A lesson re-learned on gender and space

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Melbourne (a city in southern Australia). It’s a gorgeous city; you can read about some of what I did and see a few pictures from the trip here. But just now I want to tell you a small story about the flight.

My friend E and I, after an eventful train ride to the airport, finally made it to the departure lounge. We dragged our luggage along, looking for two seats side by side. We found one seat. The seat next to this one was occupied by a single water bottle. The seat next to that one was occupied by a man. We rolled up and paused, waiting for the man to remove his bottle. He did not. Well, okay, a minor rudeness. I said ‘excuse me, can you move your water bottle?’ And he did. E and I sat down and waited for out flight to be called.

There’s an announcement from the airline staff: they’re calling for pre-boarding for disabled and young folk who can’t get on planes so easily. The first two people to march up were two young blokes in business suits. Now, I guess they could both have needed accommodations and I just wasn’t reading them that way, which would be fair enough. It’s really more about what they represented to E and me, the trend rather than the individual. We stayed back and wait for the line to shorten and then we made our way onto the plane.

On the plane, we were seated next to a young man; he was the one with the window seat, lucky creature. I was very excited to see all the clouds outside the plane window, having not done this flying gig since I was a girl! As we were getting ready to leave, he angled his leg so it was obscuring a good part of the window. Through the flight, the man next to us burst into peels of laughter over whatever he was listening to on his earphones.

Towards the end of the flight, I felt a tug at my seatbelt. I turned around and ask the guy behind me to take his foot off the base of my seatbelt, which he did pretty promptly.

Off the plane, we made it to where we were staying and decided to have a look around. We were walking down the street when the man walking in front of us slowed down and I didn’t. We bumped into each other. It was mostly my fault, but he apologised profusely. I made a small acknowledgement and E and I were surprised into silence.

Men take up space, lots of space. They’re taught to spread arms and legs all over the place, make wide gestures, power through crowds. They’re taught to expect everyone to get out of their way and be affronted when that doesn’t happen. I, a woman, have learned to shrink and move aside and squeeze myself to be as small as possible, feel bad for taking up the space I need.

Futher reading: See Jet Silver’s untitled poem on gender and space.

101 comments for “A lesson re-learned on gender and space

  1. Bitter Scribe
    July 19, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Interesting. I always thought this take-up-a-lot-of-space thing was an American mannerism, perhaps echoing our country’s wide-open spaces.

    Maybe it’s a male thing, not an American thing. OTOH, I’ve heard that Australians are somewhat like Americans in terms of aggressive self-assurance, not to mention having of plenty of wide-open space of their own.

    Some clever anthropology student might get a grant out of this.

  2. July 19, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    It’s a male thing. I’ve seen it on four continents and multiple cultures. I do my best to take up as much of the seat I’m sitting in and to spread myself pretty largely in my train/airplane seats when I’m next to men, forcing the have to work around me. It gets me a lot of nasty looks. Oh well. Not my problem. And now they know how it feels.

  3. Paraxeni
    July 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    I found myself apologising for my wheelchair yesterday. It was an intense triple-combo of internalised genderfail/ableism mixed with ‘queerness minimisation’ because not only was I in the man’s way, but as I jerkily moved I grabbed a table for support, rather than my partner who was closer. I’m generally the wisecracking, proud and fierce wheeldyke, but family religious celebrations (as thankfully rare as they are) tend to flip my mind back into that of the seven year old me desperately trying to be a ‘good girl’ in order to win approval.

    It seems like you can take the fat, gay, gimp out of the abusive family’s environment, but you can’t ever scrub 100% of the family mindset out of the FGG.

  4. July 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    “They’re taught to expect everyone to get out of their way and be affronted when that doesn’t happen.”

    When I was younger, to test this theory I would purposely not move out of the way for men. I’m a smallish person, accustomed to not taking up a lot of space and squeezing out of the way for anyone bigger. I got slammed into a lot. Granted, most guys apologized, even profusely, but I didn’t realize how invisible I was by not claiming space.

  5. Kristen J.
    July 19, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Maybe it’s a male thing, not an American thing.

    The clearest example I ever saw (and the one that convinced my SO that this was not just a coincidental thing) was watching people in airport waiting area seats. Walk around and look at how people sit. A significant portion of men will stretch their legs out as far as possible into the walking area whereas very few women will do the same Oddly male teens are the “worst” in this particular instance.

  6. July 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Uff. So damn true. One of my biggest peeves is when I have to ask a guy TWICE to pull his chair in closer to the table to make room for me to pass because the first time I get about a foot to squeeze through…

  7. Emily WK
    July 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    When I was younger, to test this theory I would purposely not move out of the way for men.

    I do this sometimes. Not as much lately since I am pregnant and kind of huge, so people avoid me, but before, I would brace myself and just watch as three dudes in suits taking up the entire sidewalk would come toward me and the one closest to me would just slam into my shoulder. Body checking strangers for funsies!

    I wish there were a way that I could explain to men on the bus that if they could just move their leg over, I wouldn’t have to sit half in the aisle to avoid touching them the entire trip. Gaaah.

  8. gomi
    July 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    There are certain exceptions to this rule, though. I’m a big guy (broad shoulders, long legs, etc), so I’ve had the habit since I was a teen (and really started to sprout) of making myself as small as possible. I’ve been bumped and squeezed so often that I purposefully fold myself into smaller spaces to lessen the impact I have on those around me. I’ll lean forward on flights, so my shoulders don’t push my seatmates, for example. The male habit gets trained out when we’re constantly getting pushed by those we unintentionally smother.

    (Granted, I still stretch my legs out into aisles and stuff, provided no one’s walking there, because my knees hurt on long flights.)

  9. Wehaf
    July 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I wish there were a way that I could explain to men on the bus that if they could just move their leg over, I wouldn’t have to sit half in the aisle to avoid touching them the entire trip.

    Have you tried “Excuse me, could you move your leg over a bit so I have some more room? Thanks.” We’re not only socialized to not take up space, but to not ask for more space when we need it. But why shouldn’t you ask for more space? Why should you be sitting only halfway on the seat because the guy next to you is sitting as if his testicles are so big they require his legs to be spread 90 degree apart? Challenge this social conditioning in small ways, and you show the men and women around you that it exists, and that it can be challenged.

  10. July 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Body checking strangers for funsies!

    Yes! The last time I wasn’t careful to get out of a man’s way (we were both approaching a street corner at the same time, and I got there a split second before he did), he shoved me into the street. Like actually for reals. Another man looked on and laughed.

    I also see this with my students a lot; the male students are usually the ones who keep talking long after they’ve made their point, or sigh loudly and mutter rude comments when I’m not paying attention to them and their perceived needs.

  11. Emma
    July 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot when I was still taking the tube to work but I used to brush it off and think it may be just me…
    So it definitely feels good to read this now.

  12. July 19, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    YES! Thank you for putting into words a phenomenon that is constantly driving me crazy. I attend school at a rather conservative campus (in Utah) where the men take great pride in being chivalrous. And yet, I am routinely nudged off the side walk when two men walk toward me, spread just enough apart from one another that I can’t walk around or between them.

    They act very surprised when I don’t move out of their way. But I think Erica has the right idea by taking up the space on a plane that is rightfully hers. If women are taught to cater to others’ needs all the time, and we all step out of the way for men, can we blame men for thinking they’re the center of the universe?

  13. July 19, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I’d be interested to hear from anyone who isn’t of binary gender and their experiences in this realm! :)

  14. Emma
    July 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Sorry for double-posting, but I just remembered this one particular episode that left me really angry.

    I was on the train back home, had my suitcase, a big bag and a handbag with me. I had to change and was lucky enough to find an unoccupied double seat, so I stored my suitcase in the foot space of the seat next to me, where I put my bags. The next stop a guy came on, walked through the carriage and stopped at my seat to ask if the seat next to me was free.
    This was in itself ridiculous, because quite obviously it wasn’t, and while it may have been rude of me to take up that much space for me and my belongings, there were plenty of double seats with only one person in them and light luggage or just a small bag. I was actually too baffled to tell him that no, there is no space, and just said that uh.. if he could help me put my big bag up in the storage room.. He happily did but there was still my suitcase in the foot space of his seat, so I had to move it to mine, and as a result I had to sit cross-legged for the whole train ride until the next stop, while he whipped out his laptop, made himself comfortable and didn’t even bother to apologize for the inconvenience. Needless to say, he didn’t care about the little space I still had left and brushed against my knee and leg all. the. time.

