Our Society Urges Girls To Take Up Less Space And Boys To Take Up More, And It Needs To Stop

It’s fairly typical for women to fold into themselves making room for others in public spaces, while many men seem comfortable splaying themselves out. Where did this behavior come from, asks Soraya Chemaly?

I’m guessing that people aren’t going through their days thinking to themselves, “How much space do I displace?” It’s an interesting question though. Especially if you have kids. You feed them and they tend to grow and take up room. Then, without realizing it, in a hundred small ways a day, you teach them how to and not to do just that.

To this day, when I sit—in a chair, on a bus, a train, at a desk—I hear my primary school headmistress explain that ladies never cross their legs at the knees. The thought of sitting, arms stretched out on either side on the top lip of the back of, say, a park bench is laughable to me, it’s so physically alien. Usually, in public space, I fold myself up and try, by habit, to make room for others. This is fairly typical for girls and women. On the other hand, many men are very comfortable taking up as much space as possible, indeed actively splaying themselves casually, in public. This physical ease in public space starts early and isn’t just a function of rambunctiousness

Then, one day, my daughters, active athletes, started sitting like New York Knicks players sitting on the bench watching a game. Only they were at the dinner table. I reprimanded them and basically asked them to retract their lanky, strong limbs while we ate. They protested and I insisted, some siren reservoir of “ladylike” urging me on. Here I was telling them to suck themselves in, take up less room, withdraw from space. So not me to do that. So I stopped. It was my own, quiet Eureka. 

Saying that we live in a visual culture and that this visual culture affects all of our lives would be the understatement of the century. Gendered body practices are taught subtly and learned early. In the past 30 years, our explosion of visual/video culture has exacerbated these messages. Not only are mainstream, massively propagated stereotypes feeding unhealthy ailments that plague kids—girls with eating disorders, boys with low self-esteem—but they are memetic in other ways. We spent billions of dollars (Disney alone made in excess of $4 billion on the princess market) a year telling girls to take up less and less space. And we are telling boys to take up far more.   

How bodies look and are used, how much space they take up, is important.

Visualized gender and race stereotypes represent, reflect, and create societal norms and interactions. And power dynamics. The way bodies take up space are territorial displays. This becomes even more blatant in the United States when you consider how, for women, ideas about thinness, fatness, and health are complicated by race. Our understanding and reporting of girls’ eating disorders and body expectations, ideas, and stereotypes are racially biased. As Alice Randall explained last year,  “Chemically, in its ability to promote disease, black fat may be the same as white fat. Culturally it is not.”

Every year, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, conducts studies about…gender in media. Consider these findings, which have been consistent for years:

  • “Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.”

Or, these conclusions, recently reported in an ABC news report on the topic:

  • “Twenty years ago, the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today, she weighs 23% less. “
  • “Most runway models meet the body mass index criteria for anorexia.”

This piece closed by pointing out that model Beverly Johnson, who hovered between a size 4 and 6 at the peak of her career in the ’90s, would be considered plus-size today.

Despite terrific strides in women’s earning power and girls’ participation in athletics, every single day, just walking in public or hopping online, girls are bombarded incessantly by images of emaciated, engineered body parts—toned, shaved, buffed, tanned, bleached, thinned. That women are also passive accessories is just a nifty bonus. If girls are obsessing over thigh gaps (hey, have you seen FuckYeahThighGap yet?) and thinness, or sculpting their ladybits to look like Barbie’s, and dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 14, it is because they learn that those things are what are valued by society and because, as a society, we have failed epically to make sure that our children are media- and gender-literate.

Now look at what boys see. Big. Chiseled. Bulked up bodies. Like girls, they are deluged by visualizations of an unattainable-for-most idealized male form. Boys are unhappy with their bodies, taking dangerous drugs, suffering from eating disorders. More than 40% of high school boys work out to increase their body mass. Like girls, in greater and greater numbers, boys are experiencing a disconnect between how they look and what is healthy. We aren’t even talking about violence as a foundational constituent of how we define being a “real” man. Our ideas about masculinity are inseparably enmeshed with male physical dominance and brute strength. 

The imposition of these gender ideas starts at birth. A 2005 study found that parents of 3-year-olds worry that their boys don’t eat enough and that their girls eat too much. That is depressing beyond words.

So, visually, in our mass media—everything from cartoons to our top grossing movies—girls and women (generally speaking, thin and white) are physically diminished and boys and men are grossly expanded…in space, bodily. 

But, these distortions go far beyond the visual: We are saying to our girl children, empty yourself, lack substance, embody frailty, have no core or centrality. Be as small as possible and we will love you more. To our boy children we say, take up more room, more than is good for you or that you need. Be as big as possible. Fill yourself. Dominate space disproportionately. Go to a park, walk around and see how people are sitting in relationship to one another.

People often ask me if I think things have “gotten worse.” I say yes. Grossly distorted ideas about bodies, femininity, masculinity, space, and power have proliferated during the past 30 years. These are 30 years in which technology, mass marketing, and cultural backlash all came together to profit from reductionist ideas best expressed in stereotypes that are cheap and easy to sell and understand. Concerned parents, teachers, media critics, researchers, and doctors agree that boys and girls as individuals are hurt by conformity to these stereotypes. The harm and messages imparted don’t stop at individuals, but pervade society and, in truth, we won’t know the consequences for another 30 years.

This taking up of space, way beyond how people sit and into how they “are,” is a subtle and massive statement of dominance. 

In the meantime, when my daughters spread out to be more comfortable I no longer “correct” them. Their physical insouciance is a gift. So, I smile and hope my lovely mother-in-law isn’t watching, aghast, from beyond.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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