Alone Is Not An Invitation
The perks of the freelancing lifestyle are numerous – you don’t have to go to an office, you don’t have to get dressed, you don’t have to make smalltalk with your colleagues, and you get to choose your own work schedule. But after a while that sense of freedom can flip into what feels like the opposite; I often find myself regretting that I don’t have an office to go work in, don’t have to get dressed, don’t have any colleagues with whom I can talk, and never really feel finished with work, because it never officially starts OR ends.
I also spend far too much time alone in my apartment.
I know I should work out of the house more, but over my four years living in Pau I have never quite figured out where there is to go. The public library rarely opens before 2 PM; the university depresses me because it is full of 19-year olds that seem to have already had all the intellectual curiosity trampled out of them; most of the cafés are somewhat stuffy and rigid, and designed for socializing not working. When it’s not raining I have the option to walk to a park, and sit on grass that is far itchier than it looks and generously scattered with dog poop, which I end up leaving shortly thereafter in any case due to an inevitable need to pee.
So when I get up in the morning and think about my options, I almost always choose to stay at home to work.
I often feel like Rapunzel. I know there is a world outside, but I can’t really imagine it and I don’t feel connected to it. The walls inch closer and closer, and the world shrinks down until it is no bigger than 60 m2. And then my apartment begins to feel more like a prison than a haven.
Of course the prison isn’t actually my apartment itself, which does still, last I checked, have fully functioning doors leading into a public corridor. The prison is my own mind; I start thinking the outside has nothing to offer, while my apartment has the inarguable benefit of containing my cats, comfortable places to sit, and a very loose dress code.
I forget how much better it feels to be outside around people from time to time. Even if Pau is always the same, it still offers far more variety than that which is found within the confines of my apartment.
If I were to work outside several hours a day, it would mean I’d go back home afterwards and see it freshly, feel the walls breathe. I’d feel the tiny distance between me and the outside, and how my apartment is not prison at all but a window outwards, like a castle in the sky with an unambiguous, un-chop-downable beanstalk exit. I’d be able to remember that I can descend any time.
I finally convinced myself that as uninviting as the cafés are, as low-energy as the university is, and as prickly and smelly as the park is, they are all infinitely better than staying at home and slowly, day by day, completely losing my mind.
As part of my “Lets Postpone Lunacy” self-improvement campaign, I packed up my bag last Wednesday and headed out into the exciting Ville de Pau. It was an unusually beautiful day. I walked two short blocks until I reached the center plaza, and chose a small table at a busy sidewalk cafe and sat down. A waitress came over , I ordered a grand crème, and pulled out a notepad and a pen. I marveled at how giddily happy I was to be outside, out among other people. I didn’t even really mind that I’d accidentally sat downwind from all the smokers, and now my head was haloed. I felt free.
The sun was intense and I put on my sunglasses as my cheeks began to toast. The waitress delivered my coffee and I began to write. After I’d been scribbling for about 5 or 6 minutes, and was just teasing out an intricate thought, my table rattled, and chair across from me moved. The gnarled hand pulling it belonged to a man of a rather shriveled 60, who wore a fisherman’s style cap and was carrying a plastic bag from the discount grocery retailer, Lidl. I looked up at him in surprise as he made ready to sit down at my table, my face completely blank. He then backed away and chuckled, revealing that it had just been a clever joke: He wasn’t sitting down with me, he was just pretending to do so! Haha! I raised an eyebrow and he shrugged his shoulders and walked way, still laughing, never having said a word.
I was then flooded with overwhelming guilt.
“That poor old man!” I thought. He was just being friendly, why hadn’t I chuckled back at him or at least flashed a smile? Why hadn’t I responded NICELY to his little joke? Instead I had just stared at him, and raised an eyebrow, which surely must have made him feel uncomfortable and misunderstood.
I felt SO bad. I had been too surprised to respond with kindness, so instead I responded with neutrality, which he surely read as negativity. He probably took my surprise for coldness and my raised eyebrow for irritation! Oh no!I felt a total sinking inside over the possibility of having made someone feel bad or uncomfortable.
And then I caught myself…Wait a second here, let me get this straight: A person comes over and disrupts my private space, provoking a response from me, and I feel EXTREME guilt that my response was anything other than gushing warmth?
