Online bullying in roller skating is a thing many skaters have experienced or are experiencing – whether they are Insta-famous or not. Samantha Trayhurn has some thoughts on the way that bullying functions within the roller skating community online, how insidious and damaging it can be – and how everyone can contribute to make the internet a better place.
Thanks to isolation measures in place around the world, we are spending a lot more time together online right now. It’s kind of like a long family road trip where you and your siblings are crammed into the backseat. Your fellow roller skaters are your siblings, covid-19 is the road, and no matter how many times you yell ‘are we there yet?’ your parents in the front seat (i.e. your government) can’t give an ETA of when it’ll be over.
Online bullying happens all the time, but might be heightened at the moment because we are spending more time on social media, are seeing more of each other’s content, and emotions are already running high. There are a lot of negative feelings floating around that might get expressed through lashing out at others, or might be turned back on ourselves when we allow things that others say or do to take on more weight.
I have definitely been thinking more about the way that bullying functions within the roller skating community online, and how insidious and damaging it can be. I have concluded that online bullying is a big zero-sum game: that is, a situation in which one person’s gain means another person’s loss. Usually, the exchange is confidence or self-worth, and over time, bullying can have serious impacts on people’s mental health, and whether they continue to be part of a community. It also, if unchecked, starts to shape the community from within.
So, after conversations with people who have experienced or observed bullying, and a general consensus that it sucks, I thought what better time than now to reflect on how we can all look after others, and ourselves, a little better. Reading this article is likely to bring to mind specific examples of the behaviour being discussed. Let’s reflect on these examples so that we can do better as a community, but let’s not get lost in the individuals attached to them. No single person or small group of people is the beginning or end of bullying in our community, and to focus on the individual rather than the bigger issue of bullying won’t get us very far.
How bullying presents itself in the skating community
Some people might already be thinking: ‘Bullying!? In the roller-skating community!? No way!’ While it might be difficult for those who haven’t experienced bullying to accept that it’s out there, it’s kind of the same as those who haven’t experienced racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination declaring it doesn’t exist. Experiences within any community are vastly varied.
Online bullying comes in many forms, and for the skate world, is mostly centred on Instagram. It can affect skaters of all levels and backgrounds. However, women and girls are much more likely to be bullied online than men, according
to some studies. While these studies tend to focus on gender normative classifications, I would speculate that trans and non-binary people are even more susceptible. However, that doesn’t mean that all bullies are men: bullies are not defined by gender, and anyone can be a bully. Online bullying can be inflicted by total strangers, or it might come from friends, or friends of friends.
Bullying can take many forms including (but not limited to):
- Direct comments and messages insulting the receiver. This might be racially, sexually, physically, emotionally or otherwise motivated.
- Unwanted sexual comments or advances. Sometimes bullying can be masked as a compliment. If these comments are addressed as unwanted by the victim, and then continue then it’s still definitely bullying, not to mention a form of sexual harassment.
- Indirect comments and messages that might appear on the bullies own profile, stories, in comments, or on others profiles and stories. This can be confusing because it might not be directed at an individual, but is still designed to make others feel bad about themselves, and can be even more damaging because it can hurt many people at the same time.
Understandably, many people want to stay anonymous and don’t want to draw attention to specific instances of bullying. However, here are some examples of things that I have seen, or have been brought to my attention that I am able to share.
Consider skaters being continually harassed for what they wear (or don’t wear). This can include ‘short shorts’ and other clothes that the bully thinks are too revealing, or even safety gear. Some skaters have been accused of sexualising skating by simply wearing their normal daily attire to the skatepark. Others are ridiculed for not wearing a helmet. There are also many instances of skaters being attacked based on their body image. What skaters wear really isn’t the domain of anyone else, and when the policing is predominantly done by men towards women, it reinforces patriarchal paradigms that have no place in skating (or anywhere).
Roller skating has a very large LGBTQIA+ community, and for many, finding roller skating signifies finding a safe space. Australian skater Bowzer comments that through roller derby they ‘found a queer community, and a safe space that allowed me the freedom to try out who I thought I might want to be.’ Later, when they took up park skating and came across a well-known skaters Instagram story ‘shaming people for wearing very similar clothes to what I wear in skate parks, it cracked that feeling of safety. All my ideas of roller skating as this wonderful, empowering thing that goes hand in hand with allowing people to be who they want to be, were crushed… The way I dress is a rejection of the cis-het patriarchal world I was raised in. It’s badass, it’s beautiful. Suddenly it felt silly, attention seeking, and all this self-worth I’d built up was threatened by a single Insta story.’
