Bicycling and Self Esteem

As Trisha discussed on Sunday, last week the women of Academichic hosted Dress Your Best Week, an event that encouraged readers to dress to highlight their best features in lieu of the usual dressing to minimize real or perceived “figure flaws.”  The discussion in the comments section about whether biking has created any “best” body parts was both funny and inspiring.  Strong legs and backside, toned arms (for those climbers) and waist, healthy lungs with fewer asthma problems – all of these benefits were listed by more than one person.  The consensus is that bicycling makes one feel better physically – no surprise there! – but also feel better about themselves.

In our bipolar society, where the most obese population in the world is inundated with dangerous images of “beauty” by the media and where “fit” people drive to the gym to run on the treadmill, millions are locked in a struggle with their bodies.  Even healthy and otherwise happy young women waste immeasurable time fixated on perceived flaws and self-loathing.  For evidence of this, read Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, on the frightening new normalcy of hating your body.

Dressing my best means fun and comfortable clothes that make me happy

The solution is a lifestyle change that favors simplicity over excess and regards the human body as a tool rather than merely a decoration. A big part of such a lifestyle is active transportation, especially cycling. Riding a bicycle as daily transportation can radically shift both how you feel and how you feel about yourself. The benefits are the same that make sports so good for adolescents, especially girls.  Transportation bicycling is even better than sports, as there is no competition or pressure to perform, and cycling fits seamlessly into every day life. Free of the need to carve out time in your day to work out, you are simultaneously free of the self-loathing that accompanies the failure to do so.

When your body carries you several miles to and from work every day, you appreciate your body as a tool and a workhorse. When your lungs fill with air and your heart pumps energetically, you know your body is good, without having to examine it in the mirror, searching for flaws. If society declares that your body is not ideal because you are not skinny enough or muscular enough, or your hips or thighs are too big, you know that society is wrong because your body works for you admirably every day.

Bicycling is not a wonder drug or a total solution to the deeply entrenched problem of body image and self-esteem, but it is a small change that individuals can make to live a healthier and happier life. Plus, riding a bike is fun!

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76 thoughts on “Bicycling and Self Esteem

  1. cycler says:

    hear hear!
    I’ll add to your list of benefits, that biking is a relatively easy way to re-approach fitness for people who have injuries or are enough out of shape that weight bearing exercise like walking or running is hard on the joints.

  2. Annalisa says:

    This is a bit of how it feels to be a runner, too. When you’re running, you see your body differently and choose to treat it differently. For instance, you tend to see food as fuel most of the time, or you might drop a few pounds in order to be *faster* rather than for aesthetic reasons. The aesthetics are, at that point, a fortunate side-effect. :)

    • Dottie says:

      Interesting! Do you ever use running as a form of transportation? My biker and runner husband would agree with that assessment.

      • Annalisa says:

        Yes! Sometimes I will take the train not quite all the way home and run the rest of the way. Although lately it is more normal that I bike to the train and home.

  3. eva says:

    Dottie – I am so happy you posted this! I couldn’t agree with you more about how seamlessly riding a bike can fit into both your daily routine and ‘work out’ routine.

    On our ride on Sunday we covered 14miles. A few ladies on the ride had never ridden that far – but they all did it and we all came out smiling and feeling good. We all rode in comfortable clothes – and we all had a great time. We had my bf’s little sister ride with us [age 11] and I’m hoping she inspired the girls we passed to get out on a bike too!

    • Dottie says:

      I’m sure lots of bystanders must be inspired by your whole chic pack. It’s so great that the 11 year old girl gets to be influenced by you all.

  4. Scott says:

    Learning to use a bicycle for transportation changed my life. I know what it is like to work in a suburban office park, ride everywhere in a car, never exercise, and eat mostly take-out food. I did this for about 3 years, and my health deteriorated quickly. I was starting to look and feel terrible all the time.

