Space Invaders

Recently, I’ve noticed a phenomenon when I’m out running on the streets of London, or just walking to work. I’ll be on a pavement or a path that is over two meters wide and I’m walking along with virtually no one else around me. I’ll spot a man ahead of me, usually middle-aged or older, and as we pass each other, with acres of room to spare, he’ll suddenly wave me through, as though he is creating space for me next to him. It’s usually a kind of Walter Raleigh gesture, involving an imaginary cape, and accompanied with a slight bow. What is this strange behaviour?

The first time it happened, I found myself auto-smiling in return, as though I was grateful for the gesture. Then I thought about it. Why am I saying thank you for taking up space I’m already in? Since then, I’ve always anticipated the move and powered on past, leaving the hand flourish behind me.

The Walter Raleigh move has variations – one of my *favourites* is the Comedy Jump. I can be running along, minding my own business, when I come up to a couple or a guy walking on his own. He’ll hear me coming up behind them/him and suddenly perform a clownish leap onto an adjoining path, accompanied with a loud, mock-afraid exclamation of some sort. Like I’m some sort of unexpected oncoming train. The last one actually jumped into someone’s garden. I am a normal-sized woman.

I’ve thought long and hard about why all of this happens and I’ve concluded two things. The first is about guys who are desperately trying to get a woman’s attention. Men who do a Walter Raleigh on me are invariably over fifty, and seem to love using ‘gentlemanly’ gestures to initiate a smile and maybe a conversation. They are the men who adopt that half-smile, ‘humble’ face that is designed to get women to smile back at them. It does actually take a lot of effort not to smile back, but once you’ve realised their faces are set that way ALL DAY it gets easier. They are usually the guys who love to say, ‘Give me a smile, love!’ and tell you that you look prettier when you do so. My stock response is that I’m a person, not a Christmas decoration.

These guys are cousins of the men who play little games with you to extract the same smile/conversation combo. I was at an airport recently where no fewer than three officials tried to withhold items that I owned or had just bought, just ‘for fun’. And why wouldn’t I smile? Because you’re withholding my passport and expecting me to keep putting my hand out only for you to pull the passport away in a comedy routine. When you did it again with my boarding pass and a cheese and ham baguette the joke had seriously worn off.

My second conclusion is that men do actually think I’m taking up more space than I really am. The Geena Davis Institute conducted some research which showed that if there was 17% of women in a group, the men in the group thought it was 50%. And if it was 33%, the men thought there were more women in the room than men. I wonder if, when they see me running or walking towards them, these guys see my 50% of the pavement as 75% and feel they have to leap out of the way? There has to be some sort of explanation for it.

It’s funny how, when you’re in a pub or club, the whole space-allowance thing goes out the window and *some* men use a packed venue as an excuse to touch you up. Suddenly you find the man you’re with has his arm around your waist, presumably because there’s no room for it at his side. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I thought about just casually removing his arm as I cringed under his grip but didn’t. He was the kind of guy who ushers women through doorways with a ‘helping’ hand on the waist or small of the back. Next time I’ll be ready and insist he goes first. Maybe I’ll give him a little encouraging pat on the bum. I often wonder if straight men touch each other as they make their way through a crowded bar – a quick pec fondle or buttock tweak might go unnoticed as they squeeze past each other. At least they’d be able to check out the competition.

An ex of mine sometimes complained about women who felt him up on the train. He did have a tight, muscled body and he reported being ‘accidentally’ fondled on his busy commuter train. He really didn’t enjoy it (who would?!) but I did think, ‘you have no idea, baby’. For most women, that sort of thing comes with a normal working day.

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When Push Comes to Shove

One of the great things about this summer is that I’ve discovered the whole ‘walking to work’ thing. I woke up one morning a month or so ago, suddenly full of the joys of the season, determined to walk the path from Kensal Rise to Fitzrovia, which takes me along the Grand Union Canal, through Paddington Basin, down Edgware Road and along Seymour/Wigmore Street.

I love it. Every day there are Canadian geese, herons, coots and dogs doing Instagrammable things, and a variety of people going about their business on barges. There are runners, cyclists, speed-walkers, drunk people (at 9am), builders, commuters, men smoking shisha outside the Lebanese Edgware Road restaurants. It’s brilliant.

The one thing I really didn’t expect to encounter on my walks were The Women Who Bump Into You. This is a thing and I’m starting to think it’s deliberate.

It happened only this morning.

I was gaily walking along the canal through Little Venice, smiling at an approaching little dog and its lady owner, when WHAM she rammed straight into my shoulder rather than move out of the way. It was like one of those moments where one minute Pharrell Williams’ Happy is playing in your head, but it’s followed by a sudden screech of a needle on vinyl.

WTF?

This has happened to me before. On buses, in shops, in bars and clubs – a sudden elbow in the side or a shove to push you out of the way. From a woman. Not to mention when I’m running. I’ve rammed into someone who seemed to think that she could beat me through a gateway when she was walking and I was running.

What’s with that?

And why don’t men do it? (They actually do step out of the way – most of the time…)

I’ve always been very spatially aware – and aware of how other people aren’t. I find it amusing, when out running, to see people flailing about in front of me, unable to decide which way to go or what to do. Inside my head, I scream, ‘MAKE A DECISION ON WHICH WAY TO GO AND COMMIT TO IT!!’

I’ve also reviewed that Tumblr feed: Men Who Take Up Too Much Room on the Tube, with a very big sense of how men do carve out space in the world for themselves, without even thinking about how it impacts on others. Totally unaware of us ladies squished up in the corner, next to their widely spaced knees. And of course their widely spaced elbows, that often find themselves stabbing our breasts unexpectedly. (If I could teach a man one thing it would be ‘just keep your elbows under control’.)

One of the best bits of my walk to work is down Edgware Road, knowing that this pavement space is largely inhabited by men, but for that moment each morning I own it. I stride forward, hair flowing and head held high past all the cafes, knowing that I’m taking up a place in a very male-oriented environment, wearing whatever I want. “Ha!” I think. “Gotcha.”

But when I turn onto the busier Seymour St and head into central London proper, I get whacked by handbags, forced into the road and nudged out of the way. By women. All manner of unsisterly behaviour goes on. I may well be imagining it, but I don’t think I am. It’s barely there, just a subtle thwack here and there, with nary a ‘sorry’ in sight. (Nobody says sorry – or nary for that matter – in London. You’ll get a slight hiss as a presage of the full word if you’re lucky).

I’ve given lots of thought to why this happens and I think it’s this:

Women are so used to having to carve out a space for ourselves in this world, that we carve other women out of the way too.

Literally.

And in many ways we’re easier prey than men. Nudge a guy out of the way and you might be in trouble (although if they’re really slow-moving, a quick prod with a bag is a good way to get them moving faster. I’ve tried it). We know that women won’t fight back, in general, so it’s an easy win.

I just think about all the ways that women are nudged out of the way in life and think it might be a little easier if we were nudging each other the right way.

 

Forward.

 

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