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The Proliferation Of The Shrinking Woman: How Women Are Taught To Grow Inward

It was an unseasonably warm December when I decided to resist the temptation of hibernating in my apartment all afternoon and instead took myself out for a walk on the Westside Highway. I was trying to savor every last minute of natural sunlight. I wasn't alone in my thinking, either, as the stretch of pavement lining the Hudson River was densely packed with New Yorkers also feeling the draw of a warm winter.

As my mind wandered (I honestly can't remember what I was thinking about, but my best guess would be melting slices of pizza or Channing Tatum, shirtless) and I got lost in my step, I noticed a man wearing a lime green windbreaker coming directly towards me. He was striding at me with immense power, like he was determined to bulldoze me over with his neon presence.

Despite locking eyes (which I interpreted as effectively acknowledging that we are doomed to run head-on into each other in a mere moment), he made no intimation of changing lanes or stepping aside. As our bodies sped straight ahead, I instinctively swerved out of his way.

What would have happened if I hadn't moved? Would he have just kept walking right on into me?

Suppose I was a man with a dick swinging between my legs and the same lime green guy was quickly approaching. Would this guy circumvent my oncoming path? Would we duke it out, like two alpha males fighting for the right of way?

It was then I realized that over the entire duration of my little stroll, I had been the one to always proactively dodge the oncoming male jogger. When a woman was coming towards me, we would invariably do that awkward you-go-that-way-I-go-this-way dance. In the case of the men, though, it was like an unspoken rule of traffic that the women step aside and make way for them.

Why is it that being female means we have to be aware of the space that we “deserve” to occupy? For our entire lives, women learn to be accommodating and amenable, while men are taught to be adamant and stand their ground. Even physically, we fold up into ourselves, cross our legs and feel small in a chair. Guys, however, have no problem stretching out and taking up too much space — be it an extra seat on the subway or elsewhere.

And supposed Mr. Neon and I had kept walking forward and bumped into each other. It would have been me to apologize first. Because as a woman, I was taught to say “sorry” for getting in a man's way. I was taught to say “sorry” for an indomitable spirit or overstepping boundaries. As a woman, I am expected to ask for forgiveness for just continuing on my path down the sidewalk.

Think about it: How many times do we say “sorry” before asking a question? In her viral poetry slam video, “Shrinking Woman,” Lily Myers explores the idea that women are socialized to grow inward; whereas men are encouraged to grow outward.

We see this trend: females feeling pressure to minimize themselves — on multiple levels. On a physical level, girls absorb messages to be thinner and smaller than the next; an emotional level in which women are coerced into cowering in their relationships; a tangible level where our voices aren't heard as loudly as men’s.

And we women learn these behaviors from each other: girlfriends who come to dinner, but not to dine; colleagues who filter what they say and receive a promotion for their silence; and spouses who withstand abuse because it's the only way. We are shown that we fare better when we practically disappear: negative space.

Many women, like myself, have learned from social cues not to take up space. But for some ladies, like Lena Dunham, that thought has never crossed their minds. Dunham attributes her comfort with occupying space to her larger size.

She was recently quoted in Salon magazine saying:

“You know, it's funny, I think part of inquiry into that kind of stuff started when I entered high school and went from being a really tiny kid to a chubby teenager and had to figure out how to handle that shift in my body. It's interesting because I was looking at that transition and trying to figure out how to deal with my new body. It's funny, I don't know, maybe it's a selfishness thing, but when there are only a few chairs or something, I'm never the person who is like, “I'll stand.” I always sit down, because I prize comfort highly.”

For the Lily Myers types in the world, there is nothing comfortable about occupying too much room. In fact, Myers’ maternal lineage reminds her that space is a privilege. In her Barnard poetry slam, she explains how her mother's sparse eating habits have influenced her own body issues and how her grandmother's knitting is symbolic of the tightly woven silence, in which none of the females in the family speak up.

We have been socialized to feel unentitled to our own space, to shrink our presence. To be feminine is to be small and contained. By contrast, to exude masculinity is to recline or spread out to assert power.

It's time we learn to create space for ourselves and weave an outwardly growing web. We are owners of the street, of our bodies, of our space. When that man in the lime green jacket comes pummeling towards us, threatening our course, we can't be afraid to tackle him head-on. We'll really be throwing him a curve ball.

Photo credit: Banksy

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Laura Argintar

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