I tried manspreading for a week, here’s what I learnt


“Space is what I have given up for years to placate men.”

Prior to this piece, I didn’t consider myself overly concerned with appearing ‘ladylike’. Yes, I feel an occasional pressure to wear makeup and shave my body hair, but I liked to view myself as someone that pushed back against rigid and archaic concepts of gender.

But it wasn’t until I challenged myself to uncross my legs and try manspreading that I became aware of how much I unconsciously police my body in public spaces. I realised I often shrink myself and take up as little space as possible, with my instincts telling me to appear feminine and submissive in the presence of men.

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In my experience though, cis-men don’t seem to be particularly concerned with taking up space. In fact, whenever I look around, be it in an office or on public transport, men are frequently spreading their legs beyond the boundaries of their seat.

So what is manspreading?

Not quite the same as ‘mansplaining’ (which I’m sure many men will jump to do if they feel attacked by this piece), manspreading refers to when a man sits with his legs spread wide apart in a public space in a way that intrudes on the space of others.

Cities like New York and Madrid have addressed this phenomena, and introduced signage reading ‘Dude….. Stop the Spread, Please’ to deter male passengers from ‘el manspreading’ in public places. Yet as the term has gained traction in the past several years and prompted dialogue, it has also been met with cries of ‘misandry’ from men who insist that spreading their legs is the only way to accommodate their genitalia (insert eye roll).

But it’s naive to think that social customs like manspreading are void of gender norms and social influences. In fact, research has shown that power and dominance is routinely expressed through ‘expansive and open-bodied postures’ that involve taking up a lot of space, with women often adopting low-power poses.

Perhaps it’s my inner sociology student talking, but the more I thought about it, I wondered if there was a reason that women seemed to sit with their legs crossed. So, in an effort to test this out, I decided to try ‘manspreading’ for myself.

Day one

Call it a coincidence, but on the first day I decided to do this I looked around the office, and while every woman around me sat with crossed legs, each man sat with his spread wide. Though I was partly concealed by my desk, I felt uncertain as I uncrossed my knees and sat with my thighs parallel.

Chiropractors have repeatedly gone on about the damage that can be done sitting at a desk, advising people to correct their posture by sitting with their legs uncrossed and feet flat on the ground. I frequently experience back and hip pain when I’m sitting, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s partially because I’ve been spending almost eight hours a day with my legs tightly crossed.

Though I only sat with a gap smaller than the width of my iPhone (as opposed to being able to fit a basketball between my knees), I felt self-conscious all day and sensed that I would come across as unprofessional and lazy as I leaned back in my chair with my legs open.

Day four

I spent my Friday at a different office, one where I had a room to myself. Initially, I sat with my legs crossed in an effort to stay warm as the heater kicked on (I admit, there are benefits to crossing your legs, like retaining body heat). As the day went on, I noticed that I wasn’t bothered when I sat alone with my legs spread. The fact that no one could see me eased my mind and erased any self-consciousness, and I felt physically more comfortable.

When I went out for dinner and drinks later that night, I felt my thighs tense up and stick back together like magnets. Having been socialised into the right ways of performing femininity since I was born, breaking habits about wanting to be perceived as attractive or automatically allowing men to be dominant is hard to escape, especially in a social setting.

As I sat on a barstool later that night, I willed myself to uncross my legs and open them up. I told a friend about what I was doing, and while I knew she probably wouldn’t have cared about how I sat, I used it as a way of explaining my behaviour. I figured if someone at least knew that I was only sitting like this because I had to, then I couldn’t be judged.

Day six

Having woken up on Sunday to the devastating news that the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and effectively remove abortion protection, my insecurties about taking up space were replaced by frustration and fury.

I entered into this challenge feeling like it was a small and amusing experiment into gender dynamics and performance, but these issues don’t exist in separate worlds. The recent events in America only highlight the seriousness of how women’s bodies and autonomy continue to be subject to debate and politics.

Though I still felt painfully self-aware, as I spent my afternoon out at a winery I sat with my legs further apart than I had all week. While it felt like a minor act of defiance in comparison to the women on the frontline protesting in the US, I channelled my rage and took up as much space as I wanted. Yes, it meant my boyfriend had less leg room under the table, but space is what I have given up for years to placate men, so I figured it was his turn.

Final thoughts

I still don’t think manspreading is a great thing to do – taking up so much room as to intrude into someone else’s personal space is inconsiderate and unnecessary – but I found it insightful to ask myself whether I cross my legs because it’s more comfortable, or because I feel obligated to. And while sometimes I like to have one knee over the other, most of the time it’s pretty uncomfortable.

Yet even now I don’t feel completely comfortable to sit with my legs apart – and that is the problem. It’s not necessarily that men spread their legs (though it is problematic if they’re taking up more room than they need to), the issue lies in whether women feel comfortable taking up space and able to step away from the pressure of being ‘ladylike’.

For more on manspreading, head here.

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