Tuesday, 21 June 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."


The Megapope said...

Hmm. I find that metaphor tricksy when it comes to implications, because I think personal space is certainly something that can be used up, as well as time/patience, by someone who's being loud or abrasive. I've only ever heard that line being used in that kind of context, and as someone who's worn his share of fat jokes in the past (albeit with the male privilege of not being constantly judged on my looks) I've never associated the phrase with body policing.

Mileage though, it varies.

Maia said...

Oh I know what people are trying to say. I just think it's an inappropriate metaphor. Because it doesn't make sense unless you believe that someone can take up too much physical space - otherwise why are you using space as your referrant?

I don't think people intend to reinforce ideas about physical space, but they do.

Deborah said...

in fact few things make me feel cooler and more high than responding to fuck-wit things people say just off the cuff

I always feel distressed and unhappy about responding to fuck-wit things people say. I loathe verbal put-downs, and I find them destructive, of friendship and engagement and learning. I do respond, but quietly and gently, with a sense of trying to do my best to get people to think about what they have said, and why it might hurt other people, and why it would be a good idea to change the language or behaviour. I certainly don't feel cool and high about it.

Carol said...

hmmm... an interesting point on space as metaphor. It is a metaphor that permeates our language though and is difficult to disentangle: from cyberspace, to mental space, personal space, and feeling spaced out.

I have thought of a colleague getting too much into other people's space. This has a physical as well as metaphorical dimension, where both are intertwined. It includes things like tidying up and rearranging another person's work space without that person being asked or notified. But also includes constantly, and too frequently, engaging others in all kinds of conversations, often by entering into their workspace.

I'm not aware of using the expression taking up too much space though.

Notions of space and place permeate our sense of social, economic, located and geographic positionings within a hierarchically organised society. But capitlaism does add an extra element of ownership of space, both physical and more metaphorical, as in p.eople buying up sections of cyberspace.

These are some of my musings on the subject, but I'll wait to read more ideas about the signifcance of the ways this metaphor is used.

Maia said...

Carol - Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that the way people think about space and use ideas of space area really interesting. I think the use of 'taking up space' that I'm describing is quite specifically among people I know.

Deborah - "I always feel distressed and unhappy about responding to fuck-wit things people say."

People struggle with different things. I struggle with speaking out and therefore feel a sense of achievement when I do. It's the times that I stay silent that I feel distressed and unhappy.

In your response you seem to equate feeling good at responding to fuckwittery with verbal put-downs, and hating doing it with the response you advocate. Just because they co-exist in you doesn't mean they're intrinsically connected. People who enjoy verbal put-downs might enjoy responding to fuckwittery with verbal put-downs. But what I was talking about is feeling a sense of satisfaction from over-coming internal and external silencing.

The example I gave in the post as needing practice with was "I hate that metaphor" - if I struggle to say that without practice it's quite an assumption that discussion of put-downs is relevant (in fact the example I was thinking of was a laughing "you guys are being ridiculous" which enabled me to make it clear that I didn't agree with that discussion, after being silent during similar discussions for months).

Feeling good about standing up for yourself doesn't mean that you have to have been nasty to others. I do have a problem with people who act as if the two are equivalent in their lives. But I think you're upholding that association, by assuming that someone who describes feeling good about standing up for themselves is talking about verbal put-downs.