This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Canadian women should take up more space

No more shrinking women, please

Lora Grady@LoraGrady

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

I’ve witnessed it countless times: at my favourite bar on Friday nights, walking down the street, riding Toronto’s subway line. These are the places I most often see women shrinking—adjusting their bodies to make space for others. Access to public space is political. White, hetereosexual, cisgendered men are generally privileged enough to be able to take the bus or subway without daily harassment or intimidation. But our public transit systems are unsafe spaces for women, especially women of colour and those who identify as LGBTQ2S. I do it too: make myself smaller. I see a vast divide between my fellow feminists’ and my willingness to speak out and the way we contort our individual bodies to accommodate perfect strangers.

The average dude I see on my daily commute who takes up more than one seat—also known as “manspreading”—isn’t doing it consciously. He’s doing it because no one taught him not to; because he wasn’t raised to keep his knees together and his head bowed. Research suggests women take on a “Wonder Woman” stance (feet wide, hands on hips) during important business meetings because it’s a posture that evokes power and confidence—sadly, it’s one we don’t often use. That’s because our society has linked smallness with femininity. We’re constantly the target of weight loss campaigns and plastic surgery advertisements. Our Instagram feeds are inundated with celebrities hawking waist trainers and tea that promises a smaller belly. We’re even told to settle for smaller pay. Historically, the message has been to stay in our lane (that is to say, don’t you dare take up a single inch more space than you absolutely need to. Suck it in. Cross your legs. Fold your arms.)

After I first noticed my own self-shrinking tendencies, I began to obsess over the way women occupy space. Through listening to others’ success stories, I learned that the more we refuse to shrink, the more respect we command. When we resist the instinct to make ourselves smaller on public transit, we’re making a political statement: I will not apologize for existing. And as much as it empowers us to take up our space, it’s important for those of us with privilege to look out for those with less privilege when it comes to defending all our personal spaces— an act as simple as a friendly smile, a quick “are you OK?” or moving to casually stand between a person and a stranger who’s making them uncomfortable can let folks know you’re watching out for them.

In her poem “Take Up Space,” British slam poet Vanessa Kasuule says, “Don’t shrink yourself into a sliver of self-loathing soap when you walk down the street. Don’t cower in anticipation of catcalls and stares. It is they who should shrivel and slouch in shame, not you. You go ahead and take up some more space.” The first time I made the decision to occupy my subway seat without squeezing my thighs together and squishing my arms against my torso, I felt surprisingly light. I wouldn’t let myself feel ashamed that my thigh spilled over onto the seat next to mine. Instead, I told myself: This is the body I am in and this is the space it occupies—and that’s not something I’m going to apologize for any longer. And in my vision for the future, neither will any other woman. Ever.

Lora Grady is a journalist and editor in Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in Chatelaine, the Kit, House & Home, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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