Why No Boys? (Sometimes)

GPG in Edinburgh

Glasgow Parkour Girls in Edinburgh with their parkour girls

By Fiona B

For those who haven’t heard, Glasgow Parkour Girls will be hosting a 2 day training event for women* only. We thought it would be appropriate therefore, to take this opportunity to directly address a question we are regularly asked: why don’t you let men train with you?

 Firstly, we’ll begin by pointing out that this isn’t a hundred percent true. We do train with men. We actually quite like (training with) men! Some of our favourite (training) people are men. But it is true, that there are some times in our training (like girls’ jams, girls’ class or the above mentioned Clamjamfrie), where we aim to have women only spaces.

 We do recognise that a hundred percent women only space is not always feasible in parkour. We train in public spaces, and we know therefore that men may be at out spots. We also recognise that we may bump into male practitioners while out training, we share the same spots after all! And we don’t mind that. Despite the fact girls jams are advertised as women only, we would never make anyone unwelcome. As many of you know, there are no women coaches in Scotland at the moment, so girls’ class is always taken by a male coach.

 However, we believe it is important to strive for women only training spaces sometimes, and we think it is important that we are allowed these spaces. Anecdotal evidence and research has shown that many women feel uncomfortable training alongside men. This is due to many complex and intersecting social issues. Parkour, and sport in general, is often portrayed as a masculine pursuit. The media image of who does parkour often features a large, muscular man, who can easily perform feats that require incredible mental and physical strength. While this image is alienating to potential practitioners of all genders, it is particularly relevant to those who are not men. A women only environment allows women to try parkour in a more relaxed atmosphere, were they may feel less self conscious or nervous.

 Female athletes face different issues in their discipline to their male counterparts. There are general physical differences, such as strength, distribution of weight, body shape, etc. For example, many parkour women have a different understanding of climb ups: most beginners lack the upper body strength to learn them, and many women find their breasts to be a hindrance to the movement. Many women menstruate, which can effect their athletic output over their cycle, but this is very difficult to discuss, let alone get advice on, from male coaches. It’s not just physical differences that are present, but also mental ones too. In my experience, women face more fear and self-doubt, many women are turned off by competitive or aggressive tasks (such as ‘chase situations’). While this is a generalisation and not essential to every female practitioner, these differences (which are due to the socialisation of young children) are present in many women practioners.

 Some people have suggested to me that the creation of women only spaces is unfair to male practitioners. I don’t think so. Women are in the minority in parkour, and there have been many times when I’ve gone out training and been the only women there. As a friend and (male) practitioner once said “Every jam is a boys jam”. Women’s uptake and participation in sport in general is lower than men. The reasons are complicated, and often to do with societal ideas of gender roles. For example, even from a young age we encourage young boys to play rough and get muddy, where as young girls are often presented with gentler sports, or even discouraged from sports entirely. Women face different societal pressures which men do not, and these act as barriers to women’s participation. Therefore creating women’s only spaces seeks to readdress that imbalance and allow more women to comfortably enter the discipline.

 I don’t think women should only train together for all of their training. I think training with a wide variety of different people is important to develop in parkour. However, I would have never started parkour if there hadn’t been the option of a Girls’ Class, and it took me a while before I felt comfortable to train with men. Because of this I will always advocate for women only training spaces. I know how amazing and helpful the male community is, but I understand the feeling of intimidation towards training with a large group of men. I would hate for someone to miss out because they didn’t have a chance to fall in love with parkour because there wasn’t a situation where they felt comfortable to do so. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need these spaces, but we don’t live in that world, not yet. And until we do women only spaces are important to attract new practitioners and strengthen the women’s community.

Whose city? Our city!

by Fiona B

Girls' Night Mission

Within the discourses of parkour, the idea that practitioners are able to reclaim urban space, through disrupting social conventions on how we should use that space, is a well established one. If you google the topic, you can find many blog posts, and even academic articles, on the subject. For this post, I would like to focus on how I think this idea of parkour being subversive in regards to public space is particularly relevant to female practitioners.

