff she’s been taunted, told “girls can’t skate,” and was shoved by a man at a North Shore park just two months ago.

“Girls belong in skate parks too. Growing up it was so intimidating, I struggled so much. It was daunting because it was full of older males,” said Clyde, who now runs free beginner-level workshops for girls as young as two.

And the reason girls don’t skate is clearly not because they don’t want to; Clyde’s classes are now packed, with up to 20 girls per session. 

Being marginalised out of activities that don’t “match” your gender starts young. Girls in general are taught to take up less public space; close your legs. Don’t be so loud. It’s unladylike. 

Auckland researcher Jacquelyn Collins runs The Girls Play Project, which challenges the gendered use of outdoor space. As part of her honour’s thesis, she found boys often dominated playgrounds and skate parks.

“There’s a real gender difference. Boys get a lot more freedom to roam further from an earlier age, and are encouraged to, so what happens is boys just become the de-facto owners of public spaces,” she says. 

This not because boys have a biological need to be more active than girls, but that they are socialised into these expectations, Collins says.

And studies have found my reluctance to try a “boy” sport and risk being laughed at is universal.

Amber Clyde teaches young girls how to skate after being bullied at skateparks when she was younger.

Amber Clyde teaches young girls how to skate after being bullied at skateparks when she was younger.

“While boys have the right to join in to any game just by virtue of being a boy, if you’re a girl you have to be very, very good before the boys take you seriously. The boys might not pass you the ball…and then as girls get older, they get suspicions as to why they’re playing with boys.”

For her masters research, Collins will be looking at interventions that can encourage girls to stay physically active into their teens – where research shows this drops off – by utilising public space.

This could include activation days where girls assemble en masse at local BMX tracks, basketball hoops or skate parks, or developing other public play spaces like gymnastics apparatus or netball courts.

It’s pretty simple, Collins says. “If we keep building skate parks and not encouraging girls to use them, we’re teaching them really young that spaces are built for men.”

A few weeks ago, I was walking to work when a girl passed me on a skateboard. I’m not sure who looked happier, her or me. We smiled at each other. “Yes!” I yelled, “Get it, girl!” (internally, obviously. I’m not a complete weirdo.)

Maybe I should dig that old board back out, after all. 

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