In 2013, Minna Stess became the first girl to win the California Amateur Skateboard League (CASL) series in its thirty-plus-year history. She has also won first place in the NorCal competition for street skateboarding, and second place in CASL’s State Championships.
In 2014, Stess made history again at the national King of the Groms contest in Minneapolis by becoming the first girl to win an event (beginner mini ramp), to win an ATV award (all terrain vehicle/best all around), to make the finals in three events (street, mini ramp, bowl), and to make the top five in street skating. And this year, she placed third in the Vans Girls Combi Pool Classic (a World Cup Skateboarding event). She has multiple sponsors — including BrokinBonz Clothing, Lakai Limited Footwear, Theeve Trucks, Silly Girl Skateboards, Sonoma Old School SkateShop, and Girl Is Not A 4 Letter Word, a brand by one of the original pro girl skaters, Cindy Whitehead — plus thousands of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook fans.
Minna Stess is eight years old.
And she is one of the many impressive young (and less young) women in the Bay Area who are changing the sport of skateboarding for the better, and inspiring countless others along the way.
Indeed, a lot has changed for women in action sports in the last ten years — both culturally and systemically. This is due, in large part, to the efforts of a handful of trailblazing female skaters and entrepreneurs who, instead of waiting for the sports industry to change, decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own brands, networks, and outlets to gain visibility.
Berkeley-based Kim Woozy started MAHFIA, a video production company and network of female pro athletes, artists, and influencers in action sports culture.
Mimi Knoop and Cara-Beth Burnside, also Californians and multi-time X Games winners, founded Hoopla, an all-female skateboarding company, as well as the Action Sports Alliance, which they co-founded with Drew Mearns. The Alliance was integral in the effort to secure equal prize money for male and female X Games winners in 2008.
Lisa Whitaker, who lives in Norwalk, California, founded the Girls Skate Network, and started a popular YouTube channel under the same name. She also launched Meow Skateboards, and has helped increase awareness, exposure, and just plain awe of female skateboarders the world over.
Girls Riders Organization is a nonprofit that’s educating and inspiring young skaters, and frequently has skate sessions in Fremont, in addition to Los Angeles and New York City.
And Skate Like a Girl (SLAG), which started in Seattle, has been a driving force behind the movement. SLAG has chapters all over the United States, and holds a monthly “skate date” in Berkeley’s Skate Park, as well as events and clinics in San Francisco.
And that’s just a small sliver.
As a recent Forbes article noted, “If you ask industry insiders about the future of women’s skateboarding, they will tell you that interest levels have shot up. It is the fastest growing demographic in action sports, and younger girls are starting to skate.”
A 2013 documentary by pro skater Amelia Brodka, Underexposed, was another pivotal marker for the growth of female skate culture and prominence. Underexposed explored the progression of today’s female skateboarders from all over the world through interviews from top action sports players and marketing professionals. Brodka also created the only all-female pro/amateur vert (ramp skating) and bowl contest, called Exposure, after the title of her documentary.
“It has really taken off,” said Moniz Stess, mother of eight-year-old Minna, referring to Exposure. “It has grown into a huge event in just a few years!”
As for Minna, she recently made history again when she became the youngest skater ever to drop in on the monolithic 27-foot-tall MegaRamp at Woodward West in Tehachapi, California. “I was scared dropping in, but I wanted to do it,” she said in an interview, referring to the trick in which a skateboarder starts skating a ramp or bowl by dropping into it from the top instead of starting from the bottom and building momentum that way.
Minna lives in Petaluma with her parents and older brother Finnley, who is one of her inspirations for skating, along with female skaters such as Arianna Carmona, Alana Smith, Lacey Baker, Julz Lynn, Samarria Brevard, Leticia Bufoni, and Nora Vasconcellos. “My dad told me he thought I could do it if I wanted to, so he said, ‘Go ahead and try it. …” I was nervous, but I really really wanted to do it. So I did. It was really fun! I love to feel like I’m flying.”
Moniz Stess and her husband Andrew are avid supporters of their daughter’s talent, and the sport in general. “I think skateboarding is growing quickly and the skaters are starting younger and they are doing things on a board that most skaters who are in their teens and twenties and older now weren’t doing at, say, seven,” Moniz said. “I think it has a lot to do with parents being more willing to support skateboarding instead of looking at it as some sort of hoodlum activity.”
