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Where do fat women fit into the #womanspreading movement?

For fat women, taking up extra room in any way can often elicit anger

Womanspreading is having a moment, finally. The increasingly popular power-pose, which involves women proudly abandoning demure stances of yesteryear, seems to have become a favourite among celebrities like Solange, Jennifer Lopez, Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner.

What’s new about the idea of women defiantly spreading their legs in public or for photos is its popularity, not its conception, of course. You only have to google the names of prolific women in dancehall or hip hop, for example, before you find images of people like Missy Elliott or Lady Saw practicing these poses decades ago. But its resurgence in the mainstream, especially amid the ever-raging wave of stories of the sexual exploitation of women in Hollywood and beyond, is encouraging nonetheless. Much like the bravery at the route of the #MeToo movement, women are honing in on their right to be seen as well as heard.

Women, who know too well what it feels like to have to restrict themselves in every manner possible, are beginning to take up space, physical space at that, in droves. And if that’s happening on social media, hopefully it won’t be too long until we start to splay our limbs in public, too.

“For fat women, taking up extra room in any way can often elicit anger in people in ways that it doesn’t when men do it”

But I wonder what the act of confidently occupying more space than society has traditionally allowed for women, means for those of us who are already chastised for being hypervisible. For fat women like myself for example, taking up extra room in any way can often elicit anger in people in ways that it doesn’t when men do it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve forced myself into uncomfortable and painful positions in order to avoid just that – tutting, shoving and dirty looks from people (usually men) who don’t feel it’s fair that for once, they have to share an armrest, close their legs a little or be forced to acknowledge my physical presence at all.  

As Roxane Gay observed in her book Hunger, “the world is not really interested in creating a space for you to fit” when you’re beyond a socially acceptable stature. So the idea of ignoring that and forging more space for yourself, in spite of the real dangers that women often face for being ‘too’ visible or defiant, is revolutionary to me.

The very idea that I could even do that hadn’t occurred to me until I came across a line from an essay in the book Nasty Women called Fat In Every Language by Jona Kottler. It read: “I cannot define value by the amount of space I take up in a given moment, I cannot speak to myself in that language anymore”. And when I asked her about that concept during an interview with her earlier this year, something clicked.

“I began to take delight in the fact that I could make businessmen sit in a reasonable manner by not squeezing my thighs together until they were numb”

I began to take delight in the fact that I could make businessmen sit in a reasonable manner by not squeezing my thighs together until they were numb. My commute to and from work was no longer spent worrying about accommodating people who believed they were entitled to take up space at the expense of others. I started to see shared armrests, as a man who sat next to me on a plane back from South Africa a few weeks ago will know, as something that I could claim just as readily as anyone else. And despite fatphobic murmurs or attempts to barge me into submission (I’m looking at you, exasperated man on the bus yesterday, who lost the feat of trying to take my space with his legs when I refused to close mine), the act of suggesting, even inaudibly that you deserve to exist, is exhilarating.

So here’s to more women, especially those of us who are fat, of colour, queer or disabled, taking what has been denied of us for far too long: the right to occupy room.