Lea Isabell: The Perks of Falling

This is our first ever article in the Long Read format, a new part of our roll-out which will feature articles from past issues of Place, longer columns, and other things that require that weekend type of time for you to read. The article below is a creation by our very own Lea Isabell. Who noticed some interesting differences between masculine and feminine behavior in their relation to skateboarding as well as life in general. Long story short, she did a deep dive in some gender theory as well as into her own experiences and came out the other end with this very fun and interesting text.

Intro by Roland Hoogwater.

Text & Illustrations by Lea Isabell.

It’s already October and I guess for most people the year 2020 is an intense one. Social distancing and „quarantine“ changes a lot in our daily routine. We are not able to see our friends and families, we are struggling with jobs and paperwork to receive money to pay our rent. But next to all the negative effects, we finally found time to do the things we never had time before and also the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and the society we are living in today.
For me, a lot of parts of my life changed and I had to try something new. A few weeks after the lockdown, things slowly started to open up again and I found myself in the position to become a skate trainer, working with kids during the summer holidays. I already had some experience working with kids but never before in the context of skateboarding. Now, all of a sudden, I hosted skate classes every Monday through Friday and also ventured out of Berlin for a skate camp with more than 15 kids together with another trainer. I thought because of the art workshops I did before, I knew a lot about children and because I am a skater myself, the skateboarding part would be easy. But the last weeks have given me a completely new perspective about kids, skateboarding, and society in general.

The Fear of Falling

When I “really” started to skate I was 18 years old and I always complained about the fact that I didn’t continue skating when I was way younger. I had gotten my first skateboard at the age of twelve. The opinion that kids or younger generations could learn faster because they are less afraid about the consequences, was an idea shared by skaters and skate trainers – and it still is. But the experience I had during the last weeks is, that kids are definitely afraid of a couple of things. Most notably: falling! A lot of the kids were not afraid of physical pain, but more about the social embarrassment, „OMG what will the others think of me when I fall down“. This was especially the case when it came to mixed groups of girls and boys, and… the girls had more fear to fall in front of the boys than in front of other girls.

I wondered what the problem was with falling in front of others? Especially in front of people of the opposite gender? (no one presented as trans or any other gender) Personally, I can’t say that I am fearful of falling in front of boys – or maybe I am no longer? I tried to find an answer to my question.

“It is more important for people to avoid social pain (like shame or embarrassment) than physical pain.”

Thomas Haarklau Kleppestø, Department of Psychology, University Of Oslo.

The connection between falling and being embarrassed

First of all, I was trying to find out why people feel embarrassed when they fall in front of others. But maybe I should start by stating clearly what embarrassment actually is.

“Embarrassment is an emotional state that is associated with different levels of discomfort and can be compared with shame. While shame is an emotion only known for an act to oneself, embarrassment can be projected on others (known as vicarious embarrassment).”

We have been taught multiple reasons or situations to be embarrassed. Example: sweating, farting, falling, or the classy thing – toilet paper under your shoe. The feeling is one of our social instincts, it is not a learned reaction.

Multiple Psychologists studied the feeling of embarrassment. I shortly want to introduce three of them and their thesis.

Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, NTNU Professor of Psychology says that people constantly interact in social comparison and competition. We choose friends, lovers, and partners based on our judgment. Showing weakness, the loss of control, acting clumsy, or being helpless can trigger the fear of being negatively judged. [1]
Thomas Haarklau Kleppestø, working for the Department of Psychology in Oslo says that it is more important for people to avoid social pain (like shame or embarrassment) than physical pain. Experiments on the brain have also shown that social pain triggers the same regions of the brain as physical pain does. The reason why people feel embarrassed, so Kleppstø says, is that people want to signal good mental and physical conditions as to appear attractive to others as both/either a friend or a possible partner. The reason that you want to avoid losing control or getting hurt is because it can be associated with getting old or sick.

Johanna Katarina Blomster, also working at the University of Oslo underlines the fear of getting negative attention, being vulnerable, needy to strangers, or being the victim of, „Schadenfreude” (the feeling someone has making fun of your failures).

When we refer all this to the act of falling, we possibly grasp why people feel embarrassed. It could be a sign of weakness, losing control, and mostly it can lead to bad health conditions. That is why people are less afraid of physical pain, and more about the judgment of others. 

Jarne Verbruggen knows a thing or two about falling and getting up.

The border of genders 

As we know, there are a lot of differences between people when it comes to skateboarding. We know it’s completely normal to fall and to get hurt but you will always get up again. I think in the skateboard community it is not a way to show weakness, it’s a way to show strength, ambition, and endurance.  Even the fact that rough cuts video edits exist speaks for that. An example: Jarne Verbruggen’s Part, “Never Skatebored“ dropped three years ago and reached about 76.000 clicks on Youtube.[2] The rough cut came out in the same year and, got around 1,25 million clicks. It seems like skaters have a different attitude to failures than the rest of society. It seems like male skaters can also improve their masculinity by taking pain easily while continuing to skate, they get a lot of respect for that. I think a lot of people interpret these things in different ways when it comes to female skaters. 
In our society, we grow up with phrases like „don’t cry like a girl“, which represents that girls would cry more often. Crying is linked to emotional instability, pain, or the fact, that something is hurting. This can all be associated with weakness. If you translate that, a lot of boys and girls grow up with the image that girls are weaker and more emotional. The same goes for boys, just the other way around. Because of the prejudice, that girls are seen as emotional and weak, boys can’t identify with these characteristics because they would then be seen as having typical feminine characteristics. They are taught to be perceived as masculine, e.i. act emotionally dulled or “strong”.

