I didn’t attend a stand-up class for insights into cycling culture, but…

IMAGE: Dutch cycling is a bit more relaxed that what's typical in Ireland.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: I didn’t attend a stand-up workshop last year to gather food for thought on cycling culture. Instead, it was meant to be training to give better presentations, with a bonus of taking my mind off my studies a few hours a week. It seems, though, that cycling is so married to my mind that I’ll find it, or it will find me, even when we try to avoid each other.

In the course of the workshop, our teacher led us through a process of digging in our own experience to find material for our developing routines. Thus it was that a fellow comedian-in-training who had just moved from Amsterdam to Dublin got up one night for his turn to try out his work in progress and said: “What’s up with Irish women wearing so. much. makeup?”

When our Dutch friend finished, I said: “Considering the fact that women are criticised if they wear too much make-up and if they wear too little make-up and if they don’t wear make-up and if they do wear make-up and if they go cheap on make-up and if they spend too much on make-up, I think you’ll lose every female in your audience with the make-up joke. Being criticised no matter what you do is too close to painful everyday reality to be funny.” The other women in attendance agreed, and our friend dropped this specific line from his act.

Yet it stuck in my mind that to someone from a cycling-friendly city the amount of make-up worn by Irish women seemed excessive. Put another way, someone from a cycling-friendly community was used to seeing less make-up. Is there a connection?

While we can cycle chic, the reality is that cycling does not provide the same sealed environment in which to travel that driving does. We can paint our faces and sculpt our hair to perfection, and be sure that this masterpiece will remain intact on our journey if we drive. A woman who wants to present herself to the same standard of perfection will have to take her make-up and hairstyling equipment with her, and style herself at her destination. This is often not possible, and may be embarrassing: what if someone sees her make-up-less before she reaches the bathroom?*

Is it therefore women’s vanity that stands in the way of them taking up cycling? No. Firstly, reasons for choosing not to cycle are complex and varied, it’s almost never just one thing. Secondly, how we dress and groom is primarily influenced by how we believe society expects us to present ourselves. If Irish women wear too much make-up, it is society that should repent of creating an expectation of perfection. We all contribute to this expectation, both informally and formally. How many employers have grooming or dress codes, or even uniforms, which are not cycling-friendly?

The more I learn, the more I see how car culture shapes every aspect of how we live our lives, in sometimes surprising ways. The good news is that as we realise each small way in which driving is encouraged, we realise each subtle way in which we can encourage cycling instead. Biking brings toned muscles, a healthy glow, and more smiles due to less stress. It’s the perfect look for us all.

*This is not meant as a joke. Considering the volume and cruelty of comments on women’s appearance, make-up can be like armour, and to be seen without it can be a horrible experience.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

11 Comments

  1. Great article and good points made, Nadia. The ‘helmet choice’ debate also touches on how we manage our appearance in the problem of ‘helmet hair’. The high importance of personal appearance is often underestimated in these debates.

  2. In the helmet ‘debate’ I have seen people who choose not to wear one criticised on the basis that they are more concerned about their hair than their safety. Obviously this argument, if you can call it that, has multiple things wrong with it but shows the other side of the coin. That if you are concerned about your appearance there is something wrong with your priorities. Of course those very same people will likely care deeply about what their car says about them so, like so much anti-cycling rhetoric, it is deeply hypocritical.

    Just as a data point, the women that I know who cycle to work look absolutely fine. It isn’t a binary choice between cycling or having makeup/hair.

  3. Well said! It’s so important to get the point across that women may see some things differently from the ways many men see them not so much because women are different from men as because women’s lived experiences are different from men’s. Being judged (and judged harshly!) on appearances is one part of that. The more aggressive driving encountered by slower cyclists (who are more often women than men) is another (I’m thinking of Rachel Aldred’s “Near Miss Project” here.) And I’m sure we could go on …

    On Saturday, somebody challenged me to write down a few very basic do’s and don’ts that men in cycling advocacy might want to bear in mind in their visual/verbal messaging to avoid alienating or offending women. The idea is to start a virtuous cycle of cycle campaigning becoming more appealing to women, more women getting involved, and advocacy being better able to reflect their diverse needs.

    Of course advocacy also needs to become more diverse in other ways, but for now, I’m trying to identify a few of the well-intentioned but ultimately inappropriate and unhelpful things men sometimes say that really grate with women because they reduce complex issues to pathetic cliches like “women are too vain to use protective equipment” or “women are too vain to cycle.”

    Any more, please? One phrase that grinds my gears is “indicator species”, but I’m sure there are more out there, and I would be grateful for any insights anybody might be able to add – more examples or analysis of how this stuff works.

