Newest Bitch Magazine landed on my doorstep the other day, and while most of it is just great as usual, I have to take issue with one half-page article called "Vicious Cycle: The Irresponsible Aesthetic of Bike Chic", by Kati Nolfi. I should have known from the title that I was going to be annoyed. Just the conflation of "irresponsible" with "aesthetic" or "chic" should have set off alarm bells. But man, was this article some grim stuff. The villain? Photo shoots in magazines that show young women riding bikes wearing, brace yourself, fashionable clothes and looking like they may be running simple errands.
Clearly, this cannot stand. If bikes become chic instead of the province of those who congratulate themselves on sacrificing pleasure, convenience, and good looks for the environment, then what will become of the self-congratulators? Won't they just have to push themselves into further sacrifices to demonstrate moral superiority to the slaves of ballet flat fashion?
If you think I'm kidding, some quotes:
Street fashion bike photos commodify women as frivolous fashion hounds and seem to go out of their way to find helmetless women in pee-toe heels. They don't address the street harassment bikers get and the trouble that bike-inappropriate attire can cause.
I'm just going to pause for a moment to point out that Nolfi, in her eagerness to shame the fashionable perched on bicycles, veered right into victim-blaming. The only way you can believe that showing a woman in a shirt with peep-toe heels on a bicycle is somehow implicated in street harassment is if you blame the victims for what they wear and not the perpetrators for harassment. To be clear, women get harassed in all sorts of clothing, and no one should have her clothes examined for being "inappropriate" in an effort to curtail street harassment.
But the idea that young, thin, and usually white women are emblems of environmentalism and urban savvy is kind of laughable if you look closer at the photos—can these ladies really be expected to rid farther than the nearest coffee roastery in their impractical outfits, and on bikes groaning with handbags and bouquests of fresh cut flowers?
The problem with this criticism isn't that she's demanding more diversity in pictures of commuter bicyclists, even though the list of race-and-body-size words might be a distraction. Diversity is an addition-based approach, where we say that we need more pictures of more people. She just want an elimination of this particular kind of picture, on the grounds that it's not real somehow. Well, first of all, duh. Fashion photography never is completely real, but evocative. But her implication that there's something fucked up about a young, white woman using her bike for short trips and shopping makes no sense at all. When I lived in Austin, my bike was my primary mode of transportation. And yes, it was often used for carrying bags and flowers and I wore street clothes instead of strapping on my spandex and sneakers. That's the point—it's a commuter bike. The idea is that if you want to go to the coffee shop or the grocery store, you take your bike and not the car.
My feeling is that diversity isn't achieved by eliminating but adding. More pictures of more people is the solution, not eliminating the pictures we already have.
It's easy to forget that photos of women in full skirts perched precariously on bikes, sans head protection, in traffic are real, and these images belittle the dangers that bikers enounter and the real aesthetic decisions that cyclists make to mitigate them: rolling up pant legs, tucking in shoelaces and scarf ends, wearing shorts or opaque tights under skirts to avoid flashing, eschweing anything flowing or flared. Sartorial distractions can compromise the freedom and fun of biking, but they're a necessary compromise.
Also, please avoid moving your hips too much. Not everyone is feeling sexy right this minute, and you're a distraction.
Seriously, that's some depressing stuff. While I appreciate that feeling sacrificial and self-righteous can attract some people to healthier choices, I really do think it's limited. Certainly Nolfi's implication—that the only way to promote certain behaviors is to show them as grim and sometimes nightmarishly sad sacrifices made for the salvation of the planet—is going to have extremely limited appeal. I, for instance, had mainly been exposed to the idea that having a commuter bike in the city was serious business and out of the reach of someone who did things like went to clubs or coffee shops, but was solely the province of hippies who don't mind going around wearing nothing but jean shorts and T-shirts with sneakers. It was only after visiting Amsterdam and being exposed to a culture wear, heaven forfend, people use bikes to just get around like you would a car that I started to think that maybe bicycle commuting was for me. Knowing you can wear jeans or a skirt and still ride a bike changed everything. I took my bike to all sorts of places that are just so unserious! I took it to clubs, to the movies, and yes, to the coffee shop. I even….wait for it…used it to transport flowering plants.
The notion that a fashion shoot is going to keep women from tucking their skirts or tying their shoes is frankly insulting, by the way. It doesn't take much practice on the bicyle to learn that a flowing skirt should be tucked up under your butt and flared jean hems should be folded. If you actually hang out by the bike rack at a coffee shop or rock club and watch the hipsters park their bikes, you'll see how swift and practiced they get at hopping off, untucking their pants legs, straightening their skirts, and adjusting their bags before entering the establishment they came to. The notion that portraying bicycling as compatible with fun and fashion is somehow irresponsible implies that because people–especially women—like to look good, they are stupid. I disagree strongly. We should not start from the assumption that women especially are braindead and call that "feminism".
Demanding that pictures of bicycling show it as a serious, fun-free event that is too dangerous for ordinary people with "frivolous" desires doesn't do much except bolster the egos of the few people that this approach suits. The result is that people whose lives incorporate things like looking good and going to coffee shops are going to struggle to see how bicycling could work for them.
Take, for instance, what happened at Good when they challenged the folks that work there to stop driving so much. A number of people swore they would start bike commuting, but no one did. I'm not surprised; to hear some people talk, making the switch requires reworking your life in ways that start to seem unmanageable. If you start from the assumption that bikes are incompatible with running errands or your wardrobe as it currently stands, you won't get on a bike. You'll get up and think, "Well, I can't wear spandex to work, and oh yeah, I have to stop by the store on the way home." Even though fashion shoots with bikes are a bit unrealistic, I think overall the message—that biking can be part of everyday life—is a big plus and should be embraced.