Walking around in a woman’s body, as anyone who’s done it knows, means that you are subject to an ever-shifting set of societal expectations, restrictions, and judgments about how to dress and behave. Put that woman’s body on a bicycle, and things get even more complicated. (Men have to deal with their own set of norms, but that’s another conversation.)
A couple of months ago, the writer and bike advocate Elly Blue started a conversation on Twitter with this seemingly simple question: “What does "feminine" mean? I'm serious. It keeps coming up in the context of things women can do to feel that way on a bike, + I'm confused.”
That tweet set off a wave of comments about the way bikes and bike clothing are marketed to women, the ever-contentious concept of “Cycle Chic,” and a whole lot more. It’s not a new conversation, but it is a remarkably persistent one.
Among people who bike in the United States, women remain a distinct minority, accounting for only 24 percent of total trips. Advocates have been trying to figure out what keeps women off the road (concern about safety is one leading answer). Bike marketers looking to increase the bottom line have tried to crack the code of how to sell more to women, with the crude pink-and-flowers motif recently giving way to images of urban sophistication and chic. You can find countless blogs by women who ride bikes in all kinds of ways: racers, adventurers, fixie aficionados, moms steering kid-packed cargo bikes, explicitly fashion-conscious arbiters of style.
But to judge from the responses unleashed by Blue’s tweet, the question of what exactly it means to be a woman riding a bicycle remains complex.
I decided to ask female friends, colleagues, and strangers how they feel about cycling, the concept of femininity, and the intersection of those two things. (One place I solicited comment was the brand-new Wheelwomen Switchboard set up by Blue to provide a forum for women who bike. Some of the contributors don’t use their full names.)
The range of thoughtful responses demonstrates just how many ways there are to see this question. One unifying undercurrent goes back to the dawn of the bicycle era, when Susan B. Anthony famously proclaimed, “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Bicycles and personal freedom do still seem to go together.
I've compiled a selection of what the women I reached had to say on the subject, with comments edited for space and clarity. We'd love to hear from more of you in the comments.
'I credit bicycling with forcing me to let go of some of the more problematic (to me) aspects of femininity. I stopped wearing make-up (sweat and eyeliner don't mix) and I stopped wearing clothes and shoes that limited my mobility.
I am bothered by the cycling chic movement because it subtly tells women that if they can look sexy and cute while riding, then they should. I am bothered by women who say they want to be able to wear high heels and bike at the same time. It is not safe. How intense are the patriarchal standards of beauty that women insist on wearing clothing and shoes that limit their mobility and make it more difficult to bike?
It is funny biking in the winter. Many people assume I am male in all of my gear. I also weird people out when I show up in a public space and take off half my layers. Women are expected to show up to places already presentable. That is impossible as a winter bicyclist.
I know many women worry about showing up to work sweaty after biking. I have yet to run into a man that shares that concern.'
- Melody Hoffman
'I am a car-free fashion model and get funny looks when I arrive for shows on a bike.
I'm a huge advocate for people defining words as they see fit. Feminine could mean racer spandex and feminine can be evening gown and heels, depending on the person. I think it can be useful for people (women and men and other) to reclaim the stereotypical assumptions of certain labels (i.e. feminine/masculine). For me, personally, being feminine (wearing a short dress and high heels and hair done) on a high-framed road bike makes a lot of people turn their heads when they shouldn't, just because they aren't used to seeing it. I love that I can look like any gender on a bike and feel no less powerful.'
- Charis Hill
'When creating our logo, we were wanting to reflect the strength of femininity. We wanted something that was powerful, but a feminine power. We wanted to stay away from that “girlification.” She is a curvaceous woman who is fit. We wanted her to stand in a position of power and strength and regalness.
We try to come from the perspective that there’s no right way to bike. If you want to bike to the end of the block or the end of the earth, there’s no right or wrong way to be part of the bike community. That’s the great thing about bike culture. No one owns it.'
