I sometimes feel I’ve been a bit hard on Victoria Pendleton.

As I may have mentioned at some length, I very much disagree with how Pendleton’s constructed her public image, and the way in which she seems to spend every non-lycra moment shopping for designer dresses and posing for men in bikinis. I don’t think women should need to do things like that to get attention and approval, especially not when they happen to be a world leader in their field. And I hate the cookie-cutter conventionality of it all – the way she seamlessly joins the ranks of all the identical slim, coiffed, airbrushed women you see in Vogue et al, who basically just look the same. It’s boring, and it perpetuates unrealistic and unhealthy gender roles.


I’ve been invited to a black tie dinner with people who’ve only ever seen me wearing sweaty cycling clothes – and my first reaction was to push the boat out. Cocktail dress, I thought, proper make-up and pointy shoes, maybe even get someone to do my hair nicely.

But then, to my not inconsiderable surprise, I realized I was falling straight into the Pendleton trap, and wondered what on earth I was thinking. I’ve spent the last few days mulling it over, and tried to work out exactly what my reasons were for wanting to dress up as a girl (for once).

  • It’s a novelty. I spend almost every day of my life wearing cycling clothes. On the rare occasions when I wear skirts, I catch sight of myself in the mirror and am amazed and delighted by how different it’s possible for a person to look. I had the same feeling when I used to wear a full-on pinstripe suit for work, and also when I was very excited about starting secondary school, and used to try on the uniform in my room after bedtime, and marvel at how grown-up I looked.
  • It’s drag. It’s not really me. And neither is the cycling kit. Or anything else I’ve ever worn. It’s all just dressing up and playing a part. And the more different parts you play, the more you realize (and emphasize) just how ephemeral they all are. I’m still the same person – I just look different sometimes. I think this was one of the impulses behind International Messenger Suit Day.
  • It’s a disguise. When I was at uni, I was known for my long swooshy skirts and dangly earrings. Friends sometimes didn’t recognize me if they saw me in my lycra. Now people don’t recognize me if they see me in a dress. I was crossing Stoke Newington Church Street one Sunday afternoon (with my hair down, and a full-length skirt on) and my friend Will cycled past, only a couple of feet away from me. He looked at me; I looked at him. I smiled and yelled ‘do a skid!’; he blanked me and carried on his way. He has no memory of this, and insists it never happened.
  • It’s hilarious. I find myself in a dress easily as amusing as I would any of my male friends. It’s just absurd.
  • It’s adaptation. We change to suit our environments. For couriers this process is more overtly Darwinian – she who has the strongest legs, the biggest bag and the waterproofest socks will get the most work, stay out on the coldest rainiest days, and not get run over, or give up and become a management conslutant. There’s a distinct satisfaction in fine-tuning your body, bike and kit to improve your performance. And there’s a similar satisfaction in knowing that you can adapt just as well to other environments, when necessary. This time last year I wore a sari to a friend’s wedding in Delhi, and managed not to look out of place or embarrass myself. No one pointed and laughed at me when I used to wear a suit, so I reckon I pulled that one off too. And I’ll take great pleasure in swanning around in my LBD and heels in a couple of weeks, being equally convincing, and surprising people when they ask what I do for a living.

Or will I?

The problem is, the whole situation looks very different from other people’s point of view. If I wear a dress, I’ll be doing it for the above reasons – but the outside observer (i.e. the blokes who’ve only ever seen me in cycling kit) will probably just think ‘hmm, she cleans up alright’, or ‘phwoar, nice cleavage’. Or do that awful thing some people do, of applauding you for ‘dressing nicely for once’, as though the way you normally look doesn’t quite cut it.

“Isn’t it a shame she can’t always look like that?”

Well, that’s not the point at all. If I dress up like a film star, I don’t want people to think that that’s the ideal I’m always aspiring towards, and mostly missing. I want them to realize that this is just one of my many many disguises – and that so is the lycra.

But unfortunately you can’t control what people think.

So should I try and look like a film star? Or should I try and look as boring as possible, in the hope they’ll be disappointed? Neither seems ideal.

Is there any other way of subverting this?


18 Responses to “Hypocrite”

  1. Susan Says:

    Sweets! You ARE gorgoeous (it’s susan from the Guardian here … ) If you want to dress ‘boring’ because that’s how you feel at your best then do it. But similarly you’re not helping any feminist crusade by purposefully making yourself look as dull as possible when actually you’re a beautiful human being. While I would never EVER suggest you should opt to be a podium girl and while I definitely agree with you on the way Vikki P has pursued her public image (but you could argue how else was she to get coverage?) I actually think there’s something quite powerful and devastating about a woman who knows how to use her beauty. Treat yourself, look fabulous and when someone says: ‘wow, you look great,’ graciously reply: ‘I know – what’s your point?’ People think they have you all worked out. But it’s way more fun to keep them guessing.
    Plus I will do your nails and they will be rad. Mwa xx

  2. thatmessengerchick Says:

    Oh hello! Bizarrely, I was just talking about you last night.

    And yes, when you put it like that, it does sound a bit ridiculous to make myself as frumpy as possible so that people don’t notice me. Hmmmm. Though I do sometimes find myself trying to exaggerate my smelly courier loutishness so that blokes’ll leave me alone. The statement I really want to make is along the lines of ‘yes, I CAN look drop dead gorgeous if I really want to but, like, whatever – isn’t there more to life?’. What a shame outfits don’t come with footnotes.

