Taking Up Space (When You Already Take Up Too Much Space)

Certain parts of the internet are alight with the idea of taking up space–women claiming their birthright to live big, bold lives with a throwing off of the shackles of the social pressures to be small, demure, seen but not heard. I love this message. It speaks to my politics and my soul.

But for someone who has always been bigger than society wants me to be, it’s easier said than done. I have always been acutely aware of my “bigness”. Even in periods of my life where I have been pretty solidly “average” I saw myself as big. Too big. I can remember one time walking with my dear friend K and talking about the myriad ways I had been told, from a young age, that I was too big. In particular, a painful and not particularly true remark that has stuck with me for at least 15 years: you’ve got the shoulders of a linebacker. I took this on. I took this in. It was truth. Gospel. An essential truth of myself. She looked at me like I was bananas and said “but, you’re not. You’re just not a big person.”

Wait. Hold up. Record scratch and all other conventions. How’s that? I’m not a small or petite person, that’s true. I never will be. But I’m really not that big of a person. My shoulders have never hampered my ability find clothes that fit. They have always been solidly straight-sized. At my happy weight I’m an 8/10. Or a medium/large. At my not-so-happy weight I’m a 14ish. Still…average sized. Literally.

Now, this isn’t to say that only certain women, or women of certain sizes deserve to take up space. (Or that any size shoulders on a woman is bad or wrong, for that matter.) I believe every woman deserves to live a big, bold, embodied life. I hope to one day see a world where we all do. But I know my experience as someone who sees herself as too big and I know that taking up space, especially at the higher end of my weight spectrum feels like a dangerous proposition. Like I’m painting a target on myself. Like I’m claiming space not deserved. Like I’m trying to sneak into an elite club that would turn me away from the door.

And this feeling dogs me. It prevents me from being silly in an embodied way. For a long time it stopped me from dancing, one of my favourite things to do. For most of my adolescence it stopped me from being comfortable (I was one of those awkward chubby kids wearing a t-shirt and shorts to swim in–probably something that marks you as “other” more than any bathing suit could). It has haunted romantic relationships, as I bring all this invisible baggage the other person can’t see and would happily throw out.

And so I look at this movement bemusedly. On the one hand it’s everything I want. On the other, I can’t help but notice how many champions of it are thin, white, conventionally attractive women. And I wonder how those of us who don’t fit (sometimes by degrees) are supposed to take it up. For those of us who are bigger or have simply spent our lives believing ourselves to be too big, for those of us who are visibly queer, for those of us who are living with visible disabilities, for those of us who will never fit into a white supremacist beauty ideal, how do we champion a movement that calls for what we dare not do? For many women, especially those living in multiple sites of marginalization, taking up space is an explicitly dangerous proposition. For transwomen, and especially transwomen of colour, who face horrifically disproportionate rates of violence, simply taking up space can be lethal in a trans-antagonistic society.

I have no answers. I still believe in this movement, this ideal. But I can’t help but view it as an individual solution to a systemic problem. To a matrix of systemic problems. It’s neoliberal feminism. John Galt in empowerful drag.

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