I realized I was responding in accordance with the programming I had received all of my life that teaches women to respond politely even to unwanted attention. We are trained to respond “nicely” and it’s made very clear to us that anything less is “bitchy,” unfeminine and maybe even fundamentally bad…not how good girls act. Plus it might prove dangerous to be anything but demure; it might “provoke” men into doing us harm.
I had been conditioned to feel responsible for his equanimity, despite the fact that his entire joke was based on the disruption of mine. And as I started to think about all of this, and how this man had in fact disturbed my train of thought, messed up what I was writing and generally thrown me off, my guilty feeling melted away, and was quickly replaced with resentment. But was that fair either?
It is a bad weather time of year. It has been raining almost every day so we haven’t had the opportunity to take our cats outside more than once every few weeks. Today I put our new 7-month old kitten Lucca in his harness and brought him downstairs into an open space behind our apartment building. He was very out of practice, and remained crouched and rigid for the first 10 minutes, pretty sure that every noise was a threat. “OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT THING???” He’d look up at me with wide eyes and a panicked expression, and I’d do my best to be soothing and say, “That is just a small human child on a tricycle but I can imagine how scary she looks to you.” Her pigtails bounced threateningly.
When the cats aren’t brought outside frequently they lose the knack for it. These little fur-footed minions of the gods Entropy and Gravity spend all day in my apartment knocking things over, shoving them from high-up places to the ground, tearing things apart, and acting surprised when the things they move actually move. They populate their environment with imaginary predators and prey, mimicking the chaos of real life outside, all the while increasingly incapable of actually dealing with it. Am I all that different?
Perhaps the anger I felt toward the man for having invaded my space was more to do with being out of practice with people. Maybe it was just that I have a super thin skin right now after what has been a rather difficult year.
After all, isn’t part of the beauty of being in public spaces that you can’t control them and you don’t know what to expect?
Or was I justified in feeling resentment at having my privacy disrupted?
It seems like every time I’m on an airplane, I end up next to some guy who sits down and immediately flops both his arms over the entire surface of both armrests, one of his elbows actually digging into my rib cage, while his knee juts into mine as he spreads his legs to a 120 degree angle. He usually fails to notice this breach of my personal space for the entire 10-hour journey.
It seems men are liberal about their expansion beyond their designated space in other forms of public transportation too, as is hilariously documented by various blogs such as the Swedish “Macho i Kollektivtrafiken” (“Macho in Public Transport”) and “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train.”
Critics of these projects point out that women also take up space rudely in public places – and this is certainly sometimes the case, as visible in the blog “Going With Eddie: Documenting Bad Subway Behavior & Other Crazy Happenings in NY.” But what you notice in these photos is that more often than not, when women are taking up more than their fair share of space it tends to be more defensive – for example surrounding themselves with their bags like buffers.
Other critics suggest that this is a silly, frivolous thing for feminists to be concerning themselves over – and if they have nothing better to do than worry about space on the metro, then there must not be all that much left for feminism to accomplish.
But in researching body language, one quickly understands it is foundational to expressions of power and submission.
From Women and Downtown Open Spaces, by Louise Mozingo:
Henly, researching women’s personal space, noted that women move out of the way of other pedestrians more often than men. Women in public environments are touched more often than men, and, quite predictably usually do not reciprocate the touching when it is initiated by men. Nager and Nelson-Shulman found that women’s personal space and anonymity are invaded twice as often as men’s. Moreover (in these invasions), men are approached with requests for information (what time is it?) while women most often are encroached upon with intrusions of a sexual nature. They found that “gaze aversion, stiff carriage, susceptibility to invasion, and the tendency to condense space by holding one’s ams close to the body are signs of deference and submission communicated non-verbally” by women.
According to Dr. Audrey Nelson, “territory” claimed in public space by women is also less respected and women’s personal objects that are left as territory markers are moved far more often than men’s.
Female markers in bars or restaurants – feminine sweaters, purses – tend to be less effective than male markers – a coat, cell phone, pack of cigarettes, or newspaper. Women’s boundaries are not respected and are invaded more easily, consequently a woman’s territory is overtaken more quickly than a man’s.
Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky wrote about how acting “feminine” often means using your body to portray powerlessness. “Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote. These features of “feminine” body comportment are also associated with deference in general.
In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness.
Recently social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a Ted Talk about how important body language is, not just for what we project to others but also how powerful we ourselves feel. She discussed how making ourselves larger or smaller not only relates to power dynamics, but unsurprisingly to gender dynamics.
