We’ve all experienced it. A shoulder brush that knocks you painfully to the side; a body in your way, oblivious to the path you were trying to walk; a sidestep, right where your foot was supposed to go next. Space that was yours, invaded. Invaded is a harsh word to use, but it is a harsh action to experience as well. Society tells women that they must be small in every way. Verbally, in how they speak and voice opinions. Socially, in how they act and present themselves. And physically, in how much space they are allowed to take up. We are told to be so small, it’s like we aren’t even here, like no one can even see us.
But I see you. I see you, girl on the M-Bus, with her legs turned toward the wall, leaning away from the stranger taking up his space and then some. Your seat is a foot and a half wide, and you shouldn’t have to share it. I see you, girl at the recreation center, waiting by the door in your leggings because another boy took the machine you’ve been waiting on for the past 20 minutes. The leggings are cute, and it was your turn. I see you, girl in class, with your bag on the floor and your hands in your lap because the boy next to you has claimed half the table. I see you, girl who makes space for someone disregarding yours. I see you, girl feeling invisible.
The invasion of space, both physically and socially, is so common that we have words for it. “Manspreading” and “mansplaining” are newly coined terms to describe men over-stepping both physically and in conversation. With both terms, they are holding more space for themselves than they should. The problem is, the bigger someone makes themselves, the smaller the people around them are forced to be. In “Shrinking Women,” Lily Myers says that “she wanes while (he) waxes,” and that women have been “taught accommodation,” a scene displayed with crossed arms and legs, folding in to be less. Women spend more time watching for others in their path while walking than men do, and stay within their bounds of the sidewalk more as well. It is clear that this problem persists in life all around, but what is to be done about it?
This societal issue is hard to correct because it is subconsciously ingrained. One cannot fix the behavior before they are aware of the behavior, and thus unintentional behavior will require an intentional correction. Personal space, as is denoted in the name, is individual to each person, making it subjective and often subconscious. It is natural and acceptable to have different levels of comfort regarding personal space. However, we need to prioritize spatial awareness. We must make a conscious effort to notice and respect the space of those around us. This includes monitoring our own behavior, as well as that of others.
Dr. Joanne Motiño Bailey, lecturer in the Women and Gender Studies Department at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Lisa Kane Low, professor within the School of Nursing at the University, present seven feminist strategies in “Gynecologic Health Care” that have been researched and found to enact the type of difficult social change that this situation calls for. One of these strategies is to analyze one’s own role or relationship to the issue. This can be done by anyone, of any gender, to support women. Ask yourself, what connection do you have to the issue, and how do you act because of that? Men may take up more space than warranted in this context compared to women, perhaps unintentionally.
To implement this feminist strategy as a man, one might recognize his role in this issue, and then consciously decide to make space for others. For a woman, applying this strategy could be to recognize her position in this dynamic, and then to speak up about it. It is also important to advocate for others who may have a harder time asking for space. Speaking out does not need to be confrontational or unkind, and demanding space is not rude. Addressing the issue comes before resolving it. With intention and respect for all in mind, we can create an environment that is more comfortable for everyone around.
To the women reading this, my message to you is that it is okay to take up space. You don’t have to be short or thin or tiny. Be strong, be capable. You don’t have to move; you are entitled to that bus seat just like any other student. You don’t have to yield; you were walking there first. You don’t have to shrink; that’s your personal space. You don’t have to make yourself smaller because others want you to be. It’s okay to take up space.
Amy Edmunds is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com