Though often relegated to the sidelines, women have been active participants in skateboarding since the subculture’s hesitant beginnings in the 1950s, when a “skateboard” was roller skate wheels fastened to a wooden board. In fact, one of the first prominent female skaters in the 1960s, Laura Turner, hailed from Berkeley.
When Turner was just fourteen years old, she became the Grand Champion of the National Skateboarding Championships for her freestyle routine. In 2014, Turner was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame in Simi Valley, California. She also received recognition on The Johnny Carson Show in 1965 from another badass Californian, Pat McGee, who was the Hall of Fame’s first female inductee, and whose iconic skateboarding handstand shot on the cover of Life magazine on May 14, 1965 helped catapult the sport into the limelight.
Yet despite some successes from early trailblazers, skateboarding is still regarded as a male pastime in many circles. Slowly but surely, that is changing, as women now have many more networks of support and outlets to find and create their own communities.
But it’s not easy, because ugly stereotypes remain. For example, a lot of the women I interviewed for this story expressed concerns about the media’s depiction of them, fearing misrepresentation or worse. Oakland skater Alisaah Yu recalled several experiences in which she said she felt exploited, with a few of those instances perpetrated by other women. She said that when she’s being photographed “99 percent of the time the angle is my looks, my body. I skated an Airwalk contest in 2012 [in New York City] and the only clip of me, despite working really hard, was a split second down-shirt view. None of us local female skaters that came to the event got any real footage outside of butt and boob shots, yet the cameras seemed to be glued on us that day.”
She continued, “I also shot a clip recently [for Hilltop skate park in San Francisco’s Hunters Point] and did an interview for the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and Thrasher [magazine]. They said they supported girls skating and really wanted me in — but then I wasn’t in the clip.”
Yu said the reason she agrees to being photographed and documented is because she believes “there should be more images of us out there,” even if she is often disappointed with the results. Still, Yu, like many others I spoke to, was optimistic about the sport’s growing acceptance of women and its importance to their lives. “I have dedicated a lot to shredding,” Yu said. “It has truly given me so much enjoyment, adventure, empowerment, and the ability to be independent and self explore.”
Fellow Oakland skater Jessie Van Roechoudt, who has been skating for more than twenty years, echoed Yu’s sentiment. “When I really got into skating in high school [in the 1990s], mostly everyone was super mean to each other,” she said of her high school in general. “I probably got hassled extra for being a girl, but I never thought of it like that at the time — it just seemed like everyone was mean to everyone, and skating was my escape. It was a nice focus to have and I just channeled all my energy into it.”
Yu and Van Roechoudt are far from alone. Studies have long touted the positive effects that sports have on women of all ages. A girl who plays high school sports is less likely to have an unintended pregnancy and more likely to get better grades and to graduate. She’s also more likely to have a stronger body image, more confidence, and a better psychological well-being than a girl who doesn’t play sports.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, boys and girls express equal interest in sports between the ages of six and nine. But by age fourteen, girls drop out of sports at a rate six times greater than boys. Almost the same gap occurs with boys and girls who say they want to grow up and be president of the United States.
A twenty-year study on sports coverage by University of Southern California and Purdue sociologists found that less than 2 percent of network and cable news outlets provided any women’s sports coverage. “There’s a message that sports is still for, by, and about men,” USC sociologist Mike Messner said in a statement when the study was published in 2009. “When will the news catch up?”
The gender disparity in sports — and sports coverage — is hardly new. Dating at least as far back as the Victorian era, if not earlier, women have been discouraged, mocked, and outright denied entry to athletic activities. One particularly humorous example of this comes from Jennifer Hargreaves’ 1994 book Sporting Females. In the Victorian era, “cycling, for example, was claimed to be an indolent and indecent activity which tended to destroy the sweet simplicity of a girl’s nature and which might cause her to fall into the arms of a strange man! The worst fear was that cycling might even transport a girl to prostitution.”
It wasn’t just whore-ish bicycling that was suspect, either. Baseball and basketball were also thought to turn women into sex workers, as well as infertile, mannish failed heterosexuals. Author Fred Wittner wrote in 1934’s Literary Digest that “girls trained in physical education to-day may find it difficult to attract the most worthy fathers for their children.”