    I was so angry. It probably wasn’t right for me to occupy two seats when there were storage locations provided, but I am tiny, and cannot heave a heavy suitcase up there myself, and I didn’t want to ask anyone to help me, since I had to change after half an hour anyway and for other reasons I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. So when this guy came up to me I didn’t want to be rude and tell him that I’m sorry but he should please ask one of the other people to remove their bags, as it’s more inconvenient for me, because I felt as if I unrightfully occupied so much space for me anyway.

  15. July 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Well, you hit the nail on the head. It’s an amazing phenomenon, really. When I think of my son and my daughter as little people, Little Man was perpetual motion, leaping, jumping, climbing (usu. in reverse order!) whereas Tweenie (a teen now) was curling up and cuddling, skipping and twirling. Very different from moment one. (But maybe that’s just my babies?) Add social conditioning, and it’s a powerful package from which to break out. When we are assertive, we women are “bitchy,” and the biggest boy insult from my days working jr. high is, sadly, “That’s so gay!” We have a long way to go to level the playing field for all of our kids. Fascinating topic.

  16. Courtney
    July 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Whoa, I was JUST informing some gentlemen I associate with about this yesterday. (It was a public service announcement.) I get run off or nearly run off the sidewalk DAILY here in Boston. I’m not a small person and you’d think I would be fairly hard to miss.

    The only guy in this group who had any clue that it’s good to be aware of the space you take up and how that may impact other people was the big, tall fellow of the group, so you are definitely onto something, Wehaf.

  17. Emily WK
    July 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Wehaf:
    Have you tried “Excuse me, could you move your leg over a bit so I have some more room? Thanks.”

    Why should you be sitting only halfway on the seat because the guy next to you is sitting as if his testicles are so big they require his legs to be spread 90 degree apart?

    The problem is that if that causes a bad situation, if the guy takes it poorly and gets really upset about it, I’m stuck sitting next to him, or at the least stuck on the same bus as him, for 15-20 minutes (I commute via express bus, so it isn’t like I could just get off at the next stop – the next stop is the one I’m taking and it’s sometimes up to 40 minutes from the stop I get on).

    So yeah, I would like to be able to have the guts to do that, but sometimes it just isn’t worth the risk.

  18. July 19, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    this reminds me of a lovely experience i had waiting at a bus stop in the wee hours. i was standing back near the wall, and a group of two guys and a girl was near me. the alpha male kept backing up to take up more and more space, getting closer and closer to me and apparently unaware of it. when one more step put his back actually against my breasts, i said “excuse me.”

    he whirled around and got right up in my face and lectured me for ten minutes on how i didn’t deserve personal space because there were 250 million people in the city, so why did i think i got to ask someone to move, was this making me nervous, how about THIS, didn’t i understand that he was a phd student at the university of chicago, and where exactly was i a student? telling him that i had graduated from the university of chicago finally made him back off a little bit, and made me want to set my diploma on fire.

    it was another half hour before the bus came, during which i tried to hide the fact that i was crying (i had been raped by someone who was super proud of our alma mater less than a year before).

    i still wonder what the girl with him was thinking.

  19. Alexandra Lynch
    July 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    This is why being fat is feminist for me. Taking up space in the world in a way that cannot really be compromised is a political gesture for me. Interestingly, when I say that I like being fat because I take up room, women nod, and men look baffled.

    Also interestingly, I had someone surprised when I said something about my husband in conversation. He had read me as lesbian because I take up room and stretch out my legs, don’t wear heels or miniskirts, and don’t send the signals of cuteness and minimization.

  20. July 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I am really conscious of this too – I feel that as a fat woman I get a double-whammy of disapproval about taking up any space.

    On a different but related note – my husband asked me recently when I thought his sister (who is ten years old) should learn to keep her legs closed rather than sitting cross-legged or with her legs spread out on the floor. I think he was talking about her flashing her underwear to the room in the course of playing/lounging around, and, granted, there are practical aspects to negotiating modesty if you’re wearing a skirt, but she’s ten, and was wearing perfectly decent underwear (and in this country it’s fine to just wear a swimsuit at the beach, which doesn’t cover more than underwear) so I don’t think it’s really a big deal. Anyway, that really got me thinking about how not only are we socialised to take up less space, but the gendered clothing that we may wear and also the types of activities we are conditioned to favour, play a strong role in dictating how we move and place our body parts.

    I told my husband that, unfortunately, pretty soon his sister will learn on her own that it’s not acceptable to sit with her legs apart in many settings.

  21. herong
    July 19, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    When I lived in Ukraine, my friend used to call what the men did on the mini-busses “Big Balling.” They’d spread their knees so widely as if to say “CHECK OUT MY HUUUUUUUGE TESTICLES!! They’re simply too big to fit between my legs.” My friend would play the game right back at them, but predictably, they would either take it as a come-on or the leg-fight would last for the full 8-hour trip, exhausting my friend.

  22. Bagelsan
    July 19, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    I wish there were a way that I could explain to men on the bus that if they could just move their leg over, I wouldn’t have to sit half in the aisle to avoid touching them the entire trip. Gaaah.

    Granny Weatherwax says hatpins do just fine. And if I were a badass witch I would totally stab dudes in the legs* like all the time. :D (But more realistically? I got nothing.)

    *if they’re lucky.

  23. humanespresso
    July 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    The must-take-up-space phenomenon is actually such a huge (though subliminal) part of what people perceive as “male” that I always make sure to cover it in convention panels for people planning to costume as a different gender. It’s amazing how much of a difference the way you carry yourself makes in the believability of a costume.

    In everyday life, I still find it REALLY hard to not subconsciously bow to conditioning and make my tiny body take up even less space, just so I don’t bother anybody.

    @abby #18: Holy moly, what an entitled blowhard. I’m really glad you stood up to him, even though he probably forgot all about the exchange five minutes later.

  24. CM
    July 19, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Don’t let yourself get nudged off the sidewalk! Just keep walking. Or stop and stand right in the middle and let them go around you. If you get bodychecked, say “HEY!” (This usually gets an “Excuse me” or at the VERY least, an apologetic look.)

    Like other commenters, I started consciously doing this. Now I only get out of the way if I feel the person needs me to (parent with a stroller, person on crutches, etc. — not just two guys taking up the whole sidewalk).

  25. July 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Awesome piece. Very relevant.

  26. July 19, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    That’s not always possible, CM: see Emily’s and abby’s comments.

  27. July 19, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Also: thanks, everyone!

  28. williamx
    July 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    So . . . men take up too much space. Is that like women talk too much?

  29. Ben
    July 19, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Please consider what you’re writing: you’re judging all men (including myself) on the basis of a few encounters. Would you judge all black folks or all Catholics on the basis of a few encounters? Isn’t that the very basis of racism/sexism/bias?

  30. July 19, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    williamx: no.

    Ben: I’m not judging men on the basis of a few encounters, I’m using a small snippet from my life to point to what behaviours are taught to people. Clearly not everyone adheres to these: see both the post and this thread for that.

  31. williamx
    July 19, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Fair enough. It did seem like you were stereotyping all men with the statement “Men take up space, lots of space. They’re taught to spread arms and legs all over the place, make wide gestures, power through crowds. They’re taught to expect everyone to get out of their way and be affronted when that doesn’t happen.”

  32. Kristin A
    July 19, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    Well, as a woman who was socialized male, there’s no point I can remember where there was any sort of schooling on How To Take Up Space. That’s not to deny that there are those guys who stick out like proverbial sore thumbs, for example taking up more than one seat on the London Underground, legs akimbo. They’re probably all the more noticeable due to said extremities being all over the place. It’s akin to vocal minority syndrome, if you will.

    Personally, I’m pretty huge but always try to take up less space; perhaps all part of the trans thing. Just please don’t recline the economy airline seat in front; I can’t dislocate limbs or implode at will!

  33. Marksman2010
    July 19, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    “i still wonder what the girl with him was thinking.”

    Most likely she was thinking he was one of the most attractive men she’d ever known.

  34. July 19, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    As a fat woman who is dyspraxic and so whose body was never able to learn feminine space saving behaviour, this is quite tricky territory for me.

    Around people I know, particularly feminists there’s a common use of the metaphor of taking up space to include time and so on – in much the way Julie uses it comment 10. There is lots of criticising people for taking up too much metaphorical space.