    Now, with only a short detour on the way home, I can get fresh food (something that I could never seem to do with public transport) and cook it myself. Because I don’t spend any money on a car, I can have nice clothes that keep me comfortable and looking good and still save a lot of money. Getting a little physical activity is no longer a chore, but something I look forward to. After a long, stressful day at work, I arrive home after my commute feeling refreshed rather than more stressed.

    It all came together recently for me when I saw a guy I work for, who earns an immense salary, walk into the office with a McDonald’s bag for lunch. He is obese, his physical fitness is a joke, and he eats garbage. I realized that I am already much wealthier than he is, even though most Americans would view us in the opposite way.

  5. Dave says:

    I agree – I love the feeling of self-sufficiency from being able to move myself around where I need to go, whether that’s by bike, or just by foot. As a result, I really never feel stuck anywhere (in the city), because I can always get where I need to go.

    That’s one of the beauties of encouraging and facilitating active transportation, you give people the freedom to not be reliant on a machine for something as basic as everyday mobility, and you enable them to retain that freedom and ability simply by using it.

    Here’s to freedom and enjoyment, two of the best things in life!

  6. Agreed 100%. Feeling the real connection between different parts of your body and effective movements also reduces body dysmorphia (where you look in the mirror and see a fat blubbery woman even though you look like a waif), which is one of the underlying causes of eating disorders and self-esteem problems.

  7. David says:

    I like the subject. Since I’ve started commuting on a regular basis, I’ve noticed people that ride that are quite overweight. I was impressed, I feel like giving them encouragement, Like “you go, keep it up….”.

    • Anne Hawley says:

      I know that you’re sincere in your statement here, but as one of the quite overweight people who ride a bike every day, I can tell you that a non-overweight (and from your picture, presumably) young and athletic person “encouraging” me would annoy the crap out of me.

      That encouragement, no matter what your intention, would feel to me like the most egregious condescension. I would read its subtext as “the privileged person has decided that he knows everything about me based on my appearance, and deigns to ‘encourage’ me to go on trying to normalize myself.” (I might, incidentally, also wonder whether you’d feel equally moved to offer encouragement to a fat guy on a bike as to a fat gal.)

      In fact, I’ve been bike-commuting daily for quite some time now, I’m in rather good shape, and I’m as fat as I was the day I began. I’m not on a trajectory toward a normalized body type, I “keep it up” just fine on my own, and I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say that a smile and a hello would be a lot less likely to result in dagger looks (if not a really rude retort) than “encouragement” would.

      • Beany says:

        And this goes for all sorts of encouragement. Men always want to let me know in an “encouraging” way that I can “do it” when I’m riding up a hill. Well, yeah I know I can do it. I ride it every day. It is indeed very condescending, despite the best of intentions.

        And I know for a fact that people who don’t meet the U.S. model of “fit” are some of the most strongest people I’ve seen with incredible endurance.

      • Cecily says:

        Thank you for this comment, Anne. I know people mean well, but I don’t need encouragement from others to ride my bike. I’m not doing it for fitness, I’m doing it for transport (and because it’s fun). Losing weight isn’t my ultimate goal – getting from point A to point B efficiently and stylishly is.

      • David says:

        Wow, I never said I would actually say anything. Now everyone is offended? I just said I was “feeling” like giving encouragement, or just thinking it. But I know that would be totally condescending.

        Sorry, I won’t think encouragement anymore. I’ll wish them to be gone, or give it up.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          The overreaction against you far outweighed the unintentional condescension of your original comment. I’ve been watching this segment of this thread with amusement for the past day. :)

          • Dottie says:

            A thoughtful discussion among women about a particular type of situation we encounter is not an over-reaction. The conversation did not use rude language or personally attack anyone. There are few places where women have both the opportunity and comfort level to talk about such issues freely, and I want LGRAB to be one of those places. Consider this valuable insight into how different people experience the world. Thank you :)

          • dukiebiddle says:

            Perhaps I was responding more to the blog post a commenter wrote celebrating her taking Dave down and referring to him as something that rhymes with Masshole.