- Veronica O. Davis, cofounder of Black Women Bike
'I'm one of only a handful of women that work at my shop, and I'm the only female mechanic. I've found myself playing up my femininity to push the boundaries of what our customers expect in a mechanic. I started wearing eye makeup more regularly, sometimes even lipstick, and more feminine "baby" tees versus the unisex shirt. I play with braids and jewelry (which is often made of old bike parts). I've heard that my presence at the shop makes our female customers feel more comfortable and welcome, and female and male genders alike have shown enthusiasm for a female mechanic. I just can't wait for the day that I'm not an anomaly, and I'm looking for ways to push more women and femininity in bike culture, especially the technical side of things.'
-Sarah Tops Rogers, a bike mechanic in Madison, Wisconsin, who has blogged about being called “the Bike Lady”
'I feel like there is power in combining ideas of traditional femininity with the dynamic and empowering act of bicycling. I like to hope that I’m changing/expanding the perception of what is feminine when I zip around on my bike while wearing a dress.'
-"Emily" on Wheelwomen Switchboard
'I reject the word “feminine” -- I just want to be a cyclist. Not a lady cyclist or a femme cyclist or a mom cyclist whatever label gets put on it. I’m a cycling advocate -- so whatever it takes to get “more butts on bikes” I’m all for -- but personally I reject it.'
-"Sarah" on Wheelwomen Switchboard
'I embarked on a solo bicycle trip around Asia in May 2010, and concluded in the Fall of 2012 after completing over 26,000km (15,000 miles) and 7 countries. Majority of the time was in China. Out there, living in a tent, going 21 days without a shower, at one point not menstruating for 7 months because I was so underweight and pushing myself towards the ultimate...it's still a man's world. I NEVER encountered another woman cycling and only crossed paths with men and couples. Sure, there are lots of ladies out there on bikes, but we don't generally cross paths often. Instead, we have men looking over our shoulders when we are fixing a puncture telling us how to do it "right". This is just one facet of the story. Then men make this generalization that we are "tough girls" but in all reality, I think a lot of us are extremely sensitive and still women. I shock people when they see me in makeup off the bike.'
-Eleanor Moseman, who blogs at Wander Cyclist
'I don't believe one active mode is inherently more feminine than another. That said, I do believe both walking and biking encourage behavior that is often attributed to "femininity”: empathy, thoughtfulness, and nurturing. Neighbors are more likely to care for and connect with each other in walkable or bikable environments.'
'I don't own a car in the very car-centric city of Atlanta, so most of my commutes are on bicycle and/or MARTA (our mass-transit). True, I am a woman. And true, I choose to ride my bike in a skirt upwards of 80 percent of the time. However, this to me is more of a practicality than a statement. I bike to work in the clothes I am wearing to work. Skirts and dresses are practical because they offer built in air conditioning for our humid Southern summers. So in some ways I embrace my femininity as it affords me the ability to wear a practical wardrobe on my bicycle. However, I find that gender has little to do with my biking. Much like I reject that there are "girl toys" and "boy toys" for children, I reject that there are "girl bikes" and "boy bikes" for children or adults. Unless my sex organs or cultural gender identity are somehow going to be required for the bike to function then I don't see how my sex/gender has anything to do with it.
That being said, I do see the need for a place for women to feel more safe on a bicycle. Aggressive riding is not my style and I do everything I can to be safe and visible on the road, particularly since being rear-ended (read that as on the windshield and over the car) by a car in a hit-and-run collision. Like most women (I believe) safety and comfort are of primary importance to me, and therefore I have been demanding more infrastructure improvements such as protected bicycle lanes so that in the future my commute will be safer.'
'I'm writing my dissertation on dress, gender and cycling in the 19th century. I personally reject the term “feminine” for myself as a cyclist, partially because of what I know of the history of cycling.
