Legs

You know what? I absolutely love my legs.

They’re amazing, and I’m so lucky to have them. No matter how unreliable my tyres, the weather, the road surface, my brake pads, the nerves in my hands, my route-finding, my nutritional input or my strength of will, my legs just keep on going. I have never managed to wear them out. The day after a particularly long ride I can feel all their muscles purring, wondering when I’ll be taking them out for another spin, even though the rest of me is still exhausted.

It’s odd, despite all of the thousands of miles I’ve cycled, and the thousands of words I’ve written about it all, I’ve placed relatively little emphasis on my physicality. This is partly because – for all sorts of reasons – my actual body isn’t something I often want to make public. That’s why there are relatively few images of me sweating my way up mountain passes in lycra shorts (well, that and the fact that I usually ride solo, so don’t have anyone to take photos), and that’s why I seem to prefer expeditions where the dress code is more like this:

For Alaska: the 4xHoodie look

Or this:

Back in 2011: my visa photo for Iran

Plus, like most women, I’ve spent my life being told (directly when I was younger; now subtly, pervasively, constantly) exactly what’s right and wrong with my body, and how I should feel about it. The female form is never neutral these days – there’s always someone ready to tell you you’re too fat, or too skinny, or that you should celebrate your curves, or that thin is in, or that big is beautiful, or that strong is sexy, or that muscles are gross and masculine (ew!), or that cellulite is a fate worse than death, or that a bit of flesh is healthy, or that you should aim for ‘lean’ rather than ‘bulky’, or that ‘real women’ don’t have thigh gaps – or that we should be modest, or that we should be loud and proud and fabulous, or that we should love ourselves the way we are, or that we should flaunt our curves, or conceal them, or that we should wear whatever the hell we want, or that we shouldn’t attract the wrong sort of attention, or that liking the way we looks makes us vain, or that hating the way we look makes us neurotic and self-obsessed, or that we shouldn’t care so much about it all, and really, what’s the fuss about?

…and all the rest of it. You know what I mean, I’m sure.

My point being, it’s almost impossible these days to have an authentic relationship with your body (or any part of it), that isn’t mediated by the ongoing deluge of public opinion and assertion. No matter how you decide to feel about your body, your resolve will be constantly battered by all of the countless opposing views. It’s exhausting, and frequently demoralising, and I count myself very lucky that I haven’t ended up, like so many other women, coping with an eating disorder or an exercise addiction, or just an unhealthily unrealistic perception of my own figure. That’s not to say I don’t struggle sometimes. I suspect most women do.

Part of my strategy for dealing with this has been to opt out as much as possible – I think this is why I’ve ended up focussing so much on what I do, and how I feel and think about it, trying to leave my physical form out of things as much as possible.

But of course, my adventures over the last few years have had a gradual, incremental, transformative effect on the way I see my body. I still hate it some of the time, but with every year that passes, I love it more of the time. (Give me another 5-10 years and I predict I won’t ever hate it at all.) It may not look like much, but what it does, and how that feels, are amazing.

So it still feels deliciously subversive to admit that I love my legs.

It’s not a love I need or expect anyone else to share, though I know some will and many won’t. Perhaps it’s best compared to the love a bike nerd will have for the vintage steel frame he’s lovingly refurbished and built up with hand-picked components. I built these legs myself. I’m pleased by how they look (in fact, I love looking at them), but I don’t really mind if no one else thinks so, because it’s really all about what they’ve done, what I’ve done to them, and what they’re going to be capable of in future.

In this sense it’s an utterly private pleasure. I feel no particular sense of pride, or of vanity. They are my legs, and no one else’s. Even if I were told every day that they were unworthy, I would still love them. I love the way they hum when I’m storming along a London street, minutely adjusting the tension of my muscles to steer me in and out of the traffic. I love the way they burn when I’m wrenching my way up a steep hill. I love the way they throb and flex and glow as I lie in bed the night after a hard ride. I love the way they seem to get properly into their stride only after about 80 miles. I love the contours of them; their hardness; the way the grain of the muscles shows through my skin; the bulk of my thighs and the bulge of my calves. I love the way they look poking out of a pair of shorts, and I love the way they look on the rare occasions when I wear heels. (Cyclists’ legs look incredible in stilettos – someone should tell Team Sky.) I love how reliable they are, how they never seem to get tired, and how they’ve always done everything I asked them to. Sometimes, when I get to the end of a ride I thought was so far or so hard that I wouldn’t make it, I find myself wanting to thank them.

[Here they are, about 220 miles into one of last summer’s rides, after a rainy muddy night.]

[And here they are, on Brewer Street yesterday, enjoying the temperate London winter. Scar on right shin is the remains of road rash from a crash three months ago.]

I’m careful not to think of myself – or my legs – as invincible. After all, there are more years, and more thousands of miles to come, and the road can be a hard place. But there’s a strange note of triumph that echoes through this love. Triumph that, quite by chance, I’ve ended up genuinely loving a part of my body even though almost every voice in public discourse is trying to persuade me that I shouldn’t. Not to mention the relief and happiness that, despite the many set-backs, emotional and physical, that life inevitably brings, I have something solid (literally solid) to rely on. My legs have never let me down. They have proved me capable of so much more than I ever believed I’d accomplish. I am so grateful for them. How could I not love them?

Leave a Comment

6 Comments

  1. Bryan Lewis
    Posted December 10, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Very well written! I think I’ll make myself a fender sticker, “Opt out”. Nobody will know what it means but so what.

  2. Tomoko
    Posted December 11, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Emily,
    So glad to read that. I thought I was the only one.
    Tomoko

  3. Notak
    Posted December 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting now to hear Jens Voigt’s opinion of his legs.

  4. Posted December 13, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I have coveted your calves for many a year!

  5. Posted December 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Tried to post this yesterday but apparently it didn’t work! Sorry. So the thing I wanted to say, was mainly: thank you. this is such a great post. It’s so awesome to find someone else – another woman, mainly – feeling this way. Over the past 4 years I’ve taken up triathlon (having grown up a swimmer, but being lapsed for 10 years) and the changes it’s wrought to my body, it’s been… it’s been like becoming more myself. Like to difference between being a thing that is looked at, and a thing for *doing*. My body now, it has a different kind of power, and a different kind of agency, and I watch it fluctuate and change, but feel so much more possessed of it. I’m actually making a piece of theatre about doing an ironman for the first time next year – working with sports scientists and psychologists and coaches to learn about the physiology and psychology of endurance sport, and talking about women in sport, and the reasons we carry on, the way it feels to be in the 12th hour and that your job right now is just to turn pedals or put one foot in front of another – the feeling of being sort of totally present – right here, right now – to yourself that has become less common in a life where we spend a lot of time on computers or phones or communicating to people far away, inhabiting a shared digital space but body-separate. I’m starting making this thing in February, working until August on it, and it was super cool to read this, and know that it’s not just me that feels it – that it’s in some way a common experience. So, yes, thank you!