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Bike Freak & Body Image

As some of you might have gathered, I like to ride bikes…a lot. Having and riding a bike has been a pretty big component of my life for most of my life. And I think this has given me a different relationship with my body than many women have.

I started really riding with a passion when I was about 12…around the time that most girls put up their bikes as kiddy stuff. Oh, sure, I was into plenty of the stereotypical junior-high girl stuff, like torturing my hair into unfeasible styles, reading vapid fashion-and-pop-culture magazines, and giggling with my girlfriends about what kinds of boyfriends we'd want to date someday, but somehow I was able to balance that kind of “primp-n-fluff” girlhood with my innate rowdy tomboyishness

I was never good at the sports that were most popular for girls in my school. If you were good at volleyball, you were a goddess, and basketball was a pretty big deal, but, let's just say I’m not so good with the ball handling. I used to be a pretty adequate soccer player, but they didn’t have soccer as a sport in Hemingford. But, since I was already in pretty good cardiovascular shape from my biking obsession, and our school had a peculiar rule that if you participated in two sports, you didn't have to do PE, I decided “what the heck,” and ran in cross-country and the distance events in track. I’m not going to lie to ya and say I was a track star and a state-sweeping cross-country runner, because I wasn’t. I pretty thoroughly sucked, but it was something to kill time after school, we got out of classes for meets on occasion, and nothing beats hanging out with a bunch of giddy, pizza-fed cross-country girls in a van and holding a belching contest. You’d have had to hear us to believe us.

I’ve had a pretty long history of expecting quite a lot from my body, performance-wise. Distance running didn’t come as a breeze to me…it was always a lot of work, and only occasionally a pleasure. As it turns out, I’m mildly asthmatic, a fact I hadn’t known back then…I just thought I was unendingly unfit, no matter how hard I trained. Heh.

Anyone who hangs out with runners or cyclists much will know that we’re some eatin’ fools. Pretty much any time I hang around with any of my biking friends, we end up on the topic of food at some point. And most of us can pack it away pretty well, too. This is where things can get a little tricky. It continues not to be “the done thing” for women to show a healthy appetite. It can get awfully Scarlett O’Hara, all “don’ eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog,” and I do believe that we’re supposed to shun carbohydrates, flutter our eyelashes and pass on the salad dressing, and moan at the size of our thighs. The popular cultural notion of womanhood and our regard for our bodies pits us against ourselves and can make a girl disassociate from the carcass she inhabits. It is all of the fun, let me tell you.

Sometimes, if I’m not among folks who ride or run, or folks who are just plain used to me, I can get a little embarrassed, because I’m a snacker, because I’m always ready for lunch, because I don’t look at pasta as the enemy, but as good old-fashioned bike fuel. I get a little bummed that the current “skinny-legged jeans” are impossible to squirm my muscular legs and butt into (and would be really uncomfortable on the bike, anyhow), and that my jock-girl figure is the antithesis of what is considered acceptable in the pages of the catalogues and magazines.

The thing is, I have a very good, working relationship with my body, and if I don’t objectify myself, my body and mind get along really darn well. I have to remind myself that I’m not an ornamental object, a delicate hothouse flower, a pretty princess up on a pedestal. I don’t have to look lovely or preserve my hairdo, or avoid sweating. I’ve got a life to lead and things to do, and little of all of that has anything to do with fitting into an idealized cultural image of femininity. Tiny, vine-like arms and slender willow-twig legs are fine for a 17-year-old beauty queen modeling $4,000 dresses in Vogue, but for me, they are not reality, nor are they desirable.

I’ve done the eating-disorder thing. Twice. When I was younger, less stroppy, and more easily intimidated. My freshman year of highschool, I was so cowed, so stressed, so nervous and petrified, that eating was too much work. Everything was like glue and sawdust, and I felt better when I was hungry. I could rely on that buzzing pain in my stomach…it made me feel a little jittery, a little exotic, and a little more in control of something. I had no idea about how to deal with the rest of life going on around me, but I could believe in skipping lunch.

Then, four years later, uprooted once again in college, I once again got weird around food. The cafeteria was so bustling, and I was trying to do everything at once. I was in hardcore boy-chasing mode, and felt that being a little on the skinny side might be an advantage anyhow. I mostly ate lettuce and cottage cheese and granola, and coffee. I rode my little Huffy around town and out into the countryside a good 2 hours every night…and soon enough I weighed about 103 and I was pretty elated. Sure, when I went out to parties on cold nights I’d be wearing my running tights under my jeans (and had room to spare! In a size 3!). I had something like a negative quantity of boobs. But, back then, hunger was kind of a buzz.

Somehow, along the way, I got tired of being hungry. I reckon a switch truly flipped in my brain while I was in grad school in York, and hunger wasn't a tool and a toy anymore, but a reality, because I didn’t always have money for food. When you are hungry because you can’t get food, it stops being an issue of control, and can make a person feel pretty panicky. You don't worry about losing weight for the fun of it, you worry about how much food you can get for £5.

When I got back to the US and got a proper job again, I had another Scarlett O’Hara moment (geebus criminy christmas, what’s with Margaret Mitchell in my brain today?) and declared that I wasn't intending to be hungry again. It was at that same point in time that I determined to use my bike for more than just recreational and fitness purposes, but as a legitimate way of getting around town. My initial impression of Kansas City was that I didn’t relish the thought of driving around down here. But for whatever reason, I had no especial qualms about taking up biking around town. And, as I’ve said before, there’s that connection between bikes and food, that just integrated perfectly for me.

The 29-year-old me could totally kick the ass of the 19-year old me. I’ve got about 15lb on the me of a decade ago and a lot more confidence and sass. I inhabit my body with a lot more comfort than I did back in the day, and get a lot better use out of it. It’s really kind of a pity it took me so many years to get to that point. It’s really a pity that so many women out there don;t ever really get to a good point in their relationships with their bodies. Without a doubt I’d attribute the peace I have with my body and healthful lifestyle to bike riding. It’s just too darn bad there aren’t more of us women out there on bicycles, livin’ it large and blasting through the constraints and quibbles of pop-culture femininity.

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