Body Image and Cycling Clothes: An Unhappy Relationship

This is a blog post that’s been stewing for awhile. It’s been hard to get out of my brain for a couple of reasons. First, because the thoughts are all jumbled in there and I’ve needed to sort then out. Second, it’s a post which required some confession and I’ve needed to work up the courage. But after a discussion on Twitter yesterday  about the lack of cycling clothes for women inspired Sarah (@_pigeons_) to finally write her own body image post, I’ve decided to screw up my courage to write the post, because the more women who come out of the clothes closet and confess their body issues, the more women will not feel alone!

I’m a plus sized girl. Always have been, always will be. That’s just the way I am. I wear a US size 18 (UK 20/Euro 48). I have big thighs (made bigger by cycling!), big hips, a big waist (with a large tummy), big boobs.  And I would say that generally I’m able to convince myself that I don’t really care about my size. Except when I have to buy clothes. That’s when I feel fat. That’s when I start wondering how people see me, if they judge me because of my body, if people are disgusted by me. And I shouldn’t give a fuck! I’m a feminist, goddamn it. I know it’s society that makes me feel ashamed! But I can’t help it. When I think about clothes, and how I look in them, I always wonder how well I’ve hidden my belly and if guys who do see it are turned off by it.I know clothes that fit well and are flattering make a huge difference in how I look and my confidence. But damn, it is hard to find well fitted clothes when you’re a size 18 and have a large chest. When I know I need to shop for specific clothes (jeans, a dress, cycling shorts), I start getting anxious because I know it won’t be easy. I’ll admit- I’ve been brainwashed by society.

Today, as we were talking about cycling clothes for women on Twitter, I could feel myself starting to get emotional and stressed out. Buying regular clothes isn’t a picnic, but at least I know there are a couple of places I can rely on to have my size. When it comes to cycling clothes, forget it. I’ve never been in a cycling shop that has women’s sizes that will fit me. XL? Don’t make me laugh! I’m lucky if I can get my arms inside an XL, let alone zip it up. The male cut might be roomier in the chest, but there is no way it’s going to fit over my hips (trust me, I’ve tried). I don’t even bother looking at cycling clothes in the store, because I know they won’t fit.

This means I have to look online for my cycling clothes. And even online there are precious few options when it comes to extended sizes in cycling clothes. I hate buying clothes online- even everyday clothes. Even when they have good measurements, I still can’t tell how the fabric lays and stretches  or if the cut will be flattering to my belly and chest. Plus, if it doesn’t fit, I have to go to the trouble of sending it back. Buying cycling clothing online is even worse, because the sizing is awful. A nightmare. I spend days combing through sites, comparing sizing charts. I’ve even made a freaking spreadsheet. I need at least a 46 inch chest. Louis Garneau goes up to 3X. Sounds promising, right? Except their 3X is only 42 inches. Castelli? Their XXL is only 45. And let’s not ever talk about the high end brands. Rapha? 40 inch chest max. Even discounting the fact that there is zero standardization in sizing, how is sizing like that going to encourage more women to feel good about themselves on the bike?

My sizing spreadsheet

I know I’m never going to look skinny on the bike, but is it too much to ask to have flattering cuts, non-elasticized hems, and jerseys that don’t ride up?  And this is just the technical gear. What about all the new ‘stylish’ every day biking gear? Rapha doesn’t even have a women’s casual line. And besides Vulpine (which doesn’t have extended sizes), I’m hard pressed to even name another company that does casual riding clothes for women. And honestly, even if there were companies that did casual biking clothes for women, I wouldn’t even bother to look to see if they had something to fit me, because I know they won’t and it will just make me feel fat and ashamed when I see the sizing.

There are two issues at play here: body confidence and lack of options when it comes to cycling clothes. And I think the latter is affecting the former. When, time after time, I’m confronted with sizes that don’t even come close to my measurements, the message seems to be “We don’t want you size here. Your size isn’t normal and we can’t accommodate for it.” How is one supposed to remain body confident in the face of that?? Whether it’s technical or casual riding gear, time and again, I’m reading the message that my size isn’t “normal.” Even if I didn’t think of myself as fat, it would be hard to keep convincing myself of that when the only size that MIGHT fit me is an XXL, if I’m lucky. And even though I know they’re just arbitrary letters and numbers that don’t really mean anything, I can’t quite stop myself from feeling ashamed of my size.

