everyday science

bicycle face: 19th century’s scary medical condition

Riding a bicycle, as late-19th-century doctors warned women, could lead to a terrifying medical condition: bicycle face. The symptoms of this cureless condition were, and I quote, paleness with flushed cheeks, drawn lips, hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes, and an expression of weariness.

“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,'” noted the Literary Digest in 1895.

In an 1897 article in London’s National Review, British doctor A. Shadwell claimed to have first coined the phrase a few years earlier and continued to fearmonger women about the *dangers of bicycling*.

Some *doctors* even hypothesized that bicycle face could be a permanent condition. In contrast, others said that given enough time away from a bicycle, a women’s bicycle face would eventually be gone.

In general, they argued, bicycling was unsuitable for women. It would lead to not only bicycle face, but also exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression — plus all sorts of reasons for women not to ride bikes.

But, obviously, bicycle face was never ever a real thing.

In 1897, the Phrenological Journal quoted Chicago doctor Sarah Hackett Stevensonthe first-ever woman member of the American Medical Association — put the issue to rest: “[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health. I have been conscientiously recommending bicycling for the last five years,” she said.

“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.

But, why were doctors so worried about the bicycle face?

Bikes gave women a chance to go outside and move further, faster from place to place on their own, they also redefined Victorian feminine postulates and helped dress reform movements, and were eagerly taken up by many women active in the suffrage movement.

So, in 1890s Europe and America, bicycles were seen by many as a gateway to feminism, if not its’ tool.

To men, the bicycle, in the beginning, was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.

Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

A century later, a bicycle face is a laughable idea.

Something similar comes into play with the IMPOSTER SYNDROME (phenomenon!) which is somehow being pathologized in recent years.

Impostor syndrome is based on the idea that we’re the problem, not enough, and even stupid. And we believed it. We became imposters of our own minds. But, as Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code has said, discomfort is a normal, human reaction to [a new] environment.

You don’t overcome imposter syndrome, we keep riding the bike.

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