GIRL IS NOT A 4 LETTER WORD
“You run like a girl.. You throw like a girl.. You skate like a girl..”
How many times have we all heard the word ‘GIRL’ used as a slur or a put down? But what happens if we take these insults and teach young girls that “running like a girl” also means winning the race. What changes when we encourage and give them the freedom to do exactly what they want, entirely free of gender constraints?
What can young women achieve when they understand: GIRL IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD.
That is the message legendary pro skater, Cindy Whitehead wants to spread with her movement, Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word - with a goal to give women in action sports the same opportunities and recognition as their male counterparts, whilst shining a light on and giving back to women in skateboarding. Not to mention, empowering girls of all ages to go after what they love and as her personal motto states; “Live life balls to the wall. Do epic shit. Take every dare that comes your way. You can sleep when you’re dead.”
At a time when it was nearly unheard of for girls to be skateboarding, Cindy conquered the male dominated profession as a teenager becoming one of the top-ranked vertical and pool skaters in the 1970s. In addition, she became the first female skater to be featured in a two-page magazine article plus a centre-spread and the only woman sponsored by Puma. The epitome of a badass, Cindy was clearly born to shake up the rules and make a difference - both of which she is still very much doing to this day.
Unable to relate to the girls playing with barbie dolls, Cindy turned to running barefoot on dirt roads, climbing trees, playing sports and rolling down the driveway on rough clay-wheeled skateboards with the boys, whilst making the streets of Hermosa Beach, California, the once sleepy little beach town just south of Los Angeles, their own.
First standing on a skateboard at age eight, it wasn’t until her fourteenth birthday when she was gifted a brand new board with urethane wheels that Cindy truly fell in love with skateboarding.
“I knew I was different because I was one of the only girls in a group of ten that hung out everyday and skated along the streets by the pier, but everyone just let me be. It’s like we were a tribe living our own renegade lifestyle, we had a lot of freedom.”
“Growing up should really be genderless and children should be allowed to do whatever it is they want to do. There has always been girls interested in science, mathematics and skateboarding, they’ve just been discouraged.”
With an existing surfing culture within her hometown, skateboarding didn’t seem so different, so nobody battered an eyelid when Cindy started stealing ply wood and building replica’s of the ramps pictured in the skateboarding magazines she’d pore over as a young teen. But it wasn’t long until she noticed one thing that was entirely missing from these magazines - Girls!
However, skateboarding was different enough that once Cindy started high school, she got her male friend to carry her board around for her. “Skateboarding was still very new and I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to have to feel weird about it or answer to anybody. It was like living two different lives - my high school life and my skate park life, I never merged the two. Skating was my thing that I did in my own time, because I loved it. Although, I think it wasn’t so much about what the boys would say, it was more what the girls would say.”
By the time Cindy was in her second year of high school, she was skating more than she was attending school, travelling far and wide to compete in contests. It was during these competitions that she came across other female skaters for the first time and again was struck with a reminder of the gender imbalance that existed in the world of skateboarding. “When it came to the prize money, girls would get $100 for first place, in comparison to the boys $2,000. If we as girls won a competition, our prize money would barely cover the cost of the petrol used to get us there.”
But when bringing this up with the brands, their argument was, ‘there’s not as many girls as there are guys skating.’ “But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cindy declared. “Girls will never continue competing past 22 years of age, because they have to move on and get a real job because they can’t afford to continue when the sponsors won’t pay for them to go to these competitions. So they were basically ensuring that skateboarding would stay at a certain level for women, by not changing anything.”
Making national headlines in 2012 when skateboarding down Los Angeles’ busiest freeway, the 405, Cindy described this monumental moment in her life as a catalyst for launching Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word. The previous closure of the freeway caused a flood of people to carry out all sorts of activities from picnicking to hula-hooping on the road. The closure of the road for a second time, was taken much more seriously by authorities. Hence, the mayor announced that anybody caught on the freeway would be arrested. With police stationed at every entrance and exit, Cindy and her husband spent two hours driving around to find the perfect position to complete this insane task, an opportunity she wasn’t going to pass up.
“We almost got busted twice,” Cindy recalled, “but my husband found a hole in the fence that was just big enough for us to climb through, so we did it. He ran up the hill with his camera and I ran down to the road, I couldn’t even see where he was but I just jumped on my board and started skating along. I was filled with so much adrenaline that I almost forgot to jump off before the next exit,” she laughed.
The following year when skateboarding company Dusters, California reached out to Cindy about collaborating on a board, she knew this was her chance to create something for all girls, that was broader than herself. “I agreed to having my name on the board to use my history to sell it, but I knew I should have a brand, and that’s when I came up with Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word.
When the skateboard launched in June 2013, it was accompanied by a photo of Cindy “flipping the bird” to the camera, which received quite a reaction. '“People responded saying, you don’t need to do that, you’re a woman, you should know better. Firstly, just because I’m a woman, that doesn’t mean I can’t do that and second of all, that is exactly what GN4LW is all about. It’s basically saying, fuck the patriarchy, Girl is not a four letter word and I’m here to let you know that.”
“The movement itself, is there to support any and all girls in all types of skateboarding,” explained Cindy. “One thing that is different about us to some other companies out there is that they’re only promoting their own riders and brand all the time, as they should be,” she added, “but at GN4LW, we’re here to promote anyone and everyone, not just our own. Using our website as a tool to highlight a different girl in skateboarding everyday.”
