Why I’m going to take up all the space I want by Lily

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I’m getting bigger. My teeny peanut is growing arms and legs, fingers and toes (and all the other important bits like a brain and eyes and stuff). Bone – that’s the one that really blows my mind – I’m actually creating someone else’s bones. It’s pretty much the same thing as the big bang. Or maybe I’m sort of like God. