The Bicycle Was the First Dating App
What the Victorian insult “bicycle face” tells us about slut shaming today
About a hundred and twenty years ago, men warned women that riding a bicycle could permanently deform their face.
Their chin would jut.
Their brows would furrow.
Their cheeks would freeze in an unbecoming rictus.
Physicians debated various causes. Some blamed the seat. Others blamed the vibrations. Some blamed, simply, the strain of pedaling and keeping one’s balance. Popular journals warned women that riding a bike could cause everything from appendicitis, to gallstones, to “apoplexy of the brain”.
They called this malady bicycle face.
Women with bicycle face, said one digest, were “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.” They would appeal “pale, often with lips more or less drawn.” Weak women were in danger. Dyspeptic women, too. And especially young women. And especially the old.
Of course, this was all especially bullshit.
But it happens to be bullshit for an interesting reason. This was the time of the bicycle boom. And women — much to the chagrin of finger-wagging traditionalists, disapproving matrons, and men who’d rather see them remain in their drawing rooms, wrapped in crinolined skirts and bodices — women were out in the streets, wind in their bloomers, riding bicycles.
And they were ascendant.
Move fast and break things
It’s worth being super duper clear about this: the bicycle disrupted everything.
Invented in 1886, the so-called “safety bike” was, after the horse, the first entirely personal and private mode of transportation. Better than the horse, it was affordable: about a hundred inflation-adjusted bucks cheap. A bicycle didn’t need to be stabled. A bicycle never got tired. Or needed to be fed. Or pooped.
Streets swarmed with them. Businessmen rode to their offices. Bicycle clubs sprung up, and repair shops, and race tracks. Velodromes became popular. Bicycling from towns into the country became popular. Map makers made small fortunes publishing roadbooks and guides.
Cyclists could forego the train, and the bus, and really any manner of scheduled group travel. No crowded station. No deciphering time tables. As one magazine put it, the cyclist was free to travel with “no anxiety of any kind.” The bicyclist could have both “independence of movement” and “freedom from the annoying little limitations of time and space.’’ For some, it was the “next thing to flying.” It allowed people to free themselves from social hierarchies and organize themselves, at least on the road, by their own choosing. To judge by period photographs, you could gaze down the boulevards at midday and see cyclists sitting bolt upright, their eyes at a fully wide boggle, grinning like a jackanapes. At dusk the cyclists rode homeward, their wheels revolving silently under the lanterns and through the soot.
For women, the safety bike was a benediction. Unlike its predecessor, the big-wheeled “boneshaker”, women could mount the safety bike with relative ease. But they couldn’t ride wearing a dress or carrying a parasol.
Out: bustles and crinolines.
In: knickerbockers, bloomers, and pants.
Out: flirting with a fan in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
In: cycling along the Hudson’s silver width, “alongside the white thread of smoke from the trains beside the river.”
To a modern sensibility this may seem like eh so what, but at the time the bicycle did something profound: it removed women from their cloistered social sphere and made them visible in public. It had such an egalitarian effect that you can draw a clear line from women riding bikes to women getting the vote.
“Let me tell you what I think about bicycling,” said Susan B. Anthony, in a 1896 interview with the New York World. “It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in this world.”
And that included in the realm of dating, too.
Riding a bicycle, women could escape the hidebound courtship conventions of the time.
In lieu of closed carriages, open cycling down the street.
In lieu of scripted ballroom dances, adventurous country rides.
In lieu of an afternoon stroll with a gentleman caller, accompanied by an elderly chaperone, women and men could ride away, on their own, together.
By providing independence and mobility to their riders, the bicycle literally changed how men and women made decisions about their romantic lives.
Of course, using new technology to increase our independence and our mobility happens to be how we date today. Bicycles, you could say, were one of the first dating apps.
But women’s newfound freedom made men nervous. Hence that gaslight of the Gilded Age: ew, bicycle face.
The Dating Numbers Game
Bicycle face still exists today, only we don’t call it that. We call it slut shaming — the practice of criticizing women who are perceived to violate expectations of behavior and appearance regarding sexuality.
