Cycling: Advice for Sustrans

For anyone who thinks my response to Sustrans was quite sweary, rest assured that the editing room floor is crunchy with discarded swear words. After years on Guardian Unlimited Talk I perhaps have a skewed view of what counts as swearing but after writing the first version I applied a simple editorial rule: my mum reads my blog. After a Twitter storm, Sustrans have removed the post and have given this response http://www.sustrans.org.uk/blog/why-women-dont-cycle.

So just why did I get so annoyed with them? According to some defenders the original advice, based on 2009 research, has been very useful for beginner cyclists, even if I may find it patronising (may I? Thank you, I’m glad I’ve got your permission to feel a particular way). It was also, according to a Tweet sent by @sustrans, written in part because ‘we also know many girls stop cycling to school between primary & secondary, as they are worried about appearance’. This I think may get to the heart of the issue. It was written for girls rather than women. One should, one would hope, address 11 year old girls and 30 year old women somewhat differently though sadly many people still don’t. And the concerns of a mature woman regarding her appearance are likely to have moved on from those of her 11 year-old self.

Should Sustrans have removed the post? Was it all perfectly all right really? Well I would suggest that if you are going to aim advice specifically at women, you ask yourself two questions. One, would the advice sound appropriate if given to a child. Two, would it sound odd if given to a man? If the answer to the first is yes you are, by definition, being patronising. If the answer to the second is yes you should ask yourself why it sounds odd.

To be clear, I’m not denying some broad general differences in concerns between men and women. I don’t have a problem with advice aimed at women, rather than men, given how few women cycle compared to men. It’s also fairly obvious that advice to men on cycling when pregnant would seem odd. And if you were to offer advice on underwear that’s best for cycling it would differ depending on whether the recipients of the advice have male or female external genitalia.

So, I’ll apply my test questions to some of the advice previously given by Sustrans:

Wear a good pair of gloves to stop your fingers freezing

Would you say this to a child? Yes, if the child were very young or not that bright. Would it sound odd if you said it to a man? Yes. Why? Well not for obviously gendered reasons. It’s not as if there’s much biological difference in the chill factor experienced by male and female hands when cycling. So it would sound odd if you said it to a man because it is in fact advice for a child, not for an adult. And when we gender advice, we tend to bracket women and children together, putting men separately  in the ‘grown adult who knows this stuff already’ category. Thus using these two questions we can get to the heart of the matter: is this advice for a child, or for an adult? Unfortunately, given our propensity to patronise grown women, we have to ask ‘would I say this to a man?’ in order to see if we should be saying it to an adult.

Again consider ‘A breathable waterproof jacket will keep out the rain’. Would you say this to a child? Yes. Would it sound odd if you said it to a man? Yes, again, it fails the ‘would I say it to a grown adult?’ test. You would expect an intelligent adult to know this. In fact anyone not knowing this probably shouldn’t be allowed out on a bike on their own. Continuing:

Waterproof trousers aren’t sexy, but they will keep you dry

Would you say this to a child? Well no, because you don’t expect children to worry about sexiness. You might point out that waterproof trousers keep you dry, though if you do, expect the teenage eye roll that clearly says ‘no shit Sherlock, I’m not that stupid’. Would you say it to a man? No. Not just because it fails the ‘is it adult advice’ rule but because it would sound odd. It doesn’t fit their concerns. Men aren’t generally considered to decide what to wear according to whether a woman (heteronormative assumption alert) will find it attractive. Of course men do worry about what they look like, but they’re not continually judged for their appearance in quite the same way as women are.

So is it legitimate to give advice that addresses women’s concerns about appearance? Sustrans say they drew on research that said women are put off cycling because of its effects on appearance. British Cycling carried out its own research and found that the main concern for women was safety on the roads. There were other concerns as well, amongst which were ‘Negative body image associated with kit, equipment and resultant “muscular” physique’ and the expense of buying kit. So how might one address these concerns when speaking to (or writing for) an adult woman? Given that appearance is a concern about the visual, it seems to me that the best way to combat concerns about appearance is through images, not words. Show women images of other women of all shapes, sizes, physiques and abilities on bikes. The advice given then might sound more like this:

The great thing about cycling is its versatility. Adapt your cycling to suit you and your lifestyle, don’t feel you need to adapt to suit cycling. For many women, cycling is simply a wonderful form of transport, not a substitute for a gym workout. You can hop on a bike wearing whatever you want, from a Chanel suit and full makeup to jeans and just-got-out-of-bed hair. You don’t have to break into a sweat but as these women show, you can sail along looking magnificent on just about any bike.

As you become more experienced and confident you will find what suits you best. Personally I avoid tight skirts on a bike as they’re just uncomfortable (plus, by the time you’ve reached your destination, you might need to sew the skirt back up). Long skirts, coats, and scarves, aside from the obvious hazard * can get caught around brake blocks. You don’t need to buy special kit but from hard won experience do make sure your bike has a rear mudguard to protect you from splatter. Also, waterproof coats are great but you may find that they handily filter all rain water down on to your thighs so you might want to invest in waterproof trousers. These will then filter rain water down into your shoes. You can spot cyclists at work: they are the ones with spare shoes, socks and tights stashed under their desk. It’s a small price to pay for the overall convenience of travel by bike.

* Obvious to everyone except Isadora Duncan

Personally I  would leave decisions about the sexiness or otherwise of waterproof trousers to the individual. They are a grown up, they can work it out for themselves.  However, in Sustrans response to criticism, Melissa Henry argued that

To the women and girls, like my daughter, to whom perception by others is a genuine anxiety helping her overcome this rather than telling her it doesn’t matter is far more likely to change her heart and therefore her mind.

Now I’m not advocating telling women and girls that appearance does not matter. In the case of women, I think they can make their own minds up without me telling them anything. In the case of girls, I would not simply tell a child that appearance didn’t matter. Henry seems to be conflating calls to counteract the primacy of image, with ignoring the issue entirely. I would rather not pander to the idea that image is all by saying ‘Take a comb or brush with you to revive your style’. Instead, just show girls images of women looking great on bikes. Or, you know, get on a bike yourself and lead by example.

It would also help to counteract the notion that you can only look good if you are projecting a particular image of what it means to be sexy by reviving your hairstyle. I would question the notion that waterproof trousers are necessarily unsexy. You can look great in a bin bag, given the right attitude. Girls don’t, as far as I’m concerned, need to be reassured that cycling is OK because you can comb your hair afterwards. They need to be reassured that looking good is not a narrow thing to be defined solely by some misguided idea of what boys might be looking for.

So, separate out advice for women and advice for girls. When offering advice to women, ask yourself if it is appropriate advice for an adult. If it would sound odd if you said it to a man, is that because you would expect a man to know already? If so, don’t say it to a woman. She has a brain, respect that fact. When addressing girls’ concerns, reassure them that their appearance is their business. If they’re striving to look good, they should be doing so for themselves, not for some narrow definition of what somebody else thinks is the embodiment of femininity.

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8 thoughts on “Cycling: Advice for Sustrans

  1. Excellent blog – really enjoyed reading it. Btw, you can wear long skirts when cycling, – just tie the ends up with a firm-ish knot which avoids them getting caught in the brake blocks, and then untie when you get to your destination. Tie hair up to avoid the wind-blown look – and NEVER wear a helmet 🙂

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