Sunday, March 4, 2012

Blast from the Past: Own your Space

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 over time.


  1. Funny, I've been doing this lately because I am often carrying a rambunctious toddler on my hip and it's easier for other people to move out of my way than for me to take my kid and my gimpy leg (just had ACL surgery) and move out of their way. So I know EXACTLY what you say. Though I am small (5'4") and it's even more puzzling when I don't move AND make stern eye contact.

    I've been clipped in the shoulder too, and being that I play roller derby (how I jacked the ACL) I give it back a little and then when the other person turns and is all ready to get salty, they see little old me and a baby on my hip. Then usually a muddled and embarrassed apology is thrown my way.

    Freaking great post!

  2. I did the exact same thing when I learned about this phenomenon, and not just with men - with everyone who has a high social status or perceives themselves that way.

    It's like a red-pill/blue-pill situation - once you know about it, you can't NOT see it everywhere - the middle-aged man who stares at your boobs but doesn't return your weak smile as he passes you in the hall, the rich/pretty woman who pretends not to see you as you hurriedly dart out of her way.

    I now refuse to alter my path in all but genuinely necessary situations, and look people directly in the eyes and wait for them to smile first. I can't even tell you how many times I've been shoulder-checked.

  3. What really makes gendered conventions like this so powerful is the fact that they're generally unspoken. It's hard to argue with something that's so widespread but never explicitly stated.

  4. Anonymous3/08/2012

    I don't feel like it's very feminist to encourage people to be rude.

    1. Anonymous3/15/2012

      Women using space exactly like men = rude. Got it.

      Do the men around you know that you think them rude? Why not?

  5. How is this post encouraging people to be rude? She analyzes a complex process through which women are expected to allow men to dominate space--and then refuses to be dominated in this way.

  6. Beth - exactly! Well said.

  7. Anonymous3/16/2012

    First off I'm a male :p but I'm not sure I have ever seen this. It could be because I've never looked for it, or maybe because I hang out with a lot of women who are powerful maybe it's because I don't know many tall people, or because I get out of the way when someone is coming. I do, however take up more space in a bus, because I don't want someone to sit next to me.
    Don't get me wrong I think there are a lot of issues that women face, and it's stupid that many people don't see them as equal or as their property.

    1. I understand what you mean, but that is not my experience as a woman. Even when I am already sitting next to someone in the bus or metro or airplane or when I sat there first, men will still sit down next to me with wide open legs. So saying that it is only in order to discourage people next to them doesn't reflect my reality at all. Look for it- I'm sure you'll see it.

  8. Canaduck3/16/2012

    This is a great post. I ride the bus on a regular basis and you're right--I look around, and see all the woman crunching themselves into the tiniest spaces possible (and that includes me) while the men sit very comfortably. I very, very frequently have men sit next to me, lean back, and spread their legs like they're at home watching TV on the couch while I try to compress myself further so as to not have their legs resting on mine. When I do have the energy to push back (sometimes I'm just so tired)--not taking up any of the space allotted by the borders of their seats, just reclaiming my own--I definitely get weird looks.

    Thank you for this post and for reminding me to take up space wherever I go. :)

  9. Anonymous3/21/2012

    I liked this post a lot, but I have to say that it makes me uncomfortable too, because I think it's simplifying things in a potentially problematic way.

    Basically I think that while it is exactly right to say that men/people who society sees as men should not be awarded with more space than non-men (women, people who don't fit into the gender binary, etc.), talking about taking up more space in general is like talking about sex-positivity without talking about rape culture and the problems it presents (I highly rec this article about sex-negative feminism to anyone who hasn't read it )

    I really think what we should be pushing is that public space doesn't belong to any one person (including the generic "you"), and that consequently /no one/ should be taking up any more space than they really need to. The goal isn't to be comfortable - it's to be able to accomplish whatever you need to do while feeling safe.

    So basically yes, I think a 6'1 woman should be given as much space as a 6'1 man, but speaking as a female-presenting genderqueer person who's 5'0 and so is never given very much space in public areas, it's not exactly going to make /me/ feel more comfortable if more women start pushing to me to the side too because they're more comfortable sitting with their knees three feet apart.

    tldr; men should just keep /their/ knees closed (because it's rude)

    (and by rude I mean intimidating and helping to create an environment where /I/ feel unsafe so they can feel more comfortable)

    1. Yes. I totally agree. I suspect if I wrote this piece now it would have a little more nuance, but your points are spot on.

      The deeper issue is that encouraging all individuals to think of themselves as one member of a larger group of diverse individuals - all of whom have their own needs and value - has got to be a basic goal of feminism. A part of the process has to include those individuals who are traditionally less valued making a claim to their portion of public spaces - physical and intellectual. But it certainly can't end there. A deeper shift in how we share this space and a discussion of what it says about our assumptions and values needs to occur as well.

  10. Heh! Here via the referral link. Thanks for linking the article.

    I think in this situation, I'd say that we should just push -men- to the side. Push and shove up the privilege gradient, not down it! ;) (being wary of complex situations like white woman / black man)