by Fiona B
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.”
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.