Hey bike industry, we aren’t Barbie dolls

An excellent post on the excellent blog Sociological Images today pointed out a number of spot-on examples of ways companies assume that men are their standard market, but label products marketed to women as such. For example, you can often choose between a small t-shirt or a women’s small t-shirt; at my long-ago high school, the women’s sports teams were called the Lady Dragons, whereas the men’s teams were just the plain old Dragons.

REI's description of women's bikesREI’s listing for women’s bikes
(Click to embiggen)

This business of women as irregular afterthoughts is fascinating, but what caught my eye was a bit of the text called out in the bike example. The post includes an excerpt from REI’s website, on which they list the many types of available bikes — mountain bike, road bike, commuter bike …. and women’s bike.

No “men’s bike” is offered, of course. What really struck me, though, was REI’s description of women’s bodies:

These bikes—which can be road, mountain, comfort or hybrid bikes—feature frame geometries, handlebars and wider saddles that are tailored to better fit the typical female body proportion. For instance, the top tube frame lengths on women’s bikes are generally about 1 to 3 centimeters shorter than men’s bikes, so the reach (saddle to handlebar) is shorter and fits most women better. These bikes also feature shorter-reach shifters that better fit women’s hands.

Actually, much of this careful description is completely false. Women tend to be shorter than men, but the proportions of our legs, torsos, arms, and hands is on average the same. There is significant variation in proportion between ethnicities, but I’ve (fortunately) yet to see a bike company produce bikes specifically sized for people whose ancestors come from Japan or the northern Andes.

[Note: If you read the comments below you'll find one commenter who knows what she's talking about pointing out that the academic consensus is actually that women are differently proportioned in the ways proposed by REI. She further comments that standard sizing based on these proportions is not helpful when you have a diverse ethnic population; pointing, perhaps, to a different kind of fantasy about what is "normal."]

So why would REI (not to mention plenty of other companies, including the quintessential women’s bike makers, Terry) perpetuate this myth of long legged ladies? I think they must just not know — perhaps it makes such intuitive sense to them that it doesn’t occur to anyone to question it, much as it instinctively rubbed me the wrong way when I first encountered it.

Which is most attractive? Images used in a study of leg-body ratio
(Click to make bigger)

While there’s no evidence to support that women have proportionately longer legs than men, there is plenty of evidence to show that, in the U.S., at least, people tend to find longer-legged women more attractive, as well as longer-torsoed men. So there you go. No surprise, right?

It’s become almost cliched to point out the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie — the doll who, if real, wouldn’t be able to stand up, walk, or menstruate — but I think it’s relevant here. Who knows which came first, the fantasy or the doll, and I’m not suggesting that Barbie played an overt role in mucking up women’s bike fit. But by now, several generations of kids have been raised playing with Barbies. Kids and adults are exposed to tons of images of models and actresses, which often come with instructions about how to look like them, and compensate for your flaws if you don’t. Can we be surprised if most of us, women as well as men, are predisposed to imagine that a typical woman’s body is closer to this fantasy than it really is?

Whatever its origin, this myth about women’s bodies may explain, at least in part, why so many smaller women, like myself, have trouble finding bikes that fits us — either the top tube is all up in our business or the reach is too short, or both. The persistence of incorrect standards has likely resulted lot of failed bike quests & painful bike fits among women and men alike. And, to return to the original inspiration for this post, branding a certain fit and styling of bicycle as women-only sets apart “women’s cycling,” whatever that is, as some kind of fringe, limited, and probably not as awesome activity.

Anyway, I’m going for a bike ride now — see you out there.

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29 Responses to “Hey bike industry, we aren’t Barbie dolls”

  1. Bonnie January 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Thanks for putting words to my thoughts! Though I’m not a smaller woman, I run into this same issue not only with bikes but with, well, everything. I’m sick of being ‘pinked’ and an afterthought.
    BTW, is it just and optical illusion in that leg-length to height ratio graphic, or does the torso length of the women decrease as the leg-length increases? Weird.

  2. todd January 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Thank you for expressing what I, as a guy who sells bikes, have long suspected but not had the, uh, balls to assert: women’s bike fit is a myth. As you say, women tend to be shorter, and that matters, but proportions and riding style/application (which also matter) are largely genderless.

    As long as we’re talking “road bikes,” most of whose basic features are dictated by UCI rules designed to keep cycle sports more about athleticism than engineering, smaller bikes will tend to have steeper seat tube angles, shorter top tubes, and sometimes more relaxed head angles. This is more about small-person mechanics and “looking normal” using widely available components (like ISO 622 wheelsets) than about gender per se.

