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Shedding the "Bicycle Face": How Societal Myths Hold Women Back

Reshma Saujani's powerful 2023 commencement speech at Smith College, titled the "Bicycle Face" speech, challenged the notion of imposter syndrome as an individual flaw. She drew a compelling parallel between imposter syndrome and a fabricated medical condition called "Bicycle Face," used in the 1890s to discourage women from riding bicycles. This blog post delves deeper into the history of fabricated medical conditions used to control women's behaviour, explores how it connects to imposter syndrome within the context of the patriarchy and offers strategies to overcome self-doubt.

A Legacy of Fabricated Maladies: Silencing Women Through "Science"

Throughout history, societal biases have often been disguised as scientific facts, mainly to control and limit the autonomy of women. From ancient times to the modern era, fabricated medical conditions have been weaponized to reinforce traditional gender roles and discourage women from pursuing activities deemed "unfit" or "unladylike."

Bicycle Face (1890s): In the late 19th Century, as bicycles became increasingly popular, doctors expressed concern over the potential physical and moral implications of women riding them. They warned of a condition known as "Bicycle Face," claiming that the strain of cycling could distort women's facial features and lead to a loss of femininity. This fear-mongering tactic aimed to dissuade women from embracing the newfound freedom of movement offered by cycling, reinforcing the notion that certain activities were unsuitable for the female gender.

Wandering Womb (Ancient Greece): In ancient Greece, the "wandering womb" concept was prevalent among medical practitioners. According to this belief, a woman's uterus could roam freely within her body, causing a variety of ailments and disruptions. This diagnosis, known as Hysteria, not only dismissed women's physical complaints but also served as a justification for controlling their behaviour. Hysteria was a catch-all diagnosis for a wide range of emotional and physical symptoms attributed to disturbances in the uterus. Treatments often involved methods aimed at manipulating or controlling the uterus, such as pelvic massages or the use of vibrators. While sexual frustration or repression may have been one aspect of the experiences of some women diagnosed with Hysteria, the condition itself was much broader and deeply rooted in societal attitudes towards women's bodies and sexuality. It was used as a tool to pathologize and control women's behaviour, perpetuating the idea that women were inherently unstable and in need of male intervention and supervision.

Corsets and Hysteria (19th Century): During the 19th Century, tightly laced corsets were fashionable attire for women, symbolizing femininity and refinement. However, these garments were also blamed for a myriad of health problems, including "hysteria" – a catch-all diagnosis for emotional or mental instability. Women who dared to challenge societal norms or express independent thoughts were often labelled as hysterical, reinforcing the expectation of passive obedience and compliance.

While these fabricated medical conditions have long been debunked, they serve as poignant reminders of the systemic oppression and gender discrimination that have shaped women's lives throughout history. By examining these historical examples, we can better understand the pervasive nature of societal myths and their enduring impact on women's autonomy and self-perception.

From "Bicycle Face" to Imposter Syndrome: Parallels in Discouragement

Reshma Saujani's "Bicycle Face" analogy brilliantly exposes the parallels between historical fabrications and the pervasive phenomenon of imposter syndrome, particularly within the context of systemic oppression and gender stereotypes.

Internalized Limitations: Just as fabricated medical conditions create external limitations for women, imposter syndrome creates internalized feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt despite evidence of competence. Women, conditioned by centuries of societal expectations and gender norms, may struggle to recognize their accomplishments and attribute their success to external factors, perpetuating a cycle of self-doubt and diminished confidence.

Socialisation and Microaggressions: Research suggests that from a young age, girls are often socialized to avoid risk-taking and prioritize perfectionism. At the same time, boys are encouraged to be assertive and take risks. These differential socialisation patterns contribute to the development of imposter syndrome in women, who internalise societal messages equating success with perfection and mistake-free performance. Additionally, everyday microaggressions, such as being interrupted or undermined in professional settings, can further erode women's confidence and reinforce feelings of impostorism.

By understanding imposter syndrome within the broader context of systemic oppression and gender stereotypes, we can begin to unravel the complex web of societal forces that perpetuate self-doubt and undermine women's confidence in their abilities. Addressing imposter syndrome requires not only individual introspection and self-awareness but also collective action to challenge and dismantle the systemic barriers that perpetuate gender inequality and limit women's potential.

Dismantling the Narrative: The Importance of Male Allies

Understanding imposter syndrome within the context of systemic oppression and gender stereotypes sheds light on the societal forces that perpetuate it. In this regard, male allies are crucial in challenging and dismantling the narrative that fuels imposter syndrome.

Concrete Actions for Male Allies:

  1. Call Out Sexism: Male allies can actively challenge sexist attitudes and behaviours in their personal and professional spheres. Speaking up against discrimination and advocating for gender equality help create a more inclusive environment where women feel valued and respected.

