Despite promising myself I wouldn’t, I was doing it again on the subway. And the bus. And the streetcar. People get on with backpacks they won’t remove or an attitude problem they can’t live without, and encroach on the space I’m occupying. And instead of owning the place I’m in, asserting myself over the space I’m already occupying, I contort my body; I make myself smaller. I let them have that space; I don’t even think about it.
I’m certainly not alone in this. I see people do it all the time. But I’ve been wondering, lately, what kind of message we’re sending others—and more importantly, ourselves—when we make ourselves smaller. If our brains are affected by our postures, what are we training ourselves to think by constantly shrinking away? It’s likely different for everyone, but I felt like I was telling myself (and others) that I wanted to be invisible, that I thought they had more right to be there than I did.
I was thinking about this topic around this time last year; as well; I guess wearing my giant winter coat makes me that much more aware of how much room I take up. This time last year, I’d also told a friend that I wasn’t going to make myself small anymore. “The thing about giving someone your space,” I remember telling her, “is that it’s never enough. They just keep taking and taking until there’s nothing of yours left.” I decided not to let it happen anymore, though a performance I saw reminded me that I’d faltered in my resolve. The performance was a raw, spoken word piece at a small bar in Montreal. It was made even more intimate by the fact that the poet was performing these new poems of hers for the first time; there was a lack of affectation there that seemed to draw us in.
The woman onstage was commanding. A force to be reckoned with—she knew how to get our attention, drawing everyone in with her words. And for a split-second, I caught myself thinking that she was pretentious, to be so direct with the audience, to be so self-assured. It occurred to me that this assessment said absolutely nothing about her, but reflected a bias I’m embarrassed to admit I had: if this performer had been a man, I would’ve simply thought he was confident. Since the performer was a woman, I thought she was pretentious. Truth be told, it’s an incredibly humbling, bizarre experience to realize that despite your best efforts, you’ve somehow internalized some of the very ideas you’ve been trying to fight against—in this case, the idea that a woman comfortable with the room she took onstage along with her strength, her wit and her intelligence, is somehow pompous.
So I’m inviting anyone reading this—women as much as men—to take a moment this week to think about how we interact with the space we take up and how we react to others coming into it. Think about the things we assume about people who own their space. Think about what we’re saying to ourselves when we withdraw and think about what might change if you inhabited that space honestly. Confidently. Defiantly.
Photo courtesy of Paul Neudorf (www.paulneudorf.com)