Some of these bizarre attitudes still exist in 2015. In Afghanistan, for example, it’s deeply taboo for women to ride bikes, play soccer, or fly kites — but they can skateboard, due to it being a relatively unknown sport in that part of the world. Because of that, Skateistan, an inspiring non-governmental organization that promotes and empowers youth through skateboarding, is one of the most popular groups in the world among female skaters.
It’s also no secret that parents play a big role in girls’ involvement in sports. “There’s no reason that girls can’t do anything that they put their minds to, or boys for that matter,” said Moniz Stess, Minna’s mom. “Gender really shouldn’t have anything to do with it. If they are passionate about it, support it!”
MAHFIA’s Woozy said that having supportive parents was a big part of her getting and staying in action sports. “Growing up [in Fremont], there wasn’t a skate park. People who skateboarded were seen as the rebels, these burnouts who didn’t go to class or whatever. … But now, thanks to mainstream events — which do have some controversy in the industry — but thanks to that mainstream exposure, parents are now like, ‘Okay, this isn’t just a bunch of burnouts getting in trouble. It’s positive.’ You see someone on TV getting a medal on the podium, they have sponsors, it’s an event. I think thanks to that a lot more people are accepting of it.”
One of Woozy’s credos is “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It was coined by Marie Wilson from the White House Project, a nonprofit that worked to increase female participation in US institutions. Woozy learned of the quote in the 2009 documentary Miss Representation, which was about the disproportionate lack of women in the media, and in positions of power, in politics, business, and so on. Woozy said the doc was a huge influence on what she does at MAHFIA. “The best way we can change media is to encourage girls to create their own media,” she said. “And if I’m sharing stories, hopefully there’s girls out there that can relate and maybe pick up a camera or just post a couple pics on Instagram. It’s so easy now.”
Because they often don’t have the help of major branding companies or mainstream media outlets, female action sports pioneers and organizations are, in the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, “doin’ it for themselves.” Oaklander Marie Baeta, who has been the Program Coordinator for the San Francisco branch of Skate Like A Girl for four years and has worked with hundreds of girls, said she discovered SLAG by accident. She was skating at the Potrero Skate Park in San Francisco’s Mission District when another female skater approached her. Baeta said it was a “Where have you been all my life?” realization. “It was probably one of my top happiest moments.”
Baeta invited me to tag along at SLAG’s Skate Date in Berkeley on a recent sunny morning. “I think [SLAG] gave me something that nothing else could have given me — an instant community in a place where you feel like the lone wolf, you know? And then you’re like, ‘Oh no, this is a club full of wolves. Welcome!'”
Erica Harris, co-director of SLAG, agreed that it’s often hard for girls “to connect and meet each other to skate together, which is what we try to do — connect people and create that community.”
Baeta sees the future of women’s skating as falling into two distinct camps: A smaller grassroots movement that’s focused on creating community and space for everyone who wants to participate in the sport, and another camp that’s focused on sponsorship, competitions, and women achieving the recognition that male skaters do. “I see that as in competition with the male skateboard world,” she said of the latter camp. “I’m not trying to fit into male skateboarding world. I’m part of the place that’s making our own. And [men are] welcome to come, but they have to be nice.”
She continued, “It’s cool if you’re a pro and you wanna get prize money. But for me, I’ll never be a pro, and fitting into the male world is not something I’m interested in. I’m interested in the empowerment of communities and individuals.”
Though female skateboarding groups may have slightly different goals, the level of support and collaboration between them is motivational. “I love what the Skate Like A Girl girls are doing,” said Hoopla’s Mimi Knoop. “They’re probably the only group that’s tackling that kind of [community] initiative and doing it efficiently, so I see huge opportunity on both sides for the future.”
It’s not just young women whom SLAG is helping to get rollin’ — one mom, Katie Belton, took up skating after watching her son at the skate park for years. She recently dropped into the bowl for the first time, a feat she was rightly quite proud of. (Author’s note: I consider myself a fairly athletic person, but skateboarding is harder than it looks. Even five minutes of tepid rolling was too much for me — I fell hard on my ass almost immediately, and decided to stay on solid ground after that. Indeed, one of the long-term obstacles faced by skaters of all genders is the punishing effect it can have on one’s body.)
