The Power of ‘Mixed Messages’

Background Reading


So what we have here is a failure to communicate. I believe that line is from the movie “Cool Hand Luke“. Clearly the Urban Cycling Community has issues both with itself and others. In a recent article we read:

As part of a gang of female bikers, I should be fucking thrilled every time I hear about an event encouraging more women and girls to ride, right? But then sometimes I catch a little excerpt of something that takes all that “hey, ride a bike! It’s fun, it’s efficient, it’s good for you, and it makes you feel totally awesome” and turns it into something awfully patronizing and insulting.

Like this.*

“She (Cynthia Bell) advised that women should dress so as not to draw attention: ‘You don’t want to look too sexy.’ ”

That’s notable for:

  1. coming from a female cycling advocate,
  2. being utterly fucking wrongheaded, and
  3. potentially turning women away from biking because they perceive it as unsafe.

My beef here is deep, but the biggest problem I have with her statement is that there is no goddamn way on this earth that doesn’t sound exactly like a “well, she was asking for it, just look how she was dressed!blame-the-victim excuse for criminal behaviorWhat a woman is wearing is not relevant to this situationLauren addressed that here in February! That statement- don’t dress to draw attention- means that it’s my fault if I get catcalled because I’m wearing a dress (which mostly, i am, since I own two pair of pants total). It’s your fault if someone gets up in your face at a red light because you’re wearing lipstick. It’s our fault because we somehow encouraged unwanted attention by the choice of clothing, or the look on my face (“why don’t you smile, girl?”), or by being visibly female or visibly trans or visibly queer or visibly whatever.

Fuck that shit.

It’s a problem that is being struggled with in more than just the cycling community, and in specific the Urban Cycling Community. But frankly it is not so difficult to understand the issues. We know that males are stimulated by “visual contact“. There is an entire industry devoted to helping females make use of this fact. We call it the cosmetics/clothing/shoe industry. There is also a very strong relation between what women want to say about themselves and the clothes they wear. This is not sexist it is simple fact. Women who are interested in attracting male attention have long worn clothing that accentuates their strengths. High heels are designed to accentuate the curve of the leg, etc.

Cynthia Bell was simply acknowledging this fact. If you do not want to arouse the attention of males in whom you have no interest then do what people do when they wish to keep their bikes off the stolen bike registry, tone down its visual appeal. By the way men use some of the same tricks to enhance their attractiveness to females. They try to make their bodies look bigger by pumping up their muscles and accentuating the upper body area which is where females evidently look to determine their desirability. Of course women have been know to allow their eyes to stray a bit lower, but hey, this is a family ‘blog, right?

Now there is another dynamic going on here and that is sexual identity. The simple fact is that many Urban Cycling Community members are not shy about their bodies. You really cannot be if you are willing to protest some cause by riding around naked on a bicycle. For the life of me I find this somewhat comical. Men would simply love to have women undress and ride around nude. And in order to protest something women actually do this. Guys come racing out of their offices with cameras in hand and take pictures. And lo and behold there is a squad of fellow Urban Cyclists who are allowed to ride along as, get this, the security detail.

Now for most guys the idea of serving as the security detail for the Victoria’s Secret modeling team as they ride around naked to protest bicycle helmet use is a dream come true. So clearly it is difficult for most males to understand why any group of women in this culture would be protesting in the buff while having their comrades in lingerie argue that dressing in a sexy fashion is sometimes unwarranted. It only makes perfect sense if the women who are riding naked are dismissive of men altogether. What they are doing is an act of defiance and not intended to be alluring. It’s a way of saying that they control the conversation about beauty and so deal with it. Fine.

About That ‘Failure To Communicate’

The Urban Cycling Community is quite often at war with itself on any number of levels, not just about how women should dress. Michelle Stenzel alluded to the litany of issues surrounding cycle which she feels are also contradictory:

Nadarine and Tiny Fix, thank you for bringing up this important issue. I’ll admit that as I sat taking notes on the event for Streetsblog, Cynthia’s words made me wince, because of the points you made in your post: Women shouldn’t have to tone down their clothing, look less feminine, and avoid drawing attention, because that makes bicycling seem dangerous, puts the blame on the victim, and in the end, it often doesn’t matter.

But you know what? I had the same reaction when I heard other topics brought up, and applied the same logic, to wearing helmets, wearing safety vests, and avoiding the criminal element.

I believe that the sight of widespread helmet use in a city is detrimental to encouraging bicycling because it sends the message that bicycling is a sport, it’s dangerous, and it requires special equipment. If a bicyclist is killed by a driver, the mainstream media often notes whether she was wearing a helmet or not – especially if she wasn’t – even if an SUV ran her over, and a little plastic on her head wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. The insinuation is: Didn’t wear a helmet? Tsk, tsk, she was asking for it.

I think that advocating for people to wear bright orange safety vests while riding their bike isn’t optimal because it puts the onus on the bicyclist to look clownlike in an attempt to be more visible, when the real responsibility is held by the people maneuvering their enormous motorized vehicles to look where they’re going.

