Breathing Room

By Anne Johnakin

Art by Annie Qiu

I think in fractions a lot. I’m 1/12th of the way through class. 5/36ths completed for a project I’m working on. Taking 1/3rd of the allotted food portions. These mental segmentations are always running, chopping up everything I encounter. What I find myself focusing on the most, though, is the amount of physical space I take up relative to the men around me.

If this couch has 3 pre-segmented portions and I take up 2/3rds of one couch cushion then I’ve got 2/9ths of the total space. He has the rest. Good.

On the subway or any public space, I push my legs tightly together, forcing myself to take up less than a seat. 4/5ths of a seat, 3/5ths if I’m lucky. But we’ve all witnessed how men typically approach a subway seat: legs splayed, not a care in the world as to how they inconvenience the people sitting around them.

I’ve heard so many men confused as to why manspreading matters so much to women. They lament that this is the hill that third-wave feminism chooses to die on. And I get it, it’s a silly thing to be so obsessed with, especially when issues such as wage inequality and sexual assault still exist. But, this phenomenon hints at a much larger issue.

Why do I feel the need to make myself as small as possible? Why can’t I take deep, full breaths and stretch my arms out and be as big as I deserve to be? It, like most things, comes back to the generations upon generations where women were pushed to the background. And now that we’re tolerated here in the foreground, things get crowded. But the thing is, I make accommodations all day long to make sure the men around me aren’t inconvenienced. It’s rarely vice-versa.

To the women reading this, I won’t explain to you what it’s like; you get it. But to the men: my breaths are measured. I never feel 100% full. I was pigeonholed into a world that does not care to scooch over and make a little room for me.

Throughout history, manhood has been able to take up as much space as it pleases, being free and uninhibited no matter the setting. Womanhood was told to fill whatever remained, contorting themselves around the shape of men. Of course, many men today still face oppression, but the world, the subway seats, the couch, they were all built to seat men. Being a woman involves a constant feeling of unwelcomeness. The seat is not mine to take up and the air is not mine to breathe.

I’ve been mostly talking about this hesitance to take up space in a physical sense, but it also applies in a conversational sense as well. In the workplace, women get spoken over and their work goes uncredited daily. Even in classes at Dartmouth, I find men much more willing to speak their mind in every setting, whereas women are intentional about when and why they speak.

The good feminist in me says that since I’m already hyperfocused on this, that I should switch my awareness to actively combating it. This is much easier said than done. I get why I deserve to take up more space, but I can’t for the life of me take it back.

I think what I’ve discovered is that this fight is not one I can fight by myself. While I would be too shy to say ‘sorry, I’m talking’ when someone interrupts me, my female coworker across the table is more than happy to say it for me. And when I sit down next to another woman, I let her take up as much room as she needs. Women advocating for other women has gotten us this far and continues to be the reason that I feel comfortable in most spaces.

I would like to say that every day the fraction of space that I take up gets closer and closer to being a 50/50. But that requires the burden of this consciousness to be shared equally among us. When I tell my male friends about what’s constantly going through my mind, I hope that it starts popping up in their thoughts too. “Does Anne have enough room on this bench?” “Has she spoken enough in this conversation?” “Is there any way I can make this space more comfortable for her?”

If I spend my day thinking those things about you, all I ask is that you think them about me too. Because I really would like 1/2 of the couch.