San Francisco-based Elissa Steamer, one of the most accomplished (and modest) local street skaters, was 19 when she first got sponsored and 22 when she turned pro. She has been skating since before there were women’s competitions to speak of, and before that, skated in the men’s class in events during the late 1990s. In fact, when she started winning X Games gold medals (the women’s category was introduced in 2004), her first place award was $2,000. The men’s award? $50,000.
Steamer, who also runs the brand/art project Gnarhunters, also was the first female skateboarder to earn endorsements that were previously given solely to men, and she has been featured in many popular skateboarding videos — another first — and was the first woman to be featured in the video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Her sponsorships alone earned her a six-figure income. Asked why she stopped competing, Steamer wrote in an email, “Entering contests was always just a small part of skating for me. I guess after I quit [skateboarding company] Zero, I never got another board sponsor, so I was kind of fed up and resentful at skateboarding, which might not make sense, but that’s where I was at. I was also older and had kinda been doing the same thing for twenty years. I entered a few contests here and there, but then the people who choose who gets invited quit inviting me. Rightly so, though, I was kinda over it. I did like the idea of free vacations though.”
Steamer mostly surfs now, the ocean being a more forgiving surface than concrete. “I had my third knee surgery in 2011 and just never really got back into skating as much,” she wrote. “I really just wanted to surf all the time.”
California boasts more than one hundred skate parks, and about 25 of them are in the Bay Area. Despite this abundance, several of the women I talked to — at SLAG’s skate date and otherwise — remarked about how intimidating skate parks can be for women, especially beginners. “You don’t see girls,” said Julie, a SLAG participant and college student who started skating after commandeering her brother’s board.
Of the several skate parks I visited while researching this article, it was rare to see any women on boards at all. But Julie said that, though she used to be somewhat scared of skate parks, she isn’t now, in part thanks to the SLAG community.
Visibility is an enduring issue in girls’ skate culture. Alisaah Yu, one of the “lone wolf” skaters I met, told me that she never really saw any female athletic role models when she was first starting out, noting that “it’s extremely rare that the mainstream media features them. We are the underground,” she said. “I had to search online and in zines to discover them, but I look up to Julz Lynn. Growing up, as a competitive world-ranked figure skater, I wanted to be Kristi Yamaguchi,” she laughed, referring to the Olympic gold medalist. Woozy of MAHFIA was also inspired by Yamaguchi, who coincidentally grew up in Fremont.
“Visibility is everything,” filmmaker Brodka said in an email. “When someone sees a person they can relate to participating in something like skateboarding, it opens a door for them. For example, when I first saw Lyn-Z Adams skating, it felt like an ‘aha’ moment. I realized that skateboarding was something that I can do as well.”
Brodka’s documentary, Underexposed, which she began making five years ago, sought to answer the question of why, at a time when women’s skateboarding seemed to be bigger than ever, there were still so few opportunities for girls to pursue the sport. “I started the documentary after I learned that the X Games, Dew Tour, and all of the top skate events cut their women’s divisions,” Brodka stated. “All of this happened in 2010, at a time when it seemed like women’s skateboarding was at an all-time high in terms of participation rate and ability level. At the time, contests seemed like the only way girls could pursue skateboarding, so with the contests canceled, I was curious as to where this new emerging pool of women and girls would fit in.”
Since the documentary came out, Brodka has seen “a lot of positive changes in women’s skateboarding. … It seems like the participation and level of skateboarding has skyrocketed beyond what it was in 2010 when I began the documentary. There has also been a lot more media coverage of women’s skateboarding. … Also, female-oriented companies have gotten more recognition. A lot of groups have been working toward implementing change and opportunity and the collective effort is starting to pay off.”
Oakland-based skater Van Roechoudt thinks the fluctuation in interest over the past several years is partly due to the economy. “Historically, it seems that when the economy is doing well, companies start investing in building up a women’s specific line and having a dedicated budget for it, but when the economy contracts, the women’s programs and lines are the first to be cut. So they can redirect that money to support the guys,” she wrote in an email. “If [the economy] rises again, I think that having data on pop culture stuff more readily accessible through social media analytics will also make it much harder for some old guys in the industry to say ‘Women’s skating is hard to monetize’ or ‘There’s no money in it.'”
