Public transit is not glamorous by any means and the bus system has long been plagued with accusations of spreading diseases. Your mental picture of a bus probably consists of an enclosed space in which passengers spread germs, touch dirty bus handles, and perform allover grotesque behaviors; at least that’s how I always picture the LTC. However, a far more scary type of spreading has infected public transit: Man Spreading. In its most general terms, Man Spreading occurs when a man sits with his legs far apart from each other, forming a large V (god forbid his precious balls ever have to touch his leg), and inhibiting anyone from sitting on the seats on either side of him. There will always be exceptions to the rule but, as a Sociology Major, I am interested in patterned group behaviour. This whole experiment began as a class project in which I was to commit an “outrageous” act and challenge a gender norm.
Men hold privilege within society and, whether it is conscious or not, they sit in a way that depicts this power and takes up the most room possible. Without even having to speak, men assert their dominance. In contrast, women take up as little space as possible. Whether dieting or sitting cross-legged, women are always trying to appear smaller and take up less space. It is also worthwhile to note the positioning of women’s legs in concealing their genitals, whereas men sit with their crotch thrust out and often with a hand tucked into the waistband of their pants. This is accepted as normal within society for men but, for a week, I, a womandecided to challenge that norm. I would sit with my legs wide open, take up as many bus seats as possible, and record how those around me reacted to my simple act of challenging a gendered behaviour. While it may not seem “outrageous” at first, something as simple as sitting in a masculine way brought me out of my comfort zone. I would soon find out that it forced others to challenge their gender perceptions as well.
The most annoying place I’ve noticed men taking up extra room is on the bus, so this became the perfect place to try my rebellious act. I over-exaggerated how I sat, but not to the point that many would notice I was consciously trying to. I spread my legs apart just enough to either ensure that no one sat in the empty seat beside me, or to severely limit the leg room they had accessible. I slouched down in my seat, and I thrust my stomach forwards. Although I sat like this while wearing clothing that did not expose anything, I could tell that people noticed and disapproved of my “unladylike” posture; their death stares were a clear indicator of their disapproval. I think what surprised me the most about this experiment is how uncomfortable I felt while doing in it; for a certain period of time, I even considered switching my essay to the feminist joy topic to avoid the inevitable awkwardness I felt while on the bus.
Yet I persevered and, though it took me many bus rides before I felt confident enough to maintain my “manly” posture for the entirety of the trip, I eventually succeeded. What I began to notice was the way that other people acted while I did so. Aside from the few dirty looks I got, no one really did anything. Even when the bus was full and I felt awkward taking up extra space, no one said anything to me. However, actions tend to speak louder than words. What they didn’t say with their voices, they said with their body, as many openly stared or did a double take when they saw a woman sitting in such a masculine way. As for the seats beside me, I was either avoided and the seat was left empty, or others squeezed in and contorted their body to allow my legs to stay planted and spread. Only one man pushed his leg against mine to try to get me to move, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. This power struggle resulted in us sitting awkwardly with our thighs squished together and avoiding eye contact… one small step for womankind?
The hardest part for me was to not move my leg and give them more room; staying firm in my seating was doing a number on me. My stomach felt unsettled and I was hyper-aware of each and every stare that I received. I am usually like the people that I was dominating: taking up as little space as possible and not questioning the rude peoplethat do not do the same. I would also like to note the gender norm of women as apologetic and accommodating. Although I was fighting it, I still felt the urge to give in and apologize.
Although I never quite felt comfortable in my new seating position, I did grow more used to it. I could even begin to forget what I was trying to do for periods of time. I believe this is similar to how men experience the world. They are so used to having power and being able to sit and act how they want, that it is no longer an obvious privilege for them to do so. No one has ever gone up to them–the same way nobody came up to me– and told them to move. Without direct opposition, people may not realize the consequences that their actions have on others. They simply continue to do what they have always done. I believe that something radical would need to happen in order to shift this.
At the conclusion of this experiment, I did not feel empowered. I mainly felt relieved. It was a huge weight off my back to be able to sit like I normally did again. I had been fighting the urge to cross my legs for the entirety of the week and it felt good to finally give in. What I learned was that nothing profound happened when I challenged a gender norm. Rather, the subtlety of the reactions people had proved what I had thought from the beginning. Gender norms are so engrained into our life that it just seems improper when someone does not follow them. No one is going to directly address a girl that is sitting slouched over with her legs spread (except maybe my mom). Instead they are going to give dirty looks, act uncomfortable, and in some cases even avoid the source of differentiation all together. Society runs much more smoothly when everyone sticks to their assigned roles, and it is uncomfortable when we try to challenge these.