I want to write about something that’s been bothering me today. Actually, it’s been bothering me most of my adult life, but I saw a post on Facebook yesterday that’s really got me to thinking and rather than indulge in the toxic comment, reply, comment cycle on social media, I decided I wanted to write about it in long form because it combines two things about which I’m really passionate; motorcycles and feminism.
Someone on a women-only motorcycle group I belong to posted a photo of herself sitting on a bike, wearing red lingerie, stockings and high heels. Nothing earth shattering about that, it’s an image that anyone even slightly into motorcycles has seen literally thousands of times before. I grew up in the eighties and nineties, reading UK custom bike magazines like AwoL, Streetfighters, 100% Biker and Back Street Heroes, alongside titles from the USA like Easyriders. Literally every single issue of these magazines had the exact same formula for their cover image, alongside the lead photo on almost every one of their features. It was like it was some kind of unwritten law, there had to be a semi-naked woman, wearing lingerie or a swimsuit, sitting on or draped over a motorcycle. Every time, no exceptions.
Now I’m going to declare a personal interest; I’m gay. I prefer women to men and I’m the first to admit that a lot of those photos I saw in my early teens shaped the way that I thought women ought to look. I found them attractive and in a lot of ways, I still do. These days, I find a whole lot of other things about women more attractive, but if you spend a lifetime being told “this is what an attractive woman looks like” then it’s no surprise that when a gay biker in her mid forties tries to imagine an attractive woman, the image of a lingerie-wearing biker babe springs into her mind.
The thing is, as a woman, you don’t have to be gay for this to still be true. That’s what the sheer ubiquity and pervasiveness of these images does – if you see enough of them over enough time, they become completely normalised in your mind. You start to believe that this is how a woman should look to be attractive.
So there I was, looking at this photo in my feed and thinking, “Yeah, okay – but I see this sort of thing all the time in magazines, on Instagram and in mixed Facebook groups. What’s it doing here in a womens’ group?”
I really love being a part of women-only motorcycle groups and one of the reasons is that I see pictures of women being themselves and challenging stereotypes about what it means to be a biker. Women racing, women riding trials, enduro, travelling to the back of beyond on their bikes. Women pulling mahoosive wheelies and looking totally badass in their riding kit, you know?
Seeing this photo was like seeing something out of place, but what was way, way more remarkable for me wasn’t a picture of a women posing with a bike wearing these wholly impractical clothes for riding. It was the way almost all the other women were posting to validate her. Comments like, “you go, girl”, “fair play” and ones complimenting her on her body just came rolling in. As I write, there are nearly 100 comments on the post and almost all of them are encouraging, complimentary or validating. The few women who have posted to say that the photo seems inappropriate for the group have been told off, shouted down or otherwise disagreed with by the majority.
I posted to say that I felt like photos recycling the same bike/underwear trope for the male gaze isn’t really why I like reading posts in the group and I was told by one woman, “What’s wrong with women feeling liberated about their bodies and proud to show them off? I’m just super jealous I’m not hot enough to do it!”
There is nothing wrong with women feeling liberated about their bodies and being proud to show them off. Nothing at all. I would love to live in a world where I could wear anything I wanted, as much or as little as I liked and it would make absolutely no difference to the way I’m treated. I wish I could leave my armpits unshaven, wear my old combats and army boots or maybe just wander down to Tesco in a corset and heels and have not one single person remarking on how I looked in either outfit. But that’s not the way that the society we live in operates.
We live in a society where posing for photos in underwear and heels might feel liberating to the person in front of the camera, but even in this enlightened 21st century world, there’s no way that we can say that it’s liberating to women as a class.
What I mean by that is if a woman thinks she’s conventionally attractive, perhaps images like that make her feel very good about herself. Certainly if she shows them to a mixed audience of people then a lot of men – and maybe a few women – are going to complement her. She looks sexualised. Submissive. Fuckable. So for her, she gets positive feedback and goes away feeling pretty awesome because she’s desirable. Who doesn’t want to be desirable?
But when you look at that photograph in the light of what it does for women as a class, what then?
It reinforces the idea that if a woman on motorcycle doesn’t look like this, then she’s not as desirable. It gives the message that there’s a certain way a woman on a bike is supposed to look and it’s all about her worth as a sexualised object, not as a person and certainly not as a rider.
You can apply this logic to virtually every other popular portrayal of women. I bet if a woman announces to a whole group of men that she’s not a feminist because she’s really not all that worried about closing the gender pay gap or making sure we have an equal representation of women MPs in parliament, she’ll probably get an awful lot of reinforcing comments. Compliments and support will come flooding her way and she’ll feel great – liberated, even. But what does it do for women as a class?
What about if she makes a career of publishing novels or making films where the female characters are regularly written with highly sexualised roles where they exist to give pleasure to men and not challenge male intellectual superiority? If a woman writes a story like that, she’s much more likely to receive positive feedback for her creativity than if she writes about strong, independent, subversive women. And yet, what does a story that rolls out the same tired messages about women being submissive, inferior and sexually submissive to men do for us as a class?
I could write all day long about structural inequalities but I want to get across why it is that I’ve spent the last day thinking about yet another picture of a woman in her pants on the internet. And the reason is this; not nearly enough women came forward to say “actually, this isn’t what I want to see”. Not nearly enough women did that because not nearly enough women understand why it is that pictures like this don’t do any of us any good in the long run.
Commenting, “you go, girl” or complimenting a woman who feels the need to validate herself by doing this is a very, very small way in which we are complicit in our own dehumanisation and it’s so easy not to see this and to get swept along in the feeling of women supporting women.
If we ever want to see as many young girls grow up to ride motorbikes as young boys will, we have to build a world in which an image of woman on a bike is much more than her desirability to men. Every time one of these photos gets published, it’s yet another representation that does us absolutely no good and tells girls and young women that they have to look a certain way to be valid in the eyes of the world.
By the way, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t post pictures of ourselves with our bikes where we think we look hot. If you look on my Instagram, there are a whole bunch of photos of me and my bike where I’m feeling confident and sexy and goodness knows what else. But I’m not wearing lingerie, I’m not wearing high heels and I’m absolutely not looking sexually submissive because fuck that shit.
So please, the next time you see a photograph of a semi-naked women on a bike, please – examine your own reaction to that picture in the light of what you’ve been taught by decades of social programming. Ask yourself what that image does, not just for you, not just for her, but for women as a whole. For women as a class.