I think it’s unfortunate that bicyclists (not just women, either) might have to ride on a stressful main arterial route and not be able to take quiet side streets because of the criminal element present in the out-of-the-way areas. So, we’re going to let violent people force us to choose between getting attacked in a quiet area, or having to mix it up with 18-wheelers on Western Avenue? And anyway, it doesn’t matter in the end even if you do choose the “safer” option, as proven by Allison Zmuda’s horrible recent experience on Milwaukee.

So, I understand Cynthia’s advice about toning down dress, in certain situations, in certain areas. It would be fantastic to live in a city where the incredibly safe bike lane infrastructure, enforcement of traffic laws, and widespread mainstream bicycling culture made helmets and safety vests completely unnecessary. But we simply don’t. It would be great to live in a city where there were no harassers lurking around, and where physical assaults were unheard of, and everyone could ride wherever they want, wearing whatever they want, without fear. But we simply don’t.

I hope no one is discouraged from supporting all the efforts underway in Chicago to address these issues, because we need all the help we can get.

Some Of Our Notions Are Probably Less Than Scientific

Let me address some of Michelle’s points:

  • What women wear and how they look is often determined by people who neither find them attractive as sex objects or are simply trying to make money by adorning women with the clothes their design house is making. The “female look” is transitory. It gets turned upside down each fall as new clothing lines come out. No one can tell me that wearing shows that make Chinese foot binding practices look tolerable is really concerned about “looking feminine“. I am surprised that women do not take up their swords tell the men who run the design industry, that enough is enough. We will dress ourselves than you.
  • Wearing a helmet is not (to me) a statement that something is dangerous. It is quite the opposite message that I receive. When I see a person with helmet on I think to myself that here is a method to avoid head injury. What should instead be considered is the fact that the single most important head injury to avoid in cycling is the same one to avoid in football, concussion. Neither sports helmets fix that problem.
    To imagine that somehow people are going to be turned off by cycling because of helmets is to imagine that seeing a warning label on a pack of cigarettes is going to stop people from smoking. In fact quite the opposite probably true. If you are a young person the idea of taking a chance is quite thrilling. It is what makes “bad boys” so appealing. Driving fast is fun just because of the threat of death. And certainly riding a bicycle in high heels has got to be exciting because I for one cannot imagine a dumber thing to do on an icy day when crossing a drenching wet bridge in the dead of winter.
  • Bright orange vests and for that matter screaming yellow vest save lives. I do not know what planet some of my dear Urban Cycling friends think we are inhabiting but in case they are unaware, this is the one where people have highly developed visual senses and that along with language makes us pretty common in the animal kingdom. Birds, butterflies, fish, mammals all do and wear things that make them more attractive during mating season. And while bright orange vests are not typical mating attire for humans they perform a valuable function. They awake slumbering motorists, pedestrians and even cyclists at the core of their “lizard brains” just long enough to get on their primary radar. There is a reason that evidently has escaped the minds of some Urban Cyclists as to why workers of any sort along highways (including traffic cops) is better off if they are brightly adorned. In fact the reason cops have “gumball lamps” atop squad cars is not just because it looks cool, the idea is to keep everyone alert. And yes, Michelle the onus is on the cyclists or pedestrian to wear the bright stuff.
  • Side streets are great. I ride them all the time when in the city. But as with everything in life there are precautions that one must take in order to be safe. Dark side streets at night are not as safe as being on brightly lit streets whether side or main arteries. If you want to be able to ride on dark side streets you need to move to a less congested and safer community in the suburbs or rural areas. Out here we all ride anything but the main streets, just the obverse of what a sane Urban Cyclist might do. Main arteries out here are not pleasant to ride (for the most part).

Just Imagine How Non-Cyclists Feel

So, is my backpack on straight?

So, is my backpack on straight?

The single most important point about this kerfuffle over clothing is that it points out how very disparate are the ideas and notions of the members of the Urban Cycling Community. And frankly much of what passes as “trendy” stuff (e.g. not wearing helmets) is silly. If we are going to debate helmets, lets get after it with an eye towards making them do what they are supposed to do. Cycling folks is dangerous. Take any kid who is about to get his training wheel removed and you will find someone who is afraid at first of falling. There is an entire industry shift in the recumbent bicycle community over just this issue, balance. Trikes outsell everything else by a very wide margin, all because people hate to fall and get road rash.

You only have to visit the nauseating thread on “Riding Dearborn Street” to know that simply crossing a bridge can be threatening and dangerous. Who the heck are you trying to kid, Michelle? In fact now that the new bridge plates are in people are still not quite happy with the whole experience of riding across that particular bridge in bad weather.

Now if you really want to find out just how silly this internal discourse is amongst cyclist, you have to ask yourself why a site like espouses “fixes“. You know those bikes that have (in some iterations) no brakes. So while we wring our hands over whether we should or should not wear a helmet we do so from the saddle of a bike in Milwaukee Avenue traffic that has no brakes. You gotta love this Urban Cycling Community and its dysfunctional culture.

And all the while we are yelling at one another we are demanding that motorists be aware of what is right and wrong, despite the fact that we cannot make up our collective “tiny little minds” whether running red lights and stop signs are good ideas. Yikes! It’s enough to make me want to strip down to a jock strap and ride naked down Michigan Avenue to protest Urban Cyclist stupidity. But instead I have offered the photo with caption above.