            I get that it could be interpreted as condescending, and identified that interpretation before anyone replied. That doesn’t change the fact the intent was well meaning, or as Dave amended, the fact that he doesn’t actually say anything. Don’t we all self filter in this way? We see someone doing something that we find inspiring, but don’t say anything because it would be interpreted at condescending.

        • Trisha says:

          David, we know your comment/feelings came from a good place. That’s the reason people took the time to explain to you why that statement might be interpreted as condescension — because we could tell that was not your intent. I hope that in turn you can take those explanations as they were intended.

          • David says:

            I can Trish, didn’t mean to overreact myself.

            I just took offense for somebody accusing me of being “young and non-overweight”, based on my avatar. How dare they compliment me…

            Yes, that’s a very recent pic. But I was just told at a health screan that I was 30pounds overweight. And if 40 (my age) is young, then okay.

          • Trisha says:

            LOL. Yes, I think one thing we should all take from this is that making assumptions based on appearance is a bad idea.

      • Ben says:

        Speaking as a guy who needs to lose 20 – 30 lbs, if I was offered encouragement I’m sure I’d take it a lot better than this. Most guys don’t try to turn a compliment around into an attack. Take encouragement for what it is.

        • neighbourtease says:

          I think the assumption that a random stranger needs encouragement (based on a judgement by another stranger) is what could be offensive. So even if the spirit in which it was intended was kind, the person experiencing that “kindness” might not, in fact, experience it that way. Does that make sense?

          • dukiebiddle says:

            But that’s an assumption about an assumption. An example: There is one gnarly nasty hill in my city. I’ve worked up to the point, after several years, that I no longer need to take a break in the middle. Once when I was about the descend the hill, a man in his fifties was just finishing cresting the hill. As I passed him I asked, in a very friendly way “Did you make it up without stopping?” And boy did I piss him off. He presumed, quite falsely, that I was offering condescending words of encouragement for an old man, when I was actually trying to have an empathetic moment with the guy. Lesson learned. I now never say anything to anybody. But sometimes friendliness is just friendliness.

          • Trisha says:

            To me the difference here is “friendliness” vs. “encouragement.” Not necessarily the same thing.

    • Annie says:

      Your thoughts are kind and well-intentioned. The reason people might be offended if you actually said something is because people don’t say things like “you go!” to people who aren’t overweight, because we don’t assume that they’re new at it or struggling with it. But if you say these things to an overweight person, you are basically seeing them as fat, first, before you see anything else, and you’re making the assumption that they’re new and/or struggling up that hill. So you’re seeing “fat” before you’re seeing “fellow cyclist”. It may be true for some people, but it’s not for many others, and that part that’s hurtful is that this person is being viewed through the lens of fat, before anything else. So don’t get hostile either, as your post below indicates. Just consider if you were in their shoes how a well-intentioned remark might actually feel like a double edged sword. I think this is particularly true of fat women (like me), who get all sorts of reminders every day that people see them as fat before anything else.

      • David says:

        Again, it was a mental thought of “you go”. Like Dukie said, we filter such things, and don’t really say them. Jeez, will somebody get that? The web/email/internet thing is weird that way. You really have to phrase things properly, and think them through before writing. Else, people take them wrong. My bad.

        I’m overweight for crying out loud (my weakness for beer). So actually, even if I did say something. It wouldn’t be condenscending. Hell, some of these larger individuals can go a lot faster than me out there. I need encouragement from them.

        And I didn’t realize you ladies were getting comments like this from riders. I would never say anything like that to any rider.

  8. MarkA says:

    Dottie, you never fail to write wise and engaging words about the place of cycling in the wider world! Have you seen the Beauty and the Bike film yet? It’s fantastic, and for me the big revelation was how active transport could change the teenage girls in so many positive ways. I thoroughly recommend.

