Fuck Your Cycling “Appreciation” Accounts
If you want to support women’s sports, highlight our accomplishments, not our bodies.
A few months ago, a bike-industry acquaintance DMed me on Twitter. He said he wanted to get my thoughts on “this sort of stuff” and then directed me to the following photo.
At first glance I thought it was a nice picture of a fellow cyclist. But then I started scrolling through the comments. Most contained men tagging other men (gross), but there was also the occasional “she is fine” and “I followed this beauty home earlier,” which are both just vague enough to be completely creepy.
I scrolled through the larger account, Beauty of Cycling, which, at the time, billed itself as “just a dude from Belgium sharing beautiful cycling pictures.”
Something felt…off. My colleague agreed. Here’s part of our convo (I’m the ridiculously handsome cat).
Perhaps I was expecting too much from an account that uses a giant boob as a logo, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Almost immediately the self-editing kicked in: Am I being too sensitive? Prude? Am I reading too much into these pictures, captions, and comments? After all, the feed does contain pictures of men as well.
My colleague originally reached out to me because he knows I’m keeping a running tally of all the sexist images, advertisements, and conversations I encounter in 2016 (see: Sexism in Cycling). After he pointed out this account to me, it didn’t take long for me to notice another. And then another. And then another.
That’s when I realized exactly what Beauty of Cycling and the rest of these accounts are: sexism masquerading as flattery.
Well, screw that. Intention doesn’t matter. Impact does.
I’m not a gender studies expert — far from it. I’m just someone who’s regularly pissed off by sexism and hopes to raise awareness of how frequently these images and actions occur, as well as deepen my understanding (and vocabulary) of gender issues and their effects.
I’d also like to believe that the more we identify these problems, the more we learn how to discuss them. And the more we discuss them, the better chance we have at fixing them.
So, in that spirit (and, tbh, to put these jerks on blast), I went in search of research to help me explain why this type of media hurts not just women but the entire bike industry. Because if you ask me, these accounts are no different than the bullshit coverage and advertisements we encounter on the regular. If anything, they’re worse because they’re made and shared by our peers. Shudder.
Here’s what I learned (stay with me, it’s a lot):
1. These Images DO Portray Women Differently.
Shocker: It wasn’t all in my head. According to Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a large and consistent body of research shows that:
“female athletes, when compared to their male counterparts, are much more likely to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform, and in highly sexualized poses.”
2. These Images Do NOT Increase Interest in Women’s Cycling.
In 2011, Kane and research assistant Heather D. Maxwell divided images of professional female athletes into six categories and then analyzed the impact the images had on fans’ interest in those sports.
Below is a list of the categories, along with the examples provided by the study.
- Athletic Competence: sportswoman portrayed in uniform, on court, in action
Ambivalence: some indication of athleticism is present, but the primary image features a non-athletic, off the court, feminine portrayal
All-American “Girl Next Door”: “wholesome” representation with minimal or no indication of athleticism
Hyper-Heterosexual: image of well-known female athlete explicitly linked to traditional heterosexual role such as girlfriend, wife, mother
“Sexy Babe”: image of “hot” female athlete which falls just short of soft pornography
Soft Pornography: representation that reinforces sexual objectification such as Olympic sportswomen appearing semi-nude in men’s magazines
The result? Kane and Maxwell found that images emphasizing a woman’s athletic competence prompted the greatest interest in women’s sports among men and women. Conversely, provocative images were the least likely to do this — even among men who admitted that they found the images “hot” or “seductive.”
In other words, the researchers wrote: “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports.”
4. These Images Change the Way We See Ourselves.
Reams of research show that girls who are active or play sports are more likely to be healthy — in a variety of ways — than those who don’t. Subtle and overtly sexualized images of female athletes undermine that.
“[These images tell] girls and young women that it’s more important what their bodies look like than what their bodies can do,” says Nicole M. LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center.
And it’s precisely this kind of thinking that can lead to negative body image, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and lack of confidence and self efficacy, she says.
