Space: The Female Frontier

Space and how much you are comfortable taking up is a huge feminist issue. Notoriously, men seem more comfortable with taking up more space then women. Women tend to try to make themselves small and un-intrusive. It’s a lot to do with gender roles and privilege. Women are often taught from a very young age to sit in certain ways, to keep their elbows tucked in, to not be too loud and hyper. Whereas, boys are very rarely corrected for sitting with their legs wide open, or for their arms taking up too much space. People tend to also be more lenient with how rambunctious their boys can be.

When we become adults, we bring with us these habits. More importantly, we don’t realize that one gender has learnt an extreme form of restraint, where the other has been encouraged in an extreme form of indulgence. This is where male privilege comes in. And men, before you get defensive I’ve already explained that this is something you were conditioned to be so it’s not your fault, but you can change it by listening up for a moment: I, as a female, over-think how much space I take up. You, as a male, rarely even give it a passing thought. You, therefore, are lucky. Another word for that is … *drum roll please*…. privileged!

Recently I was reminded of this fantastic blog, Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train which opened a dialogue about micro-aggressions and public spaces with my partner.

Firstly, if you don’t know me or my partner, then I need to inform you that my partner is big man. He takes up a lot of space. He’s 6 foot tall, and his shoulders are comparable to a rugby players. But do you know what? When he gets on public transport he has a variety of methods to make himself more accommodating to other people. He hunches forward on the bus so that his shoulders don’t take up too much room, he will stand if he feels that the seats are too overcrowded, he doesn’t sit with his legs wide open – he, like many of us, tries to be polite and make himself less intrusive in small public spaces. Not that he feels guilty for being too big, he just doesn’t want to intrude into others personal space. 

Now, this is ingrained into him from childhood (probably because he has awesome friends and family who likewise follow suit), however, he was very unaware of the extent women go to in public spaces to make themselves smaller. And not just accommodating small like he tries to do, but teeny-tiny-I-wish-I could-just-be-minus-a-person type of small.

After flicking through a few of the pictures and showing him some examples: Bag on lap, legs crossed, elbows tucked in, one arm holding the other arm in etc. I then blurted out: “Sure, sometimes it gets so bad on the Vancouver buses that I don’t even wear an extra layer because it’ll make me bigger”.

Yes, you heard me correctly – sometimes I won’t wear a jumper underneath my coat because it’ll make me bulkier. And I don’t mean that it’ll make me look fat, no. I’m aware that a jumper under my coat just makes me look like I’m wearing layers and not that I weigh more. I’m not that self-conscious… anymore. But it does make me bulkier in small spaces. Not that I should care. I’m cold. I need layers. My coat is too light. I should wear a jumper underneath. Simple. As.

But no. It’s not.

I’ve been trained to be as small and as un-intrusive as I possibly can. I taught myself to cross my legs like the other girls, because that made me smaller, even though it was horribly uncomfortable at first and probably terrible for my circulation.

I also had to teach myself how to sit on the ground in a certain way. I was a sitting on the ground with my legs folded underneath me type of child. You know the type: Knees out to the side, book in the middle as I read – very unseemly for a lady. But hey, it was comfortable! Yet, I distinctly remember at assembly, sitting on the ground in a line with all my other classmates and thinking “all the girls actually sit with their legs to the side. They look smaller this way so I’m going to copy it” – and I did and I was uncomfortable and I would spend the whole 20-30 minutes wishing I could just sit the way I wanted to.

So if you think that gender roles stop at “Mammy in the kitchen and Daddy fixing fence”, you’re wrong. They leak into your very being, and in particular: Your concept of space.

This isn’t something you actively notice yourself doing, by the way. It isn’t like I’m even hyper aware that I’ve even considered being too bulky on the bus. I just do it because that’s how my brain has been conditioned to think. I’m an actively identifying feminist who actively participates in feminist issues and tries her best to break the mold where she can, and still, I make decisions on my clothes that are dictated about how much space I should take up.

HOW FUCKING RIDICULOUS IS THAT??? *Makes mental note to try to stop such behavior*

But the conversation with my partner trailed off after that as I remembered an incident that had happened to me just before Christmas: an incident that only now do I read as a battle for space…

I was walking down Robson street, doing some Christmas shopping after an eight hour shift in work. I was tired and hungry but I knew what I wanted to get and thought I’d get it done today rather than take on the weekend when the crowds would be even worse. As I walked down the path I noticed a guy a good bit ahead of me on the side of the street talking on the phone. He had a dog on a lead and I noticed that another man approached from the opposite direction with a dog on a lead (I love dogs, and currently miss mine SO much, so this is probably why I noticed them).