Could I be thinner? Yes. I could do things to help me lose weight. I eat like shit and I don’t work out enough. If I improved my diet and rode my bike more often, I could lose a size or two. But I am always going to be plus sized. I’m always going to have big thighs, big boobs, a tummy, a large waist. When is the cycling industry giong to start recognizing that most women who ride bikes aren’t built like guys- they have curves, they have pooches, they have roundness. Women want flattering cuts to maybe help disguise some of the bits they don’t like. Or at least a cut that acknowledges they have HIPS and a WAIST. I’ve worn enough plus-sized, box shaped shirts to recognize the importance of defining a waist. I know I need to keep working on accepting myself, but it is hard to accept myself when it seems no one in the fashion industry or at the cycling clothing companies does.

But in an ironic twist, I don’t really care when what I look like when I’m on the bike. There is no where to hide when you’re wearing technical gear. All of the lumpy bits are out there. But for some reason, I don’t care. Even if shopping for cycling gear stresses me out to the max, once I’ve got it on and I’m on the bike, I feel comfortable. I feel strong. And I think, in the end, that’s what makes it all okay. I know many women aren’t like me, so I’m grateful I stop caring about how I look once I’m on  the bike. And as long as I feel strong on the bike, I guess that is what is most important.

At RAGBRAI ’13 with my dad and brother

So much thanks to Sarah (@_pigeons), for being brave enough to write her post. Also thanks to both Sarah and Jen (@_gavia_) for the great conversations which inspired these posts! Give them both a follow!

Update: Sarah has curated two posts on cycling clothing for larger women- Part 1 for plus sizes, Part 2 for XL and XXL sizing. AND Tina over at Wheel Women did exactly what I hoped this post would inspire- she wrote a blog post about her body image issues on the bike as well! Check it out here.

That pesky business of women and bikes

Ages ago I went to a forum put on by WABA, a bicycling advocacy group in DC, about female cyclists and how to get more women onto bikes. Now, I’ve never really identified as a “female cyclist.” I consider myself to be a cyclist who just happens to be female. The only barriers I experienced when getting into cycling were ones I created myself and I’ve never felt discriminated against or dismissed on my bike because I’m a female. I’m not saying there aren’t barriers for women getting into cycling because I didn’t really face any or that women who cycle aren’t discriminated against or dismissed because I’ve never felt that way. But for me, at my level, I’ve never felt dissed or dismissed because of my gender. Buying a bike had always been on mind, it just took awhile to work up the nerve to go to the shop and I’m a comfortably moderate cyclist who’s impressed enough with my own achievements that I want others to marvel at my work on the bike too. But as a cyclist who’s female, I thought I should attend this forum, just to see what all the fuss was about.

Truth be told, I didn’t take too much away from the forum. Mostly the panel talked about why there aren’t more women cycling, with only a bit of talk about how to change that. To me, it felt just like a rehashing of known issues.

I felt very similar when I went to a round table discussion at cross nationals in Wisconsin about women in cycling. There was a lot of talk about why women weren’t in cycling, but not a lot of talk about how to increase participation. I did learn some interesting things about what it means to be a female pro cross rider.

  • They don’t care much about an increase in prize money. To get that money, you have to win and even if you do win, it will probably just be used to cover your travel expenses to get there.
  • What they do care about is sponsorship. If they have sponsorship, they don’t have to pay for travel, gear, support, or entry fees out of pocket. Then they don’t have to draw on family funds to support their racing.
  • They are only able to race if they’re in a relationship that respects and supports their racing habit. That support can come through being the primary bread winner, being handy with a bike wrench, watching kids while the mom races, etc.

