She’s everything I want to be. Everything I want my girls to be. Invincible, fearless, loved, embraced, powerful, strong, gorgeous, supportive, supported, revolutionary, rad. Cindy Whitehead is everything. I met her at one of our close, mutual friend’s backyard BBQs — and she swept in with an air of confidence and cool. Long bleached hair, a white smile, skater stickers spilling out from her pockets (which she was pouring into my daughters’ hands) — and a cool photographer husband in an ironic tee adorning her side. She was so friendly and down to earth, I had no idea her resume would look how it does.
It turns out Whitehead has made quite the name for herself. To say the least, she’s a spectacularly adept skater (ever since she hit the skate scene in the late 70s), a social activist, a Ted Talk speaker, a radical pioneer. So much so that the Smithsonian asked for her goods and the Skateboarding Hall of Fame recently inducted her into their cool club – introduced by Joan Jett, no less.
To this day, she is the only female to be featured in a two page article plus centerfold in a skateboarding magazine.
Her feats in the male dominated sport of skateboarding is in itself revolutionary rhetoric — but she’s on a firm mission to do so much more.
Whitehead’s vocation is to give girl skateboarders a platform to be seen and heard — and to encourage their presence and involvement and equality in the sport.
With her entrepreneurial baby Girl Is Not a 4 Letter Word, she is doing just that. Not only is she getting so many more girls into skateboarding, but she is giving women in action sports their much needed and long overdue recognition.
And in so doing, she’s standing up not just for girl skateboarders and female action sports athletes, but she’s giving ALL girls and women visibility, viability and a voice. She’s holding the hands of all the trivialized and ignored.
Whitehead urges all of us girls and women to know our worth and simply ask for what we want and to stick to it. It seems like such easy dogma – but I think it’s safe to say that we are still struggling. There is so much disparity in the treatment of women – on obvious levels such as salary equality and the social mores that are still to this day insinuated into many of our citizen’s psyches. But, lucky for us, Whitehead has been a huge facilitator in the creation of a much needed total paradigm shift.
I long for the day that the search for equality will no longer be news. It’ll be a given and a non issue. I hope my two girls won’t even know what gender bias is — in the same way they don’t know a world that didn’t have a black President.
I hold so much gratitude for the Whiteheads, Jennifer Lawrences and Steinems of the world who are serving as our spokeswomen and our swift and reliable vehicle to get us where we need to go.
Whitehead has quite the history to her trailblazing name — and she doesn’t use an ounce of it for self-adulation. She utilizes and allows her personal public platform to be the podium for all women, minorities and underdogs. How’s that for rad and kickass?
Thank you, Cindy for your pioneering and resilience, for being a strong representative for female athletes (and for all females for that matter) — and for this interview. You stuck to your guns since you were a little girl and it’s proving to be quite worthwhile.
Cindy, what does skateboarding mean to you figuratively/symbolically/literally?
It is my passion. It’s always been a huge part of my life. It’s friends who are also family. It’s most definitely freedom.
Was there a catapulting moment/person in your childhood that aided in the definition of you today?
Yes, my grandmother. She was the one telling me it didn’t matter that I was the only girl skateboarding with a lot of guys in pools and half-pipes. That I needed to not ask for favors, just drop in and skate and make no excuses. She was a rebel before her time. A strong woman who instilled in me things like “Ask for what you want.” She made me ask and work for sponsorships and goals I had, she never picked up the phone or did it for me. I learned at age 15 I had to do this all myself if I really wanted it badly enough. But she was always there to bounce ideas off of or run things by. My grandma and grandpa were also the ones driving me back and forth to the skateparks while my mom was working. She made friends with the local skate and surf shop in my beach town – ET Surf, and made sure that every time new OP shorts arrived, they held my size. I went through shorts pretty fast skating – I’d slam and rip out the sides. She stayed out of my way and never tried to coach me or do anything that was overbearing; she just gave me unconditional support for what I loved to do. I don’t ever remember a time when I said I want to quit skateboarding. Never.
If you had a baby girl, what are 3 values you would intend to teach her — and how would you plan on doing so?
- Self acceptance
The same way my grandma and mom did with me. By not being a helicopter parent. Let her make her own mistakes (within reason). The only way you know what works and what doesn’t is by trying things. Learning something the hard way means you’ll never slip up and do it that way again. To learn from mistakes, you must make some. Also know when to stand up for yourself and don’t let others push you around. Know 100% what you believe in and stand for and you won’t have the problem of being swayed into bad situations.
When other girls are saying, “I need to lose 5 pounds” or “My nose is weird,” I’d teach her to realize everyone is different for a reason and everyone’s body is built for something different. Embrace what’s different about you – make it a positive and your “signature” – not a negative. So many great women out there to look at and see this. Better to stand out, than be vanilla and fit in.
Being compassionate is key. If you don’t have compassion that scares me. I’d teach her early on to give back. Too many toys? Lets give half to the kids who actually have way less than we do. Volunteer work has always been part of my life and I’d make it part of hers. Teach through example. See someone who is being bullied? Step up and be compassionate to that person as it can easily diffuse a bad situation when the bully knows someone cares – sometimes that’s really all it takes. I am a firm believer in watching, seeing and doing.
How far are we from where we need to go? When will you know we’ve arrived at gender equality and recognition? How do we create solidarity and force a necessary, radical paradigm shift?
We are working hard towards gender equality. But you can just look around to see how far we need to go.
