Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taking up more space

Last week Anthea wrote about taking up space:

But it's much more than that. I've recognised this tendency in myself, and in others, to apologise for your size, to make yourself as small as possible. Clearly if a seat is too small for the people sitting on it, in the short term both are going to be in some discomfort and, all else being equal, it's up to both of them to absorb some of that discomfort - but it should be about just that, a mutual effort to deal with a problematic situation, not the onus being on one to not inconvenience the other.

Anthea's basic argument is one that can't be repeated enough - people's bodies are expected to fit the built environment not the other way round and that's ridiculous (and also all capitalism's fault). But what her title made me think of was something I've been meaning to write about for a while - some of the subtler ways we reinforce the idea that people can pathologise taking up space.

I don't know if it's just a verbal quirk of the people I know, but reasonably often when a friend is ranting about someone who is annoying her she'll say "he takes up so much space."*

Most of the time if I'm going to respond to something people say that bothers me I have to have a line that I use (in fact few things make me feel cooler and more high than responding to fuck-wit things people say just off the cuff). In this circumstance, if I say anything at all I say "I hate that metaphor." Most people I know who use the concept of 'space' in this way don't think of it as a metaphor, but it is.

When you use a metaphor you're making a statement not just about what you're talking about, but also what you're comparing it to.** So when people criticise someone for 'taking up space' if they mean taking up time or attention they're implying that there is a scarcity of space, and there's not. Any scarcity of space is about the way the world is organised, and we should not legitimise that organisation by policing other people's physicality, even by implication.

* The pronouns here are representative of most of the conversations, which represents the strong pressure women feel not to take up space - either physically or metaphorically.

** I have known people whose metaphors make me want to say: "OK I disagree with your metaphor and your analysis of thing B, but actually we need to stop the conversation for a while to talk about your analysis of thing A, because that's even more disturbing to me."

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