On being human

There’s a receptionist in St James’s who continually mistakes me for a man. As I walk in he greets me with “hello sir!”, then does a double-take and speedily backtracks: “I’m so sorry – madam!”. And then he ushers me chivalrously towards the lift, apologizing all the way. Last time I embarrassed him even more by pointing out that he’d done it before, and he frantically explained that it was just a mistake, because you always expect couriers to be male, and started effusively complimenting me on my feminine charms.  Thankfully for both of us, the lift arrived fairly quickly and I escaped up to the second floor to deliver the package.

I really don’t mind when this sort of thing happens – as it increasingly does these days. Ever since I did a degree in gender studies, and started thinking about these things properly, I’ve been wondering why being mistaken for a different gender is such a mortal insult to most people.

Sometimes, obviously, it’s intended as such. As a cyclist whose mere presence on the road seems to annoy drivers to the point of violence, I’m becoming an expert in insults, and quite a few of them seem to be gendered. I am often accused of looking like a man, or of being so unbearably ugly that I’m clearly not fulfilling one of my main purposes as a woman. This has never stopped being hurtful, and probably never will, but it’s not the substance of the insult that upsets me; it’s the intention behind it – the fact that they want to unsettle me, and seek to do so by homing in on what they assume will be my most sensitive point.

(They’re wrong, as it happens. I’m not really in any doubt about my gender, so accusing me of being unwomanly is a bit like walking up to Bear Grylls and implying that he’s a bit of a queen. I doubt he’d take it to heart, or even be offended, because he so obviously isn’t. He’d probably just laugh at you.  They’d get a lot further if they tried questioning my competence and capability, because those I do doubt, all the time.)

Conversely, although I am continually annoyed by postroom guys calling me love, darling, babes, honey, and even sweetie (a term of endearment I find so patronizing that I don’t even use it to address children), I do realize that their intention is to make me feel admired and desired (which they assume all women must want), so although they’ve got it wrong, I know their hearts are in the right place, and (usually) let them off.

It’s obvious that the receptionist wasn’t trying to insult me – once he realized his mistake, he went out of his way to make up for it with flowery compliments. But I’ve chosen to take the ‘insult’ itself as a compliment. Why did he mistake me for a man? Perhaps just because most cycle couriers are male – which reminds me that I’m working in an industry where most women fear to tread, something I’m moderately proud of. Or perhaps it was my broad shoulders and the slight swagger I notice I adopt when I’m in my work gear. Again, these are things I’m more proud of than ashamed. I am stouter and stronger and more muscular than the average woman, because of the thousands and thousands of miles I’ve cycled, and the heavy packages I’ve carried. If this makes me manly – well, then I’d be proud to call myself a man.

It’s all silly of course. As we all know, characteristics like strength and toughness; weakness and softness – and in fact almost any adjective you care to suggest, except perhaps ‘buxom’ – can equally apply to all genders. Some women are strong and decisive and repressed; some men are gentle and sensitive and emotional; most of us are a unique cocktail of all of these.

I approach the whole gender business on two levels. Ultimately, I try to get on with my (strong, sensitive, gentle, repressed) life as if gender barely existed, and to judge people on their individual characteristics, and how they wish to be judged, rather than on how well they conform to ‘male’ or ‘female’. But often this is an impossible ideal. We live in a world riddled with gender, and if I refuse to speak this language, I’ll be unable to communicate with most of my fellow humans. So, inevitably, I end up accepting gender as a shorthand for various other attributes.

Since Christmas I’ve been back on the bike I couriered on before I left for The World – the lovely Evelyn.

A few people have recognized the bike from Before.  Others are complimenting me on my new ride.

“Nice bike!” said a Metro rider a couple of weeks back. “Is it your fella’s?”

Why would he think that? Apparently the bike “looks masculine”, and he couldn’t elaborate an further on this. Well, no matter. It’s an excellent bicycle and I love riding it, so in this case, ‘masculinity’, whatever that might be, is clearly a good thing.

And just wait until they see my latest ride.

[Photo by the wonderful Andy Welch.]

Genesis Bikes have very generously furnished me with one of their Caribou fatbikes for my Alaska expedition – and it’ll be coming with me on my test run in Iceland in a couple of weeks.

My brother found himself babysitting it outside Sainsbury’s last week, while I nipped in for beers or something, and, as happens when you’re in the company of a bike that looks like it’s been cross-bred with a tractor, a small crowd gathered. When I got back, Sam was beaming. The gang of young men who’d stopped to gawk had almost refused to believe him when he told them it was actually his sister’s bike.