Although it was extremely common for women to ride in the mid-1890s, women's and men's riding was generally understood quite differently. Bicycling was (and still is, I think) gendered as masculine. In the 1890s most women rode in skirts and jackets and rode drop frame bicycles that had been created specifically for women to ride in while wearing skirts. Yes, some women rode in bloomers, but it wasn't the norm. Women were expected to sit upright, as it was considered unladylike and even damaging to ride hunched over. Some women raced, but once again, it was much less common and generally frowned upon.
It wasn't so much that women bicycling transformed what it meant to be a woman. Rather, the act of cycling had to be adapted to make it acceptable for women. That's not to say it didn't change women's lives, but I don't think it created as huge a cultural shift as is sometimes imagined. So, for me, when I think of "femininity" and bicycling, I think of riding a drop frame bike while wearing a dress. While I sometimes ride in a dress or skirt, I still ride my bike with drop bars and clipless pedals, and it doesn't keep me from riding hard if I want to. It's not that I want to avoid looking feminine, but that I want to be seen primarily as a cyclist. Yes, I'm a woman who rides, but how often do we talk about masculinity and riding? A rider is assumed to be a man unless otherwise stated, but it's not as if women riding were a terribly rare occurrence.'
'I apparently give off two seemingly conflicting (but maybe not?) first impressions -- badass, and girly/feminine. I joke and call myself the world's girliest tomboy. I mostly mountain bike, and wear what they call "downhill" shorts, which are a loose fit mostly only worn by guys or actual downhill riders (like, out West). But I do like finding tops that match, and fit well. I try to make my hair look cute, and I always wear makeup. My job is being a metal sculptor, and most days I'm alone in my shop welding all day and I still wear a bit of makeup. It's just how I roll.
I do a lot of trailwork at my home trail-- same deal. I'll wear work pants/jeans, work boots, work shirt etc -- basically dress like the rest of the crew, but I'll still make an attempt at cute hair/makeup. I will work at least as hard as all the guys and they all show me respect, but I'm never mistaken for a dude for sure, and don't put up with gross sexual humor etc. I make my boundaries very clear. I am not one of the guys exactly. But close -- we joke a lot more than women usually would and do get more crude. I guess I look at it as a respect thing and making sure everyone knows I feel I deserve it and am not so eager for male approval that I'll just put up with any crap.
I guess subconsciously I do consider the mountain bike trails I inhabit to be “guy territory,” so while doing that activity or anything related to it, it feels like I need to be very conscious of what messages I'm sending out via my appearance/behavior. I never flirt, often avoid eye contact with men I don't know, etc. In town riding my cruiser for fun, I may even wear a sundress, on the trail, I keep it “strictly legit,” so to speak.'
'I never used to think about how my gender related to bicycling. For a long time I was a solo cyclist, commuting to work every day out of financial necessity. I didn't give much thought to bicycle advocacy or athletic endeavors, and the world of the "bicycle community" seemed like this distant, far-off thing that was inaccessible to me. I didn't realize that this was largely due to the fact that I was a woman, and the male-dominated scene was really intimidating!
Once I started getting involved with WE Bike NYC (mainly because I wanted more friends who shared my mode of transportation), I began to realize how important and significant it was for women to ride bikes. I had found a community that encouraged me to really embrace biking without totally changing who I was, changing the way I dress (which on the scale of 1 to very feminine is about a 6), or worrying about "keeping up with" or "impressing" the guys.
I was always turned off by the pandering-seeming marketing of "feminine" bike products: cute cruisers, wicker baskets, and that "I'm just always constantly biking to some cutesy-picnic-date" vibe. Having a strong support network of other female cyclists has helped me to redefine "feminine," because there are other qualities that relate to that word that are not all shallow and ditzy and cute.
"Feminine" can be having really strong, shapely legs! "Feminine" can be taking up less physical space, using less fossil fuel, and caring about the environment! A good friend of mine once said of cycling that it really had a positive effect on her body image as a woman; rather than seeing her body as an object to be judged/admired by others, it helped her to think about her body as a tool with which to master her environment, and gave her a different sense of pride in its abilities rather than its appearance.'
