For Black skater Mariyah Gerber, something as simple as a costume illustrates problem of lack of diversity
She says the small things go a long way in helping people feel like they belong
Mariyah Gerber has been a figure skater for 22 years and over all that time she couldn't find costume mesh or tights that matched her skin.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the sport's diversity problem.
"Representation matters, one hundred per cent," Gerber said. "You're constantly in a space where you're told you don't have the look, you're not beautiful.
"And it's hard to feel beautiful when you're looking around and the idealistic thing about beauty has nothing to do with anything you possess."
Gerber began her skating career at age five in Riverside, Calif. Her grandmother was the one who signed her up for lessons, and years later signed her up to audition for a Black role in a major skating tour. Gerber got the part, so instead of heading to college as planned, she hopped on a plane at just 17 years old to begin her 10-year-career skating in shows around the world.
Gerber stepped away from the role in 2016 and calls the experience amazing. But she also walked away with the stark reality that no matter what level she was skating at, the sport's environment and standards did not reflect skaters of colour.
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Mesh and tights were an ongoing issue for Gerber. To this day, very few companies sell shades matching all skin tones. Even as a professional, Gerber was fielding questions from costume designers on where to find tights in her skin tone and teaching them how to dye her mesh the right shade.
"I'll never forget, the season before my last, [the costume designers] put me in a costume that was fully white mesh," Gerber said. "And I remember they looked at it and said 'It doesn't look that bad.' And I feel like the words 'it doesn't look that bad' is also a mild way of saying 'we know it's not right, but it is what it is.'
"And it's like, I've worked this hard to get to where I am but I still don't feel like I'm supposed to be a part of this sport."
In that specific case, Gerber spoke up about her discomfort and the costume was remade with better materials. But Gerber knows that's not an option for many skaters, especially young athletes of colour who get most of their equipment and costumes at pro shops.
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"I felt so uncomfortable speaking out and saying if I'm going to be out there, it has to be right," she said. "I felt that way because of years prior feeling like I couldn't really truthfully say my piece or share how I feel about the costumes or things I was being put in."
Gerber one day hopes to create a mechanism which pro shops, costume designers and parents can use to find companies that sell mesh and tights for all skin tones. But she wishes those in charge would spend as much time researching costume and representation details as they do other aspects of their shows.
"Things like that would be a huge step in the right direction to make sure people of colour feel included in a sport," said Gerber.
Gerber didn't meet many other Black skaters on tour but formed friendships with those she did, praising the support they offered one another in a very competitive atmosphere.
But that lack of diversity reflected the lack of diverse roles. Gerber skated one of the few lead Black roles in her show, while most BIPOC skaters skated in the ensemble. Gerber usually did not have a Black understudy and even when she did her role would often be played by skaters of other ethnicities.
"I remember when my understudies would go in, I always felt bad," she said. "I could see when little kids came [to watch], dressed up in their prince and princess costumes, you could see the automatic disappointment in their faces when the character came out because they saw everybody else looking like the movie, but then that character comes out and it's somebody who's not Black.
"And it's just another moment or instance where something that was supposed to be meant for you is taken away."
What made it worse for Gerber was never seeing a BIPOC skater take a traditionally white role. And the tour company did get complaints about representation, which Gerber thinks is the reason for the role steadily being taken out of the show over the years.
"It's so much easier to find someone who can do five characters than to find someone to fit the criteria for one character and to highlight them properly and make sure they're well represented to the community," said Gerber.
"I always knew, but I know more now than ever, that it is so important we remain represented and that we're represented correctly."
To deal with all of this, Gerber says community and highlighting talent are both more important than ever, which is why she's part of the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance, a new working group tackling a myriad of projects to promote visibility, form support systems, create inclusive policy and more.
"We are underrepresented, we are not lifted up and shared and honestly, I've realized now how what we are fighting for is being more well-connected to one another," she said. "I feel like what has been lacking in our community has been that community of people who are right there, ready to answer your questions and say "Hey, what happened to you isn't right and we're able to help make it right" and to not have people feel alone.
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"You're constantly in a space where you're told you don't have the look, you're not beautiful. It took me years to be able to feel beautiful in my own skin and appreciate it and all that I do, and I really think a lot of that had come from skating."All that is compounded by how expensive skating has become, especially for athletes looking to reach a professional or Olympic level.
For these issues to still exist at the professional level makes Gerber even more concerned for young BIPOC skaters with dreams of their own.
"It comes down to strength. It's hard to be the only Black skater in your rink, in your region, in your section," she said. "Maybe when you're six, seven, even eight it's all fun, but once it starts getting more competitive and you start getting better and you look around and don't see anyone who looks like you, I feel like it discourages you from continuing."