Expectations

When I tell someone that I just rode a bike to Philadelphia–and that I did it last year–there are two kinds of looks people give me. Some people look impressed. This makes me feel awkward because it really isn’t that hard and I lame out and trains are involved and all of that. Or, more commonly, they give me The Look.

Women's Montreal UCI World Cup 2009 winner Emma Pooley of Britain on her Cervelo.

Image courtesy of Flowizm on Flickr. CC-BY.

This is Emma Pooley, winner of the 2009 Grande Boucle, or Tour de France FĂ©minin. She was the last person to win this tour (the fancy term for long distance, multi-day bike racing), as it was discontinued after she won. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

Marianne Vos cycling on a mud track in 2007.

This image is public domain.

Marianne Vos, a Dutch cyclist, is the most recent winner of Giro d’Italia Femminile, a tour in Italy. Emma Pooley finished second. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

Mika Matsuzaki on a fixed gear bicycle by the Charles River.

Image by mako. CC-BY-SA

Mika Matsuzaki is a friend of mine. She does not ride this bike on long distance rides. She rides a different bike, one with gears, for instance, and a backrack, when she covers many miles over several days. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

I do not look like any of these people.

To quote myself, I am in a round, soft-and-squishy shape. I’ve hinted at the level I dislike my body, which is, I gather, a very normal level to hate your body as an American girl. We, as a culture, have created expectations not just about how people–or we–should look, but about how different kinds of people should look.

Duh.

Even the most understanding and liberal, the most socially conscious acquaintances I have, people who fight for equal rights, who think very hard about everything they eat, and the impact of their actions, and the meaning of advertising and the world around them, have given me The Look. The Look expresses, in a momentary flash across their face, that they don’t believe me. They might consciously understand what I just told them I do, but they cannot, even if just for a breath, comprehend that I biked 300 miles.

Then their conscious mind takes over and they acknowledge that I, a size fourteen, XL, one-piece swim suit kind of girl, can bike 300 miles.

I hate The Look. It makes me feel small. It makes me feel ashamed. As the look fades and the other people’s conscious mind takes over, my shame fades and my anger takes over. I think of all the snippy remarks I want to make. I think about how I want to tell them they can’t call themselves accepting when they still have The Look in their repertoire. I think about how their expectations about me are one of the things wrong with our culture.

Then my conscious mind continues to race ahead. It reminds me that people are taught these expectations and they’re an intrinsic part of who they are. They aren’t in control of what they think or, really, their immediate expressive actions. They’re in poor control of those anyway.

Recently, at work, some people restarted a weight loss pact that they had put on hold for a few months. I decided to join in. I mentioned this to SG and she had a rather negative, immediate response. I found myself mumbling over the intellectual reasons why I think losing weight is a good idea: I will be able to do more things–there are yoga poses I can’t do simply because I have more body to try and squeeze next to other body. I will be able to lift myself up by my arms if there’s less to lift. Cute clothing is easier–and cheaper–to find in a size eight than a size fourteen. But underneath all those conscious, logical reasons, I want people to stop giving me The Look. I don’t want to feel that strange twinge of shame when I need to explain that I swim, run, and bike long distances.