The phrase ‘taking up space’ has ricocheted in popularity recently. We talk about how, as women, we shouldn’t say “sorry” all the time, or lament the phenomenon of man-spreading (one too many times now I’ve ended up on the tube with my legs clamped tightly together while the guy next to me commanded a small cavern between his knees).
Yet sometimes I wonder if I’ve used that phrase without quite knowing what I wanted to get at. What does it mean to ‘take up space’ beyond literally sitting or standing somewhere, thus ‘taking up’ some small portion of the world? Is it just about planting down your feet and being wherever you are, job done?
Well, yes, pretty much – but only if those feet are planted down with a sense of ease in being there. Some people walk through the world as though they’re entitled to everything it has to offer. Plenty don’t though, feeling like their presence is a burden – or is judged according to harsher criteria. Too loud? Too unladylike? Too talkative? Too quiet? Too fat? Too outlandishly dressed? Too presumptuous? Who does she think she is? Obviously it’s not always gendered, but women are often taught to be more apologetic, to take up less space, to be grateful for any kind of attention.
I was reminded of a project put together for the BBC titled ‘Women Who Spit’ – a series of poems by female performers on subjects from mirrors and bodies to the power of writing. I suggest you all go watch/ listen/ fall into a slight reverie over the words and ideas assembled there. Vanessa Kisuule’s contribution is titled ‘Take Up Space.’ She quickly instructs her listener, ‘don’t wait for permission or approval.’ As she ranges around London in the video, her poem ranges around from dancing to eating to speaking. It is a poem about being joyful and doing things because you want to, without shame. She gloriously advocates living and sweating and not giving a damn.
Taking up space is about the way you walk into a room, or anywhere else, believing that you have a right to be there. It’s about knowing that your voice is a valid one (though it’s worth remembering that sometimes the right thing to do is listen – rather than speak over others). It’s about taking pride in being whatever size you are, sticking two fingers up at a culture which suggests that there’s an ideal amount to weigh - and thus a literal amount of (usually slender) space to occupy. It’s about having pleasure in being who you are, rather than lamenting all that you think you might lack.
It’s also about continuing to make an absolute ruckus about the ways in which women’s ability to take up space is still limited: from the lack of female politicians, CEOs, scientists etc etc (see this ELLE video if you want to get riled at the lack of women in high places) to fear of walking home alone late at night to trolling of women in online spaces to distressing rates of harassment on public transport. On that last point, we also need to talk about how ‘taking up space’ isn’t just about gender, but race too. Take Siana Bangura’s recent experience being horrendously racially abused on a train, with the rest of the carriage staying silent. When she spoke up, someone told her to “stop making a scene.”
We, as a society, need to raise a fucking scene about the fact that things like that are still happening. We need to change our spaces, as well as take them up.
To return to the ‘taking up’ bit though, whilst writing this I began to list words that might be useful: bold, defiant, unrepentant, brave, daring, direct, assertive, self-assured, secure, not-taking-any-bullshit (definitely a single word). They all describe a state of existing without apology for that existence. I like that. It’s a state we should all have a right to experience.
How do I personally take up space? I make sure to stride. I weave in and out of crowds, practically bounding along the pavements. I go to events by myself and (try to) assume people will think the best of me rather than the worst. I also get nervous – but these days I remind myself that it’s not a failing. Mostly though, I relish having a sense of presence: of dressing with joy, wearing red lipstick, speaking back, standing tall, living well, and proving with the way I hold myself that I’m at ease with who I am.