    That metaphor use really gets to me. The scarcity mentality is damaging – there should be metaphorical space for all our words ideas and thougths. There is nothing wrong, I want to say, in taking up space, I do take up more space than you and there’s no shame in that, don’t use that as a way of saying ‘domineering’.

    In terms of literal space, I have some of the same sorts of reactions. There should be enough space for everyone – and when there’s not that’s not because individuals are taking too much – but structures are not big enough for all who use them.

    I find I need to recast the problem from ‘taking up too much space’ to ‘using other people’s space’ to eliminate the scarcity mentality.

  35. July 19, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    I find I need to recast the problem from ‘taking up too much space’ to ‘using other people’s space’ to eliminate the scarcity mentality.

    I like that. Thanks.

  36. Bonn
    July 20, 2010 at 12:06 am

    I remember this was one of the things I learned in a class on “sex roles.” Men take up space and women make themselves as small as possible.

    This is totally true even here in Japan. I’ve had to squeeze myself into tiny bits of seat on the train because guys just need to air their balls out. I look around now and watch how men sit with their legs wide open and their arms folded. I kept slamming my leg into one guy’s leg because he was encroaching on my space, and he just took it as a come on. I’ve had guys sit ON me.

    And the sidewalk! It is not uncommon for 4 or 5 guys to walk together and not even move over to let someone pass. A lot of people just go into the street to go around them. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to stand behind telephone poles to avoid groups of guys, especially schoolboys. And bicycles.

    These days I don’t move over more than I have to on the sidewalk. But there’s other cultural stuff at work here. My favorite (by which I mean the one I hate most) is the, “If I don’t see you, you’re not there and it’s not my fault.” So the pedestrian/bicyclist simply stares at their phone and anyone who gets in their way, well, it’s their fault if they get hit.

    A lot of people also stop and park bicycles or strollers or whatever else in the middle of the sidewalk. This is part of the soto/uchi business (uchi are your family and coworkers and people who matter, and soto are everyone else who doesn’t matter). Being troublesome (meiwaku) only matters if it affects people who actually know you. So being meiwaku to the soto people doesn’t matter at all unless they happen to know where you work and complain to your boss (it happens–piss off your neighbors enough and your boss might get a call). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone ride in front of me, stop, and park a bicycle right in my path. Like I’m not even there. And this isn’t male/female. Women do this one just as much as men. This one is just cultural.

    The other stuff is more gendered, but slightly cultural. (Large groups who are all together are not likely to move over for strangers.)

  37. July 20, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Maia, I think I understand what you’re saying, but I should point out that in a classroom setting, scarcity can be a big issue. I often have to cut a discussion short because the period is ending or I need to cover other material, which means that if outgoing students aren’t careful to keep their points concise, quieter or more hesitant students get little or no temporal space. (I will acknowledge, though, that it’s my duty as an educator to make sure everyone who wants to talk gets a chance, and I do my best.)

  38. Anne
    July 20, 2010 at 1:00 am

    I don’t think this is something men are taught in ways they notice.
    If a boy comes in and flops down in a chair with his legs in everyone’s way, no one will say anything to him so his behavior is reinforced and deemed acceptable. He probably won’t realize that he’s taking up more space than he needs after a lifetime of rarely being corrected.
    If a girl flops down and gets in the way, someone will correct her fairly quickly every single time. After a lifetime of being policed, she’s very aware of how much space she is supposed to take up.
    Women are socialized to constantly care about other’s feelings and that we’re the ones who are supposed to navigate social situations to make sure everyone else is comfortable. Taking up little space and moving out the way are part of the whole “Women are supposed to take care of everyone” mentality that men aren’t subjected to.

    Obviously, there are exceptions to that. I would imagine someone who is really tall or large would get an extra dose of shaming for taking up too much space (as if it’s their fault).

  39. July 20, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Julie – I agree about that (although teaching undergrads I far more often have the experience of dragging stuff out of them than stopping someone dominating).

    I do think it’s useful to think about an education model that doesn’t involve scarcity – in fact I think it’s necessary to do so to imagine an education model that takes into account different learning styles and needs. But absolutely that’s not the world we live in now or the conditions we’re teaching under.

    I hear “so and so takes up too much space, most often in meetings.” So that’s where I’ve developed most of my thinking. And I don’t think scarcity is a good model there, even thought people are often on a time limit. You can multiply the time just by dividing into small groups – for example.

    But even aside the question of the usefulness of treating time and attention as scarce. I do think using space as a metaphor for time and attention in a way that casts ‘taking up space’ as a bad thing, is really problematic.

  40. exholt
    July 20, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Maia, I think I understand what you’re saying, but I should point out that in a classroom setting, scarcity can be a big issue. I often have to cut a discussion short because the period is ending or I need to cover other material, which means that if outgoing students aren’t careful to keep their points concise, quieter or more hesitant students get little or no temporal space. (I will acknowledge, though, that it’s my duty as an educator to make sure everyone who wants to talk gets a chance, and I do my best.)

    I’d also like to add that allowing students to take up the most temporal space in classroom not only serves to deprive other less outgoing students of class participation time and practice, but also poorly serves the outgoing students who do take up such space if they are allowed free rein to do so.

    An outgoing student who is not forced by time constraints or consideration of other students to express hirself succinctly tend to be perceived as quite disorganized and sloppy in their written and verbal communications in academic and professional contexts as adults. An issue which tends to cause others to take the writer/speaker less seriously….if they don’t tune hir out first.*

    It is an issue I’ve seen too many undergrads struggle with as a writing tutor and something I’ve been trying to work on myself. Then again, I’ve always felt that there is much more power and authority in succinctly expressing one’s point forthrightly rather than ramble on aimlessly for dozens of minutes or pages without getting to the point ASAP* as I’ve seen classmates and tutoring clients do in class and on papers.

    Then again, I’ve noticed that this is not considered a serious issue with political scientists considering the excess verboseness of many journal articles I had to read as an undergrad.

    * Human attention spans are quite finite. Read somewhere that if you fail to communicate your main points within the first 5-10 minutes, you run a high risk of losing your audience….especially if it is a stranger or a group.

  41. July 20, 2010 at 2:13 am

    I have long legs, and people are always tripping over them. Even when I’m not (briefly) stretching them out, but am trying to take up as little space as possible. The interesting thing is, most of the people who trip over me have one thing in common – they’re men! They just sort of assume that I MUST get out of their way, even when I physically cannot do so.

    Herong – are you talking about marshrutkas? Marshrutkas have taught me to be SO aggressive. ;)

  42. sonia
    July 20, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Some clever anthropology student might get a grant out of this.

    This has been studied quite a lot. It is a dominance thing, occupying space is a characteristic of being dominant. And dominance is strongly linked to mating in male mammals (including humans) so it is not surprising to see men try to occupy as much space they can get away with. It is also interesting to notice groups of men and see who occupies more space and who doesn’t. You can easily pick out who are the dominant people in the group and who are the followers. Also, the same person who takes a wide stance in public may shrink down when walking with his boss.

  43. Ruth
    July 20, 2010 at 4:43 am

    The Underground train where I live is a small one, with a bench along either side of the carriages. It makes how people sit pretty noticeable, especially when a guy’s sitting across from you with his legs out waaaaay to either side, or when two guys are taking up the same length of bench as three women.

    When I used it regularly, I (cis-female gender-queer) experimented with how I sat, and found myself profoundly uncomfortable if I spread my legs more than a few inches past hip-width. And of course if the train was crowded then my legs and arms were firmly tucked in.

    It’s not taking up other people’s space, and propriety, and a (fairly ineffective) defence against casual physical contact, and it’s social rather than innate. And I think the world would be nicer if more men got the same training in consideration for others, but since that’s unlikely, maybe I’ll just spread my legs more.

    Yeah, not the euphemistic way.

  44. timothynakayama
    July 20, 2010 at 4:52 am

    I’m Asian, standing at 180 cm (almost 5’11” something) and am on the slender side.I live in Australia where I am at best incredibly average height for a man, and not really that much taller in comparison to some of the women, and a large majority of Australian women, who, while might be a bit shorter than me, are usually larger than me.

    When it comes to grabbing a seat in the train or bus, I too have been shoved aside, or felt a lady crush into me and taking up more than her share of the seat next to me. Because while I am indeed taller, they simply have more mass than me and take up more space than I would. Out of a lifetime of politeness drilled into me and coming from a more socially reserved culture, I never mention anything, but just take it in stride (much like say, white women would react against white men taking up too much space).