Currently in their sixth year, Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word have inspired thousands of girls across the globe to get out on a skateboard, created their own apparel line and collaborated with numerous different skateboarding brands and companies such as Dusters, Dwindle and S1 Helmets. The latter, who they will launch a brand new helmet inspired by Cindy’s 70s skateboarding days, this coming October. “Collaborating is very important to us, because that’s what helps us to generate revenue that we can then give back to the girls.”
Slightly different to their previous collaborations, 2017, saw Cindy and GN4LW team up with New Zealand musician, Gin Wigmore for Cabrona, an offering linked to Wigmore’s Girl Gang project and recent album Ivory. The title, Mexican slang for “bad bitch” or “a woman not to be messed with” plays nicely into the collaboration between these two strong, like-minded women. “That collaboration with Gin was awesome because she is a total badass and it was such great visibility for the girls.”
“There have been many women who have been supportive of what we’re doing, but we can’t forget about the males who have supported us too,” Cindy acknowledged. Dwindle, Dusters and S1 Helmets are all male dominated companies who have been very supportive of our work within GN4LW from the get go.”
“WE AS FEMALES ALWAYS TALK ABOUT WOMEN SUPPORTING OTHER WOMEN, WHICH IS SO IMPORTANT, BUT WE CAN’T FORGET ABOUT THE GUYS WHO SUPPORT US TOO. THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE, BOTH MALE AND FEMALE THAT GET BEHIND FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, AND I THINK SOMETIMES THE GUYS DON’T GET THANKED AS MUCH.”
“I don’t think it has ever been about proving anyone wrong for me. It’s more about focusing on what I like doing and if you don’t like it, then you’re probably not my kind of person anyway.”
“Back in the day, if somebody wanted to say something derogatory to you, they had to say it to your face and deal with the consequences of their behaviour. But now, with the rise of social media, it has really uncovered the fact that not everybody is down with female empowerment in this country. I have been faced with some people who are very adamant about the rise of women and girls doing something that they feel is a man or a boys’ domain, it’s like we’re going backwards to the 50s or 60s.”
“Believe me, there’s times when I wonder if anybody cares,” Cindy laughed, “but then we’ll get sent incredible pictures of girls in Iran and Japan holding our boards which act as a reminder to how far and wide our message has spread.”
“THESE GIRLS ARE OUT THERE SKATEBOARDING WHICH IS JUST THE COOLEST THING TO SEE. WHETHER IT’S ON OUR BOARD OR SOMEONE ELSE’S, WHAT WE’RE DOING IS RESONATING AND THEY’RE OUT THERE TAGGING US IN PHOTOS SO WE SEE THEM, AND WE DO..”
Cindy’s biggest hope for the future of women in skateboarding comes down to the major sponsors stepping up. “We need to get rid of this idea around what I call the “one girl mentality.” Sponsors have the money and the manpower, but they also have this belief that if there’s already one girl on the team, then they don’t need another.” Also noticing this mentality in young skaters, Cindy admitted “I’ve had girls say to me that they want to be the only girl on a male dominated team, and my question is always, why?”
“If there are five girls on one team, then you’re actually creating more opportunities for each other than if there was just one of you. Being the ‘one girl’ on a team doesn’t make you special, it gives you less opportunities. But the pie has been so small for girls in skateboarding, that they are guarding their pieces instead of realising that if they bring others along with them, they’ll create a better environment overall.”
According to Cindy, since the addition of skateboarding in the 2020 Olympics, sponsorship deals for female pro skaters have improved and there has been a lot more fair play come into existence. With Vans stepping up to the plate and being the first to offer equal prize money for both men and women, this placed extra pressure on the other brands to follow suit, something Cindy doubts would have happened if it wasn’t for Steve Van Doren, one of the original sons of the Vans and his daughter Kirsty.
As for the future of Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word, Cindy hopes to keep creating more opportunities for women in skateboarding. With plans to financially sponsor a female pro skater in the lead up to the Olympics and new exciting collaborations on the horizon, there’s no sign of this ever-growing movement slowing down their empowering work any time soon.
Whilst Cindy’s own professional skateboarding days might be over, she’s managed to find herself a new career that fuses both the excitement of working in sport and her love for adventure, reinventing herself and coining the term, “Sports Stylist.” Despite her agents threatening to drop her, in the years since, ninety percent of Cindy’s work in advertising still remains sports related, having worked with athletes such as Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and Peyton Manning, developing a reputation as one of the world’s leaders in her trade.
“Whenever I have an idea for a new project, many people think that I am two years ahead of the curb, but that is entirely my point,” Cindy confessed. “I would rather be leading the pack than following it.” Getting particularly annoyed when people tell her that “the world isn’t ready,” or that “I should wait,” Cindy believes that if you have an idea you should take charge, not sit around and wait for everybody else to be ready to come to terms with it. “I usually trust my gut and my gut is usually right,” she added. “I could tone it down when I’m told, but then I would just be vanilla like everybody else and that’s not who I am. It would be like telling Gin she shouldn’t get so many tattoos, you’re taking away what makes her who she is, and “playing it safe” doesn’t work for women like us.”