The psychologist was not telling me what I wanted to hear.
We were skyping across time zones, navigating work, kids and continents and I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what I wanted from him. Damn head-mechanics.
I was looking for an expert to back a theory – to offer up neurological reinforcement for the idea that women learn better in all-women environments – for an article I was writing, and he wasn’t playing along. In his world view, gender actually isn’t that relevant.
It isn’t irrelevant. Our brains are wired slightly differently. Culture, sexism, the way we are socialized as children, all have an impact. But in statistics courses, he’d learned that “there’s always a lot more variance within groups, than between groups.” Translation: there are a lot more differences between the individual women in a group of females, than the difference between a group of men and a group of women.
“We’re different if we’ve been socialized differently. And we are different by physical design. But we’re not that different,” he said.
In his practice, he deals with people as people, first. People with strengths and flaws, biases and baggage. He doesn’t really look through a gender lens. He tends to ascribe more import to family dynamics – your birth order, say, or your relationship with your dad – to they way you handle a high-stakes, challenging environment, than to the matter of your chromosomes.
His take blew apart my original thesis for the article, but it actually jived with my own lived experiences.
When I dug in to what had made some of the all-women’s clinics I’d attended so powerful, effective, fun, it occurred to me that it was actually about feeling permission to be in the space.
It’s rare to feel entitled to be on a too-hard trail, to ride a popular Bike Park run at the pace you need to ride it in order to build your confidence and speed, or to take the time you need at the top of a stunt or a drop to gather your mojo – especially when your skills aren’t up to par, and there are a lot of more skilled people around, jonesing to blast past.
I think it’s hard to feel entitled to walk into Board room for the first time and take your seat, as an equal, amongst a group of people jonesing to be seen and heard.
Sheryl Sandberg tried to tell us to lean in, speak up, take your place at the table – but it wasn’t until I was riding down Jim-Jam with my neighbour, after writing that article, that it really struck home.
If I want to ride well, I have to remind myself to stand on my pedals (not sit in the saddle), to angle my knees a bit apart (instead of clamping knock-knee-tight to the bike’s frame), and not to hang my ass right off the back as if the bike will magically select the right line, but to look ahead, with my elbows wide, in a kind of push-up posture, and steer where I want to go.
It’s a dynamic posture that runs absolutely counter to the voice in my head. (Cue the family dynamics and socialization exception offered by the good doctor above. The script that coached little Lisa on how to be a good girl went: “elbows in, knees together” and staying safe required her to: “stay back, that’s dangerous, get back!”) I have to override that, consciously, all the time, and it’s never more instantly gratifying (or not) than on the bike: ride your own ride, square up, own this space. (Or crash.)
Perhaps it takes reaching a certain age to shake off that programming and say, actually, I’m going to inhabit this space and not apologize for the oxygen I breathe, the volume of air I occupy. I’ll ride second, or third in the pack, instead of waiting to go last. I’m going to take my shirt off at the lake and enjoy the feeling of the air on my naked back, and not apologize for the fact that I’m not built like a pin-up girl. I’m going to jump in to the water in my not-for-prime-time undies, because it’s a beautiful day, and I might not be back this way again. If I need a second more to gather myself, I’ll ask, “Hold on, please. I just need a moment.”
I love that my most regular riding partner, when we can pawn the kid off on someone and take the hour for ourselves, is my husband, and that when we get to the downhill bits, he’ll remind me to stop daydreaming and get focussed: “ride your own ride,” he says, never, “just be a nice girl and follow me.”
It’s taken me a long time, and a few great teachers (mountain bike coaches, and other wellness folk who specialize in “holding space”), to realize: the seat isn’t for sitting in.
So don’t hang your ass off the back end and hold on for grim death. Lean in – to your skin, to the ride, to your life – and take the space it takes to be damn sure you’re exhilarated by it.
Photos by Lindsey Bolivar