'There is a history of cycling as providing a means of liberation and independence for women, including in terms of how they wish to attire themselves. I bike primarily for the pleasure and freedom it provides, along with a certain rewarding sense of having fueled myself from point A to point B, and across long distances. I don’t bike for the sake of anyone else’s opinion, including those who wish to derive pleasure from watching me. Just as I don’t live out other areas of my life based on what others think about it. Cycling is one of life’s greatest joys for me. I couldn’t care less what it implies about my femininity.'
-"Nsedef" on Wheelwomen Switchboard
'I think femininity and biking have historically gone very well together. Bicycles were an important tool in the suffragette and early feminist movements. So much so they were even referred to as “freedom machines.” Which is exactly how I feel on my bicycle every time I ride, free. I look at biking as part of my everyday routine, so since I tend towards the more girly/feminine end of the spectrum, my biking habits are as well. Denying femininity in my biking would be disingenuous.
So, I bike in skirts, dresses, ruffles, heels, ribbons, wedges, flats, curls, buns, reflective REI gear, shorts, and whatever else I feel like. I get looks but they’re not usually bad or leering or aggressive. Oddly, I think that my feminine appearance makes my biking more palatable to those I encounter on the road. Conversely, I have noticed that I get less respect (particularly from male cyclists) when I ride a more “feminine” cruiser style bike rather than my usual road bike. Somehow myself appearing feminine doesn’t negatively affect the perception of my biking skills but riding a feminine bike sure does!'
-"Valerie" on Wheelwomen Switchboard
'Nothing better than riding a bike in a pencil skirt and heels to feel fab feminine and sexy. And powerful -- as in: I can rock this look and ride a bike, and deal with traffic and get where I need to go and be on time and look as great on arrival as departure. Feeling strong ties in with freedom.'
'I don't find labels very interesting or useful so I don't tend to think about things through that type of lens. For me, feeling "feminine" means being completely myself. Sometimes that's in a dress with my hair flowing in the breeze, and sometimes it's when I'm riding up a hill on my single speed in a sweaty, torn tank top. It's both when I ride aggressively and when I ride relaxed. It can be when I return a smile at an admirer or when I scowl at catcalls. I feel the least "feminine" when I'm uncomfortable in my own skin. Thankfully, that's rare -- especially when riding a bike since it's such a feeling of freedom. In fact, the first thing that popped in my head when I read your post was "freedom."'
-April Eileen Economides
'I totally agree on the word freedom as the main component of the way I feel when I ride. That freedom makes me hyper aware of my body and in turn my feminine side. I always feel powerful and in charge of every aspect of my "self". Because that "self" is a woman, it really is a very connecting experience. I love biking in a dress in the summer time. It's the ultimate. I feel attractive, tough, powerful and in control all at the same time.'
'I only bike to be outdoorsy -- not to get somewhere in a nice outfit. So I feel androgynous on a bike, not particularly feminine or masculine. Just me. And more subject than object.'
'Riding a bike in the city gives me a feeling of independence. When I lived in Paris, in my 20s and 30s, there definitely was flirtation as I rode by. It's a pretty sight, a young woman on a handsome Dutch bike in a gorgeous city, skirt flapping and hair flying. I would exchange glances with people and in an instance be gone. I guess that's feminine. To be attractive and unavailable. But being a woman on a bike requires grit and strength, not words I associate with femininity. Maybe the charm is in the contradiction.'
'You know what? If you haven’t caught on…I LOVE being a woman, alone, on a bike. Yes, there are dangers I have to be cautious of. Some have had the audacity to say I’m setting myself up for some of the things that have happened to me. But these years wandering around Asia have taught me so much about what it means to be a woman…not for myself, but experiencing the lives of others. Never have I wished to be a man…maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage to do what I’ve done.'
-Cycling adventurer Eleanor Moseman, on her blog