Illustration by Ren Rader
Having spent only two months abroad in a city as busy and crowded as London, I’ve begun to notice certain social interactions that I was more or less oblivious to, or at least for the most part blind to, in San Antonio.
The other day, for example, during a particularly dense rush hour in the tube station, I noticed a man bumping into everyone who walked past him going the opposite direction. The man walked through the station with his chest puffed out, and with his shoulder, he physically hit every person who walked in the small space they had to go the opposite way, including baby strollers and pregnant women. He seemed deliberate in his intention to stay in the exact same spot, and not move, so that everyone that passed him had to quickly swerve out of the way (even though he was in theirs) if they didn’t want to get hit.
After witnessing this, I noticed a few days later that on my way back from class, I too was swerving out of the way of men I was making direct eye contact with, who knew perfectly well that I was coming in their direction, but clearly had no intention of moving out of my way.
I’ll admit that in this city, I kind of always feel “in the way”, but why is it my instinct to give these men space, who obviously weren’t thinking of providing more space for me, as if I am not equally as deserving to march through the sidewalk without planning on swerving lanes at any given moment?
I always heard about “manspreading”, but I never quite noticed it in the city I grew up in, in which I took public transportation maybe once or twice in my entire life (which I acknowledge is a privilege in and of itself). The notion of men taking up extra space, even going as far as blocking most of the seat next to them with their legs on subways and buses, became much more apparent in a big city where public transport is essential to get around, and where it seems as though most of the population congregates underground at the exact same time.
I know what you’re probably thinking, who cares? Who cares that I had to side step on my way back from class because men in suits were unwilling to budge, and who really cares that a lot of men are determined to spread their legs out as far as they possibly can, as if their life depended on the distance between their knees? It’s not a big deal, and I agree, in theory, it’s really not — I don’t want to make light of the fact that there are certainly bigger fish to fry.
I hate to say this, but it’s kind of the principle of the thing. I started to wonder whether men are taught to feel entitled to these spaces. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an anti-manspreading crusade, but of all the things men are conditioned to feel more deserving of, is physical space in public one of them? Most of the women I see on the tube make themselves as small as possible-crossing their legs, folding their arms in, in order to make space for the men who seem to think that the rest of London isn’t also trying to get somewhere. I don’t mean to make this an attack on people who just happen to sit a certain way for whatever reason, I just don’t think women should be made to feel small, or unworthy of certain spaces for the simple fact of being women.
The act of manspreading itself isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s that the entitlement to physical space that allows men to spread their legs out so far apart in public is the same entitlement that allows them to walk through the subway physically knocking over everything in their way. It’s a symptom of a greater issue about gender norms and who is allowed to to take up what spaces while others feel the need to make themselves small.