    And yes, I definitely acknowledge that white men took up more space than white women and would be more…insistent about taking up more space than others, as per all the anecdotes from this post.

    Perhaps it’s because, while I am a male, but because of my build, and the whole “Asians are meek” stereotype, I find that it is not only white men who take up more than their fair share of space or shove/bump into me. That’s been my experience, having lived more than 8 years + in Aussieland.

  45. Kaija
    July 20, 2010 at 6:21 am

    Fascinating discussion on a topic I’ve mulled over many times before. Like Kristen A, I was socialized mostly with males…two brothers, athlete, tall and strong, not very “feminine”, and when I hung out with girls, it was amazing how differently they moved through a crowd. I think being tall and having assertive/dominant body language makes a difference and this is a matter of socialization/conditioning. I usually don’t have any problem walking in a city because people generally give me space (and I give other people space as well…my parents were big on manners…we’re midwesterners) most likely because of my height/build and the way I walk. However, on public transport/airplanes, when it comes to seating, I notice the same things discussed here…male seatmates sprawling to take over more than their share, piling their stuff in an area to claim MORE space, not moving to give an adjacent person a little breathing room…I chalk it up to the observation that when I’m sitting and not moving (no stature, no assertive body movement), I’m not as noticeable, not read as dominantly, and assumed to be “moveable”.

    Not all men behave this way…I’ve noticed men making space for women or politely giving them more personal space as well (and I assume that their parents must have nagged them about “think about others” as much as mine did!).

    Loved the “body checking for funsies” comment! My favorite blurb about this occurred on my university campus when two dudes (and they were “dudes”) were walking abreast, taking up the entire sidewalk) with their golf bags slung around them to take up even MORE room. I was walking the opposite way and when they made no move to yield a path, I just kept to my trajectory, with my shoulder hitting one of them and my midsection hitting the golf bag that was sticking out at stomach level…it literally spun the guy around (I’m an athlete…I know how to set myself for impact…LOL!). And the dude yelled at ME! I simply said “Two-way sidewalk, pal…you lack of manners isn’t my problem” over my shoulder while I kept walking. Oh the fun you can have with the clueless (I try to be amused/amuse myself at their expense rather than working myself up into a state of high blood pressure). :)

  46. herong
    July 20, 2010 at 7:42 am

    @ Natalia – YES. Nothing like 8 hours in the back seat of a marshrutka between two dudes, at least one of which would have been drinking to give one a lesson in space. I do not miss that. On the other hand, I often found that the hierarchy of space was arranged differently, with older women at the top of the pecking order, much different than many societies in the US. Those babas would out Big-Ball any random guy any day.

  47. norbizness
    July 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

    And WHAT’S the deal with AIRLINE FOOD?

  48. July 20, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I suppose having an anxiety disorder makes me a lot less willing to intrude upon anyone’s space, male or female. I’m constantly afraid and worried, so I’d never knowingly invade someone else’s space, because if I did I’d beat myself up over doing so.

  49. July 20, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I’m a short, average-build genderqueer cisfem with a presentation that varies from full femme drag to full male drag. Regardless of what I’m wearing, I tend more toward sprawled-out legs than pulled-in arms.

    I live in New York, where subway seats and sidewalk space are hard to come by. I’ve found that aggressive knitting–needles flying, elbows out–is a great way (and a very female way!) to claim my share of space on public transportation. It probably helps that I’m usually seat-dancing to cranked-up music on my iPod. Being in constant motion definitely reminds people that I exist and encourages them to give me more space.

    On the sidewalk, I nonverbally negotiate space as an equal, but I think most people here do that. Men who bull through without consideration for their fellow pedestrians are pretty universally seen as assholes, not as boys being boys.

  50. July 20, 2010 at 10:07 am

    hmm, not sure what to think of this. on the one hand, i’ve certainly seen this behavior in men before. on the other hand, i’ve seen women doing similar things. more men perhaps, and maybe there is a socialization issue going on here. but

    “Men take up space, lots of space. They’re taught to spread arms and legs all over the place, make wide gestures, power through crowds. They’re taught to expect everyone to get out of their way and be affronted when that doesn’t happen.”

    I don’t remember experiencing something like this so straight forward. I was not deliberately taught to use my body in such a way. Maybe there were subtle cues given that it was ok for me, as a man, to be a space eater, but it’s not so clear cut as all men are told to be big and powerful.

    I just feel this needs to be teased out more.

  51. July 20, 2010 at 10:26 am

    I live in New York, where subway seats and sidewalk space are hard to come by. I’ve found that aggressive knitting–needles flying, elbows out–is a great way (and a very female way!) to claim my share of space on public transportation. It probably helps that I’m usually seat-dancing to cranked-up music on my iPod. Being in constant motion definitely reminds people that I exist and encourages them to give me more space.

    I am totally in favor of claiming your share of space, but doesn’t sticking your elbows out and seat-dancing start to go into other peoples’ space? I also live in NY and ride the subway every day to and from work, usually with two bags (my bag-bag and my gym bag). Gym bag goes on the floor between my feet, and normal bag sits on my lap. Elbows stay in while I read my magazine so as many people as possible can sit down during the train ride. If I’m standing, gym bag still goes on the floor between my feet so that I’m not taking up room with two bags. It drives me up a wall when other people on the train can’t seem to extend the basic courtesies of closing their knees (dudes, your balls are NOT that large) or putting one of their large bags on the ground (or at least on their lap instead of on the seat next to them). Lately I’ve been seeing people with their laptops out on the train — which is all fine and good, unless when you’re typing your elbows are flying sideways. And this is during rush hour, when we’re all packed in like sardines.

    Totally agreed that women should not have to take up less room than they deserve. I constantly find myself shrinking down and making myself as tiny as possible so as not to bother others. But taking up more room that you really need at the expense of other people, especially on a place like the New York City subway (because why? Because men do it too often?) doesn’t seem feminist to me, it just seems rude.

  52. Charlie
    July 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

    For clarification: just because someone doesn’t remember that they are distinctly “taught” something doesn’t mean that they weren’t schooled in it.
    Children mimic adults, especially those of the same gender that they are being socialized as. When a child sees that “all” men sit wide and “all” women sit as to take up less space, it becomes a behavior that is copied.

    Those of us with trans experience really learn about these types of behaviors. Trans men have to learn to take up more space, hold their heads up high while walking, elbows out, knees out, etc. Trans women, on the other hand have to learn to keep their body out of the way of others.
    Of course size issues come into play, and these are all generalizations, but being aware and utilizing this information is life-and-death for trans people. The difference between “he” and “she.”

  53. July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Maia, I like the model you’re describing. I’ll think about this issue more.

  54. Ami
    July 20, 2010 at 11:20 am

    This is one of those aspects of society that I am fascinated by. It really shows how genders are socialized differently, and once you know about it, you begin to see it everywhere.

    Take for example, when my partner and I are walking side-by-side on the walkway. When we are approaching other people doing the same thing, it seems that without fail, he stays on his trajectory and I move behind him or step off the walk to allow room for the other people…it just seems to be the gut reaction we make automatically every time…even despite being aware of it!

  55. Lindsey
    July 20, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I love this post! As a woman who is almost 6’1″, therefore taking up a LOT more space than the average woman, the whole public space thing gets interesting for me. I still feel a lot of pressure to take up as little space as possible, even though it is practically impossible for me. I never ever stretch my legs out, I always sit with my legs crossed, as close to my body as possible. The pressure women feel to be thin obviously has a lot to do (everything to do?) with the whole taking up space thing, and I feel a ton of pressure because I’m already big in one way. Men are sometimes visibly upset and offended at how tall I am, because how dare I rival them size wise?!! I’ve been asked how it feels to “be taller than the majority of guys” and I’ve been called a “man” and a “tranny” (sorry to use that word :S) despite the fact that I am “feminine looking” and “conventionally attractive” by society’s standards (sorry for all the quotes too..haha). And if they’re not offended or mad, they still feel the need to comment on it in some way. The good thing is, I’m hardly ever pushed out of the way, even by people bigger than me, because I assert my right to space just by BEING in public space.