When I heard that the women’s USA soccer team stood up and said “no more inequality in pay” I was cheering so loud! That was a big risk they took but they worked together to make it happen and now the senate is involved and behind them – it takes women standing up and demanding this change in the world. I saw the list of players who banned together and I thought “awesome” then I wondered what happened to the rest of the players – why were they not standing up? Too much to risk? Afraid of making coaches and sponsors mad? Worried about losing their careers/jobs? All of those are valid points, but when you have a whole team collectively work together it says even more to the powers that be. But as my mom used to tell me not everyone is comfortable being a leader and taking heat. So I thank goodness there are women out there like us that will.
I try not to be disappointed in women and girls who can’t or won’t stand up when there is inequality – I have tried to realize that everyone has their own comfort level in fighting for what is right, but I do have my moments where it’s hard for me to be OK with that.
I think we will know we have 100% gender equality when we see as many women in CEO positions as men, when females get equal pay for the exact same job or sport they play. When an actor gets the same high paying deal as her male counterpart when she has just as much or more star power. When women are not thrown bad time slots for shitty waves in surf contests, and when TV coverage makes sure they are featured as prominently as the boys in any sporting event. And when we can look back at all of the above and say “what are you even talking about??” That’s when I know we will have made it.
When women and girls work collectively, change happens sooner. We also need to stop apologizing for asking for what we want and deserve. We need to never accept the put downs we hear too often when we are assertive like, “Wow she’s so emotional,” or “She’s a bitch.” If you ask yourself, “Would they say that to a man in my position?” and the answer is NO, don’t accept the behavior. Make a point of calmly correcting it and keep pushing forward with what you came for. I also feel that we need to train ourselves to have a clear voice when asking for things in person and in email communication. The “Well, maybe” or “If it’s OK” or “I was just thinking…” Lead ups are already signaling that you don’t feel you deserve what you are asking for.
If you are not comfortable using direct language – as many of us were not raised that way, practice in front of the mirror or with your female friends, until it becomes second nature.
Who are your idols (male or female) of trailblazing?
So many! Joan Jett for leading the charge in my generation by speaking out constantly. Jennifer Lawrence for speaking up so publicly about equal pay in the film industry. Tavi Gevinson for just about everything she has done at such a young age. Jane Pratt for starting Sassy Magazine back in the day, Lena Dunham & Lenny Magazine for giving women a voice and a platform today, Amy Schumer for not allowing the internet trolls to body shame her, Pro surfer Carissa Moore for always taking a stand about how female surfers are portrayed in the media. And every girl & woman out there that stands up, speaks out and says, “This is not right and I am going to do something about it!” I have had so many great men help me get to where I am too, guys who are 100 % feminists in my mind for doing the things they have for me- when it definitely wasn’t popular or the norm. I know they took flack on my behalf and I really appreciate it so much.
I know Joan Jett is a favorite from your youth. What other favorite authors, musicians or cultural icons have pushed you in your pursuits?
Joan Jett for sure – 100%. Also authors like Judy Bloom and S.E. Hinton. Taylor Swift taking on iTunes was ballsy and brave. Keala Kennelly (big wave surfer) for redefining what a woman is, and can do in a male dominated sport and making zero apologizes for it.
How do you define success? How do you define happiness?
Success for me now-days is knowing I am slowly paving the way for the next generation. To see and hear that what I am doing IS making a difference. The notes, calls, texts I get from girls and parents thanking me for showing girls that they can do this and being a strong role model.
Happiness is when I go to bed at night, look back at my day and I can unequivocally say I made a small difference somewhere today – that makes me happy.
It seems like you’re not one to rest in complacency. Who are your competitors? Yourself, other women, men? Are your competitors also your inspirations?
I am very competitive with myself – I always want to do more today than I did yesterday. I don’t find other women or men to be the competition; I find their success motivating to me. It’s the old “if she can do it, I can too” thought process. And I hope I inspire other women out there in the same way. So I would say my competitors inspire and motivate me in a very positive way.
I also have strong female friends I surround myself with – in fact I just went through my “favorites” call list on my iPhone and I put every single strong woman I know on it so when I need a boost or someone to kick my ass back to what’s important, I just pick one of those rad women and make that call. Sometimes I just look at that list and it gives me strength when I’m frustrated or fed up with road blocks I encounter. I did this with Joan Jett when I was growing up – I didn’t know her then, but I’d say to myself “what would Joan do” and I drew strength and inspiration from knowing she wouldn’t take any shit, so why should I? I hope I am that person for some young girl out there today.
What do you fear?
Boredom. People who have narrow minds. That girls in skateboarding won’t be able to make a living from the sport they love during my lifetime.
What is your mission with GIRL IS NOT A 4 LETTER WORD?
To give women in action sports the same opportunities and recognition as their male counterparts. To continue to raise money for female based action sports non profits. And to get so many more girls skateboarding!
What else do you hope to accomplish in your overly accomplished life?
I’m working on a YA book about how to be a badass girl in today’s world who creates radical change and social disruption — and what it takes to get there.
Your words, your path – and for lack of a better word, your cojones – are nothing short of staggering. Thank you, Cindy.
+ Featured photo: courtesy of the Whitehead family archives.
+ AND STAY TUNED READERS: In the coming weeks we have interviews with LA BASED CELEBRITY DIETITIAN, KIM SHAPIRA, M.S., R.D., creator/showrunner of MARVEL’S AGENTS of S.H.I.E.L.D., MAURISSA TANCHAROEN WHEDON + NATIONAL TAEKWONDO CHAMPION, 5th DEGREE BLACK BELT and TECH TOY LEADER, MASTER MASON WILLIAMS.
It’s gonna be good.