Originally posted on Feministing way back in the day (December 2008), and still earning me the occasional hatemail....
Own Your Space!
This semester I had several female volleyball players in one of the
classes I teach. They were all very tall, physically powerful,
intelligent, well-read, and confident. But you never would have
guessed by the way they carried themselves – in the hunched over
semi-apologetic manner that tall women are supposed to have in our
culture. As if being a tall woman is an offense to all the men you
encounter who are shorter than you, so you have to hunch your shoulders
down, duck your head, and keep your elbows close to your sides so as to
not harm any male egos. This attitude is not new to me, being tall
myself, but it irritates me that tall women are still made to feel this
way. Obviously they’ve internalized the cultural message that it’s
inappropriate for women to take up so much physical space and be
imposing in any way.
A few years ago I researched this topic and read a number of studies on
gendered use of personal space for a paper I was writing. It’s an
interesting topic. Generally speaking, the use of personal space
matches a person’s social status. So when two people interact, the one
with higher status is more likely to invade the personal space of the
other. Of course, this follows gender lines, and men use more space
than women and are more likely to invade the personal space of a woman.
One study used hidden cameras in train and bus stations in Europe to
show that when women are sitting on a bench they keep their arms folded,
elbows tightly at their sides, knees together, etc in order to minimize
the space they need, while men sprawl out on the bench, spread their
arms on the back of the bench, extend their legs out, even if their
knees end up invading the space of a woman sitting next to them, etc. I
can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced this on an airplane,
where the man next to me thought it was pre-ordained that the arm rest
and half of the floor space in front of my seat belonged to him. A
similar study looked at men and women walking in public spaces. When
the path of a man and woman are going to cross, it’s always the woman
who’s expected to alter her path to avoid a collision. In addition,
women restrict their stride as compared to men, and tend to hunch their
shoulders and not initiate or maintain eye contact.
So after I did this research my friends and I started messing around
with this. We found that if you don’t alter your path when walking
toward a man, a lot of men will almost run right into you, or bump their
shoulder against yours, and then turn and give you this weird look.
The weird looks you get are increased if you stand up straight with
squared shoulders and take longer strides. I habitually walk this way
now, and I continue to get puzzled looks by men who turn around after I
pass them and watch me with an uncertain look. Part of it is because
I’m fairly tall and refuse to hunch over or refrain from wearing boots
with a heel (which make me 6’1″) if I feel like it. But also, if it’s
not easy or the most natural for me to alter my path, I don’t.
Oftentimes the man will have more space on his side of the sidewalk and I
would have to step off onto the grass, or pause and wait for him to
pass me first. I refuse. This really does bring strange reactions from
men, but I don’t think they quite understand what seems so strange to
them. Hence the puzzled looks. I also insist on owning my space in
bars and restaurants where women are expected to yield their space, and I
don’t shrink from eye contact or look away first. The strange thing
is, once men get over the puzzled reaction, the usual response is
fascination (except for the really insecure ones who feel threatened).
But I see this as more than a fun social experiment (and now a habitual
way of carrying myself). I think it’s subversive for women to abandon
the sexist expectations to which they’ve been socialized to conform. By
challenging these profound but unspoken signs of dominance and
hierarchy, you can defy sexist attitudes every day without even being
aware of it anymore. And that kind of kicks ass, in my view. So my
challenge to feminists is to own your space. Become aware of how you
sit/stand/walk/make eye contact, and stake your claim. A few weird
looks from men isn’t going to hurt you, and it’s amazing how moving
through the world in a confident manner changes your own self-conception