    This also reminds me of something I witnessed the other day; this tiny woman was trying to find a seat on the train and she kept getting pushed aside by the men around her. She finally gave up and decided to stand instead. She didn’t even look upset…the look on her face said “yep…just another day”. That’s when I realized that getting pushed around hardly ever happens to me. I have a couple tall friends who say the same thing; they see smaller women being shoved around while we get to take up space “like a man”.

  56. Rose
    July 20, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Some of the behaviours in the above post are just rude, and I’ve seen from people of both sexes: both male and female travellers will put rucksacks on the seat beside them on public transport, and whether or not they move them depends on how much attention they are paying to the world around them and how rude they are as people. I for one am guilty of not moving my bag if I’m engrossed in a book and fail to realise that there is someone hovering next to me, waiting for me to move my bag.

    The sitting with legs apart phenomenon I would agree is perpetrated entirely by men. I appreciate that you need some space around your man bits, but some people do take the piss. “Where did you leave your horse?” is a fairly sharp way of pointing the ridiculousness of excessive ball-airing.

  57. July 20, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Oh man, You should see my office. No one takes up any space, ever. Someone sees anyone coming down the aisle, which is wide enough to accomodate a couple people, and they duck into a cubicle rather than accidentally touch another person. Men and women alike. It’s a strange island of over-politeness.

    Then, of course, you go outside.

  58. benvolio
    July 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I use public transport every day, and since ‘taking up space’ is an interesting topic for me, I pay attention to how my fellow commuters behave.

    Like sonia says above, I’ve often noticed it as dominance behavior. The most frequent other-people’s-space taker uppers are smallish men in suits. The tall fellows, like gomi, are conscious of the extra room they require and behave with that consciousness. But the little dudes seem to have to prove how dominant they are. Also often guilty are teeny-but-beautiful women. The prettier they are, the less they seem likely to be conscious of other people’s space.

    Now, this is all anecdotal, and I can’t be sure that my observations don’t fall into bias-confirmation, but I offer it for what it’s worth.

    And yes, I’ve been yelled at by a man on the streets for walking on what he considered to be the wrong side of the sidewalk. Now, he didn’t yell at any of the hundreds of men that were walking in the same direction on the same side of the sidewalk, but me, I needed a scolding. Because I was the one breaking his rule. And he didn’t perceive that I would be likely to haul off and clock him. I surprised him with an out-loud scoff and a ‘Yo, douchebag!’, which earned the giggles of my fellow pedestrians and the embarrassment of the scolder. A win.

  59. BeccaTheCyborg
    July 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    My experience as a non-binary kind of person (though only coming out like now) is that the more masculine I present, the more room I get given. Unsurprisingly. Though I find when I present more femininely, I tend to actively try to take up space more, and never realized it until this post made me think about it.

  60. leedevious
    July 20, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I notice this when me and my boyfriend are walking around campus or in the city. My boyfriend seems to mow down all the people in his path while I get dragged behind him. Either that or I find myself darting in and out of groups of people trying to keep up with him. I often yell at him “would you watch out for the people?!”

  61. July 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    re: sonia, #42: “It is also interesting to notice groups of men and see who occupies more space and who doesn’t. You can easily pick out who are the dominant people in the group and who are the followers. ”

    once i was waiting for my brother at the airport and his flight was an hour later than i’d expected, so i sat on the floor by the escalator, rather than taking up a seat on the benches by the baggage carousels. the aisle was very wide, so i wasn’t interrupting the flow of traffic, but some people didn’t seem to notice me at all. i decided to take an impromptu survey of who did and didn’t.

    it worked out pretty much the same as what people are saying about who takes up the most space: women and children almost always did, regardless of how tall they were (even kids riding on men’s shoulders!); the more junior members of the little clumps of people in suits usually did; men of color were more likely to; and the one person whose bag i actually had to push away from my face was a white man walking alone.

    i was very proud when, ending my experiment, my brother (a white cis man) broke with type and saw me immediately. :)

  62. SWGM
    July 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Once I was boarding a really crowded flight by myself and looking for an empty seat – any empty seat. I had to ask a man to move his briefcase off the middle seat to overhead storage so I could sit down; he made a big deal about it, like he was doing me a huge favor by only sitting in the seat he had paid for. He then planted his right foot solidly in my leg space and kept it there the entire flight. I have long legs, so this actually did put me out, but I couldn’t seem to gather up the courage to ask him to move, so I just suffered through it.

    That was the most extreme incident, but airplanes and airports are always the worst places for people grabbing space – and yes, in my experience, those people do tend to be men/male-presenting.

  63. Meghan
    July 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t know how many of the rest of you are stubborn, but I always feel like, “screw it, shoulder check!” when someone is refusing to move off of the sidewalk. Now, if they’re smaller than me, I don’t usually do it, as it would present an awkward face-boob thing (and I don’t want to cause injury). I do a pretty darn good job of staying on ‘my side’ of the sidewalk… sidewalks should flow like streets do (maybe if they had little yellow lines painted on them it would be less confusing?)

    I did notice a lot of people who approached a spot to sit or whatever after someone else was already seated there. If you were doing the same and I was in the seat instead of a man, you’d probably come upon the same scene. I’m not big enough to take up a lot of room by any means (at all of 5’6 maybe and about 150), but I take up my fair share of space. I get one seat, my purse and book get the other, and my elbows will take over both armrests… because I can and I’m not encroaching on anyone else’s space. If someone decides to sit directly by me, I’ll give them one armrest (as I feel each of us are entitled to at least one – if the chair on their other side is unoccupied, then lucky them for getting two armrests, but boo for sitting right by me when it’s not necessary and we could BOTH have lots of space). In many of these cases, all you would have to do is ask the ‘space offender’ if they could move over a bit to accommodate you. I’m sure they would gladly oblige. (and yes, I’m aware there are a few exceptions posted here where the men were just ridiculously stupid… BUT I have experienced LOTS of women doing the same thing!).

    I do have to note that Bonn made a good point – I feel like a lot of the sidewalk issues do have some cultural ties. Two cases I’ve noticed: the ‘city’ kids on my campus are a lot less likely to acknowledge the fact that other people exist and feel more entitled to sidewalk room (I attend school in Kansas in a fairly conservative, agriculturally-driven college) than those from a more rural background (you can usually tell by the way the two different parties are dressed); and the cultural phenom mentioned by Bonn. Our campus does an outreach program and recruits many Asian students. When walking by myself, I’ve noticed the large groups of American students are much more likely to squeeze to the side to allow a person to pass by than the large groups of Asian students. I can’t say I’ve had a LOT of experience in that, but I think that’s evidence that there’s a culture involved in it (and Bonn’s post makes my experiences make sense- they don’t know me, I don’t matter to them, they won’t bother!).

  64. Burn
    July 20, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I never realized how much I minimalized the amount of space I took up in public space until I took a safety class from the American League of Bicyclists which emphasized asserting my legal and rightful place in traffic for safety reasons. I grew up in the city, taking public transit–and I still live in the city and take transit, although less often. My survival strategy as a teenager on crowded buses was to back into corners, try to avoid touching anyone at all, get out of the way. It didn’t help that I–like most of the other kids–always had a giant backpack that the elderly ladies on my route would complain about. I couldn’t do anything about the 30 lbs of books I carried around, but I was instantly apologetic and deferential to the adults on the bus (who often had just as much stuff, in the form of groceries, bags, etc.), as if I didn’t count as much as they did as a real passenger. When I learned to drive, I had the same problems with being unassertive/too polite, which meant that I could, for instance, never merge.

    On a bike, though, asserting your place in traffic is a matter of safety. You have to be visible to people who may not be paying attention to you, but you also have to be careful of not being too reckless or being a total asshole lest you rile up drivers with a chip on their shoulder. At least I learned when it was acceptable to take up space, not just for comfort, but for safety. Just because someone behind me is honking doesn’t mean I have to move so far to the right that I’m practically leaning on cars. Just because there’s a bike lane doesn’t mean I can’t leave it if something is blocking it or if I need to make a turn, and it’s helped me see how drivers can feel overentitled to space in the city compared to pedestrians as well. So when I walk down the street, I negotiate my space with other pedestrians and drivers when I need to cross, including making eye contact, rather than apologizing when someone else bumps into me, or waiting on a corner forever to cross even when it’s my right of way. It’s not perfect, and sometimes it’s a gamble, but being aware of my entitlement to space on the road has been empowering.

