Words & pics: Vikki Weston
How women are becoming the fastest-growing demographic for stand-up paddleboarding
When I started She SUPs in August 2019, my mission was to find ways to increase the number of women on the water. Based on my personal experience as a female paddler, I always found myself outnumbered by male paddlers whenever I ventured out paddling. This left me often feeling vulnerable, self-conscious and often disappointed that so many women were missing out on the incredible adventures available right on our doorstep.
Stories of epic water-based expeditions were often those of men, spotting a female paddler as I paddled down a river was a novelty rather than normality, and this all didn’t sit right with me.
While society continues to take steps towards complete gender equality, in many countries and cultures, deeply-rooted discriminatory social norms and stereotypes remain barriers to women pursuing or participating in adventurous activities/outdoor sports. From my primary research, I learnt many women thought about going paddling but weren’t seeing their thoughts through as they didn’t know where to go or who with.
As a response, I created She SUPs, aimed to empower women and girls through SUP-related education, lower entry barriers by designing unique SUP experiences and social paddles exclusively for women, and cultivate a strong supportive network of like-minded SUP-loving women. They can connect with and inspire each other to hit the water, and gain all of the incredible mental and physical benefits that being on the water brings.
Fast forward 12 months, and a global pandemic seems to have given my mission of getting more women onto the water a helping hand. As COVID19 has shaken the world upside down, one positive side has been the impact it has had on many people’s desire to be outside and explore further within their local area. With this attitude change towards the outdoors, many now explore activities like SUP and paddlesports for the first time. Meaning not only are we seeing the SUP gender statistics changing, but women are becoming the fastest-growing demographic for stand-up paddleboarding (woohoo!)
So what is it that has caused this sudden shift in perspective and adoption of the sport by women?
‘Naturally good at it’
Firstly, women are realising they are ‘naturally good at it’ and therefore once tried; they are adopting the sport like an old friend. I’d heard others in the industry mention that women were ‘naturally’ better at SUP than men, and I had undoubtedly witnessed some evidence of this when teaching mixed-gender beginners classes. Still, according to the research, it’s less nature, more nurture.
Generally, in society, young girls find themselves building on their balance skills from the moment they can stand, through activities like hopscotch, jump rope and dance. These activities promote the practice of balance from a very young age and creating a strong foundation for balance skills from which to develop. In contrast, boys (typically) don’t spend a lot of time doing these things when young and therefore have less developed balance skills when older. The moral of the story, women, jump on a SUP and can find their sea legs a lot quicker than guys. (There is a lot more to explore here regarding average body size and weight etc., but we’ll pick that back up another time!)
Secondly, SUP is incredibly accessible. At a time when everyone is looking for ways to explore their local area and get outside as much as possible, SUP provides an ideal outlet. There’s no need for fancy equipment or a prerequisite to have a certain level of strength or skill; anyone can attempt to SUP in calm water with friends.
The introduction of inflatable stand-up paddleboards also means that previous barriers of having a suitable vehicle to transport your vessel, having the strength to carry your boat to/from the water and/or having somewhere to storeyour vessel shatters. With an iSUP, you can pump up and go.
The mind of a woman
Next up, let’s dive into the mind of a woman. Often in the space of 60 seconds, my mental narrative may go a little something like: “If I cook the chicken tonight, then we can have the leftover veggies for lunch tomorrow. Did I put deodorant on today? Oh, bugger, my sister’s birthday is coming – must buy a present. After my 11am meeting, I’ll put on some washing so that I can take it out at 12 before I go for lunch. I must check on my elderly neighbour; she may be lonely. Oh, and after that, I should do some yoga as I haven’t done exercise in the past three days.”
Exhausted? Yep, me too.
Yet when we hit the water, this narrative fades away into the gentle metronome of splashes and ripples in the water. Paddling occupies your mind as you focus on the movement of the water beneath your board, the tingle in your toes as they grip onto the deck pad, the birds flying overhead and your shoulders sinking lower as the stresses of the day to day fade away. As you paddle two strokes, one side and two strokes the other, your body receives a release of endorphins from the gentle repetitive movement. Meanwhile, exposure to sunlight is helping your skin produce vitamin D, boosting production of serotonin and melatonin which in turn, improves your mood, increases your energy and helps for better sleep. No wonder we keep coming back for more!
Finally, I want to share a massive shout out to all of the women across the world, sharing their SUP adventures on social media. There are the expedition leaders and record-holders such as Lizzie Carr, Fiona Quinn, Sian Sykes, Fiona Wylde, Seychelle Webster and Cal Major, to name a few. These legends are standing up for what they believe in, setting records and making headlines undefined by gender. But most importantly, a huge shout out to the fantastic everyday adventurers who are heading out on their local waterways with dogs, kids and friends. Who are taking selfies with cows, videos of SUP picnics and sharing their adventures big and small?
Thanks to you, more women than ever are being inspired to try paddleboarding and are consequently falling in love with it, gaining all of the mental and physical benefits being on a board brings. Additionally, we (as a collective) are organically diversifying media imagery within the SUP industry. Today brands across the world rely on user-generated content, so with more women taking to the water and sharing their experiences across the social channels (don’t forget to tag @shesups_ when you do!) brands are naturally sharing more images of women. More importantly, real women, of all shapes, sizes, colours, ages and backgrounds.
So more women are on the water – that’s awesome! Job done? Unfortunately not. As a traditionally male-led industry, there is still a lot more work to do to get this industry truly gender-equal. From designing gear with women in mind (unisex SUP pants with a codpiece or crotch cup are not good enough!) to the way, we teach SUP. Have you considered how you’d teach self-rescue when jumping belly first onto the centre of the board, is out of the question for a woman with a larger bust?
I encourage ladies taking up paddleboarding to speak up about their needs and those in the industry to listen. I will certainly continue my mission to raise and address these needs via She SUPs, through my blogs, consulting and sharing the stories of others via social media. Yes, more women are taking up SUP than ever before, but this is only the beginning.
Vikki Weston is the founder of She SUPs, an all women’s SUP community. She SUPs’ aims to empower women and girls through SUP education, lower barriers to entry by designing unique SUP experiences exclusively for women, and cultivate a strong supportive network of like-minded SUP-loving women from around the world that can inspire each other to hit the water, and gain all of the incredible mental and physical benefits that being on the water brings. You can find out more by visiting http://www.shesups.com.au, search for She SUPs on YouTube or by following @shesups_ on Instagram.