Now, while I’m not interested in racing, nor am I much interested in getting women involved in racing, I was interested in the parallels I heard at the WABA forum. There was a lot of talk at both places about how time and intimidation were two big factors to overcome when it came to getting women involved in cycling. Time is not something I can help with. That’s a social problem, with the expectation that family and home is a woman’s responsibility. But I can help those women who want to find time, but aren’t sure were to start or are intimidated and overwhelmed with the choices and environment. I can do that by sharing my experiences.  I’m going to break it down into three posts, because I don’t like huge blog posts- the intimidation factor, the “too many choices!” problem, and my continuing struggle with saddle. I’m doing this mainly because I’m tired of just talking about it and want to try to do something, even if it’s something as small as writing a blog post. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can help other women overcome barriers either put in place by themselves or society and get them on bikes!

Cycling’s battle of the sexes

Tonight, I am sad. I’m sad because these past few days I have seen an enormous amount of sexism in the cycling world lately. I know that sexism exists all over society, but I don’t think I’ve ever confronted it as much as I have in the cycling world. I’m not saying that cycling is more sexist than other areas of my life that I participate in, but nothing else I’m passionate about has aroused this much ire in me. And lately this ire is turning to sadness. A sadness that so many people don’t recognize the sexism that exists in our society. Oh sure, women can vote, advance far up the career ladder, be a mom and a career woman, stay single as long as they like, etc. So what am I complaining about, you wonder? Clearly women are totally equal to men- they have all the same opportunities! Oh but it’s not about the opportunities. It’s about the deeper issues. Sure, on the surface women seem to be equal to men. And maybe with regards to opportunities, the sexes are equal. But what is not equal is how the sexes are perceived at a deeper level. Whether you realize it or not, sexism is so ingrained in our society, most people do not recognize it. Stereotypes are actually sexism disguised. Emotions, child rearing, home life, fragility= female. Strength, stoicism, the workforce, breadwinner= male. Words like “pussy,” “girly,” “sissy” are used to illustrate weakness. Expressions like “grow a pair,” “balls to the wall,” “man up” are used to illustrate strength. Notice a trend? Whether we want to admit or not, the male lists are given more weight and prestige in our society.

If you really looked into how society views men and women, can you honestly say that society sees men as exactly equal as men? Not just on the opportunities level, but on a perception level? I do my bit to counter sexism by trying to educate those I come in contact with on how they might be unintentionally sexist. And I feel I do a pretty good job. But when the Amgen Tour of California pulls stunts like making a women’s TT payouts conditional on how they preform against the men and when pro cyclists Caleb Fairly cannot see how this might be offensive or demeaning towards female cyclists, I despair at such blatant disrespect for the female sex. If ideas like this are seen as a good idea, ideas so clearly discriminatory against women, how can we even begin to tackle the ingrained sexism of our society? It’s hard work convincing someone that their knee jerk reactions and accepted truths are actually sexist stereotypes. It’s even harder to accomplish this over Twitter. It’s too easy to fall back onto sarcastic, hurtful statements, when well thought out, reasoned arguments require so much more than 140 character soundbites. In addition, because some have so many followers, they can become inundated with negative comments and become supremely defensive. This makes it impossible to have a civilized discussion.

It’s not just the ToC story that has me worked up. It’s been little things like the use of the word “girled,” the Sea Otter Classic  getting sued for having a female only day, someone using the phrase “boys will be boys.” All of these things made me mad, then I got sad. I know what I do to help people understand how sexism is rooted in our society. But I don’t know what else to do. Is that enough? Maybe. I’ll do what I can and hope it’s enough.

(I’ve written about sexism in cycling before, here)

Excuse me while I get on my soapbox…

While this post is a bit of a departure from the usual cycling-related inanities, it was something which struck a nerve with me and does actually relate to cycling in a big-picture way! So, my apologies, but I promise it’s still a good read!

A blog post appeared on the VeloNation website overnight written by Benji Greenwood. Greenwood rides for Rapha Condor-Sharp, a UCI Continental team and periodically blogs for VeloNation. I’ve enjoyed reading Greenwood’s blog, as it is blog about riding in the middle of the peloton- he’s not the best, but he’s not the worst and he loves what he does. It is a personal blog, which is clear from the lack of editing by a higher up. Not really a problem, as he’s a decent writer- his blogs are readable, which is more than I can say for some! In this particular post he attempts to explain the disparity between men’s and women’s sports (with an emphasis on cycling) and what women can do about it. This post struck a nerve with a lot of people, myself included. And okay, I can admit that after reading it I was a bit upset. However, I’ve calmed down now and can look at it all rational and stuff.

