Steven Herrick at the Guardian wonders: Why do people make fun of spandex bike clothing? It is a peculiar phenomenon for cyclists. When people find out that I’m “a cyclist” (which is often how I get introduced in social settings by friends), I routinely get asked, “You’re not one of those people who wears tight bike shorts, are you?” When I reply in the affirmative, I get variations on perplexed or even disgusted looks.
I’ll answer the question with a provocation: People who make fun of spandex are often homophobic and/or sexist.
I’ve encountered this on numerous occasions, firsthand. Now, it’s hard to distinguish between general homophobic bigotry aimed at cyclists (because riding bikes is “gay,” get it?) and that specifically directed at the adornment of tight spandex cycling garments, but as evidence for the latter I submit the following anecdotal evidence: Once, apropos of nothing, a person in a car leaned out of their window and yelled, “Nice tights, f****t!”
(I’ve actually being called, “f**,” “f****t,” and “gay,” on numerous occasions by people in cars while riding my bike (seriously!), but they hadn’t made any specific comments about my extremely functional, comfortable, aerodynamic spandex clothing).
Even in the “cycling community” (if this is a thing) there are those who make fun of spandex. And this too is often tinged by homophobia or sexism (bigots typically aren’t narrow in their shittiness). Anecdotally, it appears that the split between pro- and anti-spandex cyclists falls along disciplinary lines. Downhill mountain bikers, for example, virtually never wear spandex. And some will make fun of road cyclists for being “spandex wearing pussies” (actual quote from a message board). Amongst messengers you will also find a sharp divide between those who wear performance biking attire and those who steadfastly refuse (as evidence I offer the documentary film, Premium Rush).
This issue isn’t unique to cycling attire. In a classic Simpsons episode, Bart ends up in a ballet class. He’s embarrassed at the idea of wearing ballet tights, because “ballet is for sissies,” and “dancing is for girls.” And as trite as that reference is, that’s a large part of why people – even cyclists – make fun of spandex bike clothes. And this is inevitably gendered. A man wearing tight shorts? That’s “girl’s clothing.” It’s “gay.” (The same kind of attitude revolved around tight jeans until somehow shitheads too decided that Levi’s 511s were cool.) And of course, women are much less reluctant to wear tight cycling clothing, because it looks pretty similar to the clothes they already typically wear.
Latent homophobia and sexism emerges even more conspicuously when it comes to the issue of shaved legs. Here I don’t want to enter into the debate about the functional benefits of shaved legs for bike racing, but undoubtedly one of the reasons that male cyclists are so reluctant or refuse to shave their legs is because it is something that “men don’t do.” When people find out I shave my legs (Wait, what? You shave your legs?), some are noticeably weirded out. I’ve met men who spend thousands of dollars on aero wheels and helmets, though when the issue of shaved legs arises (which is arguably the cheapest aerodynamic advantage one can obtain), it’s met with looks of disgust. This issue would be better addressed in a separate post (e.g. one exploring questions of masculinity and body hair), but since I’ve started shaving my legs for cycling, I’ve become intrigued by this sexist double-standard. Women are expected to shave their legs just as a matter of course, and in the few cases where it is “acceptable” for men to shave their legs, it’s justified in some instrumental way that can be reverted to other tropes of masculinity (e.g. shaved legs help you win races).
Of course, most people who ride bikes don’t have any reason to wear spandex (or shave their legs). Spandex bike clothing is obviously designed, and most functional, for certain kinds of riding. I don’t wear a skinsuit when I’m taking my beater to the bar or a friend’s party. Sitting around in a chamois is extremely comfortable when actually riding a bike, but when one sits down on an actual chair for extended periods of time, not so much (one might describe it as a “diaperish” feeling.) And besides comfort, in most social situations you don’t really want to be wearing bike shorts, any more than you would want to be wearing swim shorts. It’s just a matter of fashion.
There are also less bigoted reasons for making fun of or refusing to wear spandex. There’s the perceived coolness (or lack thereof) of spandex. It wreaks of trying too hard. If you’re not a competitive cyclist, the argument goes, do you really need to be wearing performance clothing? And much spandex-hating is better understood as body-shaming. There are people who look like they’re supposed to be wearing performance bike clothing, and those who allegedly don’t. Brits have a pejorative acronym capturing this: MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra). Finally, undeniably, there’s a modesty issue. It’s the reason why white bike shorts are a faux-pas. Bike shorts are revealing. (But even in this case, there might be a bit of homophobia at play? “What if I look down and see the outline of male genitals?!?”).
This post isn’t a bit of spandex advocacy (ok, it kind of is, spandex is awesome). People can wear whatever they like. It’s just a shame that people are missing out on wearing extremely comfortable, functional cycling clothing because of latent sexism and homophobia. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement. The real shame is the latent sexism and homophobia, which creeps up in all walks of life.