Urban Cycling

What is “Bicycle Face” (and Did it Stop Women Cycling)?

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Bicycle Face Meaning

“Bicycle Face” was a fictitious medical condition propagated in the late 19th century, purportedly caused by the strain of cycling. The symptoms were described as a pale, flushed, and fatigued expression with lips permanently drawn, and dark circles under the eyes. This theory, largely aimed at women, emerged as a tool to counteract the liberating effects of cycling on women’s mobility and societal roles during the nascent feminist movement.

As we witness the rising trend of cycling as a means of transport among individuals of all genders today, it’s fascinating to journey back in time to the turn of the 20th century, when cycling was already a highly popular mode of transit. But what turned the tide away from two-wheeled vehicles? Was the advent of the motorcar solely responsible?

A peculiar factor that reportedly diminished the charm of cycling, particularly for women, was the phantom malady known as “Bicycle Face”. This alleged medical syndrome spread fear and doubt during the late 19th century and continues to intrigue us today. To dive deep into this concept, we must understand: What is bicycle face? What does “bicycle face” mean? Did it indeed exist as a “bicycle face disease” or was it merely a societal construct?

Clip of the article on "Bicycle Face" by The Literary Digest from 1895
article on “Bicycle Face” by The Literary Digest from 1895

What is “Bicycle Face”?

Bicycle Face, for the aesthetically conscientious individuals of the 19th century, was not merely a playful jibe but was seen as a genuine, frightful medical condition. As per the Literary Digest of 1895, it was described as:

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face’”.

Literary Digest (1895)
  • Click here to read Literary Digest’s full article about “Bicycle Face” from 1895

    The “Bicycle Face”

    A warning against excessive indulgence in “wheeling” will perhaps be heeded more on account of the discovery of the alleged “bicycle face” by English medical papers. It is claimed that over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted “bicycle face.” Wheelmen and wheelwomen indignantly deny the reality of this alleged peculiarity of physiognomy, but the talk about the “bicycle face” has gained considerable currency and given rise to grave discussion concerning the causes and remedies of the phenomenon.

    The Springfield Republican, which says that in almost any company of wheelers the “face” can be seen, and which describes one type of it as “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness,” utters the following words of caution:

    “Bicycling can very easily be made as violent exercise as running, and yet men and women who would no more think of running a mile at the top of their speed than of dying will unthinkingly use as much strength and nervous force in fast riding or hill-climbing on their wheels, and wonder why they are so tired after it. The expenditure of energy which some inexperienced riders indulge in, in what may seem to them only a short ride, is nothing short of recklessness, and is almost certain to be followed by consequences more or less serious. Especially is this overexertion foolish in hot weather when the strain on the nervous system to resist the enervating effect of the heat is great, and any fatigue is doubly exhausting to those not in proper training for it.

    It is not uncommon to see untrained boys and young women undertake tasks on their bicycles that an experienced track rider would refuse unless he was in good condition.

    “It is doubtful if one bicycle rider in ten is in condition for hard riding, and when women, girls, and middle-aged men are included, the proportion of those who are under bonds by their condition of health and strength to ride moderately is undoubtedly much greater. No better exercise has been discovered than bicycling when tempered with good sense and moderation, but none has much greater dangers when foolishly used or abused.”

    Accepting the physical explanations of the “bicycle face,” The Christian Intelligencer goes on to point out another reason which it regrets to see entirely ignored. It says:

    “Is it not possible that the law of the Decalogue is binding upon bicyclists as well as upon other people, and an habitual violation of the law of the Sabbath may result in the worn, weary, and exhausted face called the bicycle face? Doctors have fallen in with the unbelief and recklessness of the times, and do not insist in their spoken and written words upon the need of one day of rest in every seven days, and they look for the cause of the bicycle face in something besides the customary Sunday runs.

    “The fact is greatly to be deplored that throughout the United States the wheelmen are putting forth a mighty influence against the observance of the Lord’s day as a day of rest and worship.

