Bodies: Taking Up Space

By Charlotte Audley-Coote

This article will feature in the upcoming issue of Wom*news, out this Thursday.

While it may not be a new observation that women’s bodies are often exploited as political playgrounds, I’ve been noticing something interesting for the last month or so when it comes to the gendered ways in which people are allowed or expected to take up space. I’m definitely one for a set of good manners, but it’s interesting how some of ‘the rules’ are not always meant for everyone. It would be easy to ‘disobey’ these social laws if it would only mean to be ‘rude’, however, the attitudes that prevail for how a woman occupies space often seem to transcend trivial judgements. A polite woman is a woman who is quiet and does not take up much space. You can find her sitting with her legs together, tucked in and taking up as little space as she can on a public bench. This same rule doesn’t seem to apply to men, who you may see beside her with legs stretched out and arms draped over the chair.

These rules on space did not ‘just happen’, of course. For a long time girls in school were taught actual ‘deportment’ as a part of their education. Here a few lessons:

–       Girls were taught to walk down the side of a hall, alongside the wall, as boys were to walk down the middle.

–       When you opened the door, you only were to open it as little as possible.

–       There were an array of different feet and hand folds required when sitting so as to make sure that you would not draw attention to the space you were in.

–       Always accept a man’s conversation, but never start one on your own.

Particular manner words such as ‘demure’, ‘modesty’ and ‘seemly’ all happen to only be applicable to women, and they all happen to dictate that women are to be reserved, quiet, taking up as little space as possible and making sure to always be accommodating to men. While I don’t intend to argue what is actually ‘polite’ or not, it is interesting to see how these rules and this ‘polite culture’ manifest in different ways.

Something that accompanies the rules that dictate how a woman can take up space is the commoditisation of her body in order to ‘pay’ for that space that she has been so generously allocated. In one way or another women’s bodies have often been commodified so as to justify and police their presence in the little space they are allowed to take up. As a false criterion, whether this is in marriage, in media or in the workforce, women’s bodies are usually naturalised to reflect a perspective that necessitates our bodies to be of a certain utility in order to exist. We can see this in the way women’s reproductive abilities have been exploited as natural resources and in the way that women’s presence in public or work spaces must be accommodated by facilitating the male gaze. Culture dictates that women should not be met with any understanding as an independent individual if she explains that she doesn’t want children or pushes back against the male gaze or unwanted attention, because it’s just not meant to seem fathomable for a woman to be taking up space anywhere if she is not doing so for the arbitrary benefit of others.

Women’s ‘spaces’ were once restricted to the home, and a woman with ‘manners’ definitely knew her place in this and would not be caught outside occupying space that was not hers. Obviously though, even ‘the home’ was not a space for women in their own right. Women paid for their domestic spaces by ‘being wives’. Once women started entering the work force, the commoditisation of women had to shift. This turn was a turn onto women’s bodies in a new way, and while attention on women’s bodies was obviously not a recent phenomenon, it was definitely a new level of hostility in response to women’s bodies in the new context in which they were now participating. While deportment classes became outdated, there was a new form of communication to take its place to teach women how they should occupy space.

This was around the time that advertising towards women dramatically changed and ideas of ‘beauty’ and ‘diets’ started to evolve in a shocking way. It seems far too coincidental that the patriarchal powered vehicle of advertising began manipulating women to be preoccupied with their weight (to be thin) at the same time that they started entering more space than before. While women are now ‘allowed’ to walk outside, wear business suits and go to meetings, the fabricated necessity for a woman’s body to be of use or disposal to culture is treated as an objective truth, and it means that the space women occupy is still not theirs in their own right. These elements which have been falsely injected into the apparent essence of women’s bodies enable the hateful and judgemental attitudes which result from the beliefs about ‘manners’, ‘space’  and ‘gender’ to go unquestioned. I, for one, would like to think that there’s no ‘women specific’ DNA which physically propels one to walk down the side of a hall, to accommodate unwanted conversation, or fold one’s feet into some demure form of origami.

~ Charlotte Audley-Coote

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2 thoughts on “Bodies: Taking Up Space

  1. Joanne Stagg-Taylor says:

    I am writing an article which includes ideas around how women owe reproductive health to society and subordinating their privacy and consent to allow reproduction to become a social. I took a few minutes off to rest my brain and got referred to this post by the Down Under Feminists Carnival. Now, I’ll be citing this post and your elegant argument on payment for social participation! This is a beautiful, concise summary of the concept.

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