Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Taking Up Space

I've always been really interested in the idea of space in relation to gender. What i mean by that is how much space men utilize daily versus how much space women use and how that plays a role in sexism and weight issues. A lot of this intersects with standards of beauty and our culture's drive for women's thinness but i have always been a bit paranoid that it goes beyond just that. When i started studying body image and eating disorders i thought i had uncovered the greatest conspiracy of our time: the more women are pushed to be preoccupied with their weight and appearance, the less they'll have time, energy, and money to succeed in anything else.

I strongly believe that women's preoccupation with weight goes far beyond fulfilling an impossible standard of beauty. Our obsession with thinness is largely intertwined with the amount of space women are expected and "allowed" to take up in society, both physically and mentally. I came back to this thought today as I waited for a client in the lobby the substance abuse clinic where i work. I sat on the end of the bench in the waiting area as three men walked into the clinic. They continued talking to each other and two sat on the bench next to me while one remained standing. I moved as far to the side of the bench as i could and sat with my legs crossed and arms to my sides. The man next to me sat down and stretched his arms up and placed them on the top of the bench, making himself as wide as possible. There were other dynamics at play here such as status for example, because i am staff and they are clients, but i felt uncomfortable because this man almost had his arm around me... so i moved. As i stood by the wall i thought about space and just how much of it women are expected to take up, and give up, based on the circumstance.

None of us are new to the idea that advertising sells more than the products illustrated. Advertising and media also sell values and ideals that we're expected to buy into. For women, there is no greater concept sold with products than thinness. The video below is a short segment from Jean Kilbourne's lecture series about advertising and the obsession with weight and dieting. What struck me most about it was her discussion of a Virginia Slims ad that reads: "if i ran the world calories wouldn't count." But of course she doesn't run the world, and calories "do" count so she should grab a cigarette instead of eating. This ad blatantly instructs women to SMOKE instead of EAT. Women shouldn't eat, they should diet, they should take up as little space as possible, the thinner the better... but what does "the thinner the better really mean?"

The message of "the thinner the better" is an extremely pervasive attempt for women to become as thin and small as possible and thus take up as little space in the world as they can. And this message isn't just taught to us by mainstream media. It's taught in etiquette classes across the country. Women are instructed to sit gracefully with their legs crossed while men are usually found sprawled out, taking up as much space as they can on the chair. Men even reach their arms out when sitting, and make their frame as large as they can to take up as much space as possible. Women keep their arms at their sides, or crossed on their lap. Again, women are supposed to take up as little space in the world as they possibly can, be it with actions or their physical appearance.

I have seen a trend recently in advertisements depicting women with muscle and strength. It's about time women are shown kicking ass, lifting weights, and using their bodies in ways we haven't seen in mainstream media in the past. The obsession with thinness goes beyond weight and extends to women's place in the world and women's right to use 50% of the space in our environment.

What do you do to take up space? To make sure you are a known force in the world? Is this something you've ever considered or acted on?

My example may not be life changing but it's one i'll share with you: I love fall for many reasons, but one of the biggest is because i get the chance to feel like i exist in the universe while i walk outside. When i was younger (ok who am i kidding, i do it now, too) i deliberately step on the dry leaves on the ground and celebrate internally as each one goes "CRUNCH." I feel like my presence was known in the world with each leaf i squash. The noiser the better. I love that CRUNCH feel and love putting a sound to my walking through the world.

UPDATE: I posted this in the Feministing Community section, where there is currently a lot of discussion, feel free to add to it there, or here in comments :)


Kandeezie said...

It is only in certain countries where you will find women to be significantly smaller than men. It is not in nature consistently. There are many examples of this around the world where you will find bulky women and slim men. So to me, it is these kinds of cultural markers that will indicate whether or not a woman will be significantly smaller than a man. It was not too long ago when Europeans were settling in North America that they looked at big strong women as attractive. That meant they could take care of the land and had a higher chance of surviving the environment. Now, it's pocket-sized insta-woman that are being promoted as a 'convenient accessory for any man'. Nice. Kinda like a cell phone...

Sarah J said...

I totally sprawl all over the place these days. I put my legs up on things, take up three chairs, lean back and generally sit "like a man."

I also love the sound of heels, whether they're my cowboy boots or high heels, on the floor. Damn straight you hear me coming. Sneakers may be more comfortable, but they don't announce my presence so much.

Renee said...

I could not agree with you more when you point space differentials between men and women. We are expected to be small and if we demand more we are looked at strangely. Now when I sit and I feel someone is in my space I ask them to move. I have purposely sat down with my legs open to watch the response. If men can do it why is it so inappropriate for me?

phd in yogurtry said...

"the more women are pushed to be preoccupied with their weight and appearance, the less they'll have time, energy, and money to succeed in anything else"

This I absolutely agree with. No question. The more women obsess about chunky lashes and excessive fashion trends, the less we will succeed in securing our own independence. Interestingly, every guy I've been in love with? Didn't like me in make up (or didn't care) .. didn't like trendy fashion, liked me in levi's and tennis shoes. I guess that says more about me, though? I am, however, guilty of obsessing about relationships to the point of interfering with my education and career. I remember a feminist professor (mentor) and myself having this very discussion.. we were busy lamenting relationship blues instead of focusing on our research meeting. We both got a good laugh.

