It is not difficult to look into a room and know immediately who controls the area. Watch people’s body language. How do they sit? Who is standing? Where are they gathered and around who are they gathered? Who looks the most comfortable in the space? Chances are the ones in control of the space are men.
Count how many women sit with their legs or ankles crossed. Count how many men sit with their legs splayed. Who is controlling the space?
Men are taught to take up space when they enter a room. Whether that is literally inhabiting more area by sitting with their legs splayed, or standing with confidence to dominate those who are sitting, men are taught they enter a space and they own it. Any competition to be top-dog exists between men only. Women in the space are fixtures of beauty to be acted upon and brought into their sphere of influence.
Just the other day I was standing and drinking tea with a male professor. Another man came by and asked if I was cold. I was not cold and for a moment I did not understand. Then it became clear: I was standing with my tea cup grasped with both hands in front of my chest and my shoulders hunched together. I looked cold because I was unconsciously trying to take up less room.
While men are taught to dominate public spaces, women are taught that their presence is tolerated so long as they don’t speak up or take the spotlight from men. It’s so easy to sink into the shadows when you’ve been taught your whole life the public sphere is not for you. It’s easy to relinquish control to the idea of male domination because most of this power dynamic is incredibly subtle.
It’s me standing with my whole body hunched in on itself to give my professor more room. It’s me walking just slightly behind a male companion to let him lead. It’s me readily giving up my control of a situation. Because that’s what this concept of public space is about: control.
If you control the space, you control the people in the space. You set the agenda for what is heard, what is said and what is taken seriously. With myself included, women need to take up more space. It won’t be easy because a woman who takes up space is a woman with a voice and a woman with a voice is a woman who is shot down at every turn. It is “unladylike” and you will be criticized for it. But it is better to have a voice and push to be heard because eventually you will succeed. With more and more women understanding this idea of body politics, we will succeed.
When women take up space we create a more equal playing field before words are even spoken. We challenge the status quo by putting our bodies out there as whole people who deserve respect. Respect yourself and take up more space.