  65. Scarlett
    July 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Well, as a woman who was socialized male, there’s no point I can remember where there was any sort of schooling on How To Take Up Space.

    I don’t remember experiencing something like this so straight forward. I was not deliberately taught to use my body in such a way.

    Cis female, socialised female here — I can absolutely remember receiving all kinds of schooling on How Not To Take Up Space, and I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one.

    – School uniforms (compulsory dresses) and occasions when family occasions demanded dress-wearing. The clothes, and the reactions of other kids when you played or sat in certain ways while wearing those clothes, carried a certain set of lessons about the ways in which you could and could not move your body without attracting rebuke (“Sit nicely, dear, or everyone will be able to see your underwear!”) or ridicule (“I can see your knicky-nars, swinging on the monkey bars!”). If you spend enough of your childhood dressed in clothes that restrict the ways in which you can move and take up space, it can often take a lot of work to unlearn again when you reach adulthood.

    – Opprobrium from one’s female peers at school for anyone who moved too quickly or forcefully through the corridor, or accidentally knocked into someone without being suitably apologetic (“Pushy bitch, who does she think she is?”), while boys were expected to push and shove and run up and down the halls.

    – Accidental contact with those men-who-spread-their-limbs-out-on-public-transport — often enough, if you’re small and/or conventionally attractive and attempt to claim some of your own space back by not pulling your leg away and shrinking as small as possible, this will be seen as a come-on and an opportunity to start talking to/hitting-on you. When I shrink into myself away from one of the ball-airers, it’s not because I think he has a right to more space than me, but because I don’t want to be on the receiving end of a ‘Howyoudoin” if I can possibly get away without it.

    – So many other occasions that I don’t have time to 101 people through right now — can anyone else help me by adding some?

    In short: Like several other commenters above, I don’t necessarily believe that men have been socialised to deliberately take up ‘extra’ space, but that they *are* benefitting from the ways in which women have been socialised to occupy less space than they deserve in the world.

    Hmm… if only there was some sort of name for that concept… perhaps it could start with ‘p’, and assonate with ‘privet hedge’…

  66. nathan
    July 20, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    “In short: Like several other commenters above, I don’t necessarily believe that men have been socialised to deliberately take up ‘extra’ space, but that they *are* benefitting from the ways in which women have been socialised to occupy less space than they deserve in the world.”

    Yes, this makes sense to me. And the examples listed above it are helpful as well. Thank you.

  67. Kian
    July 20, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    When I transitioned from female to male, I noticed that I was expected to take up more space, not just from other men but from women too. When I walk down a street and am heading straight in the path of a woman, I purposefully give her the right away (but not too obviously). More times than not, she will actually apologize and put her head down which I find more than disheartening. I’m not sure if they think I’m just being chivalrous, nice or trying to prove something, but it’s always a very uncomfortable situation. When I do it with a man, they just move on and probably forget about it as soon as it happens. I am also small for a guy, but if I try to look smaller, I’m seen as ultra effeminate. I’m okay with that, but most guys are not willing to look effeminate in public, which may explain why even ardent feminist men will still occupy more space than they should.

    I think every woman should purposefully take up more space and not apologize for it. It would be so awesome to see on a more regular basis.

  68. john
    July 20, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Interesting article. I would argue that this is not as much an issue of gender but of body-type. Being slender I am often paying attention to oncoming walkers, being in a collision, I would surely be the one to be most knocked off course; so have naturally learned to avoid. If I was of a built body-type, collisions would be the last thing on my mind, if anything it would show off my immovable frame and not be a reason for concern.

  69. jennygadget
    July 20, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    “In short: Like several other commenters above, I don’t necessarily believe that men have been socialised to deliberately take up ‘extra’ space, but that they *are* benefitting from the ways in which women have been socialised to occupy less space than they deserve in the world.”

    While I agree that girls/women being conditioned to make themselves small is a big part of it, I disagree that this is all there is to it. I also think that asserting that this is the only problem is dangerously coming close to blaming women (and others who aren’t supposed to take up space) for their own lack of privilege.

    What women are taught doesn’t explain the assholeness of taking up the entire sidewalk – or treating a refusal to move out of the way as a come on – or responding angrily to a reminder that one is about to smush someone else. Like many intances of sexism, such actions are hardly always or even usually deliberate – but they are also learned behaviors and I do think constitute a certain amount of taking up “extra” space – as in taking up more than your fair share in a time and place where space IS finite.

    And I think this all ties in to the more extreme examples of sexism and space/autonomy: the catcalls that claim women’s bodies as public property, the rape myths that focus on to whether or not a woman said no loudly and consistently enough. All of these go back not only to the fact that women are taught that having to put up with this shit is normal, but also to the fact that men are taught that this is their due – to the point that they are often punished if they act otherwise.

  70. NancyP
    July 20, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I admit that I use small body size to move through slow crowds. It drives me nuts to be around amblers who block the way. Coming through… I do also have a wide stance, yes, there WAS a horse in between my legs once ;), but it’s perfectly possible to adjust to suit crowded conditions. If a genuinely bulky guy (or gal) wants my armrest on an airplane coach seat, I have no problem letting that person have it. I run into a fair number of embarrassed large people trying to fit those tiny seats – why embarrass them further? Normal-sized jackasses, on the other hand, can expect sharp elbows.

  71. Jadey
    July 20, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    I am a cis woman who takes up a lot of space. Even as a young child, I had a huge personal bubble that people seemed reluctant to invade and I was not often challenged on the boundaries of my space. I learned that I was able to walk down the street, usually very quickly with a long stride and my head down, and people would get out of my way. I don’t live in a very crowded city right now, but even when I lived in downtown Vancouver I found that I could pretty much barrel my way through a crowd, or, failing that (line-ups outside of clubs and stuff don’t tend to move much), move into the street/gutter and continue unimpeded, barreling past cars and bikes instead. I almost always sprawl in chairs, elbows and legs. When I wear more feminine clothing, I will close up a bit more (partly for practicality purposes and partly because of social conditioning), and I now try not to actively be a douche about it (e.g., moving to let someone sit next to me on the bus), but I have been socialized to expect a certain amount of personal space will be afforded me. I believe it’s a function of my privilege still, but my class, race, and ability privilege, as opposed to male privilege. I’m not terribly proud of taking up space, because when I do, I’m more likely to be taking it from other women, as opposed to men, and certainly not white, privileged men at that.

    I noticed it first (and most strongly) in classrooms and academic settings – I was usually one of the few students (and frequently the only female student, even in disproportionately female-attended classroooms) who took up “space” in terms of participation in discussions and asking or answering questions. I also noticed that people who took up the least “space” in these classrooms (e.g., quietness, few to zero contributions, quickly stifled comments and minimal participation in discussion) were often POC and women in general. I like the idea of radically taking back one’s own space, but in my experience it’s easy for it to become taking someone else’s space instead. Hell, even on blog commenting to I sometimes start to feel like I’m taking too much space for myself and then go radio silent for a long time. I probably delete unposted three times as many comments on various blogs as I ever submit.

    I think the concept of “space” and oppression is heavily intersectional. Our allowance of “space” seems to be strongly connected to our relative privileges.

    Great post!

  72. July 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    “What women are taught doesn’t explain the assholeness of taking up the entire sidewalk – or treating a refusal to move out of the way as a come on – or responding angrily to a reminder that one is about to smush someone else. Like many intances of sexism, such actions are hardly always or even usually deliberate – but they are also learned behaviors and I do think constitute a certain amount of taking up “extra” space – as in taking up more than your fair share in a time and place where space IS finite.”

    Jenny, I think you’re getting at the missing information I reacted to in the original post. It’s not so much the taking up of space – because there examples of people across the gender spectrum that take up way too much space – but of social perceptions of what these actions mean. It’s probably fair to say that when men take up excessive space, more often than not, they are given a pass. While women who do so are labeled in all sorts of negative ways. It’s really important in my view to be clear that these perceptions are a large part of the problem, because if you just focus on behaviors, it’s easy for people to refute or challenge. However, when you examine the perceptions, in combination with the behavior, the evidence is pretty clear.

    And I think the points made about body types and other intersections also come into play. As a thin man who was raised primarily by women (mother and grandmother), and who has worked in female dominated environments, I tend to contain myself in public places, especially when there are others in close proximity. This is why I initially reacted to the statement that men take up lots of space; it just didn’t fit my experience, and there seemed to be something missing.

