"Girls can’t skate 'cos they’re too fat and always shopping." These words are printed on Kellie Simpson’s favourite top. She’s a 38-year-old skateboarder and cofounder of the Girls Can’t Skate crew in London. "A guy said that to me as a joke when I was 14," she says, "so I put it on a T-shirt and wore it to my first ever skating competition."
It’s moments like this that typify why skateboarding has been perceived as a baggy-jeaned boys’ club for so long. Despite a handful of prominent female trailblazers dotted through the sport's history (Patti McGee in the '60s, Peggy Oki in the '70s and Cara-Beth Burnside in the '90s), professional skateboarding and its media coverage and sponsorship have been saturated by men.
The world didn’t get its first female pro-skateboarder until 1998 when Elissa Steamer was signed to skateboarding company Toy Machine; Thrasher magazine – skateboarding’s biggest title – has only had three female cover stars in its 37-year history; and it wasn’t until 2008 that skating competitions began giving equal prize money to male and female competitors.
But the gender skate gap is narrowing. Just last week, Skate Kitchen, Crystal Moselle’s film charting the lives and loves of an all-female skateboarding crew in New York, hit UK cinemas, filled with scenes of girls freewheeling en masse through city streets. Instagram is awash with videos of kick-flipping women and events specifically for female skaters are popping up thick and fast across the country.
At House of Vans in London, where the skateboarding brand has filled a group of railway arches beneath Waterloo station with concrete bowls and mini-ramps, a girls’ skate night has been running since 2015 to get more women using the space. When it first started, you’d be lucky to see 30 girls taking part. Now, you’re more likely to see 300. As the nights have grown, everything from yoga sessions and DJs to nail art and stalls selling skate gear have been added to the mix.
My own skateboarding story is a sorry one. In my primary school years, I spent hours circling my local skate park in rollerblades like a vulture, eagerly eyeing the teenage boys gliding on their boards. When I finally got my own set of wheels, I was too scared to join the park regulars I’d been in awe of for so long and my fantasies of skateboarding tricks like ollies and board slides settled like dust among other forgotten childhood dreams. But when I heard about the House of Vans evening dedicated to women all these years later, a light switched on: maybe, finally, at 26, I could do this too.
For the first time ever, sometimes you’ll go to a skate spot and there’ll be more girls than boys. There’s so many girls wanting to skate, knowing it’s okay to skate and there’s this amazing community of women to help them.
It’s here that I first meet Kellie, who is teaching women at all levels how to sharpen their shredding skills. My childhood anxieties melt away as I take to the concrete with Kellie showing me where to place my feet on the board. I trundle unsteadily along, rolling and toppling over with a woman who has never stepped on a skateboard before and another girl here for the third month running, determined to learn. When I finally cruise from one end of the skate park to the other, the euphoria is overwhelming.
"That achievement of trying something and landing it – the first time you drop in, or you kick down on a ramp – that high is better than any drug," says Kellie, who cuts a cool figure with bubblegum pink hair and hoop earrings.
Kellie started skating at 8 years old and for a long time was one of the only girls skating in London. "It was a great escape for me, because I didn’t have a very good home life so I used to go to the park as much as I could. Now and again you’d come across other girls, but never really see them again."
Kellie stopped skating for 13 years and when she came back to the scene in 2017 was amazed at the number of women she saw. "I saw so many of them on their own with groups of guys and I thought, 'Why aren’t you skating with other girl skaters?'" She started Girls Can’t Skate as a WhatsApp group, adding all the women she came across and posting information about where other girls were going to be skating.
"As a woman, going to a skate park can be hella intimidating," says Kellie. "As much as guys can say 'we all have to start somewhere', that doesn’t necessarily change how we think about ourselves. Skating with other girls, we stick together, we encourage each other on."
Kellie adds: "For the first time ever, sometimes you’ll go to a skate spot and there’ll be more girls than boys. Right now there’s so many girls wanting to skate, knowing it’s okay to skate and there’s this amazing community of women to help them."
It’s a story being played out up and down the country. In Cardiff, Kay Russant’s monthly skate night for women, Prom Queen Social Club, has doubled in size in three months. "We went from 23 girls at our first event to 40 at our last one," Kay, who started skating at 26 after being inspired by a girls-only night, tells me. "I never thought I’d be able to skate because I was too old to go to kids' classes, so finding the nights for girls was really important for me."
In Glasgow, female-run skateboarding collective Doyenne sells non-gendered skate clothes and runs events for women, LGBT people and people with disabilities to make the scene as inclusive as possible. "Creating a space where people can see themselves reflected makes so much difference," they say. "It’s not about segregation, but letting people feel like they can go to these events and have a place in skate parks."
Twenty-eight-year-old Jess Melia founded Rolling with the Girls in Leeds after getting into skating this year. Jess posts videos of women skating in the area on Instagram, of course, but it's not about the likes. "The idea is to showcase girls getting out and just doing it," she explains. "I wanted to make sure anyone could scroll through the videos and think 'Hey, I could probably do that'. I haven’t learned anything that’s really challenged me since university. Skating’s taken real patience and dedication. It’s taught me to see little wins as huge victories and to conquer my fears. I wanted to encourage other girls to do the same."
Social media and sites like GirlSkate UK, which posts news and updates about female skate crews, have played a huge part in the recent surge of women picking up decks. Charlotte Thomas began skating at 16, but after cracking her coccyx in a bad accident turned to photographing the scene instead. Her book Concrete Girls is filled with lovingly intimate shots of British female skaters, and she credits Instagram for divulging just how many women were actually out there shredding.
Girl skaters are the new punks. We're a very cool subculture and still a small one going against the grain.
"When I was skating there were only a handful of us girls. It wasn’t until Instagram I found out there were absolutely hundreds," she says. "I meet women that I wouldn’t have known existed before. There’s no other way I would have known about half the girls in the book."
She describes Concrete Girls as a "little piece of skateboarding history" putting the UK female skate scene in the limelight. Girl skaters are "the new punks" she says. "We’re a very cool subculture and still a small one going against the grain. Skateboarding is about friendship, community and being creative. I think that’s why it’s picking up momentum, because everybody is so supportive. There’s lots of personalities and styles and everyone just slots in."
At House of Vans, I watch women of all ages and abilities push and encourage each other and realise I’m witnessing a kickass culture carving a vital space for itself in a male-dominated scene. It’s refreshing and inspiring. The kindness I see between everyone exemplifies what sportsmanship should be, all with a sense of community that is defined by the women who forge it.
We leave the concrete and carry on the evening dancing to DJs, browsing stalls full of skate wear covered in feminist slogans and laugh about our falls while getting our nails done. Turns out, girls can skate. And we can shop and paint our nails while we're at it.