By Amrita Paul Aug. 06, 2018
In India, years of conditioning demand women to be submissive and almost invisible in public, while boys are rarely made conscious of their bodies. As a result, young boys grow up to become adults who don’t think twice before taking up extra space even at the cost of someone else’s inconvenience.
Afew weeks back, I was waiting in my gym, in a queue of sorts, to do a few sets of leg press. When the burly man ahead of me finished his turn, I requested him to remove some of the weights from the equipment.
“Too heavy ya,” he grimaced, moving on to his next set of exercises, ignoring my request. In the next few minutes, he proceeded to put weights on a barbell, then placed it on his shoulders like a pair of wings, and squatted. For him, the dingy basement of “Unique One Health & Fitness” was only his to conquer — the rest of the inhabitants might as well be invisible. And underlining this assumption is the fact that he expected someone else to clean up his mess.
He isn’t the only man I’ve encountered who disregards the formality of a public place and instead treats it like his personal courtyard. Burly Man joins the ranks of several men in my gym who love decorating the floor with weights and leaving them there for others to trip on. Then there are the ones who challenge each other to do push-ups even when there is barely any place to walk. And who can forget the smart alecs who wilfully ignore the designated area for abs and do their crunches on benches instead? The one thing that unites all these men, is the fact that they hardly pause to consider the discomfort their public conduct inflicts on people around them.
On the other hand, most women in the gym are far more polite and accommodating — they ask before borrowing weights, alternate between machines so that the others get a chance, and always seem to make space for one another, even in a cramped basement. It’s almost as if the women consciously don’t take up more space than they require. It’s got me thinking about something I’d never taken seriously: how men and women occupy physical space differently.
As women, our daily experiences are sullied by men who find it convenient to hog both the armrests at movie halls and airplanes, oblivious to the fact that their knees often knock into the people sitting next to them. This has nothing to do with physical stature. I’m certain, like me, many women can recount instances of taking an UberPOOL, only to have our male passengers spread their legs as far as they can go. Of late, I have also had the pleasure of regularly encountering the elbows of fellow passengers grazing uncomfortably close to my waist on the metro.
While growing up, my brother had his own room and his own bed to watch all the porn he wanted. I, on the other hand, had to give up on my privacy (and Sidney Sheldon tomes) and share a room with my parents.
Could it just be a case of harmless manspreading? If you’ve noticed, men tend to instinctively have a domineering body language in almost every public place they occupy with complete strangers. According to Leadership Presence Coach Carol Kinsey Goman, “Men expand into physical space, while women tend to condense their bodies — keeping their elbows to their sides, tightly crossing their legs, stacking their materials in small, neat piles, and contracting their bodies to take up as little space as possible.”
In India, this stark difference is also enabled by years of conditioning that demand women to be submissive and almost invisible in public, while Indian men have the confidence to pee on the side of highways. But obviously, women breastfeeding in public is the topic of uproar in 21st-century America.
For me, the act of constricting the space I could occupy started early on. While growing up, my brother had his own room and his own bed to watch all the porn he wanted. I, on the other hand, had to give up on my privacy (and Sidney Sheldon tomes) and share a room with my parents. I grew up living a life where I was mindful about the space I could afford to take up while valuing other’s space. Until I moved out at 17. My brother and male cousins almost made a tradition of running around our house topless; splaying their sweaty selves on the sofa with zero consequences. My sister and I were never that lucky — we were always covered head to toe, even during harsh summers.
We live in a culture where we’re simultaneously expected to be more private but are denied that space to be private. In my case, our arrangement also translated into how both of us behaved in public as well. My brother moved schools, made friends easily, had the privilege of hanging out with them in his own room, and was always the prime contender for the window seat. I was shy, unassuming, and relentlessly bullied at school.
We were never taught that we could occupy space without being apologetic about it. Unlike the women I know, the men around me were rarely made conscious of their bodies. As a result, young boys grow up to become adults who don’t think twice before taking up extra space even at the cost of someone else’s inconvenience, even if it ends up undermining a woman’s right to a public space.
What starts as an assertion of power and entitlement in body language doesn’t take too long to metamorphose into something heinous. And before anyone says #NotAllMen, let’s just ask the women in your lives if they have ever been made uncomfortable by a man in a public space. I can assure you that the answer will be a resounding yes. To quote Hannah Gadsby, “If I am the only woman in a room full of men, I am afraid.”
Amrita loves milkshakes, feminism and all things bookish. If she is not writing, reading or obsessing over Trevor Noah's dimples, she's probably trying to brush up on her eyeliner skills.