Indeed, social media has been perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors in regard to visibility and the rise of skate girl culture. Badass lady skaters no longer need to pass muster to the content gatekeepers — thousands of skaters are now online, producing their own videos, photos, blogs, and other media on sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Leticia Bufoni, a pro skater from Brazil living in California, clocks in at more than 650,000 Facebook fans, and 230,000 on Instagram, where each of her photos garners upwards of 10,000 likes each.
Woozy remembered meeting Bufoni when she was just fourteen, and how helping Bufoni made her realize “I gotta keep doing this because this is what it’s gonna take, this is how it’s gonna help grow the whole community,” Woozy said. “We helped get her work visa and now she’s one of the top female pro skaters, and Nike just gave her a multiyear contract, so she’s doing global advertising for Nike. She has major visibility … and she’s growing every day, more and more people are learning about her and can get inspired by her.”
SLAG’s Harris got into skateboarding after she discovered videos of girls ripping on YouTube in 2005. “I had never seen girls skateboard like that … and I was just like, dang I wanna do that.”
SLAG’s Baeta pointed to the egalitarian nature of girl-focused skate websites: “Girls Skate Network is super awesome because anybody can upload a video,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re throwing down handplants or kickflips down a seven stair — you can just show what you’re doing. So it’s all skill levels. It’s not this hierarchy of like, you’re only well-known if you’re a good skater.”
Woozy said she thinks the Bay Area is especially suited to supporting women in action sports. “I think the culture here is way more diverse. … Up here you can be anything you want … and in general we’re used to seeing people who are different just because it’s more integrated up here. So I think for girls, in action sports, you can do and be whatever you want up here. Even outside of action sports.”
Nonetheless, many stereotypes surrounding girls in sports still persist today, which is perhaps best reflected by one of our most common insults, that someone “plays like a girl” (and which Skate Like a Girl has re-appropriated to be a message of empowerment).
One needs to look no further than the comments sections on almost any website that features female skateboarders to find evidence of this haterade. For instance, Metro Skateboarding, an East Bay skate shop with a popular Instagram following that is “all about supporting underground rippers,” dedicates Wednesdays to sharing photos and videos of female rippers (#WomenCrushingWednesdays). Beneath the posts are often several offensive comments — to use an example from one recent video, that one skater “looks like a dude,” “looks like a soccer mom,” and “suck[s],” plus the always classic “Only trick I wanna see is her kick flip her ass into the kitchen.”
To be fair, these insults are in the comments minority, but they speak to the pervasiveness of women-bashing in the online arena and elsewhere (for more on that, see our cover story “Moral Combat,” 10/13/2014).
Hoopla’s Knoop takes these comments in stride, saying that she just ignores or deletes any offensive comments she sees. “That kind of stuff has always been out there since the beginning of time,” she said. “I don’t take it personally so much. I think the only control any of us really have is to represent skateboarding the best we can ourselves and then not worry about anybody else. So that’s kind of the route I’ve taken. I don’t really care about the comments.”
Other female skaters are undeterred as well — the occasional troll or backlash be damned. They continue to keep ripping and shredding, and to create their own pressure-free spaces for women to skate with each other. Yu said that, though she has encountered a lot of sexism as a skater, “it has definitely increased my level of perseverance.”
She continued, “I have dealt with sexual violence as a result of it and repeatedly told that I’m not a lady. After three and a half years of it and being told something that amounts to sexist slurs everyday, it does affect you psychologically, in more ways than you may realize. Certain things now make me freak out or trigger me that didn’t before.”
Despite these obstacles, Yu was unabashed about her love of the sport. “Outside of being a spectacle of a girl on a skateboard, I love it. I absolutely love skateboarding, and I like to blast death or black metal on my iPod and tune everyone out and concentrate on perfecting my carving lines.”
“The climate is changing slowly but surely,” said filmmaker Brodka, who like many others I spoke to, remain cautiously optimistic about the future of female skateboarding. “A lot of companies are supportive of the girls, but they are still hesitant about financially supporting the women’s side of skateboarding the way that they do for the guys. The girls still have a lot of work left to do in terms of progressing the level of their skateboarding. Overall, there is a lot of movement happening in the direction of growth for everyone.”
In the words of eight-year-old Minna Stess: “Just go skate, and have fun.”