Thursday, October 20, 2011

Give me my ($300) space!

I am by all accounts an average sized person. I am usually around 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches tall, depending on the time of day and how much yoga I have done lately. The 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?


AMA said...

I totally notice this all the time! Men, no matter how big or small, take up a lot of space. I noticed it a lot when I lived in NYC (a place where space is very limited); on the subways men would regularly sit with their knees and elbows out while women would squish themselves into available space.

What I find interesting isn't so much how much space they're actually taking up, but the difference in body language between men and women. Men seem to assume unapologetic "power stances" while women seem to contort themselves apologetically so as to not infringe on anyone's space around them. Think of how men and women sit: men with their legs apart, and women with their legs tightly crossed often with their hands in their laps (this is how we're taught to sit!). While men are naturally bigger than women, I think that much more is at play on the subways or on airplanes...

Megan said...

I was just talking with my brother about the fact that men tend to walk in the middle of the sidewalk, even when they are walking with others. This, perhaps obviously, was in response to his walking in the middle of the sidewalk leaving me with only about a third of the space I deserve! I want to note also that my brother is only 5'4" and so does NOT need extra space as he is only an inch and half taller than me and arguably skinnier. On the other hand, and in some defense of the guys out there, I have also been spatially invaded by females.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I've noticed these spatial differences before, as well. As a taller individual, I can sympathize with men and women who are crammed into tight spaces. For instance, sometimes I find myself in the back seat of a car while the front seat is pushed all the way back. Whatever the cause, it can be quite uncomfortable. I've noticed in these situations that taller males tend to spread their legs and elbows as AMA noted. I've never truly considered why that might be until now, but perhaps I can offer two potential explanations.

The first reason may be the most obvious- some spaces are too small to sit with your knees directly in front of you. Sitting with your legs at an angle decreases the depth of space you take up, although you do increase the width. However, this still doesn't account for situations where men spread their elbows in tight spaces.

I think the second explanation may be found in the idea of comfort. Gender binaries teach boys and girls from a young age how to react in different situations. For example, how do we react in uncomfortable situations?

Little girls are commonly taught to remain quiet, to observe their surroundings, and to make an escape. They should never rock the boat. To do so would be unladylike, or so gender binaries would say. This could account for the "apologetic contortions" women endure in tight spaces.

On the other side of the coin, boys are taught to "defend" their territory. Consider the wild animal kingdom, for example. Gorillas will pound on their chests and grizzly bears rise up on their hind quarters and loudly roar. Similarly, I think males subconsciously try to make themselves bigger when they are uncomfortable- they take more space and assert their "control" over the situation. Whether they are scared or simply find themselves in an uncomfortable situation (such as a crowded flight), perhaps this may account for the spatial invasions males often impose on others.

hanestagless said...

Maybe because I’m a man, but I confess I’ve never noticed this before. I just assumed everyone in the airplane cabin staked out as much space as possible while maintaining a modicum of civility. I’ve often thought that airline travel truly tests individuals’ patience and society’s unspoken codes of conduct.

I find very little as frustrating than dealing with invasion of personal space, despite it being a necessary part of airline travel. But, I would think common knowledge would lead people to expect a can of sardines rather than slices of sashimi. I admit that I am happy when I get to my seat and have the good fortune of sitting next to someone relatively small.

Like you, I am close to the physical stature of the average male. I’m grateful that I don’t have to squeeze into seats and spaces that don’t fit my body type. Nonetheless, I do try to exercise common courtesy, or at least common decency, in sharing the limited space we have. I typically expect my fellow travelers, male and female, to respond in kind.

Yet, because you’ve now brought it to my attention, I can easily imagine how preconceived thoughts on space and dominance would play into the unspoken dance of airline travel. I agree with Brown Eyed Girl in that how society teaches men and women to handle conflicts plays into their interactions on an airplane. Unfortunately, many men carry the assumption that women would be more giving of their space. Thus, I encourage all of you future female flyers to defend your space. I will certainly be more conscious of it the next time I find myself sitting next to a woman.

AMS said...


I loved this blog! I definitely agree with your observations regarding the ways in which males and females tend to "share" the negative space in the world.

As a dancer, my training frequently considers both positive and negative ways of moving through space. I always admired the dancers who took up the most space because, to me, commanding a space translated to power...and power is quite moving. The dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company are a great example of people--and women--who often use a lot of space.

My own style of dancing uses up a lot of space. That said, I constantly find that I minimize the amount of space I take up when I'm in any crowded space (with the exception of the dance floor). Thus, I believe the manner with which we take up space is, just as you contemplated, closely tied to how we have been taught to use the space in that context (whether or not we learned this consciously or subconsciously).

It also seems that race, age, and culture may act as strong determinants regarding the use of space.

I tend to think of African American women as an example of people who take up more negative space than women of other races. But maybe this perception is based solely on my personal experience with black women? Still, when I think of some of my favorite female African American singers, dancers, professionals, and other leaders, I think of women who command space. My experience riding the DC Metro for the two years I lived in the District (a city with many lingering distinctions between African Americans and Whites) only confirms this idea.

Similarly, I find that, older women--particularly the older, Jewish women who I've spent time with--tend to take up more negative space than many other people. While, again, this is based on my personal experience, it makes sense to me. If anyone has earned the right to use up lots of space, it's the seasoned women of the world.

Additionally, culture may be to blame for the phenomenon. In my recent trip to Morocco, I was introduced to the Moroccan taxicab. All the Moroccan taxis were old Mercedes Benz designed to fit five total people (including the driver). In Morocco, two passengers squeeze in the space next to the driver and four squeeze into the back seat. The taxis refused to leave the taxi stand unless all six passenger seats were filled. I found that I usually took up much more space than the Moroccans--both men and women--on these rides.

Whatever the true explanation, I will definitely do my best to seize opportunities to challenge the norm. I'm curious to see how other men and women react...

S said...

Caitlin, on a recent flight I sat between two men. During that flight I realized something funny that I thought I would share.

I sat between two business men in suits. From the moment I sat down, I had already accepted the fact that I would have little room to myself. I was reminded of your blog post and thought back on whether there was something in my life that triggered an acceptance of me giving up space for men. I giggled when I realized it had to do with the male genitalia.

When I was young (9-10)I thought guys sat with their legs slightly ajar-ed, shall we say, because their genitalia was outside the body, and therefore it warranted extra space. Ridiculous, I know. However, what I realized shortly after recalling this memory, was that I never gave a second thought to why I was OK giving up my space for men. Not until your post.

This is not to say that I have not thought about the power dynamics between men and women and how they manifest consciously and subconsciously. Your post (and the comments) reminded me of the deference I gave to men while growing up. It will be interesting to see in what other aspects of my life I see where I have given men deference to. (Like serving them first?) So, thank you.