As women, we’ve all been witness to those who invade your space. Desperate for attention, but they simultaneously make you feel bad for ignoring it. Why?
En route to my self-imposed quiet coastal writer’s retreat, I stopped at a favourite watering hole for a snack and cup of tea, and to finish reading a compelling collection of essays. I settled in and quickly warmed up in the nearly deserted space. As if on cue, a guy came bumbling in, making more noise than warranted as he positioned himself at a table near mine. There were plenty of open spots with terrific harbour views, but still. Who knew taking off one’s coat, climbing into a bar seat, muttering into one’s phone, ordering, drinking, and even breathing took so much effort, made so much of a ruckus? This guy apparently needed to be noticed.
I am not the person to see you today, guy. Not today, and probably not ever.
He kept at it. Clearing his throat, loudly gulping his coffee, talking into his phone so persistently that I thought he had someone on the line as the audience to his afternoon performance. When my food arrived, I finally put down my book and dove in, still without looking up. He clearly had been in wait of this moment. “Is it good?” I think he said this twice, but since he had been talking to his phone earlier, I did not glance up until he went on, “You look so engrossed.” I wasn’t going to respond at all, but decided to offer up, mid bite, “Yep. Totally engrossed.” I kept shoveling egg and Brussels into my maw, looking down, glancing at my book – all universal signs of don’t talk to me. He kept at it, undeterred, “What’s it about?” Again, with mouth full, “About the first-wave punk movement in LA in the late ’70s. Gripping.” Flat stare and then back to my book.
He finally got the fucking hint and soon after split the scene, making a lot less noise than when he arrived.
Even though this seems like a potentially harmless interaction, my peace had been destroyed. Just trying to eat my lunch here, people, and enjoy my book! And then I of course momentarily berated myself for not being neighbourly, for not engaging, for being a selfish meanie. And then for not really caring about what he might think of me, but what I might think of myself.
This thought pattern, I’ve discovered, is as cumulatively devastating as being forced into giving attention where attention is not warranted.
It’s not my problem if you don’t feel seen, guy. It’s not my job to give you attention because your wife/girlfriend/mother did not. My only job today is to sit and enjoy the afternoon and not spend energy fending off your bullshit.
Even writing this down now feels reactionary, whiny, blown out of proportion. I run personal inventory: There was that brief conversation with the dude walking his hound on the bike path earlier; with that waiter last week; with my mail carrier, Dave. So, why can’t you just be polite and have a nice chat now?
Because it’s fucking exhausting, that’s why.
It reminds me of the yoga guy, every yoga guy, coming into class late, stepping on everyone’s mats, wedging his bulk into a slot that isn’t quite big enough, isn’t ever gonna be big enough. Coughing and clearing his throat. Immediately sweating profusely and shaking drops all over adjacent mats and women. Doing headstands when it’s not headstand time. Doing handstands when it’s not handstand time. Reaching too far. Not checking boundaries. Not checking himself or anyone in his wake, period.
I’m not trying to be the yoga police, I just can’t help but notice that for many others (ahem), there are no boundaries. There are never any boundaries. His reach is wide. His reach is privileged. His reach is entitled mediocre white guy bullshit announcing “I’m here” and “I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want, with no consequence.”
Once again, yoga practice is ruined.
Some could barely squeak out a yelp. When asked to strut confidently, some women remained hunched over in the shoulders. Some actually cried when asked to own their space, their bodies, their voices.
What I notice about the women in yoga classes is that we’re always checking ourselves. Checking our space. Making certain to not take up too much space. There’s never enough space. I can fit into the smallest space. Anywhere. Don’t take up too much space. Don’t take any space. Don’t take. Space.
Maybe I let things go south too often. Maybe I’m just on tilt these days. Hyper-aware/sensitive. Or perhaps I’m finally finding my voice and the will to take up some space, too.
We could all strike, do the high kicks and rolls. We could all get away. But we couldn’t all yell, couldn’t push an intruder away with our voices. We couldn’t all stand proudly taking up space that is rightfully ours.
We’d been talking about taking the women’s self-defence class for some time and finally got in after a ridiculously challenging registration process. It’s run and taught by committed volunteers, not necessarily skilled in teaching or training, but certainly skilled in enthusiasm and demonstrating key moves. We were eager for new moves.
We thought it would be all about that. We thought we’d only focus on getting out of potentially dangerous situations. We thought we’d learn how to stand and strike and kick and deflect.
We did all that.
What we didn’t realise was that the training was really about taking up space. Learning to have a voice. Learning to call attention to ourselves in an assertive way. We thought we already knew how to do that. That we lived that way. Hell, we yell! We posture with confidence. We hold ourselves upright and in sight. We have direct eye contact. We walk with intention.
But most of the other women in the room did not embrace those elements of being. It was so painfully obvious. When asked to practice shouting, some could barely squeak out a yelp. When asked to strut confidently, some women remained hunched over in the shoulders. Some actually cried when asked to own their space, their bodies, their voices.
We didn’t know each other’s backstories. Many in these workshops are domestic abuse survivors, victims of trauma, mothers of victims.
We could all strike. We could all do the high kicks and rolls. We could all get away. But we couldn’t all yell. We couldn’t all forcefully push an intruder away with our voices. We couldn’t all stand proudly taking up space that is rightfully ours.
When assertiveness becomes a natural, positive component of being a female/trans/gay/otherly marginalised human too, then we can each move through the world freely. Until we can all feel that calm power – of taking up space, of owning the sidewalk and marching down the street, of ignoring unwanted attention without consequence (internal and external) – then we all remain less than.
Let’s get on the other side of that equation.