A Year Of Living Comfortably

Or, how I learned to define the boundaries of my own space.

Morning. I see him clock the seat next to me, on my busy Victoria Line train, and make a beeline for it. I know before he sits that he’s going to do it. And he sits. And he does it. Spreading his legs, he presses his thigh against my thigh. But where he expects me to instantly spring into action, snapping my legs closer together to give him the room he deserves, I push back. I slide my foot along the floor towards his and push it, ever so slightly. He is completely baffled. He moves his leg.

I don’t know exactly when or even why I decided to resist London’s manspreaders, but once I started, there was no going back. Once you experience the rush of sitting without that strange man’s thigh warmly jammed up against yours, once you claim your own space, it’s addictive.

I’m not here to get into a debate about why manspreading is bad. You either know instinctively why it’s bad that one group of people feels entitled to more space and comfort than another group, especially when it comes at the expense of the other group’s space and comfort, or you don’t. I’m not here to ponder over how much space a dick and balls need, or to roll my eyes when a man mentions women and their gigantic handbags that take over the world.

I’m here to talk about how it feels when, for twelve whole months, you’ve been watching yourself grow bolder, feeling all the way to the edge of your personal space and putting in place a pretty good fence.

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Watch yourself next time you walk down the street. If you are a woman, ask yourself why your route snakes all over the pavement as you duck and weave to avoid the men charging towards you, refusing to give you quarter. If you are a man, think about how straight your path has been. Think about how you never once had to mutter “excuse me” or “sorry” or “sorryexcusemeI’msosorry” as a man stared at you, clearly shocked by your obvious idiocy.

If you are a woman, dare to straighten your path. Dare to walk as you wish. Dare to dare the men walking towards you.

It’s really just a game of chicken. But in chicken, nobody shouts “YOU FUCKING STUPID BITCH” because in chicken, everyone knows the rules.

In the year since I stopped making space in my space for men, I have bumped into so many men I’ve lost count. I lost count in the first week, actually.

It’s not a case of looking for men to bump into. That would be absurd. It’s a case of walking as a man would: at a reasonable clip, in as straight a line as possible, only giving way when not to do so would be unspeakably rude (of course I will get out of the way of a pushchair; of course I will not make a couple holding hands let go of each other).

But I walk. I walk. It’s liberating, and men don’t seem to like it.

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He’s an armrest colonel, and he’s been fighting me for full use of this armrest for five stops and counting. I am making a show of reading my book (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, but then who didn’t read that book this year?) but I haven’t turned a page since he sat down, because every tiny bit of my energy is focused on my own elbow and forearm, on the armrest, as he pushes and pushes and pushes against it with his. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him shaking his head in disbelief. He has 50% of the armrest, but he wants it all.

As I stand to get up, the force of his pushing arm is such that he sort of tumbles a little, leaning skewiff into the seat I just vacated. I turn to him. I look down at him, and say, “you know, you don’t always get to take up all the space you might want in the world.” He looks at me, embarrassed because people are listening, but also confused, because maybe he has never even thought that he might not immediately be gifted the space he desires. I narrow my eyes and say, “women have been putting up with it forever.”

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To walk with confidence, to walk like a man down a busy path and find the space you’ve defined for yourself is being respected, is utterly liberating. Until, of course, you’re faced with some man, red-faced and furious because you didn’t dodge out of his way.

Because, he thinks, you should have gotten out of his way.

He doesn’t realise you were thinking the exact same about him.

Or maybe he does. Maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Maybe that’s why he’s calling you a dumb cunt.

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I work with this guy. He’s old enough to be my dad and he’s a pretty big personality. I have a running tally of the times he has invaded my personal space, and a promise to myself that when it hits five, I’ll have a word with him.

In a meeting room where we are about to conference call a client, he sits directly next to me on a three person sofa, one of three sofas in the room. He spreads his legs. His smell is in my nostrils. I can feel his breath. I endure it until the end of the call, pushing myself as far from his body as I can.

Turning to him, I tell him, “I really would prefer it if you respected my personal space a bit more. I find your closeness unsettling. It isn’t appropriate.”

Of course, he’s at first aghast, then defensive, then dismissive.

No, I tell him, it’s not funny. No, I tell him, it’s not OK.

No, I tell him, don’t make my request for personal boundaries seem ridiculous.

No, I tell him, I don’t like it.

I would never have told him this, if I hadn’t spent a year telling strangers.

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In the year that I have actively railed against personal space microinfractions, I have learned a lot about myself.

I have learned that I am apt to call someone a dickhead or a prick, or both, if they go too far, but that I am far more likely to simply respond to an insincere “…sorry” as a man shoves into me with a withering “are you?” or a simple “no, you’re not.”

I have learned that the adrenaline-laced fear trip that comes after vocally confronting a man subsides a hell of a lot quicker than the feeling of impotent rage that lingers after letting him get away with it.

I have learned that claiming my space, without apologising for myself, feels fucking great.