I can’t stop thinking about the dress Dua Lipa wore to the Brit Awards last month.
It was a pale pink Giambattista Valli gown that appeared to be about 3m wide. It was full with tulle, an uncompromising strawberry milkshake explosion of an outfit. Lipa was, like Stella Gibbons’ Elfine, “a swan bathing in foam”. For me, the most glorious part of the look was the fact that she took up more square feet than some of the flats I’ve lived in. The voluminous skirt acted as a bouncer. No one could get near her, unless she drew them towards her. It was a defiant, magnificent, fierce “fuck off” frock. It was frothy and feminine, but she didn’t seem delicate. She looked as though every inch of the space she occupied had been fought for and won. Imagine a man on the Tube trying to sit next to Lipa with his legs splayed, or approaching her from behind to put his hands on her hips and physically shove her out the way. It couldn’t be done.
A picture of a pop star in a pink dress might not seem like an obvious triumph for feminism, especially in the wake of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, where we’ve seen women dress in black to make a statement about endemic sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. We’re fighting to end objectification and, as women, we want to be judged on our abilities and ideas, not the way we appear. However, I loved that Lipa’s look was unignorable. Women are constantly expected to be the ones who bend to accommodate, squeeze into smaller spaces and shrink themselves to fit the world.
In the last couple of years, there has been an international campaign against manspreading, and subway users from Manhattan to Madrid have been made aware of the fact that it’s bad manners for men to sit with their legs wide apart, without any regard for the personal space of the people around them. Watch a manspreader at work on the bus and, if it’s busy and there’s a woman beside them, you’ll almost certainly see her attempting to fold herself into her seat. The New York Times theatre critic Laura Collins-Hughes wrote that even the well-intentioned public notices drive her “a little up the wall”, describing an animation in which a woman asks a seated man to close his legs, then “daintily crosses her ankles to make herself as small as possible. Then she thanks the nice man for, as far as I can tell, no longer taking up way more than his fair share of room.” Collins-Hughes suggests manspreading is a metaphor that can be extended into public life, adding, “men get more jobs, more money, more prizes, more stories told about them onstage than women do”.
My friend Sophie once told me that she has never experienced more harassment and aggression from men than when she has walked down the street in the rain, holding a large golf umbrella. They reacted viscerally to the fact that she was occupying space in a significant way, even though it was for practical reasons. It is hard for women to claim space for themselves without experiencing a negative reaction. The journalist Elizabeth Plank filmed herself sitting on the subway with her legs spread apart, and found that people glared at her or took photos – while the men sitting in a similar way were ignored.
Space isn’t simply physical and, as soon as girls exhibit any signs of autonomy, we’re told to make ourselves smaller, quieter and less visible
In his book, Communicating In The 21st Century, the linguistic and cultural academic, Baden Eunson, writes that, when in public, women tend to take up less space than men, holding their arms and legs significantly closer to their bodies. Every woman I know was told, as a child, to sit with her legs together. For most of us, I suspect that we heard this message at the same time we were asked not to raise our voices, to finish our food, to say please and thank you and to put other people at ease before we put ourselves first. Space isn’t simply physical and, as soon as girls exhibit any signs of autonomy, we’re told to make ourselves smaller, quieter and less visible. Think of all the studies that have shown that if women are speaking for 20 per cent of the time, the perception is that they’re dominating the conversation. The tabloids go to town on “lairy” women who dare to be drunk, loud and visible when they’re on a night out, but their male contemporaries are rarely singled out and targeted.
If you want to understand the way the world feels about women taking up space, you just need to consider the way that, culturally, we praise women for being slim and we’re cruel about women who deviate from this narrow, aesthetic idea. According to warped, Western standards, the less of us there is, the more beautiful we are. When I interviewed the Dietland author and “fat activist” Sarai Walker, she described the UK as “the most fat-shaming place I’ve been in my entire life”, adding that when she lived in London, people would verbally abuse her because of the space she was taking up on the pavement.
When you’re in a minority, the emotional rent you’re expected to pay on the public space you occupy becomes higher and higher. For women of colour, trans women and differently abled women, space becomes increasingly constricted. These women are often squeezed out of what little space they’re permitted to occupy. Think about how rarely we see these women represented in any area of broadcasting, and how much space is taken up by the words and bodies of able-bodied, white men. If you have an all-female panel on TV talking about something other than womanhood, it’s remarkable. If you have an all-male panel talking about anything at all, it’s probably a repeat of something on Dave.
Space can be an emotional issue, too. Strictly finalist Alexandra Burke was constantly attacked in the press for being “fake” when she was emotional. We have started to celebrate, and even fetishise, the concept of the “strong woman” – but this is typically a term used for a person who refuses to show emotion outwardly, and demonstrates unshakable confidence and tenacity. These are the same attributes that come up when we talk about toxic masculinity. Even when we’re allowed to take up space, our emotions aren’t. We’re left with a sense that even our own head space is under threat, and that others resent our right to an interior life.
When it comes to space, we’re stuck. Taking up space means being visible, which should lead to more opportunities for women everywhere. Whether we’re huddling against the train window so the man who has chosen the adjacent seat on the empty carriage can really spread out, or turning down a public-speaking opportunity because we really don’t want to be the only woman on the panel, we’re shrinking. We’re giving away something that is already in short supply.
However, there aren’t any guidelines explaining how we can go about taking up more space. We tell women that it’s up to them to claim it, that they must lean in and shout about their achievements in order to succeed – then we shame and silence them for doing so. Think about the women who have been publicly called “nasty” or “difficult”. While women everywhere have been quick to reclaim the pejorative, there’s a scary sense that we’ll be punished for trying to take up space. If we dare to try, we have to charm, cajole and negotiate. However, men can follow a pattern of aggression, harassment and intimidation, and it’s not usually safe for women to retaliate with the same techniques. I’m starting to think that there’s only one way that we can stop ceding our space and it involves something as unignorable and immoveable as an enormous frilly frock.