Another instance that comes to mind is a skater who was continually asked to give roller skating lessons by a male within the community, accompanied by sexualised comments on her appearance, and desires to spend more time with her. When the skater declined the lessons on multiple occasions and called out the behaviour, she was berated, told she wasn’t that good at skating anyway, and that she didn’t know how to take a compliment.
Bullying in roller skating doesn’t only happen to women
Bullying also doesn’t only happen to women. Men, especially those who have ever worn rollerblades, are often bullied in roller skating. Conversations around which individuals a brand should sponsor, what competitions look like, and who receives recognition in skating are valid conversations, but don’t need to dissolve into personal attacks on any individual skaters, or on anyone who has ever bladed. Further, a male skater recently shared with me how distanced he felt when he saw the comment that ‘there’s nothing more ugly than a middle aged man at the skatepark’ on Instagram.
Of course, all of these things have the capacity to hurt.
On speaking with other skaters about this issue, Estro Jen mentioned that they think bullying often happens ‘when people want to use roller skating to promote another agenda… roller skating is so broad and diverse, in the way that you can do so many things with it… So, when people want to take a snapshot of any point in time as roller skating, then defend it, is mostly when I see bullying happen.’
Chitty has been in the roller skating world for many years and says that a lot of bullying she sees ‘is lateral and within the community, not from outsiders minus the few trolls on the internet. It’s in snarky comments, passive-aggressive posts/Insta-rants in response to someone else’s post even without naming or addressing what it’s in response to.’ She goes on to say that she’s ‘seen a lot of high-level derby bullying brought to the spotlight regarding exclusiveness and racism, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen locally. We’ve seen it in the skate park realm too – what you skate on, what content you post, trick names are super debatable for some, brands, who else you skate with, your online image etc.’
Neon, who has been instrumental in raising discussions about representation in skating, says she ‘definitely sees online bullying in the skate community’ and classifies bullying as not just a ‘shitty comment’ but ‘a sustained/multiple-instance engagement with an aggressor OR to be one in a string of engagements with the aggressor.’ She commented that ‘newer skaters are probably more likely to get bullied because they’re developing their skill set and understanding of the community, trick names, skate gear, etc. People will call them posers or whatever cause they somehow forgot what it was like to be a new skater.’
Bowzer adds that ‘when someone holds a lot of power in the community, it may feel as though they are not debating what a trick is called, but instead putting skaters in their place by telling them they haven’t actually done the trick they thought they’d done. I’ve seen skaters who just started roller skating take down their posts because they saw an Insta-famous roller skater be told by another Insta-famous roller skater they named their trick wrong. They were too scared their form wouldn’t technically qualify as the trick they went for, and couldn’t cope with the idea another more experienced skater might come along and scoff at their post.’
With power comes responsibility
On the topic of power – within the skate community, as elsewhere, with power comes responsibility. Power doesn’t need to be something that someone actively seeks, and some might not even realise they have it. Bowzer reminds that power circulates in skating through likes, follows, sponsorship, skill level, skill sharing and any other way that a person gains influence. They comment that ‘I think we fear acknowledging power, as we think having power is bad. Power itself is not bad, but when people misuse their power (often because they don’t understand the power they have), then it is bad. If you hold power in the community, it is your responsibility not to make racist, transphobic, sexist, body or trick policing comments, even if you cloud them as just being ‘your opinion’.’
So, when people want to criticise other skaters for the names they call tricks, or for what they used to wear on their feet (or still do), the people they hang out with in the skatepark, what activities they do at the skatepark, or whatever else, is this bullying? I guess that is open for discussion within the community. To me, it is. It’s behaviour that is undertaken to intimidate or coerce someone into falling in line with the bully (who usually has, or wants to have, greater power within the community). From discussions with others, this kind of behaviour definitely makes people feel bad, and for what gain?
If what we want to do is better recognise and celebrate the rich and diverse history of roller skating, then surely there are many other ways to do that. I’d love to see more content celebrating veteran skaters or historical moments. To me, the real agenda at play isn’t attributing recognition, but installing a roller skating elite of those ‘in the know’ whose job it is to look down and over an increasing mass of new skaters (or those who simply don’t care to follow the predefined ‘rules’).