    Christianity is largely dependent upon a proper observance of the Sabbath. The bicyclists are doing much to destroy the Sabbath, and at the same time are injuring their own bodies and souls. The ‘bicycle face,’ indicating extreme weariness and exhaustion, due to the severe strain of violent exercise on seven days of the week, will be followed, as surely as the Decalogue is the law of God, with moral weariness and exhaustion in the wheelmen and in those influenced by them.”

    On the other hand, The Boston Advertiser is of the opinion that the facts are perverted in this talk about the bicycle face. It says:

    “So far as there is any truth in the talk, pretty much the same might be said of all other kinds of recreation. It has long been a proverb that the members of the Anglo-Saxon race ‘take their pleasure sadly.’ It is no doubt true that a bicycle rider cannot give himself up absolutely to thoughtlessness, as one may who is riding in a carriage which somebody else is driving; but thoughtfulness is not painfulness, though some people seem to think it is. In truth, one of the greatest sources of benefit to health arising from bicycling is no doubt that the rider must give some slight, but unremitting attention to his machine and his road.”

    The Providence Journal rather likes the “bicycle face.” It says:

    “The ‘bicycle face,’ which seems to worry some people so much, is undoubtedly a reality and not a mere product of the imagination, and it is perhaps not so pleasing to behold as the smiling vacuity of expression which in society passes for a sign of affability and an indication that the person wearing it is enjoying himself. But he isn’t always, whereas the bicycle rider invariably is, even though he may not look so.

    Besides, the bicycle face, it will be observed, makes up in healthiness of color what it may lack in softness of lines.”

Symptoms were supposed to include a flushed, pale-looking face, lips that are permanently firmly drawn, dark shadows beneath the eyes and a constant expression of weariness – akin to the sort of withering description my mum once gave me when she picked me up after an exuberant first year at university.

Anyway, this was clearly all nonsense, so why did the Bicycle Face phenomenon surface?

Decoding the Bicycle Face Phenomenon

Bicycle Face, for the aesthetically conscientious individuals of the 19th century, was not merely a playful jibe but was seen as a genuine, frightful medical condition. As per the Literary Digest of 1895, it was described as:

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face'”.

The purported symptoms of this condition ranged from a persistently pale, flushed face and dark shadows under the eyes, to lips permanently held in a firm position and an unceasing expression of fatigue. This description of bicycle face was akin to the picture of an individual after an especially grueling year at university, an image that was anything but appealing.

Although we now recognize that such a condition was groundless, one cannot help but wonder: Why did the bicycle face theory emerge in the first place?

The Anti-Feminist Propaganda Behind Bicycle Face

The Bicycle Face narrative is intertwined with the socio-political scenario of the late 19th century, primarily the opposition to the nascent feminist movement in Europe and America. Bicycles emerged as a symbol of feminism, as they broadened mobility, challenged Victorian notions of femininity, and diminished clothing restrictions, thus liberating women to partake in various physical activities.

The anti-feminist opposition to women cycling was formidable, often justified under the guise of health concerns including fatigue, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression. Despite these hurdles, there were valiant women who dared to risk the so-called Bicycle Face syndrome. Nevertheless, they were met with a plethora of rules and guidelines, such as “Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel toward the ground” and predictably, “Don’t refuse assistance up a hill”.

The Demise of the Bicycle Face Myth

As the 19th century drew to a close, the myth of Bicycle Face was ultimately debunked. Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson, a prominent Chicago doctor, dismissed the alleged condition in the Phrenological Journal of 1897, stating:

“[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health… The painfully anxious facial expression is seen only among beginners, and is due to the uncertainty of amateurs. As soon as a rider becomes proficient, can gauge her muscular strength, and acquires perfect confidence in her ability to balance herself and in her power of locomotion, this look passes away.”

By this point, however, the ill-conceived Bicycle Face narrative had already left a significant impact on the popularity of cycling, particularly for women. It serves as a stark reminder of the historical challenges that women faced in pursuit of personal freedom and physical activity, encapsulated in the fear of a phantom condition – the Bicycle Face.

Today, as the face of a ‘bicycle face girl’ beams with confidence and enjoyment, the antiquated notion of “Bicycle Face” has been rightfully consigned to the annals of history.

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