I cannot say I've thought about the relationship between thinness and taking up space. But I agree, there's something here. Especially when you see a guy sit on a park bench .. arms spread wide, legs wide stance. You just don't see women in that position.
And watch two men friends in a theatre.. MUST sit with a seat in between. Two women? Will sit right next to each other every time. I know this is homophobic of men but it also speaks to their comfort taking up as much space as they damn well please.

kat said...

I had never thought about it in so many words, but you're totally right.

I have an interesting activity to try. My movement teacher in grad school had us do this excercise. Walk down the street as if your personal space extends out to the end of the block. You have to walk fairly quickly (without going so fast that you're practically running), and in a totally straight line. Project your personal space that way, and make it clear that you're not moving your personal space for anyone else.

It's really interesting, because people will get out of your way.

We spent a week walking around like that, and when we got back to class, a friend of mine realized that that was, in fact, the exact way that her husband moved through the world. He's considerably taller than she, and she always thought that her petite-ness was why she always had to dodge people and dart back and forth on the sidewalk. Nope.

It's a really fun exercise, not the least of which is that you get to feel magic for getting people to move out of your way without actually "doing" anything.

kat said...

P.S. I looked at your jewelry and it's gorgeous! Especially the champagne pearls. I'll be heading back and spending some of my tax refund :)

Xiphactinus audax said...

"It is only in certain countries where you will find women to be significantly smaller than men. It is not in nature consistently."
actually, iirc on average men *are* larger than women. We're no gorillas or baboons (and we're sure as hell no elephant seals), but it is there...

LN said...

Like Kat, I also was in a class (acting) where we explored status and leading with body parts (hip, hand, left ear, et c). When people move for you, you're in the dominant role. When you move for them, they're in the dominant role. When you do the "uh, you move/I move" side-to-side shuffle, you're on equal ground.

As for leading with body parts, our instructor told us about his playing a drunk, and part of it was leading movement with the drink in his hand. Neato stuff.

Personally, I just glare at the world and people GTFO of my way. Works extra-well with shiny, black, pointy shoes. An ex-military lawyer boss once told me he had a hard time keeping up with my quick pace. HA! I have way too much to get done in this life to walk slowly.

FilthyGrandeur said...

one of my favorite hobbies is sewing. i love all the different fabrics that are cut and pieced together to make something (currently i'm making my own wedding dress) and i love the loudness of the machine driving the needle into the fabric, binding it together with loops of thread. i also love it because it requires a great amount of space--first laying out the fabric to cut out the pattern, then in putting it all together. i live in a very small apartment and i required every inch of the available floor space to cut the fabric, lining, lace. it requires my fiance and cat to climb on furniture to go around me, or risk stepping on a bed of sharp pins. it lets me claim most of the small space we have.

kat said...

"I have way too much to get done in this life to walk slowly."

Damn straight, LN!

I was talking with some friends recently about the issue of catcalling. They thought it was interesting that I've not experienced very much of it, and can, in fact count the number of times I've been catcalled or have had comments made to me while in public, on one hand. Both friends experience it almost daily. We wondered whether my tendency to walk down the street looking like I'll f**k you up is part of it.
I can't help it really, I have long legs and I walk fast. And determined-ly (if that's a word....)

Becca said...

Nice post, reminds me of when I'm on the bus and I sit next to a man who is on the inside seat and I am on the outside. Not always, but sometimes, the man has a "wide stance" which he feels he must maintain despite my presence, meaning that I basically get to use half of the seat that I paid for. They're not generally large men, obviously it would make sense if they were tall and literally couldn't put their legs together on the cramped bus. I always wonder whether they even notice what they're doing, or if they're perfectly conscious that they're taking up my space and just don't really care to give up the space they've already claimed, because I am a mere woman. Then again I also wonder if their behavior would be any different if I was a man.

Shannon said...

Excellent post! I think that males are encouraged to take up more space. I was able to brainstorm a few examples. Thinking back to elementary school on the playground, I remember the boys always playing on a large soccer or baseball field. Many of the girls did not join them in their rougher games. They usually crowded around a small picnic table, 4 square box, or jungle gym. All of these spaces are considerably smaller than a large field. Also, marketing and advertising of cars, markets larger
SUVs and Trucks in general to men, thus encouraging them to take up more space on the road. I love your suggestion to take up more space. I am going to work on that and as I come up with ideas I will let you know. Shannon

Brooke said...

By Georgette, you're on to something! I know that during binge eatings, I have thought that I wanted to eat the world and be as big as the universe. I have wanted to be larger than life. I have wanted to have an undeniable presence.

Ashley said...

I've semi-recently gained a good deal of weight, and one of the things that I really really liked about this is that I felt like I took up more space, both physical and metaphorical. Going from a size 4 to a size 12 in a year and a half made me feel like I couldn't be pushed over, ignored, or dismissed as easily because I was no longer a "little girl."

I also have a habit of spreading out my belongings whenever I go to study somewhere.

Hattie said...

I can't get this post out of my head. Just for one example: cyberspace is a space that men try to keep women out of, except on their terms. This is key. Women have a role to play in cyberspace, but men define it. Refusing to play the game has its consequences, as anyone battling the trolls knows.
You have provided so much food for thought here and really have some advanced ideas.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Wurtzel, one of my favourite authors, puts it quite well:

"The whole offensive culture of dieting seems invented as yet another way to make women small and weaker—-to make us become less, quite literally. The starving self symbolizes a diminishing person, and really we ought to to strive to be more... "