Taking up space when you don’t happen to be a man

Originally published June 24, 2015 (but unfortunately still relevant)

I first diagnosed myself with “Invisible Person Syndrome” in my freshman year of high school.

In a matter of two days, I had several times been casually slammed — not walked — into by older, larger, male students. Each time, I managed not to fall over, but I teetered dangerously, and then walked on, no one else having noticed what had happened. Like it hadn’t happened at all.

Unable to suss out a reason for this unfortunate series of events, I simply decided that I had “Invisible Person Syndrome,” or IPS. Symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting walked into
  • Getting knocked over
  • Getting pushed into and/or over barriers at large events (concerts, rallies, parades, etc.)
  • Receiving dirty looks when it looks like you might make a movement on public transportation
  • Being verbally reprimanded when you dare to make said slight motion
  • A gradual increase in height from being squished all the damn time
  • Fury

As a high school freshman, I thought myself existentially brilliant for this naïve diagnosis. As a 23-year old woman, I now know that I was merely encountering a common problem I would face the rest of my life: Women apologizing for their existences.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Sloane Crosley nimbly writes about this issue in “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop,” focusing on the common female verbal tic of saying, “Sorry” when it simply isn’t necessary.

She briefly touches on my theorized “Invisible Person Syndrome” in discussing how the New York City MTA is responding to pandemic (mostly male-fueled) space-hogging on its subways:

Look at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new ads warning New York straphangers against inconsiderate behavior, like eating on the subway or manspreading. Graphics depict men displaying almost all these behaviors, except, perhaps in an effort to provide gender balance, the one that advises women to avoid elbows-out personal grooming.
The scenario seems ridiculously unrealistic — and not just because it’s the only one I’ve never witnessed firsthand. The ads are saying that men are far less likely to be conscious of personal space than women. So why, even after making ourselves physically smaller on the subway, are we still the ones apologizing?

I won’t agree that it is “ridiculously unrealistic” to imagine a woman not performing elbows-out personal grooming on the subway, because I have seen it many times. However, her analysis of men being less conscious of their physical presences than women is IPS 101.

Crosley notes that excessively apologizing isn’t exclusive to women. I can also affirm that it is not just women who often physically shrink themselves for the sake of others. It is far more accurate to say that the people who don’t suffer from IPS — the manspreaders, the guys who slam into you in the hallway — are the generalized (“all men”) men.

[Pause for “not all men!” reaction. Carry on.]

Most any woman or member of the LGBTQIA community has most likely felt invisible, both physically and figuratively, at least once in their life. I unfortunately can almost guarantee that fact without even pretending that I conducted a survey.

It is no coincidence that I first noticed my apparent invisibility during my teen years, the time when puberty rudely forces us to pay hyper-close attention to our bodies, to start defining them and what they mean to us in terms of sexuality and self worth, and how we can carve out space for those bodies and sexualities or — in the case of IPS sufferers — how we can exist semi-comfortably without disturbing anyone.

Women (or anyone else) with uteri learn to slide tampons up shirtsleeves so that no one will know their bodies are functioning normally. Many begin crossing their legs because it’s supposedly more ladylike and conveniently reduces the width required in any seat. Some starve themselves to the point of illness in an effort to reduce, quite literally, the amount of space they take up in this world. I once even refrained from pulling a book out of my purse on an hour-long subway ride because even the slightest movement might disturb a stranger who is more deserving of his manspreading while reading “Infinite Jest.”

Are we successfully not disturbing anyone? Yes. Are we existing comfortably? No. Are we existing even semi-comfortably? I’m not. At this point, I have been squished into so many airplane and subway seats that I feel more like a packed sardine than a human being.

Thus, I am calling to arms all the people who haven’t been coddled into thinking that they can slam into a person in the hallway and not notice or apologize. I’m talking about the uterati with tampons up their sleeves, trans men and women who are afraid to dress and physically exist as they were born to, gay men and women who come out of metaphorical closets that may as well be literal ones, and anyone else who has been taught that it would be better if they were just a little bit smaller or, better yet, invisible.

To all of you (and to myself) sardines: Go out there and take up space! Steal space from the guy next to you on the subway by shoving back on his leg when it tries to colonize your well-earned seat. Put your elbows out when you’re walking through a suffocating crowd so you can get to the fresh air first. Wear neon fuchsia and blind passersby. Wear a necklace made of tampons and watch the boys squirm. Use the goddamn armrests on airplanes!

If there is space for the taking, seize it. If someone undeserving tries to make your personal space theirs, wrench it back. The first thing we do in this world is arrive physically, so why would we ever try to diminish that essentiality? Because some white dude needs to sprawl out for a 3 pm nap on the C train?

“Sorry,” but no.

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