To anyone who doesn’t know me intimately, this may be interpreted as wariness of strangers. To an extent this is true, but what’s more true is that I have this self-deprecating preoccupation that I am somehow getting in the way. That when someone sits next to me, something about my presence may irritate xir: xie’d prefer I not cross my leg so that the edge of my foot is grazing slightly along the leg of xir jeans, xie’d prefer I pull back my hair so it doesn’t brush against xir shoulder, xie’d wish I’d open the window and is too polite to ask or reach across me, xie’d mistaken my moving away for hostility, etc. Essentially, I feel that I don’t deserve to take up room, and I’m paranoid about miscommunication and the feelings of others–others who are strangers, not friends, whose preferences are unfamiliar to me, whom I may accidentally offend.
Offend with what? My existence?
I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten over this since a couple of years, partly thanks to my own impatience and intolerance of bullshit, and partly thanks to feminism in recognizing both my entitlement to space and the importance of respecting the boundaries of those around me. Men, I’ve noticed, don’t at all hesitate to take up space, to extend their legs and arms to the position best suited for their comfort, to jam their elbow into your neck when they’re on their phones, to not realize they are sitting on something of yours and consequently tugging at you with their weight. Women profusely apologize for taking up space and sit still if not attempting to shrink away entirely into nothingness. *Phloof!* It is possible to assert your right to your space, the space you would take up naturally, without being inconsiderate of others to the point of encroaching on theirs.
Outside of devaluing myself, my own spacial preferences when it comes to strangers heighten my sensitivity to the preferences of others. When there are seats available next to a few people in a moderately crowded space, I don’t sit down unless I am invited, though I know the seat is there for a reason and I have the right to use it no matter how the person next to it feels. (If I’m not carrying anything, I prefer to stand anyway.) What I don’t have the right to do is take up luxury room and make others uncomfortable.
This order of priority–entitlement to your own space but not to luxury and the space of others–is something that is reversed in our society to infringe on the rights of those who are not privileged. A couple of years ago there was a debate around charging fat people extra for taking up space on an airplane, a proposal I found so horrendous and distasteful I was embarrassed for the person who thought of it. You know what they should get rid of? Those stupid reclining seats. You do not get to have your head two inches above my lap. Instead they were seriously considering charging people for portions of their bodies. Charging people. For portions of their bodies.
I’m a very privileged 93 pounds. Fat people don’t bother me–your head in my stomach does.
Do I need to explain what’s wrong with this? People are whole. Their bodies are whole. You do not get to dismember them and charge them for parts. This is further evidence, still, of the overt ways in which underprivileged members of society are dehumanized. Fat people should be cut up in pieces, and women should just disappear.
The mentality that women do not deserve space is a global, cross-cultural one. Women are actively giving up space for men. There are cultures in which it is an unwritten rule, subtle; a man puts up his feet and a woman is expected to scoot over and just not say anything. There are others in which it is obvious–no room in a religious institution? Push the women out. But it exists everywhere, and it always has. It is engraved into society, and has been for centuries.
Of course, to get you to give up the rightful freedoms you have secured as women, patriarchy will attempt to convince you that there was once a golden age full of rainbows and puppies when men gave up seats for women and such. Don’t tell them it only existed in literature and applied to only white wealthy young attractive unmarried women even in fabrication and was in fact patronizing as hell and used to prove that women were incapable taking responsibility over themselves and shouldn’t be trusted. It’s a secret. Don’t tell them either that women actually open doors for other women and men, and people open doors for people–not just men for women–because that’s what decent people do. Shhh.
You are entitled to the room you need. Take it up, don’t apologize for existing, hold onto your space. And be respectful and considerate of the boundaries of others.