Gender, Embodiment, and Walking

heelsThe last time I talked about gender and embodiment it was in regards to weight-lifting and I touched, briefly, upon some research that found that one way predators determine who to target is by their gait.  Now, I want to go into this with two huge, major, blaring siren caveats: 1) Most sexual assault is perpetrated by someone known to the victim/survivor and 2) No matter where you are or what you are doing or what you are wearing or not wearing, the blame and responsibility for this heinous act is on the perpetrator. Always. Full stop.

Since that post I’ve been thinking about the gendered ways that we walk. I’ve been thinking, in particular, about the impact of the hip-sway that women are thought/taught to do (it’s not really something I ever mastered but I have felt pressure to do it and have dabbled). It’s not something that comes naturally to me and in my dabbling I’ve found it really slows my gait. It also hurts. I’ve got pretty tight IT bands and the back-forth sway does them no favours.

And then there’s the forever-argued about high heels. I think women (and men! and anyone outside the binary!) should wear whatever the fuck they want. But I am suspicious as hell of a shoe that seems dream-designed to hamstring women. A shoe that first completely throws off the natural body mechanics and balance, which makes you thrust your tush out and your tits up. That does horrifying things to your feet. That necessitates tiny little steps (pair them with a pencil skirt and you’re going nowhere fast). That leaves you unable to run without immense danger to your ankles and feet and with a much slower pace. That can leave you with wrecked ligaments, a bad back, sore hips. And why? We say it’s because we feel sexy in them, no? Or maybe they make us feel powerful (though that usually seems to be more about being sexy-powerful rather than striding in and kicking ass powerful). But why? I don’t/won’t/can’t argue that they don’t make you feel how they make you feel. But I am curious why they make you feel that way.

Even flat shoes designed for women tend to offer minimal support–think ballet flats and any matter of mules/slip-on shoes. Shoes marketed to women tend to be dainty, unsupportive, and flimsily constructed. Whereas shoes marketed to men take up space. Offer support. Could let you run at a moment’s notice. Don’t up the risk for breaking your ankle.

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The reason this came to the fore is that I had to take a pretty sketchy walk the other night. Sketchy because it was a dark, rainy night and I had to go through a poorly lit, very isolated area hidden from view and benefitting from the cover of highway sounds. I was aware through this walk that I was in a pretty vulnerable position should the statistically improbable happen. And then something happened that’s never happened before. I naturally slid into a very different gait from my own. One that felt empowered and strong. One that, I could feel, screamed “don’t fuck with me”.

And so I worked my way through my body, feeling what was different from my usual gait and why it made me feel safer. First, I noticed I sunk down a little bit. Almost imperceptibly lower but lower. Like that very first half inch as you start to squat. Which brought my centre of gravity down just a bit. And my knees bent just a touch. My stride widened–my feet are usually parallel, facing forward, and very close together width-wise. My feet turned out a little and I walked in a way that took up more lateral space. Let me say that again, I walked in a way that took up more space. Rather than be pulled in (to look thinner, natch), my abs were engaged, ready for action if need be. My shoulders were down in a natural position which let my chest cave ever so slightly. This is very different from my usual posture which has shoulders back and down and chest out, tummy sucked in (I’ve been complimented on my “excellent posture” in the past but I imagine if I were someone read male the comments would not be so complimentary). And my arms were hanging in a loose, wide stance–picture the wrestler with highly developed shoulders who can’t pull their arms in tight to their body.

All of this combined to give me a slight swagger. And to walk like oh so many young men I’ve seen. Naturally taking up space. Being assertive about their right to exist unmolested in the world.

As I watched my shadow I noticed how much space I took up. How the main lateral movement happening in my body was in my shoulders. I compared this, as I got to a better-lit, more populated area, with my normal walk. Feet straight and close together, shoulders back and down with chest up, the main lateral movement coming from my hips. And I played around a bit, going back to my “don’t fuck with me” walk through my regular walk to an exaggerated hip-swinging walk. And I felt the change. The change in both how much space I took up and how I took up space. The change in how safe I felt. The change in how embodied I felt. And I realized how my “don’t fuck with me” walk hides or minimizes a lot of the features that mark me as a woman from a distance–the slightly sunken chest hides my breasts, the engaged rather than pulled in abs minimizes the hour-glass-y-ness of my figure, the wider feet minimize the hip sway, the big shoulders and wide arms take up space in a way most women aren’t taught to.

And I realized how the “don’t fuck with me” walk leaves me ready for what happens. A slight shift, bring my hands up and I’m in a boxing stance. The wider legs with slightly turned out feet readies me for lateral movement if needed. The shorter, faster strides mean my legs are never too far apart, which helps me keep my balance in the face of a stumble or attack. The engaged abs let me move laterally or throw a punch as needed.

And then I started to get angry. Angry that boys and men are allowed and encouraged to develop this “don’t fuck with me walk” as their default, while women are taught to do the absolute opposite. We wear shoes and skirts that limit our movement. We carry big purses (or even worse, clutches) that leave our hands full and/or our balance compromised. We walk and stand and sit in ways that minimize the space that we take up. We walk in ways that hamper our ability to shift quickly into action. We walk and stand and sit in ways that minimize our ability to feel the power of our bodies, and to defend them if needed.

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2 thoughts on “Gender, Embodiment, and Walking

  1. I went to a good-sized midwestern university. During class changes, it was easy to find oneself pushed around by the crowd. Once I started taking martial arts, I also found myself holding my space more. In particular, I started looking where I was going, rather than at the people around me, e.g., I would look at the building I was going to. It was as if the crowds would part for me. It was fascinating.

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