Another personal example of outdated gender roles in our society: When I was a kid, my grandma always told me that I should be more careful with my knees or my legs in general. If I would have a lot of bruises on my legs, I would not be able to find myself a man in the future. I should focus on looking pretty! In essence, it would speak against my femininity because bruises are mostly associated with fighting, hard work, or extreme sports. Summed up, we grow up with the expectation that women don’t fight, don’t work hard, and don’t engage in activities like extreme sports, because they should be pretty, a mother, and good a housewive. At the same time, they are emotional and weak, not able to protect themselves. This is because of certain cultural standards, that dictate what a female body should look like. Women also have to be tiny, clean & skinny. People think women are just not made for extreme sports. Because of the images I just laid out. Men are growing up with the expectation to be able to protect their family and put in hard work, and because of that, they have to be strong. To learn how to be strong they can choose to engage in extreme sports.

This is subconsciously creating gender roles in skateboarding. We may have found an answer to “why do some girls feel intimidated to fall in front of boys?” It is an instinctive behavior that women want to please the other gender. Coupled with that, they have this false body image imposed on them by society. This creates pressures that they try to fulfill, at the same time, those images are completely detached from any natural form of the human body and mind.

And there is another factor which influences women in skateboarding. On the one hand, women protest against the prejudice that they are weak and sensitive. They see themselves as strong, independent women who have to push through a male-dominated society. The result is, that a lot of women aren’t able to admit pain and stop listening to their own body which can lead to bad health conditions. When a woman hurts herself, a lot of men tend to underdetermine the pain of the girl. I know this from my own experience. On the other hand, they don’t want to act too strong, because they don’t want to act too masculine. Both ways aren’t healthy for the female body and mind. And in my opinion: What is unhealthy for the female body and mind is also unhealthy for the male body and mind. So when it comes to skateboarding, women find themselves in a contradictory situation, which can lead to uncertainties and stress.

When a man gets taught that they always have to act strong, they also stop listening to their own body. Their fear of social embarrassment is higher than the fear of actual pain. When men continue skating because they don’t want to admit that they are in pain to underline their masculinity, injuries can get worse. Also, the oppression of feelings can lead to mental and physical illness.[3]

If this has ever happened to you, you probably felt a slight moment of loss of control and embarrassment.


The process of not feeling embarrassed anymore

With all this information laid out, we can begin to understand some of these circumstances. Everyone has their own insecurities and get affected by these gender expectations differently. I see lots of female skaters rejecting these gender expectations. They skate and bail, act strong and show weakness at the same time. They get respected for doing that – by both women and men. It is the same way for male skaters and other gendered people. The love for skateboarding can overcome a lot of borders and it seems like there is a new trend: Girls are strong, and Boys do cry, and I like everything about that. When you grow up in the skateboarding community you get a lot of compassion from friends and other skaters. You shed the feeling of embarrassment when you fall because it is normal, very human, and a big part of skateboarding. You can hurt yourself and you can also lose control every now and then. And thank god, the biggest part of the skateboard community teaches you that it is okay!

Through my own experience, I just want to underline that not everyone has similar experiences to mine. It takes some time to realize and understand the guiding principles of skateboarding and a lot of beginners are still struggling with these outdated gender expectations. A sad situation that could stop them from following their new passion. But on the flip side, we as a community can also pay more attention to how we can include women and beginners more, so they feel less intimidated, embarrassed, and insecure.

The Perks of Falling

Now, we have arrived at the best part of the whole article. I went to my local skatepark, skated around, and when I fell for the first time, I didn’t stand up directly but instead, I took some time to take a deep breath. I thought about what it meant to be able to fall and not feel embarrassed about it. About what it means to get rid of those worries and concentrate on your own body. Maybe you feel a little pain, but you can happily admit it – as male, female, and other gendered skaters.

I think when you can overcome a social embarrassment, your whole personality starts to grow. Maybe you will stop to see your body as a machine that has to act a certain way to please your surroundings. You start to accept and love yourself – both your body and mind. You are able to overcome unhealthy social gender expectations and will start to listen to yourself, instead of listening to others.

When you and your personality are growing and you find yourself in a positive mindset, your surroundings and your community is growing as well. When you’re able to show weakness or let people help you, the relation with your friends and others can get closer. You can also be a good example for others and help them, motivate them, or inspire them to free themselves from all those unhealthy social images about gender and norms.

Next to the positive effects on yourself and your community, it’s also nice to be ”down to earth”. You should try it out! Next time you fall while skating, just lay down for a moment. Take a breath, feel yourself and your environment, and relax. It can be a liberating feeling – one which I can highly recommend!

Watch Lea Isabell herself fall and laugh in this video.
[1] here and in the following:  https://sciencenorway.no/animal-kingdom-behaviour-psychology/why-are-we-more-concerned-about-someone-seeing-us-fall-on-our-face-than-whether-it-hurt/1562384
[2] Stand 17.08.2020
[3] Lookup: Netflix documentary (health) or the work of Dr. med. Christiane Northrup ‘’women’s bodies and women wisdom’’, 1998, S.