  2. Promote Women's Achievements: Male allies can use their platforms and influence to amplify women's accomplishments and contributions. This can involve sharing women's work, recommending them for opportunities, and acknowledging their expertise and leadership.

  3. Create a Culture of Inclusion: Male allies can foster a culture of inclusivity and belonging by actively supporting diversity initiatives and advocating for policies that promote gender equity. By championing diversity and inclusion efforts within their organizations, they create a supportive environment where all individuals can thrive.

  4. Listen and Learn: Male allies should listen to women's experiences and perspectives, recognizing their unique challenges in male-dominated fields. By actively seeking out women's voices and experiences, male allies can gain valuable insights into the systemic barriers contributing to imposter syndrome and work towards addressing them.

  5. Challenge Implicit Bias: Male allies can examine their own biases and assumptions about gender roles and actively work to challenge them. This may involve reflecting on unconscious biases, participating in diversity training, and conversing about privilege and power dynamics.

By taking these concrete actions, male allies can create a more equitable and supportive environment where women feel empowered to overcome imposter syndrome and thrive in their professional and personal pursuits. Dismantling the systemic barriers perpetuating self-doubt and inequality requires a collective effort, and male allies play a vital role in this ongoing endeavour.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Strategies for Success

While imposter syndrome can be a persistent challenge, there are strategies to overcome it:

  • Reframe Self-Doubt:  Instead of viewing self-doubt as a sign of inadequacy, see it as a learning opportunity. Use it as a chance to identify areas for growth and development.

  • Focus on Progress, Not Perfection: Striving for perfection can be paralyzing. Celebrate your accomplishments, both big and small, and acknowledge your progress.

  • Seek Mentorship and Support:  Find a mentor or role model who can offer guidance and support. Surround yourself with a network of individuals who will uplift and encourage you.

  • Celebrate Others' Successes:  Supporting and celebrating the achievements of others, especially other women, can foster a sense of community and belonging. This can help combat the isolation that often fuels imposter syndrome.

  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself! Everyone makes mistakes and experiences self-doubt. Treat yourself with the same understanding and compassion you would offer a friend.

  • Challenge Negative Thoughts: When negative self-talk arises, challenge those thoughts with evidence of competence. Remind yourself of your accomplishments and the skills you bring to the table.

  • Visualize Success: Imagine yourself achieving your goals. Visualization can be a powerful tool for boosting confidence and motivation.

  • Take Action:  Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Take action towards achieving your goals, even if it's a small step.

  • Celebrate Your Journey:  The path to success is rarely linear. Celebrate the challenges you overcome and the resilience you demonstrate along the way.

By incorporating these strategies into your life, you can combat imposter syndrome and move forward with greater confidence and self-belief.

Conclusion: Embracing Empowerment and Resilience

In closing, the journey from "Bicycle Face" to imposter syndrome underscores the enduring impact of societal myths and stereotypes on women's self-perception and confidence. Reshma Saujani's powerful analogy challenges us to confront the pervasive forces that undermine women's sense of worth and potential while highlighting the resilience and determination required to overcome these obstacles.

As we reflect on the historical fabrications and systemic biases that have shaped women's experiences, it becomes clear that combating imposter syndrome is not an individual endeavour but a collective responsibility. By acknowledging the societal forces that perpetuate self-doubt and inequality. We can begin to dismantle the narratives that hold women back and create a more equitable and inclusive society for all.

Embracing empowerment and resilience in the face of adversity is essential. We can rewrite our narratives, challenge limiting beliefs, and support one another on the journey towards self-acceptance and success. By celebrating our achievements, fostering a culture of inclusivity, and advocating for gender equity, we can create a future where imposter syndrome no longer limits women's potential.

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Many successful women have grappled with imposter syndrome and emerged stronger and more confident. By standing together, supporting one another, and challenging the status quo, we can create a world where everyone is valued, respected, and empowered to achieve their full potential.

Let us continue to shed the "Bicycle Face" of self-doubt and embrace the limitless possibilities that await us. The path to empowerment may be challenging, but with determination, support, and resilience, we can overcome imposter syndrome and thrive as our authentic selves.

Thank you for joining us on this transformative journey. Let us forge ahead with courage and conviction, knowing that together, we can create a future where every woman is empowered to shine.


Join the Conversation and Champion Inclusivity! In the comments below, share your thoughts, stories, and experiences with inclusive language and overcoming imposter syndrome. Your voice is crucial in shaping a more inclusive and equitable world.

Together, let's amplify the message of empowerment and resilience! Share this article with your network and use the hashtag #EmpowerHer to connect with others passionate about supporting women's success and breaking societal barriers.

Ready to turn inspiration into action? As a certified mentor with over 25 years of leadership and advocacy experience, I'm here to support your journey towards confidence and success. Contact me at to explore how we can work together to unlock your full potential and create a more inclusive environment.

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