    Looking beyond sport and leisure biking toward daily transportation use, traditional men’s and women’s bicycle styles reflect differing gender-based socioeconomics and modes of dress more than anatomy. Take “ladies’” traditional saddles: they are shorter-nosed than men’s as less likely to catch on a skirt. Men in kilts should prefer them, in theory. Same deal with step-through frames: clothing not anatomy.

    Do women’s bikes have higher bars? No: people who use bikes for frequent domestic errands and child carriage prefer such bikes for practical reasons; it is incidental that these roles accrue more commonly to women than men. Higher bars tend also to support a slower, more relaxed and (literally) circumspect riding style, which i think to some degree is inversely correlated with testosterone. Not anatomy.

  3. Lovely Bicycle! January 12, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Interesting post, but I have to disagree with you here. The article you linked to that cites studies disputing the “women’s legs are on average longer” claim is by no means the definitive voice on this topic. The predominant consensus among anthropological, archeological, and medical researchers remains that female bodies, on average, ethnicity held constant, yadda-yadda do indeed differ from male bodies in this manner. Further, there is good reason to believe that the male’s increased attraction to longer legged females is due to evolutionary psychology and not cultural norms. For instance, women with large chests and very slim bodies are currently considered very desirable on a cultural level. But at the level of neurological and physiological response, males are more attracted to heavier women with narrow waists, wide hips, long legs and moderate chests.

    There is a number of interesting reasons why among the US population this difference may appear diminished in recent generations, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Interestingly, the well documented hip to waist ratio difference between males and females appears diminished among Americans as well.

    This is not to suggest that I think you are entirely wrong, but just to say that this is all quite complicated and not as simple as saying “a-HA I knew there was no difference!” just because the evidence is not straightforward.

    • Elly January 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      Thanks for chiming in with your anthropological expertise. I’m both fascinated and baffled (and contemplating what the new Mattel product might look like if they caught wind of this).

      I’m assuming the writer in the link I cited was going by a chart of averages that I’ve also looked at in the past and frustratingly wasn’t able to find again this afternoon — the perils of researching by google — so I assumed she knew what she was talking about (which perhaps she does, if she was going by the book) — I’m wondering what you think might account for the discrepancy.

  4. Lovely Bicycle! January 12, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Oh I am very certain that Mattel has caught wind of this long ago, and their products play/prey on gross exaggerations of it. They utilise the round face/big eyes/ looks like a child thing as well (women with child-like faces rate as more attractive to men, and from an evolutionary POV this is thought to be because it is evidence of youth/ optimal child bearing age).


    Think of it this way: females have larger breasts than males on average, yes? But do they have 38DD breasts on average? No. And does every female have larger breasts than every male? Again no (really, the fatty content in many men’s chests alone could rival a healthy lady’s 36B). Add in some ethnic variation, and the thing is that in a mixed-ethnic population you just never know what any given individual’s proportions will be like. It’s best not to generalise IMO, including for the bicycle industry.

    • Elly January 12, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      I’ve put a note in the post which I hope accurately reflects your critiques. Thanks for sharing what you know!

  5. Kent Peterson January 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm #


    What I really, really wish is that was better size targeting in the bicycle business. I finally had on brave male customer of Asian ancestry look at the geometry charts and order a “Women’s Specific Design” bike because it was the best fit he could find. And amazingly the paint job wasn’t too “girly.”

    Sometimes it seems like it is getting better but there is a long way to go.

  6. Lovely Bicycle! January 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Me again (sorry but this is interesting)!

    One more thing: I remember talking to a couple of reps from roadbike companies at the 2011 Interbike about the WSD thing, and one of them said that it was in large part a response to women consistently complaining about top tube length. So they did market research, used feedback from bike shops (many of which reported having to fit frames with super short stems in order for women to fit them), and made decisions about the WSD design based on that. Now this is all hearsay of course and I don’t even have the name of the guy I spoke to for you, but just FYI. If we take their word for it, then they did not just pull all of this WSD stuff out of their [saddle].

    Also, recently I somehow ended up reading a blog that was reviewing Rapha women’s jerseys back when they first came out, and the femal reviewer was saying things like “thank god, because before I had to wear the men’s and they were way too long on me.” Other women chimed in the comments and also reported than men’s jerseys were too long in the torso. So there’s more anecdotal evidence.

    One last thing: I did not mean to mislead that I was an archeologist/anthropologist. I am a psychologist/neuroscientist, with experience in attraction and evolutionary psych research, including having taught a college course on attraction. So that is my background.

