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The Lesbian Figure Skating Story Everyone was Waiting for: an Interview with Tillie Walden

Swapna Krishna By Swapna Krishna Published on October 3, 2017
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Tillie Walden’s searing graphic memoir Spinning, chronicles her youth as an ice skater. Each morning, she woke up early to practice, and spent her afternoons and evenings on the ice. Her weekends were filled with shows and competitions; her life revolved around the sport.

But it turns out that Walden didn’t even know if she liked ice skating. It was just something she’d done all her life. This gorgeously drawn memoir tells the story of Walden’s struggle with ice skating, but more than that, it’s a coming-of-age novel about Walden realizing who she is — a young gay woman — and taking charge of her own life in the process. Tillie Walden sat down with Bookwitty to talk about the difficult process of writing and drawing Spinning, the negative influence of ice skating on body image, and her next project.


Ice skating is clearly something that’s still difficult for you to think and talk about. What made you want to write about this period in your life?

I realized when I was in school (I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies) that I had a lot of baggage with ice skating. Though that may even be an understatement. I practically pretended I never skated in the first place. I really shoved it all back. And I hit a point in my life where I just didn’t want to let this sit inside me anymore. I wrote the book to heal, really.


I loved the use of purple and white to tell the story, with occasional splashes of yellow for effect. What this use of color mean to you and what were you trying to convey?

Well, the dress I used to skate in was purple and gold. And I realize now that that really helped define my color choice. But I also wanted to use the yellow, really, as an accent. In my mind, color is so often over used. The power of color, in my mind, often comes out when you’ve had an absence of it. The yellow was used like an added emotional accent.


You mention that reading was hard for you as a child. Is that part of what drew you to comics?

I think so. That, and I’m a visual thinker. Comics always seemed so much clearer to me, and so much more interesting. I’ve actually sort of rediscovered my interest in reading prose since becoming a full-time cartoonist, which I find pretty funny.

This is an incredibly emotional coming-of-age memoir that is told through the framework of ice skating (rather than being a memoir about ice skating). How did it feel to confront those emotions?

It felt hard! It felt overwhelming at times. Diving into your past when you’re still not exactly old enough to have processed everything is a pretty big task. But I think that the effort it required from me ultimately helped shape the book in a positive way.


How long did it take you to complete the book? Were there some parts that took longer than others?

Not that long, actually! It took 3 or so months to write and plan, then 3 months to draw. No parts took longer than others; I’m a pretty brutal taskmaster with myself. The scenes that were more emotionally overwhelming could have taken longer, but I didn’t let that happen. I sat down, and got it done.

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You briefly touch on not wearing underwear under your costume (because the judges would be able to see) and the decision to wear or not wear a bra. You also discuss how much image makes a difference in synchro skating — just a shade off on tights for one person can ruin the look. Do you think competitive figure skating has a negative effect on young women’s body image?

Ugh, yes. Thank you for bringing this up, I never get a chance to yell about this. Young girls in skating are taught from a young age that when you perform you have to look a certain way. I remember being taught that it wasn’t about how my legs moved on the ice, but how my legs looked. That I needed more make up than the other girls because I had glasses, and those got in the way. I mean, what kind of a message is this? This is a SPORT. It should be about how we skate, who we are in the ice. Not how we look. Lipstick doesn’t make you land a double axel. Short skirts don’t make us skate faster. And yet, I’ve never once competed without full makeup on. I’ve never competed in pants. I think skating sexualizes young girls, and if people think that ice skaters aren’t aware of that, you’re delusional. Even at 7 I saw the way those judges and audiences looked at my body. I wasn’t myself, I was a prize.

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What kind of challenges did you encounter, being a gay female ice skater, that you wish got more attention in the media or the public image of ice skating?

I wish honest ice skating narratives got attention. I wish ice skating media would focus on LGBTQ people and people of color. The public image of ice skating is just so fraught with that “dream it, achieve it” bullshit. No one talks about how much money you need for this sport. No one talks about the fact that ice dancing is ridiculously heteronormative. No one ever talks about how ice skating hair standards are centered around white girl hair, ignoring the fact that people of color who skate have different kinds of hair. I mean, I could go on. And look, I have nothing to lose. I’m not an ice skater anymore, I have no problem talking about the deep-rooted flaws in this sport and culture.


What are you working on next?

Oh, I think I can finally talk about this! Next year the book version of my webcomic On a Sunbeam will be coming out. It’s a massive gay space adventure, and it’s going to be a beautiful book. 

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Swapna Krishna writes for Engadget, Syfy Wire, and the LA Times. Her work has been published at Paste Magazine, Bustle, Newsweek, and many other outlets.