5. These Images Reinforce Traditional Beauty Standards and Gender Norms
If you take a look at the images on accounts like Beauty of Cycling, you’ll notice that many of the women share similar attributes, in that they’re overwhelming tall, thin, blonde, and white.
Besides being completely unrepresentative (and boring), only highlighting one (privileged) group of riders creates a false narrative about who rides bikes and which riders have value.
These “appreciation” accounts also tend to emphasize traditional ideas of femininity and heterosexuality rather than athletic competence. It’s as if they exist to reassure men: Yes these women are athletes, but don’t worry they’re also soft and gentle and totally want to fuck you (no we don’t).
6. These Images Take Money Out of Our Pockets.
Reductive images support the institutionalized sexism that props up the athletic industry, which, unfortunately, many women depend on to make a living.
As a result, female athletes as a whole, receive fewer scholarship dollars, get paid less, win significantly smaller prize purses, and secure fewer sponsorships, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
I mean, fuck, even the US Women’s National Soccer Team, which regularly sells out stadiums and outperforms our men’s squad, isn’t adequately compensated.
Now think about what it’s like to go pro in women’s cycling—a sport that’s treated as an afterthought by popular media and it’s own governing body.
And then imagine what it’s like for a professional female cyclist who’s also a minority/gay/trans/short/fat/__________ <insert whatever else society currently deems undesirable.> How much money do you think is rolling in for these athletes?
7. These Images Trivialize Women’s Sports.
Reducing female cyclists to objects minimizes our agency and accomplishments. It creates a false narrative that we’re less serious and less capable than our male counterparts—and it works. Just take a look at quagmire that is women’s sports coverage.
According to Kane, even though females represent 40% of all sports participants nationwide, they only receive, on average, 2–4% of all sports media coverage. In fact, coverage of women’s sports has actually declined over the past 20 years, says Cheryl Cooky, Ph.D., associate professor of American studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Well, you might say, that’s because no one gives a shit about women’s sports. And you’d be right, except for the fact that women’s sports have exploded in terms of participation, popularity, and interest within that same time frame, says Cooky.
“When we look at what does get covered…there’s this kind of this perception that the media — the news media — are just giving us the stories that we want to hear, the stories that are interesting,” says Cooky.
“What we argue in some of our research is the converse of that. It’s what role does the media play in building audiences and in sustaining and creating interest? It’s not one or the other. They’re two pieces of a very complex issue.”
In other words, by “passively” meeting audience demand, perhaps sports media is also actively stunting the growth of women’s cycling.
To wit, Kane and Maxwell write:
… the “media-sports industrial complex” has enormous influence in framing how society views women’s sports. Scholars have long argued that one major consequence of these media patterns is to maintain women’s status as second-class citizens in one of the most powerful social, political, and economic institutions on this planet. The basic premise of this research is that because mainstream media underreport and trivialize women’s athletic achievements, they become an important mechanism for maintaining belief systems that relegate sportswomen to the sidelines.
Think about that. Really think about it. And the next time you hear a man say that equal pay isn’t fair because women’s sports are less popular and generate less money, remember that it’s guys like him — totally well-meaning dudes just sharing pictures of hot women riding/posing with/humping bikes — that perpetuate and reinforce the institutionalized sexism that has not only created an uneven playing field for women but given men’s sports a gigantic head start.
And then try not to lose your damn mind.
Whenever I rant about #SexismInCycling, one of my friends — an avid runner — always wonders why the cycling industry is rampant with sexism and the running industry isn’t. I’m not sure. I think it started long ago at the top — I mean, professional women still aren’t allowed to race the same distances as the men (seriously UCI, WTF). But we bottom-feeders should also be held accountable.
So let’s do our part. Don’t like, follow, or share these accounts. When you see one, clap back—if you feel safe doing so.
Or just casually drop a link to this story in the comments and then slowly. back. away.
Here, this one should do the trick: http://bit.do/YourAccountSucks
Every time you click the heart below, a misogynist gets a flat.