[Original publication date: Feb. 28, 2014]
Dear Decent Men,
This is not a letter to misogynists or selfish jerks, who aren’t going to pay attention to what I have to say anyway. It’s a letter to good, decent men who might not realize that they’re doing something that really frustrates a lot of women in their lives. It’s a letter to ask you to please start being more aware of your body and stop forcing it into other people’s personal space — especially women’s personal space.
Some background information: women are trained from a very young age to be aware of and control their bodies. Some bodily safety lessons are the same for both boys and girls, like “look both ways before you cross the road” and “don’t touch a hot stove.” Yet other messages are very gendered. Just think of how many times you have heard the phrase “boys will be boys,” and then imagine if a girl had done the same thing. Most of the times I’ve heard that phrase used, it has been to dismiss a physical activity that, had it been done by a girl, would have led to reprimand and correction.
Women are expected to control their bodies at all times. Think of the number of jokes you have heard about how women don’t fart or poop or have other bodily functions. Think of the way many religious sects demand total modesty from their women. Think of the dress code at work and how many more rules there are for women than for men. Think of a Weight Watchers meeting and the fact that it’s usually made up of a bunch of women and maybe one or two men who have probably joined with their wives. Women in professional jobs must own far more clothes than men, who can get away with a couple of suits and one pair of nice dress shoes. Women feel pressured by our culture to get plastic surgery to perfect their bodies, and then they are ridiculed for doing so. There is even a theory that women are expected to be thin and small because men want women to take up less space, because to take up space in the world is to have a less deniable presence in that world.
The examples get more sinister. Women’s bodies are at greater risk of physical and sexual assault. Women have to think about how to protect their bodies wherever they are — public spaces, private spaces. Victims of sexual assault face questions about what they were wearing and what they were doing with their bodies — why were they at that party/in the part of town/in his apartment/etc?
As women, our bodies are observed, criticized, and manipulated.
Most men don’t have to face that constant observation, criticism, and manipulation. Because of that, some men don’t realize that they move around in the world with what I’ll call “physical arrogance.”
Physical arrogance sometimes accompanies psychological arrogance, but often it isn’t as malicious. It’s just the result of living in a body that has never been put to constant questioning and scrutinizing. Physical arrogance is carrying yourself without ever having to wonder how your body is affecting other people. It is putting your body into other people’s physical space without a second though to whether or not your body is welcome there.
Of course: I don’t want men’s bodies to be constantly questioned and scrutinized, just as I don’t want women to face constant scrutinizing. However, the balance of power here is so off-kilter that women make themselves shrink, and men make themselves bigger, without most people even realizing what is happening.
Perfect evidence: the way women and men interact on public transportation. How often, on a train or plane or bus, does a man spread his legs far apart, taking up more space than he needs? The women on either side of him might be quietly irritated, but they usually force themselves to take up even less space in order to be away from the man’s physical arrogance. I bet most of the time men don’t even realizing they’re doing this, and yet it happens all the time.
I’ve been thinking about this because of something that happened recently. My four-year-old daughter was goofing off with an adult man in our lives. They were playing “got your nose.” She was having a great time, and while I thought he was a bit aggressive with his play, I wasn’t worried. When she would laugh, shriek, and turn away in a playful manner, she would hide her face against my legs. She is just tall enough, mind you, that her nose is basically at crotch-level. Two separate times, this man “chased” my daughter’s nose with his hand, even though her face was basically in my crotch. Suddenly, his hand was right there, way closer to my crotch than anyone would think was appropriate in a normal social situation.
My knowledge of the person who was doing this tells me that this was an oblivious action on his part. If I asked him today, “Remember when you stuck your hand in my crotch zone the other day?” he would probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
It was physical arrogance. It was the action of someone who has never had to question what his body is doing, because he has only experienced life in a man’s body. Specifically: a man’s body that has never been targeted in the way that almost every woman has been targeted.
So what do I want you to do? This is such a big, cultural problem that it seems hard to believe that any individual’s actions could change it.
I want you, decent men of the world, to try to keep your physical arrogance in check. Think about the way you carry yourself. Put your legs together when you ride on public transportation, or at least try to find a spot where you can sit by yourself and stretch out without touching anyone. Don’t put your hands wherever you want. Don’t tickle children if they don’t want to be tickled. Don’t pick up children and throw them into the air without asking the kids’ parents if that kind of play is all right. Don’t just hug people — especially women — without making sure it’s okay with them. Recognize that if a woman is cool to you in an elevator or public space where you find yourself alone with her, it’s not you she’s reacting against; it’s her self-preservation kicking in.
If you are a decent man, and you don’t like the idea of being perceived as arrogant, think about what your body is doing. And please, keep it out of my space.
This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Liz Boltz Ranfeld, where I write about living and parenting as a liberal, feminist Christian.