Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Taking Up Space

Soraya Chemaly notes how society encourages girls to take up less space, and boys to take up more, saying:
"To this day, when I sit—in a chair, on a bus, a train, at a desk—I hear my primary school headmistress explain that ladies never cross their legs at the knees. The thought of sitting, arms stretched out on either side on the top lip of the back of, say, a park bench is laughable to me, it’s so physically alien. Usually, in public space, I fold myself up and try, by habit, to make room for others. This is fairly typical for girls and women. On the other hand, many men are very comfortable taking up as much space as possible, indeed actively splaying themselves casually, in public."
Meanwhile, Roxanne Gay observes that "What men want, America delivers," saying:
"The United States is supposedly predicated on the notion of inalienable rights but we have ample evidence that the rights of women are and always have been alienable. Robin Thicke sings about what he knows a woman wants. Fine. Daniel Tosh encourages his fans to touch women lightly on the stomach and film themselves doing so. Fine. Ken Hoinsky believes persistence is a virtue. Fine. Texas governor Rick Perry says, of Senator Wendy Davis, “She was the daughter of a single woman. She was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas Senate. It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” Fine. In Ohio, any woman seeking an abortion must get an ultrasound. If she has complications from an abortion, she must go to a private rather than public hospital. In North Carolina, pending legislation would require a physician to be in attendance for both medical and surgical abortions. In Texas, if what is now HB2 passes, all but five of the state’s abortion clinics will close. The legislators pushing these initiatives are just looking out for women. Men want to protect women — unless of course, they want to grab those women’s asses. 
Lighten up. Men want what they want."
These pieces, to me, are intricately connected, and reading them back to back I came to a realization about why many men's sitting habits in public spaces, especially shared public spaces like trains, has been so irritating to me.

It's a near-daily occurrence for me to be sitting on a train next to a man who, obliviously or not, has his legs splayed wide open, invading - or trying to invade - the seat next to him. And to be clear, rarely is this space traversal a matter of his size. For, if a person, of any gender, truly requires more room, I think a reasonable person shouldn't get irritated by that.

My issue is with men, and in my experience it's always been men, who, for instance, sit with their legs spread widely apart on the train, sometimes whilst even reading a wide-open newspaper (who even reads a paper newspaper anymore?), taking up much more space than their bodies physically requires, while expecting the woman (usually) next to them to shrivel up and contort themselves so as not to intrude on the Man's Space.

These days, my usual approach when sitting next to such men is to meet their legs with resistance, to let him know that he's traversing polite boundaries, and to remind him that he's sitting next to an actual human being who has also paid full fare and is entitled to a full seat of her own too.

A man sitting in this manner on a train is, to me, a symbolic conclusion to the pervasive "what men want, America delivers" conditioning that cultivates entitlement in men. Why else would a man be sitting like that if he didn't think it's his world and women are just living in it? It's a regular microaggression.  A constant reminder that when men want what they want, it's largely seen as women's job to just deal with it, work around it, and fit themselves into the man's world.

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