    • Dottie says:

      Thanks, Mark. I haven’t seen Beauty and the Bike, but I know about it and am very interested. The last time I contacted the woman about ordering a DVD, it was not yet available in whatever format my Playstation requires.

      • MarkA says:

        Come to London and you can borrow mine ;-) Seriously, do let me know if you and Mr Dottie or any of the gang are doing any travels to GB this summer – would be great to give you all a guided cycle tour.

  9. Maria says:

    YES! And for our kids it starts young, very, very young. My 5yo said to me the other day – “Mom, your tummy is straight. Mine’s fat.” I try sooo hard not to say or do things that will send the wrong message to her but somewhere it’s gotten through – be it from us or from society, or likely both.
    She’s not one of those kids who generally likes physical activity but she just learned to ride her bike sans training wheels last summer. (and really she hated riding with the wheels so just refused to ride.) Fortunately she LOVES biking and rides her bike every day. On weekends the first thing she asks many mornings is when can we go for a ride.
    I hope that the example we set as a family of being active will carry on through out both my kids lives!

    • Dottie says:

      Really scary how young it starts, but it sounds like you’re a great role model.

    • NancyB says:

      I wouldn’t worry too much about her comment. Unless you let her read People magazine or Cosmo, I’m sure she was simply making an observation. As the mother of a former 5 year old girl, I’m sure she has plenty more “obervations” that she’ll share with you!That’s awesome that she’s done with the training wheels so soon! Wait till Junior High, that’s when the real body image stuff starts (and what I’m dealing with now.)

  10. Beany says:

    I’ve mentioned this several times in various places online, but my primary motivation on being car-free is finance. I just can’t stand the thought of spending money on a hunk of metal to encase me.

    Now I realize a bunch of other benefits, but what is interesting is how many people always talk about the exercise component when they learn I rode to my destination. Talk invariably centers around how good of a shape I must be in, how good I look because of the daily riding and so on. I find it strange that people don’t feel the need to comment on the fact that I look and seem happy, that I’m doing good things for the environment, or that I’m saving money, or that riding is fun (as you mention). It is always about my body. I do have my own issues about my body like many women, but most of the time I’m too lazy to really fixate on it too much.

    • Anne Hawley says:

      I hadn’t thought of the issue in exactly this way, but now that you mention it, I realize that everyone who knows I commute exclusively by bike assumes I do it as part of some regimen of diet and exercise designed to improve my appearance.

      I can’t pinpoint all the reasons I started, and keep doing it, but I can say that that was vanishingly insignificant, and if it had been a big part of my motivation, I’d have stopped after a couple of months because the exercise wasn’t “working”.

    • Dave says:

      I’m not sure I ever assume people I see on bikes on the streets are out cycling for exercise… maybe a few of the *really* sleek and sweaty ones.

      In general, people usually have more practical reasons for doing the things they do – necessity, money savings and convenience are probably the biggest motivators (and usually there has to be some level of enjoyment as well), not exercise or environmentalism. A person might feel better about their choice because it is “eco-friendly” or provides them some exercise, but they will very rarely choose to do it just for those reasons.

      • Dave says:

        Of course, I also don’t assume a person’s overall health by their weight. There are so many more things that go into being healthy than weight, it’s such a shallow indicator.

    • Trisha says:

      So true. People always mention that first, and seem surprised if I say that I’ve actually gained a few pounds since I started riding (some of it muscle, some of it . . . not). Without the daily proof of how much stronger and healthier I’ve become from cycling this might get me down. On the other hand, maybe not, since like you I’m typically just too lazy to worry about that sort of thing too much. ;-) Either way, the benefits of cycling are myriad.

  11. Melissa S. says:

    I love this post. When I’m feeling down about my belly bulge, I go for a run or ride my bik. Doing active things really makes me love my body and all that it can do. I know I wouldn’t get the same feeling if I ate a milkshake or watched mindless tv.