I will be the first to admit two things: I didn’t even realize women’s cycling was separate from men’s cycling until watching the Tour de France this year and I don’t really follow women’s cycling.

To the first point: During the Tour, it suddenly struck me that there were no women. After some research I found that women have their own Tour, the Route de France Féminine, as well as their own Giro d’Italia, the Giro Donne, and their own races, such as the Tour de L’Aude. While I would like women to be equal and compete equally with the men, I reluctantly accept that women’s biological makeup and build make it an unfair fight. So I’m grudgingly okay with this.

To the second point: The main reason I don’t follow women’s cycling is because I’m not invested in the female cycling personalities like I am the male cycling personalities. This is probably a direct result of the lack of coverage of women’s cycling. More on that later.

A response, if I may

His post. My response:

(I will preface all of this by saying based on the “conversation” I had with Greenwood over Twitter regarding his post, I think his heart is in the right place. It’s just his delivery that needs some work.)

I absolutely do not disagree with the point he was trying to make, which he maintains is to promote women’s cycling and encourage women to not only take more notice of the sport, but also fight for its equality. I mainly disagree with how he made his point.

First he posits that sports are more male-centric for just that reason- it’s a sport and “men like sports more than women.” This is illustrated by showing how women’s magazines are filled with celebrities, fashion, diets tips and not sports.From these magazines it’s clear: “women are not as keen on sport. They prefer fashion and gossip.” Not only are women not as interested in sports as men, but they also don’t idolize sports stars as much. And this is their problem. As he says, “how can they expect to be treated as equals when it’s women themselves that don’t seem interested by sport?”

So, if I’m reading this right, he’s basically blaming women for the lack of interest in women’s sports. Because the females aren’t interested in women’s cycling, it’s got no chance. This is what he sees as the main problem contributing to the lack of coverage and interest in women’s cycling. Greenwood feels that instead of “moaning” about the lack of coverage, top female riders should actually do something. To this end, he suggest that women stop with the “scantily clad photo-shoots” (such as the Cyclepassion calendar! And my opinions on that are best saved for another post), which he equates with being slutty. This will help female cyclist to gain respect from women and become their role model, thus increasing their interest and dedication, which will in turn encourage males to support female cycling as well. To be good role models, female cyclists need to keep their clothes on, have cute hair and wear the latest fashion. His other suggestion is for more female cyclist to write blogs so their female public can connect more with them.

My question is…

…why is just up to the women to do something to change the status quo?

Just because I’m a woman I should be obligated to follow women’s cycling? While I support women in sports, I don’t follow women’s sports. Does this make me a bad women? No. I probably don’t follow women’s cycling because there is no coverage of it. Would I follow if there was coverage? Maybe. Who knows. The point is is that it is not just up to women to change the status of women’s sports/cycling. It’s a two sex society and it takes both sides to make change. This means writing an article which supports women’s cycling without gender stereotypes (men like boobs! women like fashion! sexy is always slutty!). This means really looking at why women’s sports do not enjoy the same support as men’s sports and what can be done to change it, as men and women. And if you can figure out how to solve the gender inequalities in women’s cycling, then we can finally figure out how to solve the gender inequalities of society!

So while Greenwood writes his blog with the best of intentions, his overall good message is lost amid old stereotypes and not- great suggestions. It is clear from the reaction on Twitter that there were other women who also failed to see his good intentions through all the gendered stereotypes and those who were. In the flurry of Twitter reactions that followed, Greenwood was very good about responding to tweets, defending/explaining the intent of his post. It was during these ensuing conversations where Greenwood clarified his intentions and even offered up some good, non-gendered suggestions for increasing female cycling’s exposure. On the one hand, I admire him for taking this topic on. On the other, this topic doesn’t have to be controversial-most people agree there is a huge disparity between coverage of women’s sports and men’s sports. He just made it controversial by using the same tired stereotypes to make his point, not really looking at why the inequality between men and women exist, and not offering any practical solutions to the situation. Keep blogging, Benji, but let’s be a little more thoughtful next time, mmm’kay?

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