  73. maja
    July 20, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I work on a minesite in Western Australia and it’s a fly in fly out situation so I regularly sit next to blokes from work on the plane. It’s true it’s mostly guys who spread their legs out and take up my personal space, but that’s often because their legs are longer. I also have long legs so I need to position my legs creatively for comfort. My fiance gets annoyed by guys who put their arm on the middle arm rest on the plane, he thinks nobody should use it. I used to sit next to a fairly big guy on a regular basis and he never encroached on the space on my side of the seat, which I always found amazing. If a guy like him could keep to his own side, then the skinny younger guys should be able to as well.

  74. karak
    July 20, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    I have openly and loudly said to men I know, and a few I don’t, “Your penis does not need to breathe. I would like to sit here too.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten into the backseat of a car in the tiny middle sit with a man on each side, and they both s-p-r-e-a-d their legs as far apart as possible.

    Fat definitely plays into this too. So many fat women are treated like crap for filling up the same amount of space as a thin man. Waving your legs around does not entitle you space. Your body entitles you to more space. And, in general, my experience tells me that fat people, especially women, are hyperconscious about the amount of space they take up. I’d rather sit next to a woman three times my size than a man my exact size, because I’ll get more space and be treated more courteously.

  75. Anita
    July 21, 2010 at 12:32 am

    Great post. I was just at a concert the other day when I noticed that I kept rubbing shoulders with the guy next to me. I couldn’t move at all without brushing his arm. It’s a concert, you want to move, sway a little bit (nothing wild or obnoxious, mind you). Even my friend wasn’t standing that close to me. When I noticed that he was standing much, much closer to me than to his buddy next to him, I asked if he could move over just a teeny bit. He reacted sarcastically, but did move over when I kept looking at him. However, he then kept trying to talk to me. I politely humored him (as I was still trying to negotiate that space thing with him) until I noticed that midway through the concert we were again brushing arms, but he was now even farther away from his bud than before (I’d say there were now about 10 inches between the two guys). I couldn’t ask my friend to move as she really didn’t have any space on the other side of her. So at this point, I was upset but decided not to ask him again; he seemed like he was just desperate for any attention & not worth a power struggle, and oh, did I mention he had a beer in his hand the whole night? I then realized I could simply move up a bit forward so that I was no longer right next to him, turning my back to him slightly in the process so he could no longer easily talk to me. He did ‘accidentally’ manage to bump me shortly after I did that, but I really didn’t care. Again, not worth my time. Afterward I questioned whether I should have even bothered asking someone who was drunk, but I’m glad I asked, since my normal reaction is to shrink away (literally and figuratively).

    I thought about using my elbows too; my only concern with that is I don’t want to be rude in response to someone else’s rudeness, if that makes any sense.

  76. Asinknits
    July 21, 2010 at 2:22 am

    With men on PT, I’ve always firmly believed the further the legs are apart, the less between.

    I think there is more to it than gender – guys are more likely to do it, but women can also hog your space too and be unapologetic. It comes down to dominance – some people just take space, and others get out of their way.

    I have to disagree about small women taking up a lot of space – I know I feel like I’m begging for every square cm I get on the bus seat, cause being tiny means people think you should fit into no space at all.

  77. katie
    July 21, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Love this concept but I squirm a little at the observation that “men are taught x, y, or z.”. I think the comments have been hugely important in complicating this with questions of gender-identity, race, and age!

  78. Ami
    July 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

    @john, I agree that body size/shape play a role in this just like other aspects of identity that have been pointed out. However, I think the core of the body size/shape argument still hits at gender.

    Not only are girls encouraged in our world to take up less space, but they are actually encourage to BE smaller. Big muscles, weight, and height all carry much bigger (pun intended) social penalties for women than men. On the flip side, men are not only encouraged to inhabit more space, but to become physically bigger. Height and muscle tone, for example, are seen as attractive features in men…stereotypically speaking.

  79. benvolio
    July 21, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I’ve often thought that clothing manufacturers’ recalibrating their sizing so that what used to be a size 4 is now a 0 has a lot to do with feeding the unconscious space-anxiety among women. Even though no one can see your size tag, you at least have the comfort that you wear a 0 and therefore are as ‘good’ as you can be.

  80. Lucy
    July 21, 2010 at 11:41 am

    What an interesting read, including all the comments. As a women 5’1″ and under 100 lbs, I definitely can see that I deliberately take up less space in public, especially when it comes to using public transportation. This is in part due to the fact that as another poster mentioned, if you’re the smaller person in this situation, you will bear the brunt of the force if someone knocks into you or pushes up against you. I’m also less likely to speak up when someone encroaches on my personal space and I have the absolutely odd habit of feeling extremely uncomfortable about leaning my seat back on an airplane, especially if the seat behind me is occupied by a man. In fact, I usually sit fully upright the whole flight. Another thing I have often wondered about when it comes to men and women is if men are ever treated to being told by a complete stranger something along the lines of “Why not put a smile on your face?” and “You’d be even prettier if you smiled” which I get quite often for some reason. I’m actually a very happy person who smiles quite often but I don’t typically sit grinning to myself on the subway and have been told this by men (almost exclusively by men significantly older than me) on several different occasions. Is this something that can again be attributed to the different patterns of socialization of the genders? Is a non-smiling woman considered more threatening or to have a chip on her shoulder? I just haven’t seen any instances of men saying this same thing to other men and I haven’t ever noticed a woman doing it to another man. It’s so odd to me because why would anyone assume they have the right to make such a statement to a complete stranger? Maybe I just woke up to the news that my grandmother died or I’m feeling sick or my boyfriend just broke up with me. Maybe some of you sharp-witted posters could help me come up with a response as what I inadvertently find myself doing, much to my chagrin, is smiling widely and almost apologetically.

  81. July 21, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I totally just encountered this today. I work at a big university, and I was walking down a sidewalk. Simple act. But there was freshman orientation or some such deal going on. I’ve noticed that the undergrads at my school tend to feel very entitled, and express their privilege in particularly obnoxious ways. Like, I almost had to call security on a student who was demanding accountability from the staff for his friend’s late report. Right.

    Anyways, I’m walking down the sidewalk, and there are these big packs of undergrads. The group can’t smoosh at all to avoid me, and they either forced me off the sidewalk or, if I refused to move off the tiny bit of curb I was walking on, smashed into my shoulder. Classy. The men and women were both culpable, though I noticed that fatter women (didn’t see any fat men) kept to their side of the walkway. I should probably mention that I’m a fat woman myself. One of the undergrads actually joked about my size to one of her friends…while shoving me off the sidewalk. Talk about taking up space.

  82. July 21, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    As a cis-female, though genderqueer, person, I’ve noticed unconscious changes in my behavior depending on the clothes I am wearing. When I am wearing masculine clothing, I stand up straighter, swing my arms when I walk, and spread my legs to a comfortable width when I sit. When I wear feminine clothing, I tend to keep my arms at my sides, my legs firmly closed and I generally keep my head down when I walk. It was only when I started experimenting with my gender expression that I realized how my feminine clothing was inhibiting how I moved. It doesn’t help that I’m fat, because when I wear feminine clothing I feel apologetic about how much skin I’m showing (compared to my masculine clothing, I mean) and how my fatness makes me look “un-feminine” (in a bad way.) I have now taken to wearing almost exclusively masculine clothing simply for the lack of inhibition I feel to squeeze together, take up less space, let the men speak first, always laugh at their jokes – in an nutshell, how I was raised to be a girl.

  83. Asinknits
    July 21, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Or, benvolio, you can look at the size 0 on your tag as proof that everyone is right, that you don’t exist, you are not a real woman.

    It’s not only larger women who can feel bad about their body size.

  84. jennygadget
    July 22, 2010 at 2:34 am

    nathan,

    re this:

    “Jenny, I think you’re getting at the missing information I reacted to in the original post. It’s not so much the taking up of space – because there examples of people across the gender spectrum that take up way too much space – but of social perceptions of what these actions mean.”

    NO. That’s not what I meant at all, and I think you are very wrong.

    I picked the examples I did because they are very rude and even abusive coming from anyone. The fact that men are given a pass encouraged to act in ways that are harmful means that the issue is not simply one of perception or limited to “mars vs. venus” bs.

    Also what you are really getting at is the fact that there are differences and variations in experience. Which is all well and good and important to remember, but it’s more than a little tedious when people are always responding to what are clearly arguments about trends/averages as if the writer is unaware that people are individuals and individual experiences vary.