  7. Lovely Bicycle! January 12, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    No I guess I am not done after all…

    Keep forgetting to add that despite all this, I think that it is fundamentally rather awful to have “women’s bikes” listed as a category. There should either be categories for both men’s and women’s bikes, or the “women’s” category should be called something like “reduced top tube fit” – fit a catchy acronym for it of course.

    • MG January 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

      Thanks for your article. I can’t speak to the fantasized/mythological notions people have about the female figure, BUT I agree with this last statement from the commenter. Reduced top tube fit or SOMETHING less based around “male” or “female” would be nice. WSD is an issue that affects many women. As a taller than average woman (over 5′ 8″) I am totally bothered by the current definitions of WSD. I am a woman and yet no WSD bike would fit me, at least none that I’ve seen. Where does that put me? As a jumbo-size woman? Less of a woman? Great! The whole thing drives me bonkers.

  8. M January 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    I have heard the assertion before that it is not an actual torso SIZE issue in men vs. women, but rather that many women prefer to be slightly less stretched out on a bike. I have absolutely no supporting evidence, but it is something someone might look into.

    That said, whether or not the “women’s fit” is a myth, it’s still preeeeetty effing otherizing to have to click on “women’s bikes” instead of “road bikes” etc.

  9. Jolene January 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    As a tall woman who does happen to have very long legs, but a short reach, I have always had trouble finding good bike fit. I went to several bike shops before my purchase, including one that had a bike fitter, but when I was told I needed a women’s specific bike, I disagreed, but they tried to convince me to buy one anyway. I ended up ordering a handbuilt tour bike sight unseen from Holland and it turned out to be a perfect fit because I knew exactly what I wanted. I have never actually bought a ‘womans’ bike, because they are always too small for me. My second bike, a ‘men’s’ mtn. bike, is a Novara Portal from REI. Had your blog post been available then, I might have reconsidered where I bought the bike. I did, however, get the $400 bike for almost free with coupons and dividends, Commuter Cycling Checks, etc, so I feel a bit vindicated. On another note, why are ‘women’s’ bikes always such foofoo colors? Maybe I want a grey or black bike instead of pink or red? I enjoyed your post and wholeheartedly agree…

  10. halley January 12, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    What I really wish is for a pair of bike pants that fit. Because I have hips. (A whopping size 10) and am a petite with a 29″ inseam, the only rain pants I could find that I could pull on over my own pants were a men’s specialized large. They’re about a foot too long for me and I’m afraid the bagginess will get caught in my chain ring. I’m also a candidate for a custom frame because while I have stubby legs, I have a really long torso. If you see me around on (my most common) commuting bike, I’ve got the scott at-3 handlebars on just to give me that extra, almost foot, of reach for a back and shoulder I’ve broken in the past and can’t keep hunching up on inadeququately boxy frames.

  11. April January 13, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    And see, I would KILL (metaphorically) for a bicycle that fit my 5’2″ frame with long legs. Once you get under a certain frame size, the top tubes don’t see to get any shorter, and it drives me bonkers. I want to buy a professional fitting, but I have the gut sensation that the only bike that will fit me is a custom bike that I can’t afford.

    On related notes, though: I have a shoulder injury (from being a cashier, a decade ago) that limits how far I can lean over a bicycle without excruciating pain.

    Also: I know a dude with my exact measurements, re: height, leg length, arm length. He’s happy with 50cm frames “off the shelf.” But he doesn’t have the shoulder issues I do.

    • kfg January 21, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      “Once you get under a certain frame size, the top tubes don’t see to get any shorter”

      Because in order to do that and maintain proper overall proportion of the bike you also have to make the wheels smaller and there is a cultural aversion to making smaller adult bikes, ya know, smaller (and oddly enough, other parts of the bike will need to be made bigger in order to maintain the same functionality, just as shorter people are not larger people “shrunk”).

      You might suffer from that aversion yourself without realizing it. I could easily build you a bike that fit with off the rack stuff, but you might reject it for not fitting your mental image of a proper bike.

  12. cycler January 13, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Haven’t done any bike shopping at REI- (every time I go there, I’m annoyed by how outdoor clothes assume active women don’t have hips or breasts) but If I were looking at that list of options, I would have assumed that the “women’s bikes” meant “step through” frames, not diamond frames with different proportions.

  13. Ajay January 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    I find the whole recumbent bike/trike section of the industry refreshingly unconcerned about gender – or at least it was when I was actively shopping for trikes. I’d never go back to conventional bikes, though I’ve recently been thinking about a Kick bike….