  12. Jennifer says:

    Since starting to cycle I have become much more accepting of my figure and I think that the satisfaction that comes from ‘propelling’ myself from A to B has much to do with this. I used to read magazines such as ‘Zest’ (maybe a British only mag) in the vague hope of finding ‘inspiration’ in their fitness articles. Now I read your blog for my regular doses of inspiration!

    • Dottie says:

      Wow, that’s such an amazing and humbling compliment, Jennifer! I think Zest must be British only, but I imagine it’s something like Shape here in the U.S. (which my sister is addicted to).

  13. kristin says:

    YES! as someone who struggled with EDNOS for years, the two best things i did were going vegan and selling my car to cycle. when you start to live against the currents of society you can really find your place. i also was never athletic (i have poorly formed feet) which stopped me from many activities, but biking is so low-impact that anyone can do it. i am SO PROUD to say “i bicycle” or to say “I don’t own a car.” also, i have read the book you mentioned and it is spot-on.

    • Dottie says:

      “when you start to live against the currents of society you can really find your place.” Great observation. I’ve never been that athletic, either, so bike commuting is a good match for me.

    • ridon says:

      most of the time i get the reaction, you’re kinda old to be getting around by bike (i’m 25) or looks of pity when i say i don’t own a car. but i can’t see myself paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars for car insurance, car payments, gas.

      i haven’t slimmed down at all either! but i am proud of sticking to bike transport.

  14. Agreed.

    biking = love

  15. Holly says:

    Ladies, you are awesome! Best post ever!

  16. Jeff says:

    I am completely addicted to my daily ride of 15-25 miles. Yes, I pick up groceries and do other useful errands along the way, but I usually ride much farther than necessary, just because it feels so darn good. A nice side effect is that by doing this, as well as by eating normal portions of wholesome foods, I am about 35 lbs. lighter than a few years ago, when I rarely rode, ate fast food, and spent a big part of my life in the car. That was a miserable existence…

    • Dottie says:

      Awesome. I have a hard time even imagining what my life was like when I drove everywhere, but I’m quite sure I was not as happy as I am now.

  17. Margo says:

    I’ve found that since I started cycling again for the first time as an adult, it’s had a huge impact on my self-image, in a way that has fairly little to do with whatever physical fitness I may have gained. I like to bike *slowly*. But I have absolutely noticed that when I get on my bicycle, I feel more like the woman I want to be– I feel stylish and competent, confident and free and lucky. It’s amazing what a difference such a simple little machine can make!

  18. […] 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 […]

  19. Mona says:

    I bought my bike to do a triathlon. I trained for a triathlon to lose weight. A few weeks into it, my attitude changed. I never lost any weight, but I loved how strong my body was getting and was amazed at what it could do. I didn’t worry about what I ate, but began eating to fuel my body. I completed the triathlon and turned my road bike into a commuter. I might never do another tri but I know I will always ride my bike. I hardly ever get on the scale now, because I know I am healthy from riding every day. I guess becoming physically active has made me appreciate my amazing body, which is by no means twenty-something and chiseled. I still look like a mom on the outside, but I know I’m an athlete on the inside.

  20. Karen says:

    The American obesity epidemic is appalling, especially when contrasted with the sick expectations imposed upon women and girl that their bodies are perfectly thin and toned. I’ve felt the pressure since I was in 4th grade and it colored so many of my choices for so long. Reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and visiting Europe many times where women seem to have a much more healthy relationship with food and their bodies had a huge impact. Developing an appreciation of exercise for my own enjoyment and appreciation for how it made me feel helped me understand more about my eating behaviors. Learning to get around where I live by walking and taking the bus helped greatly. Transportation cycling hasn’t changed my body but I think it does keep me strong. It definitely has taught me just one more thing that I can do to take care of myself. Last year a friend commented on an article she read about how French women can eat without experiencing the guilt and obsession worry about weight gain because movement is naturally built into their daily lives. They are far less seditary because the bike and walk to where they need to go to a much greater extent than we do. It’s not something they schedule or think about; it’s just how life is. Seems much more human to me.