And what are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? in the animal kingdom, they are about expanding: You make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space. This is true across the animal kingdom. It’s not just limited to primates. And humans do the same thing. They do this both when they have power sort of chronically, and also when they’re feeling powerful in the moment…What do we do when we feel powerless? We do exactly the opposite. We close up. We wrap ourselves up. We make ourselves small. We don’t want to bump into the person next to us. Again, both animals and humans do the same thing. And this is what happens when you put together high and low power. What we tend to do when it comes to power is that we complement the other’s nonverbals. So if someone is being really powerful with us, we tend to make ourselves smaller. We don’t mirror them. We do the opposite of them…women are much more likely to do this kind of thing than men. Women feel chronically less powerful than men, so this is not surprising.
Amy Cuddy and her colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement. In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation, prompted by a personal feeling of powerfulness.
If as a woman you DO take up some space it usually isn’t long before someone tries to shame you out of it. And not just men – women can be even worse reinforcers of these patterns.
Once a few years ago I was in a Salsa club in Paris. I was wearing an opaque lacy shirt, a short purple skirt and opaque black leggings. I was sitting on a barstool, talking to my boyfriend and another friend. A woman dressed in a pants suit walked over to me and told me to close my legs because she and her date didn’t want to have to see what I had up there.
To be clear – I was wearing opaque leggings. Nothing could be SEEN “up there” even if I been sitting completely spread eagled. However this woman felt it was necessary to come over and shame me for leaving 3-4 inches of space between my legs. And it worked. To be horribly honest, I’ll admit that for a while I felt embarrassed – not because I worried about them “seeing up there” so much as the feeling that I was somehow being gross or unfeminine. To have a stranger in a bar tell you that you are being inappropriate is demoralizing. I can’t be sure but I imagine that for at least the next 30-60 minutes I probably not only held my legs unnaturally close together, but I probably made my body seem more diminutive in other ways, perhaps slouching or leaning or pulling my arms in closer to myself.
And that, whether she was aware of it or not, is probably exactly the effect that she wanted to have. For some reason, she desired to shame me into adopting a more powerless body posture.
France, compared to many other countries in the world, is a pretty great place to be a female. Knowing how horrible, violent and oppressive it is for so many women throughout the world can make it these small moments seem petty. But micro-aggressions still affect quality of life, often in subconscious ways – all the more harmful because we are not aware of them. I realized as I wrote this post that one of the real reasons I don’t go out in Pau to work even on nice days, is that I don’t want to have to deal with unwanted interactions with men. I actually have been bothered on most of the occasions when I’ve tried to work in the park or the plaza – like when I was reading on a park bench and two guys walked over and just stood over me, laughing, really close, hovering over me, their sole purpose to be discomfiting, until it worked and I became too uncomfortable to focus. Another time in a park I was sitting against a tree and these two guys came and sat down against the same tree – instead of choosing any other part of the open space and hundreds of trees available.
Sometimes men do these mildly aggressive things without being aware of it, but sometimes they do it quite intentionally, desiring for the woman they are confronting to feel small and powerless and either get angry, shrink up or scuttle away. And either way it makes a woman feel angry and powerless, like she has to constantly be on run just to have some space. Like that poor, poor cat in the Pepe Le Pew cartoons.
This old man at the cafe of course meant no harm, but he would never have done the same to another man, nor is it likely a woman would do that to a man. In thinking back to that cafe, I remember that everything about my body language indicated my desire for privacy. I was writing, I was wearing sunglasses, I had my body tilted at angle away from the street, my legs crossed and my head inclined over the paper I was writing on. I think it was precisely BECAUSE I looked so absorbed that this man chose to interact with me. I think it was because he saw the bubble of my privacy that he wanted to pop it. Yes it was all in good fun – but this lighthearted game still reminds me that ultimately I cannot expect to my privacy and personal space respected, unless I stay in my apartment. I think this is important.
Men feel a strong sense of entitlement regarding interacting with women. They often seem to feel that it is their right to try to get women’s attention, provoke a response, and take up or push themselves into a woman’s personal space. They act like what we are doing doesn’t matter. Our privacy is not something to respect, as though we are fair game BECAUSE we are female. But we are not – and we deserve the same respect and space afforded to men.
Because a woman alone is not an invitation.
* On a related note, I’d like to share this recent short film (French with subtitles) that experiments with the reversal of typical gender dynamics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4UWxlVvT1A
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