From a young age, women are taught to fear (or at least be cautious of) public spaces, especially at night. Look at advice that is given in regards to preventing rape: we tell women to always take taxis home, walk along well-lit areas, stay in groups, and so on. These messages, combined with the lived experiences of women, can produce a fear of public spaces that restricts women’s movement. If you don’t believe me, ask the women in your life about walking home at night. Or consider if arming yourself with keys is common practise for men in the streets after dark.

This fear of the nighttime city streets can merge with anxieties women may have about being catcalled or heckled. This can give women a degree of anxiety about simply being visible in public spaces. According to Mind, over 50% of surveryed women don’t leave the home when exercising, so as not to be seen in public – even though exercising outside is more effective for lifting mood than inside. And of those that do head outside, almost two thirds choose to exercise in a location where they’re unlikely to bump into anyone they know, and a similar proportion wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure. (http://www.mind.org.uk/news/6732_new_findings_show_women_run_scared_from_outdoor_exercise). That means there are literally millions of women avoiding outdoor exercise altogether, and millions more battling with their own self-confidence when they overcome that avoidance.

The reclamation of public space as a woman is very central to my understanding of  parkour, and my love for it. Practicing parkour has opened up access to new areas of Glasgow that I would have never gone to before. Several of these areas may even be classed as ‘dodgy’ or ‘unsafe’, but parkour gave me a reason to enter them, and allowed me to form positive bonds to those areas. Practising parkour in the evening and nighttime also serves as a way to fight back against fear that, as a woman, I have been trained to feel.

Parkour lets us create new emotional bonds to space. We begin to see the city in a new light as our parkour vision develops, allowing us to view our surroundings in a new way. For all practitioners, this allows us to reclaim our city space, using it as our playground, rather than being boxed in or herded by the architecture. I have strong emotional attachments and many happy memories in my training spots. Parkour allows a female practitioner, through new positive experiences in city spaces, the chance to create new emotions towards these spaces, which can replace the old ones of fear.

Following on from this is the idea of control. As noted above, many people can feel constrained by their setting, and parkour allows us the chance to feel freedom through movement and the corruption of space. By purposefully misusing buildings and walls as a training ground, we can take back a sense of control and ownership of our city. In an article on practitioners training on school buildings, Elizabeth de Freitas states:

“The traceur unfolds the school structure and refolds his or her body back into the building. The body is put back into the architecture. In touching and being touched, the traceur affirms the materiality of the site, destabilizing the building’s status as a symbolic signifier. The traceur deliberately undoes the ideology built into the built environment, and addresses the building in terms of its physicality. And in doing so, the traceur is present at school in ways that re-introduce his or her body back into the building.”[1]

While this is obviously in relation to the school building as a symbol, it isn’t too difficult to apply this analysis to the symbol of the city streets. Women, who often face the streets as a symbol of fear and danger, can transform this symbolic value. Through parkour I have changed my feelings and viewpoints of my surroundings, rather than it being dictated to me. This is an empowering feeling for most of us, but it is particularly positive for women. As noted above, women are taught to fear the streets and can be left feeling helpless and powerless. Through parkour, we can regain some control and a feeling of ownership of our cities and their streets.

And so, while the practise of parkour can be viewed as subversive no matter who does it, I find it to be a more powerful image when it is a woman training. This is a woman, being visible in a public space and reclaiming her city and her home. For me, I have found this to be one of the greatest benefits of doing parkour. I have gained a new love for Glasgow, and a new understanding of the city. I feel less afraid to move about, especially at night, and I have reclaimed a degree of ownership of the streets. Parkour brings so many incredible things to individuals and communities, and surely one of these amazing possiblities is that women can be comfortable, unafraid and powerful in their environment.

[1] De Freitas