  21. alison h says:

    i have a real sense of freedom when i cycle – it is not like being stuck in a car in a line of traffic. And because i ride a lot, i crave food that my body needs rather than just sugary snacks. I just wish that every country would value cyclist as much as countries like Holland do.

  22. Lindsay says:


    I found this through ibikelondon, and I have to say it has struck a massive chord with me. I hate all forms of exercise except cycling, and although I’ve never been overweight I was pretty unfit and pear-shaped.

    Since I started cycling to work last summer, I have a totally new attitude to my body. Yeah I’ve lost a few pounds, gained a few muscles and firmed up all over, but what has really changed is the way I see myself.

    My legs are no longer wobbly sources of shame and ill-fitting trousers, they are powerful and strong, and they take me to work and back faster than a tube train. The idea that I can move myself across the whole city AND eat as much as I like is amazingly liberating.

    Plus I’ve been counting up the money I’ve been saving, and I’ve just spent it on a new marc jacobs handbag. The icing on the cake.

    • Scott says:

      I spend all the money I save by cycling everywhere on clothes too! My transportation and clothing budgets have merged into a single, fashionable force. When I think of all the Boston and Chicago winters I slogged through with flimsy clothes . . . ha!

  23. wow, this topic has stirred up some comments! I know this blog does not focus on competitive cycling. If I may say though, body type does not matter in races. All that matters is how fast one can ride. I see women and men with unfashionable body shapes feeling really good about themselves every weekend. I’m below average height, and have skinny arms, two things about which I feel absolutely fine because I’m a cyclist. Thanks for raising the topic!

  24. […] your body for what it can do. Strong arms, anyone? This especially hit a chord with runners, cyclists, and dancers, who praised their strong legs for carrying them so many, many miles. These are bodies […]

  25. Holly says:

    I love this post and have come back to it three times. I’m overweight and injured, but I’m riding today because I haven’t done so in three weeks. It’s a short 5 miler, but I already feel excited to try a slow, heat soaked ride.(Phew. It is hot here in Chicago!)

    Like you, I enjoy the way that my body and mind responds so well to being on two wheels. I don’t have a lot of friends who ride, so reading your blog is always a treat. Thanks for writing this!

  26. […] From Bicycling & Self Esteem on the LGRAB […]

  27. […] as many ways to go about this as there are cyclists. And it can involve the joyous as well as extremely serious, basic issues. There are countless ways to be who you are.  "Now: Do You Love Your […]

  28. Yes riding with my own bike to an unknown destination revokes my nostalgic experience of my childhood.

  29. … [Trackback]…

    […] There you will find 75342 more Infos: […]…

  30. kaitlyn says:

    One of the best blogs I’ve read. I’ve recommended this blog to some of my colleagues. I’m sure they’ll find this useful as I found.Will definitely recommend to others. Good work.

  31. […] Dottie’s take on bicycling and self-esteem is here. } « « Previous: Fashion Friday: End of Summer […]

  32. Paul says:

    perfectly said Dottie you just made me feel like a winner, Thank you!!

  33. BongoDon says:

    Good article. About Courtney Martin’s book, I would beware of associating what is the ‘norm’ for body image in American cities with what is normal for women in the rest of America and indeed the world.
    But yes, cycling (as with walking and swimming) are fantastic ways of improving your mindset on health and beauty. I just hope you, and people like you, can keep sending out the message.

  34. […] intensity and duration of your bike ride doesn’t seem to matter. The simple act of exercising, like a gentle bike ride, can make you feel absolutely-on-top-of-the-world great about yourself. […]

  35. […] gentle hike or ride helps boost your self-esteem. Simply exercising – especially when it is for transportation, like cycling to work and back every day – can help increase your self-worth enormously. Being in […]

  36. […] intensity and duration of your bike ride doesn’t seem to matter. The simple act of exercising, like a gentle bike ride, can make you feel absolutely-on-top-of-the-world great about yourself. […]

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