(Un)Learning How to Take Up Space

Author’s note: The use of public space by different people is a complex issue. It gets even more complicated when you factor in race, ability, age, class, and other things. I am writing as a  white, transfeminine, genderqueer, lower class, able-bodied, young person with mental illness. There are many problems that I do not face because of my identities that others do. I highly recommend reading more about these issues from the perspective of people of color, differently-abled people, and those with other marginalized identities to fully grasp the depth of the problems associated with inhabiting public space.

Manspreading is a term that describes men spreading their legs out when they are sitting or standing in public places. To many, talking about “manspreading” seems trivial, if not downright stupid. However, the act of manspreading is important to understanding systems of power and oppression in our society. It is one out of many behaviors that result from being socialized as a man, and discussing it is part of a greater conversation about male privilege.

There are a lot of important questions around these behaviors that often aren’t noticed, discussed, or challenged. For example: Why is it “normal,” or even appropriate, for men to take up so much public space? Do many of us even recognize that men generally take up more public space than women? Why are women socialized to take up less public space? Where do trans/non-binary people fit when they’ve been socialized to take up public space according to the gender they were assigned at birth?

As a transfeminine, genderqueer person, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. The more I transition, the more I notice how I sit, how I walk, and how I communicate with my body language. While I’m not trying to “pass” as either a man or a woman, I am trying to unlearn problematic behaviors and ideologies.

I never realized how much space I took up until I began to learn about misogyny, sexism, and ableism. In the past few months, I have been working on unlearning the hypermasculine thoughts and behaviors that were ingrained in me throughout my military service.

Changing my behaviors and body language has taught me more about misogyny and transphobia than I’ve ever learned through reading or course work. I’ve summed up my experiences into three ideas that show the struggles of existing as a non-binary person in a binary world.

Is Manspreading Natural?

One of the most prevalent arguments supporting “manspreading,” and the accompanying idea that men should take up more public space than women, comes down to biology. The argument claims that because men are generally bigger than women, they naturally take up more space.

First, I want to start off by saying that biology-based arguments are always false. This isn’t because they’re not (sometimes) true; they often can be rooted in facts. However, biological arguments never take into account the wide range of experiences of being human. More importantly, they are based on “facts” found in the dominant group in society.

In the context of this argument, it is often true that men are larger than women. Therefore, it makes sense that they would take up more space than women. But there is a disconnect in the logic that acknowledges that larger people take up more space, and the logic that extends this to mean that men should take up more public space than women. Let me explain a little more without using gender/sex in the equation.

Larger people naturally take up more space. This is pretty straightforward, given that a small apple takes up less counter space than a large apple does. The argument against men taking up more public space does not disregard this fact. In my case, I found it difficult to take up less space because of the size of my body. For example, when I’m sitting down – legs together, arms crossed, back against the chair – I take up more space than skinnier people.

The problem with the biological argument is that it is used to justify stereotypical men – without separating them from the vast variations in body sizes of people who identify as men – taking up a disproportionate amount of space compared to women – who are all assumed to be thin and short. Not only does it justify this behavior, it is used by society to socialize “men” and “women” to think that this disproportional amount of space is natural. When something becomes natural, it becomes a norm. This is a problem because deviating from norms is grounds for discipline in our society.

Finally, the biological argument is just that: biological. It ignores gender completely, reducing the idea to binary ideas about genitals, hormones, and other factors. By ignoring the ways in which gender is socialized according to sex assigned at birth, this argument ignores the central point. There is nothing “natural” about taking up a disproportionate amount of space. That comes down to social and cultural norms.

When I became aware of this disproportional space norm as a non-binary person who was assigned male at birth, I began to realize how much space I used to take up. Even more important, I began to realize what it really means to take up public space.

I was Supporting Misogyny, not Breaking it Down

The more I transitioned, the harder I tried to be more “feminine.” I started to walk with a thinner gait. I always made sure my legs were closed tight when sitting in public. I tried to make myself appear smaller. I tried to take up less space.

No matter what I did, I didn’t seem to be read as “feminine.” If anything, people treated me like I was confused, timid, and scared. That was when I started to ask myself what it really meant to carry myself in a more feminine way. Looking back at how I had been changing, I became clear that I thought being feminine meant taking up less space and appearing smaller than the “man” I was raised and socialized to be.

Then it hit me: I was being misogynistic.

This was a difficult realization, especially after all of the hard work that I have been doing to overcome my internalized oppressions as a transfeminine, genderqueer person. I realized that my behavior – behavior that I considered unlearning misogyny – was actually perpetuating misogyny. I was socializing myself to take up less space, giving into the idea that women should take up less space rather than the idea that we should all take up the appropriate amount of space for our bodies.

My ideas about public space didn’t come from the positivity and empowerment that I found when I came out as genderqueer. Even as I was trying to escape the norms I had been socialized into from birth, I made the mistake of latching on to a separate set of problematic norms to help me. These norms came from stereotypes and ideas about men and women. Ultimately, they came from the gender binary.

I was Looking for Acceptance in the Binary, not as My True Self

When I came to this realization over the past few weeks, I realized that I wasn’t being true to myself. I was looking for acceptance in a system that denied my very existence – the gender binary.

Many transgender people identify within the gender binary, and they have challenges about taking up space that seem different than my challenges as a non-binary person. I don’t think they are all that different though. Whether trans people have binary or non-binary identities, we are expected to adhere to the same norms about public space. In light of this, our goal shouldn’t be to take up more or less space, but to take up our own space.

We deserve to exist in our own space, without taking space from others, and without giving our space to others. This doesn’t look like manspreading, but it also doesn’t look like the current norms women are socialized into regarding taking up public space.

Throughout this process, I have learned that the most important work in breaking down systems of oppression and transforming systems of power happens when we confront them in ourselves. This is extremely difficult. Not only do we have to challenge ourselves and check our privilege, we have to constantly reflect on how we are changing. Are we using problematic ideas to improve ourselves? If we are using norms to change, does that result in further marginalizing and oppressing other people?

I wasn’t affirming my non-binary self as I tried to change the amount of public space I took up. I was looking for acceptance in problematic norms created by the gender binary as a non-binary person. My transition certainly isn’t easier knowing this, but it does feel more authentic. I know that as I change, I’m not contributing to the misogyny and transphobia pervasive in our society. I am no longer giving public space away to give into norms about what it means to exist as a feminine person. I am finally free to take up my space.

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