National Health Statistics Reports released a study of average American height in 2008, which indicated that American women average 64 inches (5'4") and that American men average 69.5 inches (5'9.5"). So, while I am a good 5 or so inches taller than the average woman, I am right-on-the-mark with respect to American men.
I generally think of this as an advantage. Since attaining my current height at the age of 12 or 13, I have been able to ascertain that most adult-sized furniture is made for someone right around my height. My feet always touch the ground, I can (usually) cross my legs under a table, and I never have any problems sitting in or otherwise using furniture in public transit, theaters, restaurants or any other place I encounter in my day-to-day activities.
So, too, is my experience with airline seats. Even though airline companies are shrinking seat sizes and available legroom and pitch to economy (coach) passengers, I still find myself fitting rather comfortably into my allocated coach seat (although I wouldn't say that I'm entirely happy with the amount of space I have). I usually request the aisle seat, due to the fact that I tend to make frequent trips to the bathroom and I never sleep on airplanes--so I don't mind getting up and out for those sitting in the middle or in the window seat. Sometimes there are no aisles, and that's ok. As a person who prefers the aisle, I usually make sure that I give the armrest I share with the person in the middle to that person, primarily because I think they have the worst placement of the three of us, especially if they are traveling alone--smack dab in between total strangers.
While I don't travel by plane as frequently as when I was attending undergrad in Rhode Island, I did travel to a conference in Philadelphia last week. A revelation I made a while ago, but that I had forgotten, became apparent yet again as I got comfortable in my aisle seat on a plane to Denver last Tuesday--men and women treat space differently. More specifically, as a woman I have had to surrender my space to men quite frequently. Most often, this plays out on airplanes--most likely because on airplanes every inch of space is used for a functional purpose. Additionally, I am very aware that while the average coach seat is comfortable for the average sized man, it is likely not so comfortable for anyone who is over 6 feet tall. And, it almost goes without saying, that most of the world's population who are above 6 feet are male.
However, regardless of the size, and I would argue, even more so with average-sized men, I encounter many legs and elbows and other aspects of bodies invading the limited space I have while traveling on planes. In every single case, even when sitting next to larger, taller women, only men invade my space. While some of this is forgivable, given the lack of space, I believe much more of it has to do with a subconscious societal practice that indicates that the masculine involves taking up space, while the feminine is defined in part by how little space one can take up.
In her book entitled Self Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again, Norah Vincent convincingly dressed as a man for several months and wrote her observations of the different social behaviors she experienced when she was presumed to be "one of the guys." The book, although not a favorite, talks at length about Norah's conversion to her male alter-ego, Ned. She discusses her process of re-learning basic spatial behaviors that she had been taught her whole life, identifying specifically this very issue. As a man, she needed to take up space--more space than she ever used as a woman.
While I understand that gendered use of space is subconscious, I try to make a point of taking up as much space as I can in whatever setting I have as a small form of resistance to the trend. As I see it, every time a woman makes herself smaller and a man is allowed to take up the resulting space, it reinforces the idea that women are subservient to men. While I understand that many of the space-related behaviors are subconscious, I do think that beginning to bring awareness to these gendered practices can result in perhaps a more overt change in gender stereotypes.
I welcome comments from others. What do you think? Should an average-sized woman expect to share her allotted airline seat and space with an average-sized man, simply because she is smaller? Or is there something else going on? How can we change things?
And how do larger people otherwise deal with the fact that airlines are shrinking coach space for all passengers? Should they be forced to pay more? Who should give?