Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Taking Up Space

The phrase ‘taking up space’ has ricocheted in popularity recently. We talk about how, as women, we shouldn’t say “sorry” all the time, or lament the phenomenon of man-spreading (one too many times now I’ve ended up on the tube with my legs clamped tightly together while the guy next to me commanded a small cavern between his knees).

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’ve used that phrase without quite knowing what I wanted to get at. What does it mean to ‘take up space’ beyond literally sitting or standing somewhere, thus ‘taking up’ some small portion of the world? Is it just about planting down your feet and being wherever you are, job done?

Well, yes, pretty much – but only if those feet are planted down with a sense of ease in being there. Some people walk through the world as though they’re entitled to everything it has to offer. Plenty don’t though, feeling like their presence is a burden – or is judged according to harsher criteria. Too loud? Too unladylike? Too talkative? Too quiet? Too fat? Too outlandishly dressed? Too presumptuous? Who does she think she is? Obviously it’s not always gendered, but women are often taught to be more apologetic, to take up less space, to be grateful for any kind of attention.

I was reminded of a project put together for the BBC titled ‘Women Who Spit’ – a series of poems by female performers on subjects from mirrors and bodies to the power of writing. I suggest you all go watch/ listen/ fall into a slight reverie over the words and ideas assembled there. Vanessa Kisuule’s contribution is titled ‘Take Up Space.’ She quickly instructs her listener, ‘don’t wait for permission or approval.’ As she ranges around London in the video, her poem ranges around from dancing to eating to speaking. It is a poem about being joyful and doing things because you want to, without shame. She gloriously advocates living and sweating and not giving a damn.

Taking up space is about the way you walk into a room, or anywhere else, believing that you have a right to be there. It’s about knowing that your voice is a valid one (though it’s worth remembering that sometimes the right thing to do is listen – rather than speak over others). It’s about taking pride in being whatever size you are, sticking two fingers up at a culture which suggests that there’s an ideal amount to weigh - and thus a literal amount of (usually slender) space to occupy. It’s about having pleasure in being who you are, rather than lamenting all that you think you might lack.

It’s also about continuing to make an absolute ruckus about the ways in which women’s ability to take up space is still limited: from the lack of female politicians, CEOs, scientists etc etc (see this ELLE video if you want to get riled at the lack of women in high places) to fear of walking home alone late at night to trolling of women in online spaces to distressing rates of harassment on public transport. On that last point, we also need to talk about how ‘taking up space’ isn’t just about gender, but race too. Take Siana Bangura’s recent experience being horrendously racially abused on a train, with the rest of the carriage staying silent. When she spoke up, someone told her to “stop making a scene.”

We, as a society, need to raise a fucking scene about the fact that things like that are still happening. We need to change our spaces, as well as take them up.

To return to the ‘taking up’ bit though, whilst writing this I began to list words that might be useful: bold, defiant, unrepentant, brave, daring, direct, assertive, self-assured, secure, not-taking-any-bullshit (definitely a single word). They all describe a state of existing without apology for that existence. I like that. It’s a state we should all have a right to experience.

How do I personally take up space? I make sure to stride. I weave in and out of crowds, practically bounding along the pavements. I go to events by myself and (try to) assume people will think the best of me rather than the worst. I also get nervous – but these days I remind myself that it’s not a failing. Mostly though, I relish having a sense of presence: of dressing with joy, wearing red lipstick, speaking back, standing tall, living well, and proving with the way I hold myself that I’m at ease with who I am.

This first appeared as an essay on the ace Emma Gannon's blog here. The photos were taken in Sweden over the summer, and I'm now craving sunshine and lakes to swim in.. My dress was from one of the branches of Beyond Retro in Stockholm - someone described it last month as having all the power of a "visual espresso." I (temporarily) stole the shoes from my mum. 


Freya said...

Goodness you are perfection in that outfit!
I loved reading this essay, I particularly love this line: "It’s about having pleasure in being who you are, rather than lamenting all that you think you might lack.". I'm far too apologetic just for purely existing and always filled with anxiety about how I may be presenting myself in every sense and whether I have anything worth saying. It's something I've really become aware of this past year and been doing my best to move away from it, and I've never felt more free. There's a lot to be said for causing a scene, and often it's the most liberating step you can take.

Closet Fashionista said...

I need to get more confident and take up space myself. I'm the type of person that tries to go unnoticed. At an event I'll stay to the side and wait for people to talk to me, if I even go at all.
But it is so true. Women (and some men) need to stop saying sorry for things we don't need to be sorry about. And a funny man-spreading story - that is my favorite sitting position, although not on public transportation. ;)

Suzy said...

Your looks are always so refreshing!
Love your writing, keep up the great work!

Wishing you a fabulous day,
xoxo Suzy ( ˘ ³˘)♥


Anders said...

Thank You for an interesting blog! I have to tell You, the moment I saw the pictures I thought "this looks lika Sweden"! I was right, but perhaps not suprising, since I live here, in Sweden that is! Best regards! Anders

Ivana Split said...

It is true that we as women are often too reluctant to 'take up space'...sometimes it is really crucial that we do even if it means putting up a fight. Like with everthing in life, I guess it is all about choosing our battles well.

You look divine in that mustard dress. Fabulous photos and styling!

Carlota Antolin Vallespin said...

Really, the pictures are just amazing: beautiful, inspiring and energising.
Wonderful legs you have.

Oh! It took me long time of struggle (childhood and some years of puberty) to learn to love who and how I am. Actually was truly hard work to not be all the time questioning if I am a correct human being, If I would be liked or accepted socially.
It is even harder when you share spaces with people that don't analyse themselves but are free to criticise everyone else. So at primary school I was unaccepted and called strange... or laud, or fat or whatever that make them feel uncomfortable.
But I did work on it. Trying to be more "easy" in public and also trying to learn what makes me who I am, what makes me special: what I like from my personality . Eventually, I manage to be self-confident and free. To be able to party alone or with people I almost didn't knew. To not wait for others to be part of the activities I enjoyed and learn to enjoyed it with myself.
It was soooo worth the afford!! I started to feel sooo powerfull. An the funny thing was to discovered that all this people that looked so free when they were children started to struggle with life and growing older when I was actually going out of it. Suddenly these "cruel" girls of my school started to ask me for advise...... And I did give them advise from my own learnings of course, It also made me feel useful and mature :)

Yes, it is importante to be yourself the one who make space and self acceptance. It makes you aware and strong.


Vix said...

Beautifully put with passion and style. I've often overheard people saying of me, who does she think she is? Like it's shameful to have confidence.
Love the dress and the setting. xxx

Anders said...

On the matter of taking up space... There is an interesting study from children in elementary school, on how much space for talking they took. Boys took the greater part! When the teacher in the study made sure that boys and girls got the same space for talking, the boys described it as they had no space att all... Taking space is also - as most other things - a matter of gender...

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