Friday, September 25, 2015

Biking while female

Last week, while biking an errand with the Munchkin, I realized that I'd committed a cardinal sin: that of not changing into more appropriate bike attire before leaving the house.  That is to say, my boobs were totally hanging out because the cut of my top, perfectly modest and acceptable while I'm upright, hangs down and flashes the world while I'm biking.  And I have, as my husband would put it, "huge tracts of land".
When I realized what was going on, honestly, my first thought was, "Meh."  So what?  It's not like I could change it.  And even if I could, they're just boobs.  I mean, they're my boobs and as huge a fan as I am of the Free The Nipple movement, I'm not actually going to start parading my bare breasts around.  (I did that enough, by accident, when I was nursing the Munchkin.)  But they were encased in a bra which nicely covered up most of the good stuff, so I don't really care if anyone saw what was left.
However, I do care that there are men out there who will take the presence of my boobs the wrong way.  Men who will feel free to honk and holler and generally feel it's their Solemn Duty to remind me that I am a woman in the public sphere.  I was saved from that on this particular occasion by virtue of having the Munchkin with me (I assume--even with the term MILF floating around, hitting on A Mom that way just isn't done; have some respect, dude! she's got a kid!), but when she's not with me, I am fair game.  For being female.  Worse, a female on a bike.  So dangerous!  So sweaty and dirty and unladylike!
On a recent Thursday night ride my friend Em was wearing a dress that was low-cut but fitted to her chest like a bra or swimsuit, so she wasn't showing any more than I had been from my normal t-shirt.  But because they were out there, some guy yelled to her, "Nice boobs!"  She didn't have time to yell it then but she later said that her favorite comeback for that is, "Disappointing dick!"  That has gotten men to call her a bitch, because apparently it's ok for them to degrade her, but if she turns it around and gives them the same treatment, that's just bitchy behavior.  Legit.
How sad is it that this has happened to her so many times that she's got a go-to comeback?  The guys who do this can't even be bothered to be creative with their derogatory behavior.
This is an issue which, like so many others, men don't have to think about.  I don't think it's wrong that they don't have to, but I do think it's wrong that it's something which women are forced to confront.  I polled the ladies of my Thursday night group, asking if they change their shirt before riding, in consideration of their boobs.  One said that she'd turned a tank top around when she was younger, so that the higher side was in front, and another said that she sometimes considers how the guy she's seeing (who's part of the group) will view her attire (as in, will he think it's sexy? rather than, will he think it's too immodest?), but everyone else said they'd just stopped caring.  The consensus was that there's no winning.  The pervs will manage to make you feel like you're under-dressed even if you're wearing a turtleneck.
Talk to just about any cyclist and you can get a list of abuse they've been subjected to from drivers: stuff thrown at them, people cussing at them, driving dangerously near/around them, and the always popular, "Get off the road!" yelled at them.  Talk to any female cyclist about what was the most memorable abuse that they received while on a bike and most of them will start listing the creepy things that guys have done: slowing down to stare at your butt (and shouting to let you know what they're doing), creative (and not-so-creative) catcalling, men conspicuously staring at your boobs, and otherwise letting you know that you're a female who is on a bike, but really shouldn't be.  Because females, yo.
Unfortunately, it's not just random street men who do this.  It's the biking industry itself, as well as the culture of men who have decided that women are Inferior Beings and shouldn't ride bikes.  That's messed up, and I cannot say it enough.  I realize that women are underrepresented in biking, as they are in video games and so many other venues.  But all of these venues have in common the fact that they make women uncomfortable and do everything they can to marginalize and de-value women.  Again, that's really messed up.  Worse, in my experience, men who do their utmost to push women aside are also those most likely to complain about being "friend-zoned", or that women just don't appreciate them.  These are the men who will complain that "there's not enough ass" in the biking world, but any woman who doesn't want to be just a piece of ass is a bitch and should GTFO.
Infuriating does not begin to describe how this feels.
Ironically, studies done on this topic show that it's men of lower social status, and therefore less likely to "get the girl", who are the most likely to display anger toward women.  So in their efforts to make themselves seem more manly and of higher status (i.e., putting women down) they actually make themselves less desirable to women.  I would laugh if it wasn't so facepalm-y.
I really wish that I could make those men understand that women don't do a damn thing for their viewing pleasure.  Biking, running, walking the dog, and all the other outdoor activities which set us up as prime targets for catcalling: not one of these is done so that a man might notice us.  We're just trying to live our lives.  Why is that so hard to understand?  Men are accorded that freedom, when will women get to just be people?
In my bike group, we have some awesome and wonderfully self-aware men.  But even in a group like ours, where women usually feel safe, there have been incidents.  Women have had their pictures taken while swimming (in underwear or skinny-dipping) over the summer, without their permission.  At least one woman was groped at one of the giant events--that man was quietly asked not to return.  Even just last night, on a normal (not themed) ride, with about 80 (?) people, while stopped at a light, a woman rolled down her window to ask, "Hey, what's going on?"  As some of us were trying to explain that we were just out riding for fun, because it's Thursday, one of the guys kept telling her that she was hot and should join us.  "Can I have your number?  And then I can call you about next week?  Because you're hot."  She ignored him, as women usually do with such asinine behavior, so I finally decided to speak up.  After all, having other women not speak up when we see or hear such things is part of the problem.
Probably, my heavy use of sarcasm wasn't the greatest approach.  "Well done, dude, I'm sure that made her feel so welcome.  It's not like it was creepy at all."  And on.  It was rather gratifying to have two other women pipe up.  "Seconded."  "Yep, that was creepy."  He asked to speak with us at the next big stop and did so.  It was hard because he was defensive over his actions, explaining that she was hot (I'm not sure why that makes his actions better?) and he was trying to do it in a funny, not creepy, way.  Funny.  That's what it was to him.  How do you explain to someone with that mindset that their actions aren't funny to the person on the receiving end?  In the very brief time I had with him I pointed out that he knows nothing about her--she could have been going home to her husband or boyfriend, or to her kids.  And even beyond that, no woman sits in her car thinking, "God, I wish some guy would hit on me at the next light!"  I didn't get to ask, did he really expect her to say, "Oh my gosh, you want my number?  Sure!  Here!"  Has that approach ever worked, in the history of ever, for a man?  It's like honking at women walking by.  What do men expect, that the woman will chase down their car to give that guy their number?  Women don't feel flattered by that attention, it's unnerving.  Funny is not a descriptor that comes up at all for women discussing these types of events.