“I’d have thought a man would ride a bike like that!” one of them had said, in awed tones.

He was wrong, of course, but why wouldn’t I take that as a compliment?

Leave a Comment

12 Comments

  1. Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Amazing post.

    ‘I am often accused of looking like a man, or of being so unbearably ugly that I’m clearly not fulfilling one of my main purposes as a woman. This has never stopped being hurtful, and probably never will’. This is so spot on that it makes me think we had the same aggressive drivers. A nice man thought I was so repulsive that he choose to spit on me, and another to punch my face, and while those things shouldn’t be done to any gender, I can’t help but think that it was my masculine features that thought that it was less of an offence to do so.

    Your new bike! I bloody love it!

    You look fab.

    Stay safe.

  2. jrm
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Doing what you do and writing as you have how on earth can you doubt your competence and capability?
    Bike looks fantastic and so do you.

  3. Zero
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Just a note to say that I am insanely jealous of your impending Icelandic jaunt. A friend and I had plans to do the same – about 20 years ago. Another failed plan.. Those fat bikes would have been an obvious choice if they had existed.
    Don’t forget to take millions of photos!

  4. Notak
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    So your Joe Waugh “looks masculine”? No it doesn’t, it looks bloody 90s in that colour scheme! More relevant and thinking of Joe; I know a boy of almost ten, whose name is Joseph and likes to be called Jojo – which is exactly how my sister (a Joanna) was known at the same age! But then I guess you’re already there calling it Evelyn. What a shame it’s not made of Titania/um, then you could call it O/Auberon!

    • Posted February 12, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Brilliant comment. :)

      I shall consider Auberon for when I eventually get my long-coveted titanium bike (in about 30 years’ time). You’ll notice my bikes have always had slightly genderqueer names. Long ago I had a bright pink Surly Steamroller, whom I referred to as ‘he’, but named Lola (drag queen, you see). I suspect this new bike might end up being called ‘Butch’…

    • Jenne
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      Evelyn was named after the writer, Evelyn Waugh!

  5. Val
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Terrific piece of writing. Glad to hear your next adventure is taking form. Best of luck with it. Regards – Val

  6. Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but wonder what those tyres are like to change on your ‘fat bike’. Great to see you blogging again, I’m ashamed to say I forget to check for an update for over a week.

  7. Susie
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure a lot of perception is what people see in their heads, rather than what’s in front of them:
    The receptionist expects to see a bloke, doesn’t, doesn’t register, says what they always say and can’t ‘see’ the courier, just the job – same goes, in many areas of work life – I know Chief Execs who can’t understand why people are so intimidated by them: on a personal level they’re perfectly human, normal, decent people – but their staff see the CHAIR in which they sit.
    Equally, I go into a car dealership and people see the blonde hair and the generous cleavage and don’t see a brain or a petrol head.
    Long live a moment’s pause to LOOK at what’s in front of you!
    (Am loving the new wheels, btw, Em and you look (non-gender specifically) absolutely f*cking ACE!)
    xx

  8. Jenne
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Hello again, Evelyn!

    That is one heckuva bike and it sounds like pretty exciting times are ahead. I just caught myself struggling to figure out how to say good luck without “jinxing” anything, then realized that’s not at all what I want to say. Good journey!

  9. Kate
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Great post – I’ve been following your blog on and off for a while now and apart from loving reading about your adventures, I love the perspective you bring to everyday experiences and the talent you have for social observation. I love the comment about assuming that a man would ride a bike like that – I got told off once by a young boy, who, seeing me using an electric hedge-trimmer to trim the hedges outside my house, informed me “That’s a man’s job!” Hopefully the more people start blurring the lines between what men and women are expected to do, the more tolerant our society may become – now if only we could do something about the cyclist / motorist war!

    Keep on doing what you’re doing – and enjoy that amazing bike!

  10. Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Great bike! Funny, I’ve been riding along recently asking myself, “Why don’t girls ride fat bikes?” So I’m very glad to see you out there on one. Actually, I do have another female friend with a fat bike – and I know there must be many others out there – but overall it seems the preserve of gear obsessed guys – many of whom are my friends, of course, but still…

    I don’t really have a clear point here but to mention that questions of gender and gear have been on my mind recently so I am intrigued/pleased/interested to see them show up here on your blog and read your always well considered and well written thoughts on the subject.

    Happy pedalling in Iceland. Looks great.