    Maybe I should wear a tuxedo…

    And is that a genuine offer re. the nails? 😀

  3. genuine Says:

    nothing wrong with getting dressed up, turning a few heads.
    Feels good, you might pick up, could end up being the love of your life….who knows where it might lead…happiness ….happinesss….dont tar all us blokes with that brush.

    • thatmessengerchick Says:

      Ha ha – I picked up the last few loves of my life when wearing sweaty bike kit! A cocktail dress might be an unrealistic standard to maintain. You never know though…

      And sorry for tarring with the same brush. I do try not to, because I hate it when people do it with women.

  4. Burridan's Donkey Says:

    Wearing a tux would certainly subvert people’s expectations. Or you could go for the LBD with your Sidis.

    You should just go with what feels comfortable and if it’s the LBD then to hell with the people who congratulate you on ‘dressing nicely for once’, they’re going to judge you whatever. It’s a matter of appropriateness; the dress isn’t going to be practical on the bike in the rain and the cold and your courier kit wouldn’t have been appropriate for your mate’s wedding.

    Or you could get some cards printed up; ‘This is not ideal I’m aspiring towards.’ which could be equally applicable for the black tie thing, or when you’re couriering.

    But definitely get your nails done, think how awesome they’ll look after the do when you’re out on your bike.

    • thatmessengerchick Says:

      Actually yes, that’s a brilliant idea! Not so much the Sidis, as the general subversion of the look by means of contrast and incongruity. The gargantuan calves sticking out the bottom of the dress ought to do it. I wonder if I can develop some proper biceps by then. Hmmmm.

      Ooh yes, and glamorous nails paired with filthy holey cycling gloves is another good look! Sometimes worrying about your image can actually be quite fun…

      • Burridan's Donkey Says:

        Don’t forget to add humour to the contrast and incongruity.
        Having said that, if your dining companions have only known you in sweaty cyclist mode, turning up super vamp mode will also be quite a subversion of their expectations. Or transforming from one to the other (turn up on the bike, then change in the loos).

        I don’t think you’re going to fall into the Pendleton trap unless decide to appear in your pants in FHM or (worse) shill for Murdoch’s SkyRide. I guess the latter is a contractural obligation, but the former’s disappointing. Slightly depressing to note that’s the only non-cycling fact mentioned in her Wikepedia entry.

  5. kateC Says:

    i totally empathize with you and with your ‘pedalton trap’ analysis. i have a friends wedding coming up and have the same concerns about what to wear. if i follow convention and dress up like a ‘lady’, i feel like i’m in drag but i’ll fit in with everyone else and it’s what you’re meant to do. this is my biggest issue, just because it’s ‘what’s expected’. and don’t get me started at the actual wedding! i’m really happy for my friends but a little bit disappointed about the whole ‘wedding’ thing. neither of them go to church. they’re such following convention and falling into prescribed gender roles.

    as for how to subvert the black tie do Burridan’s Donkey sounds like a genius idea!

  6. shannon Says:

    You should wear what you want to wear, and what you enjoy and are most comfortable with. Believe it or not, most people don’t notice much about anyone else, they are too busy worrying about themselves. Don’t be one of them! Just have a good time and stop trying to second guess what everyone will think of you. You can’t control what people do and what they think. No matter what you wear.

  7. nickc Says:

    When I didn’t have to wear suits anymore for work, I literally laughed out loud at the sheer indulgence of going to work (on a bike, natch) as ME, y’know; jeans, tee (with gently subversive logo, again, natch) and allstars I still do… and mostly I’m as happy as a lop.

    Sometimes though, it’s cool to get the clobber on, wear expensive aftershave, and…strut…y’know? Just because I can and I don’t have to everyday. It don’t mean anything, don’t over analyse it, just sometimes it’s cool to do.

    watch that peacock go…

  8. visitthejunkyard Says:

    Totally a genuine offer! Sorry for delayed reply! http://www.junkyard-angel.com. It’s my new business. Tage line: ‘we’re not pretty but boy can we kick ass’ When’s the do? I shall design some special bike chick bad ass ones … xx

    • thatmessengerchick Says:

      Oh wow! It’s, erm, on Tuesday. I thought it was a lot further off. It’s kind of crept up on me. Any chance you could do me on Monday evening?

      I’ll text you as well… x

      • Junkyard Angel Says:

        Ah pants no! I’m in Italy racing bikes (natch) – fly back Tuesday night. We shall do it for a random pub night instead.
        Have fun though! Just hide your hands …
        And take a photo. I want evidence of ravishing dress wearing 😉

      • thatmessengerchick Says:

        Ach, pants indeed, that would have been perfect!

        And by the way, your marketing pitch is spot on – as far as I’m concerned. Which admittedly may mean you only appeal to a tiny one-woman niche market – I went to the Knog launch the other night and, looking at the other people there, reluctantly began to conclude that perhaps lots of girls DO just want to look pretty and sexy. Bah.

        But still, if you do my nails and I like them (as seems likely), then I will publicize you relentlessly to everyone I know.

        See you soon!


  9. genuine Says:

    or you could just go and hire a badger costume. Itll turn heads, drop a few jars and you might meet the love of your life….

  10. Cock-tale dress « thatmessengerchick Says:

    […] By thatmessengerchick Remember that black-tie event I mentioned? It was last […]

  11. thatmessengerchick Says:

    I wish I had worn a bloody badger costume. 😦

  12. marion Says:

    Cheers love, you’ve just perfectly and very eloquently summed up my mental argument every time a situation for scrubbing up arises (I’m a bike mechanic so the scrubbing part is meant quite literally). And I’ve pretty much decided the amount of wandering eyes and hands makes dressing up more hassle than it’s worth. Maybe badger costumes are indeed the way forward.

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