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?