Do you know what the weirdest thing is that cycling has taught me?
Not how competitive I sometimes still am.
Not my inbuilt wish for everyone I meet to like me*.
Not that, after being a scaredy-cat for most of my life, I can now whizz down hills faster than many of my friends or clubmates.
I’m not as big as I think I am.
In other words, my self image is totally to pot.
I’ve always had a round, chubby face, with well-buried cheekbones and a tendency towards a double chin. I don’t photograph well – I never know what to do with my face. I’m busty, and never really look thin, unless I’m skeletal. At size 12 and wrapped in layers of winter clothes, a GP once lectured me on the need to lose weight.
My weight has been up and down over the years, going up when I was injured or travelling, going down when I’ve been physically able to exercise.
It started when I was young. It’s pretty hard to feel dainty when you have galumphing size eight feet and the biggest head in Pony Club. When some of your overriding memories of childhood are being bigger and clumsier than your schoolmates.
I’m looking at old school photos now and thinking, why did I feel so big and clumsy? I’m far from the tallest and largest in my class. Perhaps I should have done ballet for longer, instead of gymnastics and hockey?
It can’t have been just in my head though. I can remember school friends not believing at the time I was a size 12. I had to show them the label of my jeans to prove it.
Being a teen in the 90s meant that baggy clothes were the norm. I seldom wore anything remotely form-fitting unless I was on a night out. Even then, it took until my late teens to start showing more skin, in short skirts or cleavage-baring tops.
When I started playing rugby at 17, I played at prop. The opposing players never intimidated me with their size, I always felt it was my lack of experience, technique, and mental attitude that let me down. When I played at scrum-half, I used to make jokes about being the biggest scrum-half in Europe.
My weight went up and down in my years of living and travelling abroad, returning home to Wales, then moving to London. The odd bout of exercise and dieting brought it down, but it would go back up.
Until I started having successive injury problems, and for my own piece of mind, had to give up exercising.
After being practically housebound for over a year, my weight was still crawling up. Size 14 was beginning to get too tight. My bra size had increased to 36G. Due to my health problems, I was using food and alcohol as a crutch, as well as actual crutches themselves. I felt horrible.
I would insert a photo here of how big I became, but there are few and it upsets me just to look at them.
Then I discovered cycling. And things began to change.
And I had to buy cycling kit.
One of my first purchases was a pair of Defeet gloves. In medium. That’s not a women’s medium, that’s a unisex medium. Unsurprisingly, they were far too big on me, but I didn’t acknowledge that at the time, just that they were ‘uncomfortable’. I gave them to my ex-prop boyfriend of the time. They fit him.
My second error was a 54cm road bike. Far, far too big for me – I’m just over 5’4″ and I’ve since discovered 48cm is my size. Luckily, I sold the 54cm on without too much of a loss. I continued to increase my mileage, and cut down on my carb intake.
Bib shorts in large. That’s not Italian-sizing large, that’s normal-sizing. Wore them twice. There’s nothing sadder than sagging Lycra.
A few months later, another error was my first pair of bib tights. In medium. Because I didn’t think I was a ‘small’. I had lost so much weight, they were massive on me.
After six months of cycling, I can remember being in a bike shop and trying on a small top, because the price was a total bargain. The first time in years I had even picked up something in a ‘small’. And I only did it because that was the only size they had in the sale.
It fit. It actually fitted me.
I assumed then that the brand were a little generous in their kit. Until I started to find more clothes in a small, or size 10, that fit. Even an XS.
The last time I had worn a size 10 was when I was about 12. I was incredulous.
Small, or size 10 became my default size. But, I still didn’t feel ‘small’.
Friends would comment on how tiny I was, and ask if I was eating, or developing an eating disorder. I’d tell them it was cycling up to 300 miles a week, in conjunction with a low-carb and gluten-free diet formulated for me by the Aussie guy treating my various joint problems.
That size turns out to not be sustainable, once I decreased my mileage and broke the diet a few too many times. It was an eye-opener being that small and having the compliments though.
Now, after putting some weight back on, in some clothes, and in some brands, medium is a better fit. And it’s nice to have my boobs back. But a friend has still recently nicknamed me ‘Tiny T’. I still can’t believe anyone would call me ‘Tiny’ anything.
He says I’m short. I didn’t think 5’4″ was that short. However, I can’t wear heels any more. And now it’s been pointed out, I’ve started to notice the height difference.
I have a dodgy (repaired but still not right) ankle which can’t cope with high heels, and there are few pretty shoes with one-inch heels. Well, I have one pair which I can wear for a short time. Other than that, I have Timberland boots for the winter and Birkenstock sandals for the summer. And cycling shoes/boots or trainers for all other times.
When I was younger, I never really felt in the mood for going out unless I was wearing a pair of killer heels, but in those days ‘killer’ meant around 3 inches, not the suicide numbers of today. (A friend calls them ‘sitting-down shoes’, as it’s impossible to walk in them.)
So, socially, I never noticed how short I was compared to others.
As a sidenote, one thing that constantly bemuses me is seeing women, particularly on TV, wearing these ‘killer heels’ but walking ‘like a carthorse’, as my mother would say. So elegant just standing or sitting there…but as soon as they move, it totally wrecks all their hard work. The façade is destroyed.
It makes me think about how much wearing high heels was a façade for me. Did wearing heels actually make me slimmer, or taller, or bigger?
Women are told from a young age that heels are slimming – they’ll make your legs look longer and ‘improve’ your posture. What we’re seldom told is that feeling taller can make you feel less vulnerable. Or that being shorter can make you feel less confident. It removes that false sense of security.
Heels (and feeling taller) were a part of me before, a part of my psyche, and now they’re not.
Now, when I walk through the rugby club, I’ve begun to realise how much bigger (stronger?) than me a lot of people are. Female friends have commented on being intimidated by very big people, but I’ve always been blasé about it. I’m starting to see their point.
I’m still working it out, and working out how I feel about it. I know it’s something that involves a long-term adjustment of how I feel about myself. So, I’m making some resolutions:
- To give myself a break.
- To not worry what others think of me.
- To just enjoy the good days.
And whenever I feel big and clumsy and fat, I’ll just look at where I used to be, when the medical profession had given up on me and before I discovered my saviour, cycling. And be grateful for what I have now.
Just, please don’t point that camera at me. Thanks.
*I’m working on this quirk, and while I may never reach the devil-may-care-ness of being able to say, ‘go **** yourself’, face-to-face, I hope to some day reach ambivalence.