avatarY.L. Wolfe


Imagine a World Filled with the Unapologetic Presence of Women

What would it be like not to have to be grateful or repentant for taking up space?

Photo by Camille Minouflet on Unsplash

There it was, on the very top shelf in the garden center at Home Depot: the pot that I needed for a plant I had recently purchased. It was only six inches out of my reach. I stretched. I jumped. I stretched again. But I just couldn’t reach it.

Right next to me was one of those stair ladders on wheels that the employees use. It had a chain across the front to keep impatient shoppers like me from climbing it, falling onto the concrete floor, and suing them.

It would’ve been so easy to duck under the chain, I realized. And I could see the brakes were on, so stability wouldn’t be an issue. And it was positioned right next to the pots I needed… All it would take was breaking one little rule. Five or six seconds to climb up and grab that pot…

But I’m a good girl.

So I went all the way to customer service, which is halfway through the store from where I was in the garden center. The young woman there was annoyed with me the moment I arrived, and staring daggers at me by the time I explained my predicament.

“We’ve lost most of our employees because of the pandemic. There are only four people on the floor right now.”

“Oh,” I said, not sure how to respond to this. “There’s a ladder right next to it. I can just climb up and grab it.”

“Absolutely not,” she said. “That’s against store policy.”

“So…” Again, I wasn’t sure what to say. Was she subtly telling me to leave because no one was going to come help me get my pot?

She sighed, dramatically. “I’ll send someone over there. It’ll be a few minutes.”

I made my way back to the garden center, not at all convinced that anyone was coming. And sure enough, I stood there for five minutes. Then another five. It was ridiculous. I was standing next to a stair ladder. I could’ve retrieved the pot ten minutes ago. Hell, twenty minutes ago when I first spotted it. And instead, I was standing there wasting an unbelievable amount of time remaining exactly where I was supposed to remain.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that a man would’ve climbed up that stair ladder from the get-go and been on his way.

I glanced at the door, certain a male employee, the one who was supposed to come help me, would appear at just the moment I decided to do something naughty and would give me a good scolding. But there was no one there. So I ducked under the chain and scrambled up those steps, grabbed the pot, and scrambled back down again.

My heart was racing and I realized I was actually sweating. I couldn’t believe how subversive that had felt.

On my way to the checkout area, I glanced down the plumbing aisle and noticed a man climbing up the shelf — one that was twice as high as the one I’d just encountered — like a monkey. I paused, in shock, as he scaled it as if climbing a mountain, stopping near the top to retrieve a product wrapped in plastic.

A male employee walked by, glanced at the man dangling from the shelf, and kept walking.

I was flooded with a feeling that appeared to be jealousy, of all things. Men always seem to move in the world with such privilege. They take up as much space as they want. They go wherever they please. And other men are okay with this.

And there I was, spending twenty minutes trying to figure out how to get a pot off the top shelf because I knew if I got caught climbing a stair ladder, the employee wouldn’t have just kept walking.

I suspect that men reading this might see this as a lot of complaining for an absolute non-issue. But anyone who was socialized as a woman will understand.

We were conditioned to take up as little space as possible. And every now and then, even in a low-stakes situation like trying to reach a pot in the Home Depot garden center when no one is there to help, we realize just how much this has limited our potential. Even our existence.

We’re taught to stand with our hands clasped behind our back, or in front of us. Maybe with one foot crossed over the other. We’re taught to sit with our legs crossed. Hell, I even sleep curled into a tiny ball.

Columnist Alison Powell describes this phenomenon in a story about a university seminar in which the professor asked everyone to stop and observe that every man in the room was sitting spread eagle, while the women were sitting with legs and arms crossed, taking up as little space as possible. She went on to ask some searingly poignant questions:

Was it modesty that dictated we sit demurely with our legs crossed or an insidious belief that we should make ourselves smaller, contort ourselves into neat manageable packages and in taking up less space, apologise for the space we were taking? In saying sorry for the space we took, were we saying sorry for even being there?

That last one cuts me to the heart. Yes. I think the answer is yes.

How many times have I responded to a man with “I’m sorry?” When the man at the grocery store almost slammed into my shoulder instead of simply side-stepping to avoid me, I’m the one who said “I’m sorry.” When I was collecting my mail from the post office and a man approached, standing behind me to wait for access to his box, which apparently was next to mine, I apologized. When I worked in an office and a male colleague entered the staff room to use the copy machine that I was already using, I apologized.

