Today I finally plucked up the courage to ask my doctor about breast reduction.
I anticipate that 50% of you (the male 50%, how terribly sexist of me) have now gone elsewhere – unless I’ve piqued your prurient interest. Some of you will be as embarrassed as I was. All of you’ve who’ve made it to this sentence will be wondering what exactly this has to do with professional cycling.
Here’s the thing – it’s all about body confidence and self esteem. These same issues that drove Victoria Pendleton – beautiful, muscular, gorgeous, strong, toned Victoria – to cut herself with a Swiss army knife until she felt a ‘soothing numbness’. And Pendleton isn’t the only one – Dame Kelly Holmes slashed herself with scissors in frustration at her inability to compete at the highest level because her body had betrayed her. Leontien Van Moorsel – world champion on the road and the track, multiple Olympic gold medallist, double Tour Feminin winner – was forced to retire from cycling in 1994 to battle with anorexia. She beat it and came back to score her greatest triumphs but others weren’t so lucky. Cathy Marsal, World Champion and Giro winner, was left battling osteoporosis as a result of “an obsession to be as light as I could”. Marsal now holds a degree in global nutrition and health and works to help other riders from falling into the trap of “don’t eat but ride as much as you can” diets.
Body confidence is one of the greatest barriers facing women, any women, who want to get out and ride a bike – or run, or swim, or feel comfortable taking that first step into the gym without feeling that her lack of a thigh gap or her ill fitting lycra (and that’s a whole other issue) condemn her to the instant judgement of the body police.
And so my bike is no better than a tzotchke, my running gear is pushed to the back of a drawer. At this rate I won’t be one of the million women British cycling have targeted to be on their bikes by 2020. Why? Because I feel my tits are too big and clothing manufacturers do nothing to help me make them look – or me feel – better. If it fits in the chest it hangs to my thighs like a tent. Hardly the image of sporting perfection. Oh and I really hate the ‘shrink it and pink it’ mentality though nor do I want to look like a baggy Rapha clone. And don’t get me started on sports bras – I currently have it down to three but by the time I’ve bandaged down the bangers for the third time I’m too exhausted to do much else. The bike remains undusted. The lycra goes back in the drawer and I’m left wishing I had the guts of a Blooming Cyclist or a Sarah Connolly to deal with those issues bravely and head on and just get out and ride. Cycle and be damned. Hence the uncomfortable chat with my (female) doctor.
Interestingly, body image in cycling may be more of a male preserve than a female one. As Katie Lambden points out, the obsession with power to weight ratio in the men’s sport is driving an obsession in the pro peloton towards the kind of anorectic silhouette that would fuel a million clickbaiting, sclerotic articles in the likes of the Daily Mail if those riders were women. Like her, I’ve met Mario Cipollini. At the height of his powers he still looked like you could put your hand around his tiny waist. And his generation of riders look like porkers compared to the stick insects of the current peloton. There’s even a name for it – being cyclerexic. It’s a bizarre world where being told you look like death warmed up is the highest accolade you can hear. Where you don’t eat, train hard and then tell your legs to shut up and ride harder even though you’re not Jens Voigt and likely never will be. Of course, there may be other reasons why professional male cyclists are suddenly outwaifing Kate Moss – AICAR, cortisone and GW1516 among them (WADA were so concerned about the possible effect of the GW1516 they issued an unprecedented warning about its use). But besides the well documented desire of the professional male peloton to take any substance available to get an edge, there’s another simple difference between men and women – we store fat differently.
There is a far greater diversity of body type amongst women cyclists but they’re still driven to try and compete on an uneven playing field. As recently retired world champion Nicole Cooke puts it “there are so many pictures of men with crazy body fat levels that are unobtainable for women, but we feel that we have to look like our male counterparts to be taken seriously as cyclists.” Professional women’s cycling still suffers from a credibility gap, despite the fact that its highest profile events like the Olympic road race beat the men’s event hollow for sheer excitement and panache. That Cooke identifies unflattering body image comparisons as part of the problem is yet another face palm moment. Now factor in the ‘nakedness’ of cycling – there’s no place to hide your muffin top or your lack of a thigh gap in the confines of lycra – and you can understand the pressures on us ‘ordinary’ women who want to get on our bikes but feel the dead hand of body image pushing us off again, despite the number of lardy MAMILS on the roads. And I speak as one who spent her 20s and 30s in leotards – but then I lived on caffeine and cigarettes and borderline bulimia. And still wore baggy tops to disguise the bounteous melons that made me hide at the back of dance class so I didn’t have to watch them wobble in the mirror. When ‘plus size’ mannequins in Sweden complete with thigh gaps and slightly rounded bellies are accused of promoting obesity then what hope is there?
There may finally be a shift in the way women are encouraged to see themselves – ‘thinspiration’ and the cult of ‘nothing tastes as good as thin feels, is being challenged by the ‘fitspiration‘ movement that kicked off during the 2012 Olympics when women started to be encouraged to look for different body models amongst our female athletes. The likes of Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton have been held up as images of what we should aspire to be. Whilst I like the basic concept of getting my body fit and strong and healthy, I have a more than nagging doubt that this is another excuse to sell ordinary women an unachievable ideal and all the expensive gear to go with it. And more than that – to sell us on another definition of ‘sexy’ where our bodies are yet again seen as nothing more than the means of attracting a mate. You ever watched female weightlifters? They could benchpress the entire male peloton without blinking but you won’t see them selling Nike gear. Why? Because they’re built like brick outhouses. Discus throwers, hammer hurlers and shot putters can hurtle their chosen projectiles unimaginable distances and still manage to look like they might have eaten all the pies. You won’t see them on billboards, highly trained athletes though they are – they simply don’t conform to the strong = sexy = skinny paradigm of Fitspiration that still, ultimately, objectifies and idolises thin women. So where does that leave you if you’re a pretty standard sized 10 bottom with a generous 14-16 up top? You don’t even think about bib shorts, for a start.
Most of the women I know, particularly through the vast twitter cycling community, ride because it makes them feel good not because it makes them look good. There are daily tales of helmet hair and walking into important meetings in cleats. Sometimes they forget to pick up their change of clothes and spend the day in sweaty shorts and jerseys. And these women don’t care because their commute or their weekly club ride or spin with friends makes them feel healthy and happy and fit, whatever their shape or size. All the good stuff we associate with high self esteem, in fact. Conversely, research has linked low self esteem to exercising for the ‘wrong’ reasons – to lose weight and look attractive. And that’s the message fitspiration is pushing when it ignores the true diversity of what ‘fit’ women look like.
So back to me and my gigantic boobs. That grabbed your interest again didn’t it? And this is ultimately about me and my struggle to get back into my running tights after all. Fact is, I’m not inspired by ad campaigns that are ultimately aimed at making me a ‘fit bird’ and selling me ‘sexy’ work out gear – yay, let’s pornify health! I have no desire to push my limits or tell my legs to shut up when I’m tootling along the seafront enjoying the breeze on my face. I want to start running and riding again to grab a few precious moments of ‘me’ time (loathsome as that expression is). To clear my head and ‘defrag my brain’ as my old running mate puts it. I drink weekend wine and puff the odd ciggy and as an older mum I’d like to have the energy to keep up with a 7 year old so there are health implications too. And, yes, I’d like to wear well fitting gear while I do it. I’d like to look a little more like an ‘athlete’ than a blowsy barmaid. I’m vain and shallow like that. What I do know is that smaller breasts won’t suddenly offer up the pathway to eternal happiness. But they might let me move and exercise with a little more freedom from pitying eyes and lascivious stares and poor posture and that’s good enough for me.