Cycling and gender
A month and a half ago, the Chicago Tribune mistook me for a man.
A photo of yours truly briefly appeared on the home page of the online edition. The photo, part of a series on stalwart Chicagoans resolutely enduring the latest meteorological assault on their daily lives (you'd think it never snowed here in February), was taken while I was riding my bike to work. In this photo, I am seen to be wearing black pants, a red parka, and a helmet; you may also be able to discern the snowboots, lobster gloves, and balaclava. The caption reads "A cautious bicyclist makes his way through the snow in the 6100 block of South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago on Tuesday morning."
Upon learning from a friend that I had made the front page of the Tribune as a cautious bicyclist making his way through the snow, my first reaction was something between embarrassment and shame. Then I felt vaguely insulted. Then, being the sort of analytical wanker who not only goes to the University of Chicago for college but also keeps working there because I just enjoy the culture so much, I wondered why I felt anything at all beyond "Hey cool, I'm in the Tribune."
Why did they mistake my sex? And why did it bother me so much?
Far as I can tell, there are four possible answers to the first question:
1. The English language lacks an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun.
2. Most bicyclists are men.
3. Most bicyclists riding around in the middle of a snowstorm are probably men, given that men generally take more risks than women do.
4. In that photo, I look like a man.
But if you think about it, the first three possibilities boil down to the fourth. My appearance in winter cycling apparel gives no evidence that the default masculine pronoun would be inappropriate, and I'm statistically more likely to be a guy anyway---and besides, a girl, being more sensible and risk averse, wouldn't be be doing something so crazy.
So there I am, cautiously riding my bike in the snow, looking like a man. I look like a man because I don't look like a woman. There's nothing about me that suggests that I'm actually cautious female bicyclist.
So what does a cautious female bicyclist look like? Well, thanks to the Bicycle Movement, we now have some idea. I'm just not it.
I've seen some laudable efforts to make cycling more appealing to women. Most of them focus on safety and practicality, given that we're generally more cautious and sensible than men, but these efforts benefit everyone across the board. I've no argument there.
It's the practical aspect of the discussion inevitably veering off into the manifestly unpractical realm of fashion that rankles me. Suddenly it's all about bikes with step-through frames and upright positions---the better to ride comfortably in a skirt, of course. It's about avoiding sweat by riding slowly and avoiding helmet hair by simply not wearing a helmet. It's about getting out there on your bike and looking fabulous all year 'round to show everyone---but especially other women---how safe, practical, easy, and fun it is to ride a bike and look fabulous all year 'round.
As a result, we now have this image of what a female transportation cyclist is supposed to look like---fabulous. She's not wearing anything that she wouldn't wear off-bike because it's unflattering and weird. She's probably not wearing a helmet. She's almost always not wearing pants.
But I don't want to look fabulous; I just want to get to work. Besides, it's snowing. Who cares?
So why do I care? Why did it bother me that someone at the Tribune thought I was a dude? Why does it ever bother me---me! who was never much into being all girly anyway---to be confused for a guy?
I've been trying to figure that out myself. Believe me, I do realize that it's an enormous contradiction to both insist on being a tomboy and yet rage at being treated like an actual boy. It doesn't make any sense, and yet here I am whining about it pretty much all the time. I think what bothers me is the implicit sexism of this image of the fabulous female transportation cyclist. Men aren't expected to sacrifice safety and convenience for physical appearance. On the other hand, women are---but look, we don't have to! You can ride a bike and still look pretty and feminine!
So of course, we're expected to. All the time.
Yes, that's what rankles me. It's the implicit sexism. Of course, any effort to promote bicycling to women is going to be sexist pretty much by definition. It's unavoidable.
So I guess I just keep on being rankled and looking like a guy. And trying not to care.