    Because really, there are examples across the gender spectrum? In what way? In the way that there is no noticable, measurable trend, and we are all special, unique snowflakes? Or in the way that there are always outliers, but the trend is that men claim space and women cede it? Because – as has already been mentioned – actual studies have shown that it is the latter.

    I understand that your experiences as a smaller man are nothing like what was mentioned in the original post. I agree that these are good experiences for us all to hear about. What I disagree with is the idea that this means men are NOT generally encouraged to assert spatial dominance in harmful ways. The very fact that you read my mini-anecdotes as simply differences in point of view is, to me, a good example of how even men who are taught to not take up space themselves for whatever reason, are still socialized to see such harmful actions as acceptable.

  85. Adrian
    July 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Here in Brazil we are a predominant matriarchal society, in the buses, generally the seats reserved for disabled people are used by young and grown women, those who often pretend to not see old ladies coming on, old men even less. Here I see that men are used to chivalry in a bad way, where they cant get even their own share of space.

  86. July 22, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Jenny – you really have me pegged don’t you? There are several comments on here by people from different genders saying similar things to me, but you assume that I’m just another man who hasn’t thought any of this out based on two short comments I made.

    “the trend is that men claim space and women cede it.” I never disagreed with this point. And if anything I wrote seems like I don’t agree with this, then I wasn’t being clear enough.

    I really do think though that it comes back to perceptions. If men think they can take up more space, if they think they are more important or worthy, then that is the origin of the problem. Focusing on behavior only gets us so far. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t break down and shift how people think and view things, then nothing will really change.

  87. Sheelzebub
    July 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

    I love how because a few men here weren’t specifically taught to take up space/act sexist/whatever that this sense of entitlement simply doesn’t exist.

    I’ll just repost this comment here from Charlie for seconding:

    For clarification: just because someone doesn’t remember that they are distinctly “taught” something doesn’t mean that they weren’t schooled in it.

    Children mimic adults, especially those of the same gender that they are being socialized as. When a child sees that “all” men sit wide and “all” women sit as to take up less space, it becomes a behavior that is copied.

    Those of us with trans experience really learn about these types of behaviors. Trans men have to learn to take up more space, hold their heads up high while walking, elbows out, knees out, etc. Trans women, on the other hand have to learn to keep their body out of the way of others.

    Of course size issues come into play, and these are all generalizations, but being aware and utilizing this information is life-and-death for trans people. The difference between “he” and “she.”

    Good for some of you that you were never “taught” that, but don’t discount the very real phenomenon of social conditioning. The majority of the population internalizes this stuff; if you haven’t well, I congratulate you on your special snowflakeness.

  88. john
    July 22, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Sheezle,

    I agree that social conditioning is a real phenomenon, I would just suggest that in this modern era, size and personality type would be the dominant factor.

    For example, when there is lots of space available, a 1996 study shows males tend to choose a spot further from other people than do females. Perhaps it is so they have plenty of room to stretch out or perhaps it is some other psychological reason. The study I am referring too was actually designed to test personal space given to people with disabilities. Being previous studies from the 60s-80s historically showed people giving extra space to people with disabilities, this study was to see if gender of both the disabled and tested subject played any role. It consequently showed that the space given to disabled is now reversed and participants choose to sit closer to the disabled than to non disabled. It also showed than men sat further away in both cases as I mentioned initially, and that the gender of the disabled or non disabled played no role.

    I would think these results had to do with the size or social tendencies of the participants, but of course I am just guessing. I wish the study was done with size/personality in mind, I would be curious to see the results.

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0825/is_n2_v62/ai_18534479/?tag=content;col1

  89. jennygadget
    July 22, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    “If men think they can take up more space, if they think they are more important or worthy, then that is the origin of the problem.”

    But that’s not just an issue of perception (I see things differently than you do) – THAT’S ENTITLEMENT. Calling it by something else isn’t doing what you claim to be doing. Perception suggests that it’s all relative and simply a matter of learning to live with each other’s differences. Pointing out that men are conditioned to act this way speaks directly to issues of entitlement – whcih means you are addressing both behavior and the reasons for the behavior, without suggesting that such actions are ok if just look at them a certain way.

    Speaking of entitlement and taking up space, you went to hostile pretty damn quickly, yes?

    Sheelzebub – you know I love you, l right?

  90. July 22, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I’ll let it go. Seems that the language I use just isn’t clear enough here.

  91. July 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Just realized that even my exit could fail. Point being above that what I have written just isn’t clear enough – I’m just not articulate enough about this particular issue right now. Which is why I am bowing out. Peace.

  92. Robin
    July 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    You know what? Sometimes it’s really damn uncomfortable to sit with your legs together. I’d say my balls are fairly average sized, but those little buggers are tricky to maneuver, especially when navigated crowded public transportation, and sitting on one of them is an experience to be avoided at all costs. So cut the leg spreaders some slack, huh? It’s not always a power display, sometimes they just need to consider the family jewels.

  93. Jackie
    July 22, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    For those of you who are children of the 80’s, when you were a kid if you had the chance to go flying, did you pretend to see the Care Bears in the clouds? I thought that they should make an episode in the new Care Bears series, where they talk about flying being okay cause the Care Bears will watch over you.

  94. Anita
    July 22, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Huh. Not sure what to say to that.

    And I just want to clarify my earlier story. I really wasn’t trying to be obnoxious, I just was uncomfortable that the guy was 5-10 inches away from his friend but less than an inch away from me. What’s up with that? I’ll be the first to admit my own social ineptitude, but even I have some vague understanding of basic interpersonal space norms. If he was half an inch away from his buddy as well and we were all packed in like sardines, then, that’s a totally different story…

    Also, I wasn’t purposely trying to be rude to him (although it probably seemed that way), when I turned my back on him. I was just thinking “Okay–‘negotiations’ have now failed. This guy either doesn’t have any consideration for what I’m asking him and is now purposely trying to be disrespectful because he knows it bothers me, or he’s too drunk to be able to understand what’s going on anyway.” Either way, it was interesting that he didn’t want to give me what I was asking without demanding something in return (i.e., my attention, a hard time).

    What can I say? It’s a learning process for me.

  95. July 22, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Robin, it’s not EVER comfortable for me to sit with some big-balled jackass’ legs pressed against mine – why do you feel that your need to take up someone else’s leg room because of your balls is more important than her need to not have you fucking touching her or squashing HER legs off to the side? Jesus Christ.

  96. Kristen J.
    July 23, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Robin,

    Perhaps if squishing your GINORMOUS balls is such a hazard that it requires taking up an unreasonable amount of space, you should stand.

  97. July 24, 2010 at 1:18 am

    I started scrumptiously taking pictures of men on the NYC subway system just for my own bitter amuse. A sort of Hollaback lite.

    The WORST however BY FAR experience I had with “spreading” was during a flight, I forget from where to where, but first I encountered bumps to the back (which I actually recall turning around and asking him to cease), then suddenly a weird tickling at the elbow, then a godawful smell I for a half hour attributed to myself. I finally look at the crack between the seat and wall and FEEEEET! STANK ASS FEEEET! No shoes, damp sock. On my elbow. Wriggling ever further towards, I dunno, freedom?

    I spent the remaining half hour of the flight holding my breath, seething and finally having a very cathartic accidental elbow stabs at the offender.

  98. July 24, 2010 at 5:45 am

    I’ve had a lot of experiences listed here.

    Also, one time I was flying across country and actually had an empty seat next to me – this guy wanted to sit right there and talk at me for a good hour or so, when I didn’t invite him to sit down, and said nothing more than “hello.” He actually had his own seat.

    Something I’ve noticed in bus shelters is guys will come in and light up a cigarette. I’m a non-smoker, so this tends to have the effect of taking up a huge amount of space.

    Public transportation is terrible. I’ve had guys practically hurl themselves into the seat next to me without any care for how much room was actually available, and then spread out and take up as much of the available space as possible.

    Also had many guys do the “spread out and try to crowd/touch me” thing.

  99. Hendo
    August 8, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    So, so a universal male thing. I catch the bus to work in Canberra (also Australia) and it astounds me how it is always the men on a crowded bus with one of the few empty seats left… who will lounge all over the seat (arms over the back, crossed leg sticking out, etc) and only move grumpily and reluctantly when you are attempting to sit in the seat.

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