October 27, 2022

Diet Culture Can Ruin Cycling for Women

No matter how much we say, “cycling is for all bodies”, the false narrative that thinner is better has plagued cycling for decades. This article is from Girls Gone Gravel in partnership with Feisty Media. You can learn more about Girls Gone Gravel here.

Text by Kathryn Taylor

We live in a world where we equate fitness and exercise with thinness or the effort to be thin. Cycling culture is known to be one of the worst offenders when it comes to the conversation about weight and performance. The misnomer has been that the lighter you are, the faster you’ll be able to ride. Coaches have often enforced this idea to the point of shaming athletes (male and female) when they carry extra weight.

It’s true, at the highest level athletes need to think about their power-to-weight ratio, but this is the case for .001% of cyclists who are competing on the world stage….and it’s their job. As Kristen Legan recently pointed out, ‘the choices that cyclists at that level make are not necessarily healthy, it’s their job to win’.

We’ve taken the same expectations put on those cyclists and transferred them to cycling in general.

Everywhere you look, cycling sends the message that thin is better. You see it in cycling clothing, where it’s often hard to find sizes for women who don’t have a specific body type, in weight loss for cyclists’ articles, and in the images that we see in cycling marketing and media. No matter how much we say, cycling is for all bodies, these things often don’t reflect that.

We’ve been taught to equate fit with thin and in doing that, we’ve subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) excluded folks who don’t fit the mold of what we think a cyclist (or fit person) should be.

And I know this isn’t just a cycling problem. I used to work as a trainer at a gym. I remember when new trainers would come in to be interviewed the owners of the gym would discuss their demeanor and their qualifications. Then I would often hear them add, – she looks really fit (thin), she looks the part.

I’ve never been the most naturally thin. My weight tends to fluctuate up and down 20 pounds depending on my stress levels. I was a very good trainer and coach but I always felt a little like a fraud because I never ‘looked the part’. I always felt that I had to apologize for my body being less than’.

I love the work that gravel cycling is doing to normalize all bodies belonging on bikes. I’m so proud of leaders like Marley Blonsky who are working to create change both by creating a community for folks who haven’t been traditionally seen on bikes and advocating for brands to do better.

I love people like Haley Smith who are saying, we need to create safe spaces for young girls on social media. We should be talking about how cycling is fun and not about our power to weight.

Shifting the culture is not easy. It can feel overwhelming because we’re bombarded with messages everywhere we turn. But there are things that we can do to shift that culture in our own world. Here are three ways that we can take personal responsibility for shifting the culture.

Examine our own narrative

The best place to start is to examine where we personally fall into the trap of diet culture.

  •  Do we believe that the way to be fast is to achieve a certain magical weight?

  • Do we love being on our bikes or do we use a ride as a punishment for things we shouldn’t have eaten? Or to earn something we want to eat?

  • Do we believe that we are more loved, accepted, or valuable at a certain weight?

Often these messages play out in our heads without us even realizing it. Once we start to understand our beliefs about our weight and the thoughts that bounce around in our heads, we can start to work to rewrite the script. It’s not easy and doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly change those thoughts.

The first step is just to be aware of the thoughts. When we see thoughts that don’t serve us, we start to hone in on those thoughts and rewrite that narrative.

I recently saw a quote from Jon Acuff that said,

Most of us were just never taught how to think. A lot of people think their thoughts just show up on their own or it’s just something that “happens to me.” They think that they have a thought, they don’t hone a thought.

But when you hone your thoughts ahead of time and choose them, it changes your actions, which in turn changes your results.

By taking inventory of our own thoughts and working to replace them, we can start to rewrite our own narratives. Here are a few steps to get us started.

Check our language

How do we talk about ourselves? What do we put out into the world? I remember when the holidays would end and everyone would make their way back to our indoor cycling studio in Atlanta. I heard so many very thin people talking about it being ’time to make race weight’. It was a normal conversation. More often than not, I heard that language from coaches.

When you put on your cycling kit, do you tell yourself you look fat? Do you hate your body and constantly want to punish it or are you celebrating what your body can do?

And then there’s our dialogue (often internal) about others. Do we see a large person on a bike and assume they are a beginner? Or that they are struggling? Do we see a thin person and automatically think they must be fast and fit? Do we value one over the other?

Get help when needed

It’s common for our culture to be obsessed with weight, but it doesn’t have to be our narrative. Getting help may be in the form of working with a professional to retrain our thoughts related to body image or it may be a supportive community that has a healthy relationship with food and weight. It could also be setting boundaries for ourselves, like unfollowing certain people on social media (or getting off social media altogether).

As someone who has struggled with negative thoughts about my body my entire life, I understand that this is not easy. A few years ago, I started to really see how much women are taught that our value comes from the way our body looks. I still often struggle with this, but at the same time, I’m proud of my body. I’m proud that it came back from a bike crash even stronger. I’m proud that it survived a global pandemic. I’m proud that it’s taken me on adventures. I’m proud of the things I did when it weighed 155 and I’m proud of the things it can do when it weighs 185.

It takes a lot of work to rewrite the narrative….and it’s about progress, not perfection. But imagine a world where the norm is for every body to be valued and celebrated….where every body feels like they belong on a bike.


Kathryn is a triathlete turned gravel cyclist, general lover of all types of outdoor adventures, and the Founder of Girls Gone Gravel. She has been published in USA Triathlon Magazine, Cycling Tips and has been a regular contributor for Triathlete Magazine articles. She works full-time for Feisty Media as a brand manager, helping active, performance-minded women find the resources they need to do the things they love.

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