I took a trip recently to help my dad move. He has lived in the same house for 23 years, during which I went to middle school and high school, then moved away for college and slowly began to visit less frequently for shorter stints. There are lots of memories in that house. There are the ones that live in my head and the ones that live in boxes. Boxes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. During my stay, I went through photo albums, journals, yearbooks, trinkets, and transcripts. It is an interesting thing to look back on yourself with that much distance. To read your own words that feel at once familiar and like words of a stranger. It was difficult because I was an awkward and insecure teen. Looking at the photos and reading my own words, I kept wanting to give my former self advice. Don’t get that haircut! Teen boys are not worth that much mental space! Be kinder to your parents! Relax! And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid!
I am a shy person, which I think is a just fine personality trait in moderation. However, being timid is a little different than being shy, and I have often found myself timid as well. I have lived much of my life trying not to be disruptive, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, trying not to take up too much of anyone’s time. My mother often told me “don’t be mousy,” which of course only made it worse at the time but was honestly good advice.
At the time of each little action of shrinking myself, it seems to make sense, it just fits. Oh, I don’t want to be a bother. In the rearview mirror, though, it is clear that it is not right thing to do. It is often not the kindness to others I imagine it to be. It does not make the world a better place or make those around me happier. It certainly doesn’t make me happier. Most importantly, it comes from a place of not valuing myself enough.
While this feels very personal to my situation, taking up less space is actually, a common problem among women in girls. The ideal feminine woman in many cultures is one that does not talk out of turn or stand up for herself. This cultural insistence that women take up less space manifests in the ways women take up physical space. Women are told to be smaller by losing weight and by body language. As opposed to feeling free to take up space as men do, women often take up less space and there is backlash when they do not. It is related to rape culture and anti-abortion fanaticism, where even women’s bodies are not their own.
It also manifests in how the world views women’s ideas, with a culture where a man’s ideas are more valued than a woman’s, mansplaining is rampant, and gaslighting a common concern. It takes a lot of internal strength the value one’s own ideas when it feels like the world does not. The physical and the mental collide in the classroom, where girls raise their hands less, a phenomenon reinforced by society. Luckily, some girls are becoming aware and pushing for girls to raise their hands more.
These influences, some small, some huge, all affect how we move through this world as women. They affect how we influence the world, as it is not a stretch to imagine that taking up space relates to whether women take on positions of power. It affects women’s careers, in science and otherwise, where their ideas are taken less seriously.
So for now, while this reminder is fresh on my mind, my mantra for myself is “take up space” a call to action to be confident, to value my own opinions highly, and to not be afraid. And for all the girls I interact with, I must instill that in them as well.