Yes, I’m sorry for being here.

But why? Why am I sorry? I think only because I was taught to be.

I suspect most men have no idea that this dynamic exists. They’re just used to open runways, expansive personal bubbles on subways and airplanes, and crowds that disperse just a little in order to let them through. They’ve also been taught that it’s a man’s world.

I can’t help but wonder how this dynamic affects women over the course of their lives. What happens to us when we move through the world believing, on some level, that we shouldn’t even be here? That our existence in any space is just an apology owed?

A few days ago, I was walking along a trail that winds through a scenic area in my town. Most of it is blissfully tucked away from roads and traffic, but there’s one section that crosses a busy street. It has a well-marked crosswalk, and it is typically bustling with pedestrians and cyclists, forcing drivers to approach the area slowly and be prepared to stop at any moment.

However, some of them like to play chicken with the pedestrians, which is why I paused that day, uncertain whether or not the little sports car approaching was going to stop or not. He did, at the last minute, coming to a screeching halt.

Normally, I wave at drivers, just to be friendly, but that day, I was holding a water bottle in one hand and my phone in the other. And honestly, I didn’t feel super friendly about the guy in the car who made a show of driving too fast and then jamming on the brakes at the last second. Something about it felt a little off to me.

Sure enough, just as my foot hit the yellow line in the center of the road, he gunned the engine and started speeding away, but not before leaning out of his window to yell at me. “You owe me a thank you! Yeah, you’re welcome, lady!

I stood there for a moment, trying to think of an appropriate response before realizing I was holding up the traffic in the other lane.

My face flushed as I continued walking and I was filled with rage. I owed him my gratitude because he complied with the law by yielding to a pedestrian? He felt so entitled to acknowledgment for stopping at a crosswalk that he leaned out his window to yell at a person he’d never met before?

And don’t tell me he would have done the same thing to a man, because we all know it wouldn’t have even crossed his mind.

Men often tell me incidents like this are isolated. That I’m getting upset for nothing. But it’s not.

Two weeks ago, a man in line behind me at the local tire shop literally cut in front of me when the associate at the counter yelled, “Next!” I was next and this man just walked around me and approached the counter. I met the eyes of the female associate and realized she wasn’t going to say anything for fear of his reaction.

Or how about last month, when I walked through the parking lot at the grocery store and a man yelled at me for pushing my cart too slowly when he was trying to pull out of his parking space?

There seems to be a subtle understanding here: Women are in men’s way.

I hate to admit this, but I was deeply shaken by the man yelling out his window at me. It took me days to shake off that aggression.

I don’t want to be subjected to that kind of behavior, yet it happens all the time.

I, like many women, find myself vacillating between two conflicting feelings and behaviors: I want to be seen and I want to be invisible. I want to exist unapologetically and I want to keep apologizing.

You see, the first one is aspirational. The second one is the reality of our existence.

The only way to solve this is for women to take up more space in the world. To see more women in places of power. To stand in Wonder Woman pose, sit with our legs spread on the subway, and never, ever fucking apologize for having gotten to the copy machine forty seconds earlier than our male colleague.

And yet, doing any of this is met with anger and frustration. It is always safer to cross our legs, keep our heads down, and apologize.

Even in 2023, a man expects me to apologize for appearing at a crosswalk where he is forced to yield to me. On days like that, the space I take up — or don’t take up — feels so overwhelming to me, I don’t even know what to do.

I suppose the only solution is baby steps. Keep crossing those streets, firm in the knowledge that we don’t owe anyone gratitude or apologies for doing so. Dare to not sit with our legs crossed on the bus, subway, or plane.

And dammit, if there’s a stair ladder at Home Depot that will save you twenty minutes of waiting around for an employee to get a pot off the top shelf, just climb right on up and get it yourself.

© Y.L. Wolfe 2023

Y.L. Wolfe is a gender-curious, solosexual, perimenopausal, childless crone-in-training, exploring these experiences through writing, photography, and art. You can find more of her work at yaelwolfe.com. If you love her writing, leave her a tip over at Ko-fi.

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