In the 19th century, the expectation was that women remained cloistered and dependent. The bicycle disrupted that narrative. It allowed women to leave the cloister and become somewhat independent. Bicycle face was a failed attempt to shame them back into traditionally feminine roles.
In the 21st century, the expectation is that women make independent, self-empowering choices. Slut shaming is an attempt to make a woman feel ashamed of those choices and, by extension, dependent on a man’s. IOW: Get off your bike. Go back to your drawing room. I am the man, do what I say.
Slut shaming happens everywhere. Replies on twitter. Comments on YouTube. And especially, revoltingly, eye-rollingly obnoxiously—slut shaming happens on dating apps. Ask a lady friend and she’ll likely handclap it for you: shut shaming on dating apps happens 👏 all 👏 the 👏 time. Especially, but not exclusively, slut shaming occurs when a woman rejects a man. When she, so to speak, keeps pedaling on by.
If this seems like an arbitrary point to make, consider: Dating apps, like bicycles, are a way of expressing freedom in public. And all dating apps work by the same pedal-around-town principle — that is, make more decisions (x) in less time (y) using speed (z).
In the case of bicycles, your decisions (x) are about distance: where can I go?
Your time (y) is simply the number of those decisions you can make given the speed (z), the bicycle.
Dating apps: same same. With a dating app as with a bike, you literally change how you make decisions because of your changed relationship to distance and time.
Anyway, this formula works for every manner of dating. It was just as true for the heartfelt personals of 19th century England, which aggregated attention via newspaper (“seeking a woman having good teeth and little feet”) as it was for the tender frugalities of the first online dating site, Match.com, which aggregated attention via web site (“subscribe to contact members for under $25/month!”). The evolution of dating has continually been towards maximum possible reach (more x, less y) with maximal possible speed (z).
If this description of dating economics sounds unattractively clinical, I present for your consideration the motives of one Mr. Gary Kremen: a self-proclaimed “loser” from Skokie, Illinois who, in the early ’90s, having spent a small fortune (and not a small amount of time) making phone calls to $2-per-minute 1–900 personals hotlines, decided it would be imminently more efficient if he could find women by looking them up in a searchable database. Et viola, Match.com — the first dating site. Romance, for Gary, was a numbers game.
Match’s calculus is, today, at least doubly or triply true for apps like Tinder or Bumble, where maximum possible reach is any of the apps’ 50 million users, and minimum possible effort is swiping your thumb.
Now, it’s going to take a minute, but I want to explain that dating apps are simply a faster type of bicycle, and that dating apps have done the exact same thing to human relationships that bicycles did: They have rearranged how we relate to each other by organizing their users around their functions. That’s just pure, high-test McLuhan, there. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
But one big argument I’m going to make is that the most dangerous thing about dating apps is that we don’t take them seriously enough as a definer of what it means to be a human being. That hyper-efficient and convenient coupling may not be in our long term best, humans-living-among-humans interests. That many of us today are just so accustomed to swipe-swipe-swiping that we forget that dating online is not just “meeting more people in less time” but “meeting many more people, in much less time, every single day, no matter where you are”, and that is so cursory an experience that it fundamentally changes what it means to value another living, breathing, bones-and-a-butt person.
This is not a new observation, but it has consequences.
The most unfortunate of these consequences is that dating apps often do the opposite of what they purport to do. That is, we take a lot of pleasure from online dating, but the pleasure seems to consist mostly in loathing a great many of the people we meet.
[continued it Part 2: Will WeWork for Love—One company’s journey to build an inclusive dating app in the land of casual misogyny]
This post is one of a three-part series that explores the hi’s, hello’s, and what the actual fucks of modern dating. Each post explores a different aspect of how the technology of online dating affects how humans organize themselves in culture and society—for better, for worse, and whether we realize it or not.
Happy Valentine’s Day, You Have a Bicycle Face
Part 1: The bicycle was the first dating app, and what that means for slut shaming
Will WeWork for Love
Part 2: One company’s journey to build a dating app in the land of casual misogyny
You are the You-Seeming You
Part 3: The awkward origins of online dating, and how the social consequences of online dating are the result of the entirely new scale the technology itself introduces