This article was published in 2017, in Newsletter 131.
A few months ago, I saw a casting call on Twitter for a ‘visibly pregnant cyclist’. The campaign was for the #thisgirlcan initiative by SportEngland, an attempt to encourage women and girls to get more active. They made an incredible video a couple of years back with a thumping Missy Elliott soundtrack and slogans flashing across the screen like ‘Sweating like a pig… feeling like a fox’. The ads feature women and girls of various ages, sizes and ethnicities, and I had occasionally watched it when I needed a bit of inspiration to get off my bum, so I was already a believer in the cause.
At the time I was about twenty weeks pregnant with twins, and felt extremely visibly pregnant. I had a friend take a head shot and a full-length photo of me, sent them in with a detail about how I cycled around Cambridge while in labour with my first child, and hoped for the best. I thought it was a niche enough call out that I stood a good chance, but I was still thrilled when I got an email a couple weeks later asking if I was available for a photoshoot. I was told to meet by the Elizabeth Way Bridge, where a Winnebago would be waiting in the small car park.
‘Imma be famous!!!’ was my first thought, followed by ‘oh, that makes sense – they’ll want some shots of me cycling along the river and it will be idyllic and lovely’.
Apparently, idyllic is not the watchword in advertising these days; rather, it’s all about authenticity. So when I arrived at the shoot with a rucksack stuffed full of maternity clothes, they told me I would be cycling back and forth under the underpass for several hours. After a makeup artist went to town on my face (but not my hair, which was under my helmet) and a stylist steamed my friend Vicky’s H&M maternity shirt, I pedalled in slow, serene circles under the bridge while a svelte photographer in candy-coloured trainers and a fashionable parka yelled encouraging things: ‘you’re doing brilliantly, Franny! A few more times! Look as placid as possible! Fantastic!’.
It was cold. For half the morning I wore a shapeless coat from 2003 (I could button it over the bump) that the stylist vainly attempted to rein in with strategically placed safety pins. Every once in a while, an assistant would swap out the memory cards so that the representative from the ad agency could review the images – their chief concern was that it should be irrefutably obvious that I was pregnant. After lunch, they decided to take a few shots without the coat, and the stylist was relegated to holding my coat during takes and jogging over so I could put it back on in between. Where the photographer had me cycle in continuous slow circles, the videographer had me wait while he meticulously fiddled with various settings on his camera. He would have me cycle about five metres at a time, going past the camera once, and then would do it all again. I preferred working with the photographer.
The casting call explicitly stated that you should not have had any previous modelling or acting experience, and I definitely fitted the bill. I can see how making a living on a film or photo set would get really tedious, but I can promise you, it takes more than a few hours for the novelty to wear off. I had hoped they would bring stylish, fabulous maternity clothes with them, but have since been assured that you have to be a Really Big Deal before people start outfitting you.
The thing I couldn’t believe was how many people went into a professional photo shoot. There were two people from the ad agency, the photographer and videographer and their assistants, a producer, a makeup artist and a stylist, and highviz-wearing production assistants whose main job was to redirect cyclists and pedestrians around the shoot – all in all, I think about ten people (plus me). One of the people from the ad agency grew up in Cambridge, but no one else had spent much time here – and they were slack-jawed at how many people they saw cycling along the river. Two people specifically told me they’d never seen so many cyclists before, and others told me, a bit wistfully, that it certainly looked like a nice way to get around.
Very excitingly the ad agency decided that I would indeed be the (pregnant) face of #thisgirlcan, along with the slogan ‘I don’t let bumps slow me down.’ Regardless of whether or not I ended up as the (pregnant) face of #thisgirlcan, I had an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime morning, and I’m proud to have been part of something like the SportEngland campaign: as an American, I have noticed that girls seem to have less access to sport than boys in the UK, and that’s a pattern that affects adult women as well.
Furthermore, I think presenting cycling as something suitable for everyone, including women pregnant with twins, is a huge step for a national campaign to take. I know friends of mine, who are far less committed to cycling as a lifestyle choice than I am, have said they’re thrilled to see pregnant cycling normalised, because it addresses so many stereotypes head on: the notion that pregnant women are fragile or physically compromised; that cycling is dangerous; that cycling is the preserve of men wearing leggings. In Cambridge, a lot of us were disabused of these ideas years ago – but a lot of people have said to me (and to others) ‘You’re not still cycling?! You’re so brave!’.
I don’t think I’m brave. I think I’m a person who needs to get around, and while cycling may not be a viable option as this twin pregnancy progresses, for now, it’s far more comfortable for me than walking, and my doctors and my own common sense have said it’s the best way for me to get around. While I would love to prove the point with billboards of my likeness splashed all around the UK, I will also be thrilled to have a few photos from the day as a memento of my time as a pregnant cyclist, when I didn’t let the bump slow me down.