Elbow Room

by Anna Blanch on December 9, 2011

When I asked people to be involved with 16 Days of Action. I asked for their perspective; it could be personal or professional. In fact, I told them it could be anything related to the topic of eliminating violence against women.

Many of the posts have offered an unflinching personal perspective. Today’s post from Katie Mulligan fits into that category. I’ve gotten to know Katie through Twitter. She’s witty, engaging, and encouraging. This post like a few others in this series comes with a trigger warning.

Just a reminder, a trigger warning is a warning a blogger uses to forewarn readers that a post discusses subjects of a sensitive nature, such as rape, sexism, and violent crime. I apologize in advance if this material is disturbing to some readers. I encourage you to seek out someone to talk to if there are issues this post raises for you. Tamara included some links to helpful resources, as did Mandy and Joy.


On a recent trip I checked my seating online. Of course I was in a middle seat on a full flight, toward the back. I checked my larger bag and took a smaller carryon bag. I stuffed my pillow into the overhead compartment—no room for a nap today.

I settled into my seat, tucked elbows in off the armrests, closed my legs and crossed my ankles. I didn’t think about any of this. Until: a man sat down next to me. His carryon had to be rolled off the plane and gate checked. As he sat, his arm landed on the armrest, elbow out over my lap. His legs sprawled open, taking full advantage of the space I had preserved.
He went to sleep like that.

I spent that flight reflecting on my habit of not taking up space. No, more than a habit. I reflected on how dangerous it feels to take up space as a woman. I was careful not to let me leg touch his.

I remembered our family holiday feasts and being told to get my elbows off the table.

Elbows on the table was for adults.

I remembered fighting with my cousin, my voice rising higher in pitch and volume, until my aunt came to shut it down. Quiet girls didn’t get into trouble as much as loud girls.

I remembered ballroom dance, where I was taught to follow, to sit with my legs tightly closed, to wait to be asked to dance, to sit straight.

These lessons meant survival, because the less attention I drew, the less often I was raped by an uncle. The more invisible I could make myself, the less I was trapped behind a door. The smaller my voice, the less space I took, the better.

I remembered being trapped by a strange man in a strange place. He was drunk and sprawled all over me with sloppy kisses as if he had known me before that night. As if I had consented. I was paralyzed. Do I be small? Large? Do I be loud? Quiet?

So I hit him. I yelled. He got angry. I thought he might kill me. I yelled some more; when he came close I balled up my fists. I made myself big and I screeched. After a while he sobered up and let me go. I think I was lucky. I look back and shudder at that moment. Maybe I should have been small.

A thousand ways we are taught to be small, tight, controlled. Our bodies should be lean, not too muscular, breasts perky, vaginas tight. Control top panties, wonder bras, makeup to hide wrinkles. Lower your voice, sit up straight, close your legs, don’t take up space. A lady or a girl deserves protection and respect. A woman or a female gets what she deserves.

Except: ladies and girls, women and females, we are all subject to gender violence, sexual policing, and an expectation that our bodies are available to be used. Whether we are the town slut, or the high school ice queen, how much space we take up only determines how we are perceived, it doesn’t lessen the violence.

Why are you so loud? You take up too much space. If you hadn’t dressed like that, gone to that bar, been drinking, consented another night, cursed like a sailor, or smoked that cigar, THEN you might have been safe. Yet a small voice inside reminds me I’m not safe even when I don’t do all those things.

Over the years I have gotten louder, looser, and larger. I take up more room than I used to—a lot more room. So I was rather bemused to find myself tucked into an airplane seat, with a man sprawled over me. As the flight attendant came by, I leaned over the sleeping man, pushed his arm off the armrest, and stretched out my legs. He woke up as I handed
over my empty cup and napkin. He glanced at me, startled, pulled in his legs, and rubbed his elbow.

I remembered, these words I read by L.H. Stallings, in her book Mutha’ is half a word: “[This book] is about the uncensoring of Black women who laugh out loud, curse, sit with their legs open, and selfishly act on their desires. It is about tomboys, not-so-nice girls, and unwifeable women.”

I hope and pray they put “ She sure took up a lot of space. Unwifeable.” on my tombstone.

Katie Mulligan is a Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey. She blogs about her adventures as a single parent and as an openly queer pastor at http://insideouted.blogspot.com. She is a cat lady.


This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women. The full list of posts in the series can be found here.

Connect with Anna on Academia.edu, Linked In, facebook page, & Twitter.

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