The second man approaching, leashed in his dog, aware that the two seemed to be slowly edging towards each other on a busy path. He also moved to the other side of the path to try and put some distance between the two animals. What did Mr. Phone Call do?? He gave his dog enough leash so that it could walk right across the path to sniff the other dog’s butt. At first I thought, “oh he wasn’t paying attention, he’ll pull him in now” and therefore kept walking in the same direction. The dog seemed to lose interest and start to pull away from the new dog, only to run back to him at the last moment. This left me to walk nearly straight into the leash. I stared up at the man in disbelief and thought: This is a busy shopping district. This is a path. Am I really going to have to walk around this one douchebag and his dog because he feels that he has the right to talk up the whole path?

At this point I noticed a few people on either side of me hop onto the street to walk around the ordeal. But I was caught right at the leash, I would have to back track around this man to get out of the way, rather than just change my direction. So, what did I do, you ask? Well, in my own stubborn as fuck way I just stared at Mr. Important Phone Call. And soon he was made uncomfortable enough that he pulled the leash in. BUT, my rebellion didn’t end there guys. When I walked by him I deliberately rolled my eyes and shook my head. I KNOW I’M SUCH A REBEL #CRAZYFEMINISTREVOLUTIONARY

Suprisingly, this lovely and considerate gentleman STARTED TO SCREAM AT ME. Yup. His argument went something like: “YOU COULD’VE JUST WALKED AROUND. DON’T SHAKE YOUR HEAD AT ME YOU BITCH”. I was actually in shock. This fucker who took up the whole fucking path, was actually TELLING me to walk AROUND him and his dog. I didn’t know what to say. I stood at the lights as he screamed at me and put my head down – I was so embarrassed. Maybe I should’ve just walked around but it didn’t seem right for some reason.

My non-response provoked a stranger to scream back in my defense, obviously having witnessed the exchange himself. He told the man to stop being a douchebag and that he should have moved his dog off a public and busy path so that people could walk. They screamed about it for a while until the lights turned and I ran across that street so fast.

The whole thing left me a little shaken. I’m not great in crowds, and I’m definitely not deliberately confrontational (although, I’m working hard to defend myself in certain situations, the above story being a small example of this).

It wasn’t until I applied the idea of space to this whole scenario did I realize what had actually happened. This douchebag, with his douche-y male privilege, demanded I, as a woman, concede space to him. When I didn’t, it became a big deal… BECAUSE NO BODY CHALLENGE A MAN’S RIGHT TO SPACE!?

I wish I had been more in tune with the moment to reply to his challenges, but I was so startled that my small act of defiance had so enraged him that I didn’t know what to say. All I knew was that I didn’t think it right that I be made to walk around this dickhead and his dog. I had every right to walk down that street. I had a right to that space to manoeuvre and he had no right to take that away from me.

When I went to get my bus I actually purposely crossed the street to walk down the opposite side of the road just in case he was still there. I felt that his screaming at me was a way for him to regain the little bit of power that I had gained by forcing him to move his dog. It was as if, by the use of his voice, he could invade my space in another way. And I guess we have to remember that, in a way, that’s what street harassment does: It invades your personal space in a way that is so intrusive and hurtful.

So, have you ever experienced these type of micro-aggressions? What are your thoughts on space and gendered thinking? Leave us some comments and join the dialogue!

3 thoughts on “Space: The Female Frontier

  1. Hey
    There’s a lot of interesting ideas here, (and it’s very sweet to think of my giant cousin concerned about others’ personal space on public transport), but I find the conclusive tone of the points raised a little alienating. Even as a female who relates to a lot of these experiences, my rational mind questions every statement made.
    For me it would be more engaging if there were space to consider the ideas you’re exploring, rather than being told them as facts in black and white. It’s quite possible the man on the street felt he deserved the entire pathway as a result of being raised a man- it’s also possible he comes from a wealthy, self-important family and perhaps his sister or mother would act similarly, who knows? there are so many variables. You can put the male privilege conclusion on it, but it makes your point weaker when it starts to feel like it’s based on assumptions.

    I find this poem really powerful; it’s the same theme with a lot of similar points and a few more to think about. It successfully makes heavy statements through exposing personal habits and longstanding observations of intimate family life-

    I think you’re doing good work and raising important points- don’t feel like you have to prove ideas as infallible … they will feel stagnant, and there is always more to learn. Open discussions can be far more affecting.


    • I agree. It is a very personal, singular example I’m giving of MY experience and connection with space, and that one man COULD have very well been a particularly privileged-in-so-many-other-ways type! But what struck me to make such a conclusion was the very simple fact that … I can’t actually imagine a woman doing this. It seems completely unfathomable to me. But again, this is MY very personal experience, in general. Hey, maybe you know some women who WOULD do this! I don’t. But everyone has different life experiences. And yes, it reads as fact because that’s how I read it now, not because I have evidence that I can lay at your feet. Which is how a lot of social commentary tends to read as, unfortunately.


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