Chitty says that she likes to be more open to conversation and personal flair: ‘I stopped trying to name tricks and variations to avoid the trick-police because at the end of the day I just skate for myself and like to replicate moves as I see them into a run. Imagery online vs. real life also got to me, I like to be myself whether that means I’m falling a lot, did or didn’t wear my safety gear while trying something, laughing a lot, or having a beer during a session. That’s part of me as a whole, I’m not a made-up perfect skater online or in real life.’
In my discussions I was constantly reminded of the distinction we make between online and real life, and how the overlap can often be where the most turmoil lies.
In the eye of the beholder
Some people might think that those who have the largest audience online are immune to bullying because they are so widely praised. However, the reality is often the inverse. Sponsored skaters, veteran skaters, ambassadors, and those who have gained a large audience in other ways are just as likely, if not more likely, to be bullied because they are subject to the highest levels of scrutiny. A study by Cornell University showed that female Instagram ‘influencers can’t win when it comes to online bullying – they ‘endure criticism and harassment both for being too real and too fake.’ This means that ‘people are compelled to be authentic and ‘real’ but in ways that are really narrowly defined.’
While speaking to Estro Jen about their experiences of having a large following, they echoed this sentiment: ‘There’s something to be said about protecting yourself… If I were just to project everything honestly, I don’t know what would happen. That’s something that I haven’t entirely experimented with, probably because when I have been overly trusting it’s bit me in the ass.’ So, there is an expectation that high profile skaters present themselves in a certain way, and everything they do and say comes under heightened levels of scrutiny.
This reminds me of an old adage that has always bothered me: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This perception takes determinations of worth away from the individual and attributes them to judging eyes. When we buy into an economy like this, then we aren’t only bullied by other people telling us what we should be/do/wear, but we also start to be our own internal bullies when we apply the same expectations put onto those we look up to onto ourselves.
The way forward
So, within this economy of recognition, it’s pretty clear that the currency is likes and follows, and these are the ways that power circulates within the community. Power also circulates through brands and sponsors who play a role in producing norms, and with communities and micro-communities that reproduce these norms. As part of the power of the community, skaters can reclaim power by disengaging from those whose behaviour they don’t actually LIKE, regardless of how talented they are. As far as how we can mitigate the negative impacts of bullying on the individual experiencing it, there are a few suggestions from skaters I think are helpful.
For many, when the perceived safe place skating has offered suddenly becomes unsafe, past traumas can be reignited, and it can be hard to know what to do. Sometimes the only choice might be taking the old ‘high-road’ approach. Estro says ‘it’s really important to not take too seriously what people say about you online. Most of your following is not people who care about you or know who you actually are, and there’s so many senses that can’t be touched through a screen. And it’s really important to just not pay attention to the haters, or even the love, because you’re being perceived through a lens that is a screen and it’s not real life. Your following is not real life so you can’t attach too much value or importance to it.’
The comments you make will affect a very wide range of skaters
But what do we do when we see our online relationships as real, or we’re spending more time online than with real people? For many of us, physical contact with our friends and real skate meet-ups have been temporarily replaced by online classes and virtual interactions. We don’t have the safety net of our real life networks to fall back on for support. So how can we better coexist in our virtual spaces for now, and then take these lessons with us as we reconvene our lives as before? Chitty says that it’s important to ‘remember that you were trying something for the first time once before! Also skating is supposed to be a) fun and b) for you.’ Neon says we also need to ‘think about how it would make us feel if we were in that position and do what we can to help people getting bullied. She went on to say that we need to ‘open a dialogue and a space to say, it’s ok to talk about bullying. We have to let people know that it’s ok to talk about it and share their experiences.’
In 2019 we saw the start of some really positive changes in representation across roller skating due to the opening of a dialogue about a lack of diversity across major brands. The same thing is possible here. Bowzer has offered some tangible wise words that we can all use to help shape our interactions moving forward: ‘If you’re a teacher, or sponsored, or a brand rep, or very highly skilled, or Insta-famous, etc, you have power (whether or not you want it), and the comments you make will affect a very wide range of skaters, many of whom are currently isolated and vulnerable.’ Further, ‘no one is immune to bullying, especially Insta-famous people. Followers need to remember they are sending their comments and messages to a real person, with real feelings.’ And lastly, ‘the skate park is for everyone, and for many of us, is integral to our empowerment and mental health. We should never feel the right to put each other down.’
* I would like to thank all the skaters who shared their experiences with me and acknowledge that this article is the collective effort of all the voices named and anonymous within, as well as those who chose not to have their thoughts publicly shared but helped shape my thinking on the subject.