Biking like a woman

A couple months ago, a man explained to me that he believes in the fashionable biking movement because it allows women to still feel feminine while they ride a bike, thus demolishing one barrier to getting around on two wheels. I’ve heard this from women as well in the past and thought “well, to each their own taste” and moved on. Hearing it from a man caused me to stop and think about that use of the word a bit more critically.

My main thought was—what does it even mean to be feminine on a bicycle?

So I asked Twitter, and a big, sloppy interesting conversation ensued. Sarah Goodyear took it and ran with it, asking a more open-ended question and getting a lot of long form answers, which she’s posted at The Atlantic Cities today.

It’s fascinating to read the responses (the comments are pretty good too). They’re all over the map. The common thread in the responses is pretty clear (though hardly unanimous): Femininity is defined by a certain style of clothes and looks. While this style is *very* important to some people (either pro or against), the majority of responses were from women saying some version of “who cares about that, enough already!”

To which I heartily add my voice.

Allow me to answer my own question here:

To me the word “feminine” is loaded with all sorts of baggage I don’t want in my life, mostly related to time consuming daily routines, being subtly insulted by colleagues and random people on the street, and hyper-selfconsciousness about my appearance and speech. Whenever tropes of “masculinity” come up, which is less often (and which unfortunately seem to mainly consist of not being seen as feminine), they seem like a mostly-unwanted burden to men as well.

This stuff is real because we’ve made it real. It’s also a total distraction. When our physical and economic lives are constrained by grossly unequal gendered divisions of paid and unpaid labor, when these same economic lives require massive investment and dangerous overuse of private cars, when violently sexist behavior in the public sphere is accepted as normal and inevitable, why the hell are we so focused on what we’re wearing and saying? I suppose because it’s easier than tackling the hard stuff.

I don’t know if this obsession with our outward expressions of gender obscures the tougher issues or if it’s a metaphor in some way. The idea that we must somehow choose between lycra and tweed, helmets and hairspray, is a false one—but the fact that this idea is an obsession for many in the bicycle movement demonstrates that differentiating us by style and secondarily by gender is a real concern.

This bears more thinking and talking about. But in the long game, I want the privilege, for all of us, of being able to go about our days without bothering with this stuff unless we want to. That’s why I write about economics and culture, not style. For me, as for many of the people quoted in Goodyear’s article, a bicycle is a way to ride away from the bad old world and create something new.

3 Responses to “Biking like a woman”

  1. Maysa Blay April 17, 2014 at 5:48 am #

    Perfect. I totally agree.

  2. Cecily Walker April 21, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    It’s always interesting to me to read such strong reactions to the word feminine. I am feminine, I embrace it as much as I am able, and I don’t think that being feminine means I’m lesser, or weaker, or somehow less worthy than a masculine person.

    Maybe it’s a simplistic view, but I view femininity as something that a person who identifies as a woman does. If I ride my bike in spandex, I’m feminine. If I ride my bike in a floaty summer dress and heels, I’m equally feminine. My ideas about femininity are largely shaped by myself, even more so now that I’m middle aged and have become more visibly disabled. Maybe it’s because I’m not considered conventionally desirable by men, it’s less of an issue for me now?

    We don’t seem to make this distinction for other modes of transportation, so what is it about bikes that makes this line of thought so prevalent?

  3. Katie April 23, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    I substitute “feminine” for “normal clothes.” I do the lycra thing, but to have the option of riding somewhere without having to change outfits is really nice. It makes riding a bike an actual viable means to get around. This hasn’t quite caught on yet in the States, not like the “lycra movement,” but it’s really key if we ever want cycling normalized here. Maybe that’s what they really mean?

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