By Nishtha Bhalla
Disclaimer before you start reading: I come from a place of privilege, and I am a cishet woman; therefore, I can only speak of the experiences of privileged cishet women. This newsletter may seem a little one-dimensional, and it is, but I hope you understand why!
I remember the first time I realised I had an issue with taking up space. I was in a run-of-the-mill fitness class, doing my stretches, when the unthinkable happened — at all of 19, I managed to dislocate my knee with one stretch of the leg. Jokes of me being unfit aside (it could’ve happened to anyone, okay!) I didn’t let out a painful scream, I didn’t flinch; I meekly raised a hand, and said out loud, “Excuse me, I’m sorry but I need some medical assistance,” and promptly passed out.
All because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. All because I was afraid to take up space.
I’m not talking about just physical space here, in case that wasn’t clear; I’m talking about the way that we as women make ourselves smaller, play our talents down, and are unnecessarily apologetic. Even when we dislocate our knees!
From a young age, we’ve been brought up with the idea that we need to be demure. Modest. Silent. Maybe even silenced? We were told not to spread our legs out wide while we sat. (It is called man-spreading for a reason, I guess.) We were told to be silent when the “grown-ups” (almost always men, of course) were talking. We were told to shrink, to be submissive, to bend over backwards trying to fit the ideals of what someone else wanted us to be; almost like marionettes working to please someone else.
As girls, many of us may have seen our mothers change their behaviour to please their “elders,” husbands, or familial structures. As young adult women , we may have watched our girlfriends lose parts of themselves to fit their partners’ lives. When it comes to giving up space, we know everything there is to know about it.
But what is it about taking up space that both petrifies us and excites us? Why has taking up space become such a foreign concept for Indian women, that it prevents them from, say, drawing attention to themselves in a fitness class? Why does it prevent us from living life on our own terms? Why is it that when women finally do decide to take up space, they’re considered selfish?
The truth is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if it comes from social structures or familial pressures. I don’t know if it comes from fear — of being seen, of being heard, of being bigger than we thought we could be.
What I do know is that taking up space is hard; and unlearning the fact that you shouldn’t take up space is even harder. Whether your issue comes from over-apologising when you’ve dislocated your knee through no fault of your own, whether it comes from being scared to physically take up space and attempting to make yourself as small as possible, or even if it comes from being over-quiet, just in case you say something wrong. Take up all the space you can.
F*** it, take a metaphorical megaphone and scream everything that’s on your mind — Unapologetically. Become the main character in your life, without worrying about who you might upset in the process.
Maybe it starts out small for you — maybe you don’t apologise to a table when you bump into it, or maybe you just put yourself first every now and then; it’s not selfish, I promise. I know I come from a place of privilege which makes it easy for me to write this, to even think this — but if you’re reading this, remember that you need to learn to take up space too. You’re an actual person, not an entity that’s been created to people-please till the end of time; the sooner you realise it, the better.
Reply to me and tell me what you think!