    On a personal level, my colleagues (in a mostly female profession, so women judging women) know that I cycle and that I am into cycling advocacy. Most of them seem to see it broadly positively, but that may be because I have been very lucky with (or very paranoid about) finding showers and spaces to spruce up. Lots of people have seen me carrying panniers full of wet muddy lycra, but precious few people have ever seen me actually wearing wet muddy lycra.

  4. Only tangentially related, but I’ve seen the notion that Dutch people are “too vain” or “too stubborn” to wear protective equipment mentioned recently in Irish media. I’d never seen it before.

  5. I’ve just moved to the Netherlands after living in Ireland for 6 years. When I moved to Ireland from the US (and an equally unfriendly cycling environment!) I was also struck by the makeup situation – so maybe there is some link, but I also suspect it’s simply cultural rather than transport-connected. That said, the desire to appear professional DOES present a barrier for many people when it comes to taking up cycling to work. I have cycled to work now on 4 continents and in different weather conditions on each, and never had access to shower facilities (in every context I have been a women in a business casual environment that conforms to Western standards of professional appearance). But, I can say that the number one thing that is going to help you seamlessly go from a bicycle to a “professional” environment is cycling infrastructure. It’s how my Dutch colleagues arrive to the office even after quite long cycle commutes in their work clothes and looking fabulous. If the infrastructure allows you to move at a relaxed pace and not a sweaty/stressful demand to keep pace with cars and avoid mud puddle splashing, then you’re also going to be able to arrive at the office significantly less sweaty!

    (That, and I swear by waterproof mascara!)

  6. Oh gosh. Jeez Sarah – mea culpa – I am one of the people who uses phrases like “indicator species” – I even have it in a draft article at the minute. I guess I will need to rephrase. In my defence, in a previous life I might have found myself poking around streams looking for things like caddis fly larvae as an indicator species for the ecological health of the ecosystem. So in the right context it is a real phrase that gets routinely used by people working to protect endangered life forms.

  7. On the make-up point, it’s a fair observation.

    You have to consider the Dutch are more feminist than Irish and for them and many other North Europeans wearing make-up is seen as catering to ‘male gaze’, it’s also seen as tacky, bad for your skin, environmentally harmful and propping up beauty companies that thrive from preying on women’s insecurities.

    I would also add to this it’s seen as synonymous with Essex culture which is embarrassing for Ireland as a country to follow, adopting the norms of its former oppressor.

    Another observation is people wear high vis construction site fluro vests (both men and women) whereas in no other country do they do this.

  8. Shane, I use “indicator species” myself, also as a hangover of field work around polluted streams. I only use it to describe why the presence of a particular actor means I won’t be going to see a film though. I wasn’t aware it was used by anyone else outside field biology.

  9. In fairness, I totally get the relevance of applying the “indicator species” concept from ecology to cycling. A 50% jump in pre-schoolers cycling to daycare obviously represents a much more spectacular achievement for a city than a 50% jump in adult commuter cyclists. Cities that only cater for cyclists aged between 20 and 50 might see numbers rising up to about 20% mode share, but then they will get completely stuck. Cities that cater for cyclists of all ages could protentially push on through to 50% mode share and beyond. So the kind of cyclists that cities are catering for or not catering for in their “ecosystems” clearly matters and just looking at numbers alone is obviously very foolish.

    So my beef is mainly with the idea that woman are so wildly different from men that all you need to do is to take women as your indicator species and you have all the bases covered. I think it’s better to focus on children, the elderly, and the various kinds of bikes a city will have to accomodate if it is going to enable inclusive cycling – plumbers and chimney-sweeps in a hurry to their next job on cargo bikes, parents with cargo bikes, little kids dawdling and weaving all over the shop, old people using trikes and quadricycles as mobility aids (pedalling themselves) or travelling in bike taxis with volunteers doing the pedalling.

    Sally Hinchliffe also mentions that the word bugs her:
    “Even among the more thoughtful commentators, we hear that women are ‘an indicator species’ for safe cycling in a city. While I understand the sentiment, I find the wording grates; really, a whole different species? Certainly nothing illustrates better that the public debate about cycling is one largely conducted by men, and on men’s terms and that women are a ‘problem’ to be talked about, rather than people to be actually listened to.”
    (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2014/jun/06/female-cyclists-campaigns-cycling-uk)

  10. Is there a “like” or “star” function for comments? I see so many, and especially in this thread, that are so thought-provoking. Thanks for the insights and discussion.

  11. Hi Sarah – actually the context I was going to use the phrase in referred to school girls. Would you believe that Galway is no longer the only Irish city where more secondary school girls cycle to school than drive in cars? Dublin has now joined the list!

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