I wasn’t going to write about this, but after reading and participating in a thread on Let’s Go Ride A Bike about cycling and self-esteem, I decided that maybe it was time for me to talk about this in a slightly more open forum than my Twitter feed.
Last Thursday night as I was walking my bike to the subway from my office, someone in a car drove by me and yelled “Fatty, you need to ride your bike more!” I couldn’t understand what would make someone direct such a random, hateful act toward someone who was minding her own business, who hadn’t cut them off in traffic or was in any way rude to them. It felt like an assault, it felt like violence, and it took every ounce of my composure not to burst into tears while I was on the subway. I saved my crying for the bike ride home.
I was embarrassed. I was hurt. I felt ashamed and I felt like I didn’t deserve to ride a bike because I’m fat. I thought that no matter what I did, I would always be “the fat chick” and therefore not deserving of respect or dignity. For a few hours (and well into the next morning as I got dressed for work) I thought I’d never ride my bike again because I didn’t think I could take another assault.
A few friends provided some much needed perspective on Friendfeed, but it was this comment from Edythe that made me suck it up and start riding again:
Needless to say, I’m back riding again.
(I)t came from a dim and clouded mind. someone who looked at a beautiful woman and could see only that the shape of her body somehow threatened them, somehow reminded them of their own negative programming and their own bad feelings about themselves. The only way to make this negativity not at odds with themselves–and therefore comfortable–was to contribute to it.
I’m writing about this now because the flip side of this coin are the cyclists who see fit to offer words of encouragement as they pedal past. Sure, they mean well, and I know their hearts are in the right place, but at the same time, it is no less obtrusive and unwanted a commentary on my physical being than someone yelling “fat ass!” at me when they see me on the street. By telling me “You’re doing a great thing!” or even a simple “Keep it up!” you’re essentially drawing attention to my size and making assumptions about me based on what you see. You assume that I’m riding a bike because I want to lose weight, not because I want to save money on commuting, or because it’s easier (and less oppressive) than taking transit, or just because it’s fun. You see a fat person and assume that I’ve decided to Take Charge Of My Life ™, and you want to reward me for doing something that, in your eyes, will move me closer to a more normalized and aesthetically appealing appearance.
Pardon me when I say this, and I mean it with all the warmth and affection in my heart, but honey — Nobody Asked You.
I don’t have to justify my life choices or the size of my rear end to you. I don’t owe you an explanation for why, after years of commuting by car and motor scooter, I’ve decided to take my bike to work now and again. I don’t have to apologize for being fat, and I don’t have to listen to you tell me how dangerous it is to ride in heels, or how impractical it is to ride in a skirt.
Who I am, what I look like, and the choices I make for me are none of your concern. The next time you feel compelled to say something nasty or to offer patronizing words of concern/cheer to a fat cyclist, take a moment and repeat to yourself “Nobody asked me. It’s none of my business.”
After my drive-by incident, I felt all of the joy I’d expressed in this post drain from my body. I struggled to remind myself of something positive that had happened to me while riding but I couldn’t see past my own self-loathing to get there. As I was falling asleep that night, I remembered that on my way to work that same morning a guy pulled up next to me at a traffic light. I’ve seen the “Whoa! Fat girl on a bike!” look on enough faces to know it when I see it, so I wasn’t surprised to see it on the face of the cyclist as he pulled alongside me. What happened next caught me off guard.
As we waited for the light, he pulled up level with my bike, made eye contact, offered a genuine, warm smile and said “Hey, where’d you get that helmet? It’s really cool!” I was so surprised that I could barely stammer out an answer as we pedalled through the intersection after the light changed. If you must say something to a fat cyclist as they ride past, try to make it complimentary, and no different than any other small talk you might make with your fellow commuters as you wait for the light to change. We might be a little heavier in the seat, and our bikes might not be as fast as yours, but like you, all we want to do is to get from point A to point B as efficiently (and stylishly, in some cases) as we can.