  14. Tonya January 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    One piece of anecdotal evidence for you. My husband is 3 inches taller than me, but has the exact same leg length. Makes picking a size for our shared Electra/xtracycle very easy!

  15. Henz January 15, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    But some barbie dolls are barbie dolls (even if Mattel has no idea about seat heights): http://onespeedgo.blogspot.com/2011/12/so-wrong-so-right-so-glam.html

  16. Ron Richings January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Hi Elly
    You can see a fairly comprehensive piece about bike fit for women at:
    http://tinyurl.com/7ube8m8 Well worth a read.

    [Broken link edited! Thanks, Ron. -- Elly]

  17. dominic January 20, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Top tube length is too long? Stem too long? Reach is too far? Why not turn this thinking around with a solution? A solution for all those riders, except road racers. The answer has always been right in front of us. Drum roll please. The “chop and flop” bull horn that is reversed. This is what happens when installed. The reach is reduced because the handlebar ends are towards the bike rider. Seat is repositioned reward too. Another feature is the bike rider is in an upright posture and has multiple hand positions. Go to my blog for a DIY piece and take a look at a bar end modification. See Detroit Bar or REV 2 handlebar. Also a page talking about Rider Reach. Just a note: many handlebar iterations to choose from and in my opinion not really masculine, see for yourself.

  18. dr2chase January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    A few years ago when my wife was looking for a bike, one of REI’s “women’s” bicycles was named the “Flirt”. It fell off the list for that reason alone (and generated snarky remarks about the name of the hypothetical upgraded version of the Flirt).

    It would make a lot of sense for most utility bikes to have step-through frames; as soon as you have much stuff on the back of your bike, swinging the leg over the back can lead to unpleasant surprises. I’m not sure how, but somehow I realized that I could pop my leg up and over the top tube on my Big Dummy, and that works much better than the swing-over-the-back. If the bike had an actually dropped bar, this would be easy indeed. Mounts would be easier, too.

  19. Lizzy January 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Thanks so much for bringing this up. I ride mostly “men’s” style bikes because the colors, strength and style suit me more. I have one women’s bike and it isn’t a great fit [I couldn't try it before ordering it but fit the men's version great]. I have long legs and a short reach, which is more common with women. Only my seat has to be all the way back and I really could use a slightly longer handlebar stem. This is KHS’s medium size Urban XPress commuter bike. On the other hand, I ordered a 52 cm Surly Pacer, which has a longer top tube and a short stem [racing geometry], which, after months of stems and handlebars is still driving me crazy. Its advertised as a fast commuter/all day bike but its a heavier racing bike. I’m about ready to take it apart and sell the frame and fork.

  20. Johan January 31, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    I am pretty sure the Cervélo R3 and R5 frames all have a 73 degree seat tube angle, regardless of size. The s2 is available with such an angle. Effective top tube length is 516 mm for the shortest sizes and the frames are compact so no standover problems. Still 700c wheels though. High price as well, but one could always buy a used frame/bike. Another option is always to look at the bikes for kids and teens, these will have 650c and even 24″ wheels etc. These will usually come with gearing that is more suitable for a smaller persons wattage. If someone wants pay the hefty price of a Cervélo frame/bike is another issue.
    Sometimes I think one should be careful what one wishes for when it comes to paint-jobs etc. I think it is nice that there is at least the option of pink bikes. Its not like there is a lack of black or white bikes.

  21. peter April 22, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Calling all Frame Builders.
    I came to this thread via a friend I had been asking about why ST-TT ratios change as one goes from small to large sizes. As an amateur bike dealer who frequently struggles to find small frames women are comfortable on (“I feel like I am too stretched out” is the common complaint. Though whether that is just novice riders struggling to adjust to a road position from a city – hybrid bike they’ve been used to, I don’t know.)

    Anyway, in my stash of some 50 bikes i’ve noticed that the ratio of ST-to-TT increases with frame size. so a 50cm ST frame will often have a 52-54cm TT (so ratio around 0.925 to 0.961). at about the midrange (56cm) they tend to go “square” (i.e. 56STx56TT or a ratio of 1.00 and up at my size range (ST=60-62) the top tube gets smaller than the ST (usually by about 2 cm so the ratio goes up to like 1.05)

    The Male / Female body proportion question aside, even if we were dealing with just one category, whether someone was short or tall they would presumably have about the same average leg-to-torso proportion,

    So why is the ST-TT ratio changing? Why should a 5’4″ (let’s say Male) on a 50cm ST frame have to deal with a longer relative TT than a 6’2″ male on a 60cm ST frame?

    Is this some function of the physicals and mechanical/technical constraints of frame construction?


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