The Munchkin's bike.

So I've been ruminating on all of these issues and then thought about how I want to raise my daughter to be a cyclist, despite the hardships and the stigma.  Despite the message that she will get, many times from many different people, that she is a lesser being because she's a female.  There will be a day when, in all seriousness, she tells me that there's something she can't do because she's a girl.  I know she will, because that was a message I internalized when I was younger too.
I talked with HusbandX about potentially banning the phrase "just a girl" in our house (except in the excellent case of the No Doubt song) because she's going to hear it so many other places that I don't want her to have to hear it at home, even in jest.  Because hearing it as a joke is tiring as well.  There are very few other things I absolutely will not allow her to say, but putting herself down and limiting herself based on her gender will not fly.  There are things that she won't be able to do, or won't do as well, because of her biology, but she'll never find out what her actual limits are if she's told to not even bother trying because she's female.
It makes me proud when people remark on how capable she is, how strong.  When she was first born I told her all the time how cute she is.  I kept thinking, gah!  I'm turning into one of those people who does nothing but compliment little girls on their looks!  But as she grew older, as she actually developed strength and started doing noteworthy things, my remarks about her looks have faded to being rare, and so have HusbandX's.  Now we tell her that we're proud of how strong she is, of how hard she works, and we encourage her to try things, to do better.  Even at her age, though, not everyone does.  We get surprised comments at the park about how strong she is, how brave, with the implied (if not explicit) addendum "for a girl".  It sucks that I need to shield her from that attitude even now, when she's not even 2.
People tell me how boys are different from girls because "they're just so much wilder" and I think, "You haven't met my girl, then."  Are boys really so much different, or are they just given more license to run and play?  Because "boys will be boys".
The Munchkin is small, and since neither of her parents is tall, she likely will be small for the rest of her life.  She will get extra crap for it, and be considered an easier target for those who seek to make her feel like less than a human being.  Ask me how I know.  She's going to need to know that she's capable and strong, no matter what other people try to tell her.  I hope we can build a foundation of inner strength so that she feels free to be feminine, but knows that she's so much more than "just a girl".


  1. As usual, I love this post. It is especially poignant these days. I really admire the effort you and HusbandX are making at home to be thoughtful about the language you use. I think this is so underappreciated in society!! The words you use matter!

    I also think it was good of you to say something to that guy. Even if the outcome wasn't as you would have wanted at the time, his defensive reaction says the he definitely internalized the negative external reaction to his behavior and I'm sure will never do that sort of thing again without thinking of your collective reaction.

    1. Actually, if the post wasn't already so long I would have added that he wanted to speak with us ladies to apologize and try to understand where we were coming from. He said he'd honestly never thought that his actions could be interpreted as creepy and he was defensive mostly because he was embarrassed, I think. After talking with him, I assured him that I have no issues with him, personally, and made sure to talk to him about other things later in the evening. And yes, I'm sure that lesson will be remembered! I just wish I'd gone about it in a way that was a bit less rude and overt, but maybe it wouldn't have been as memorable then?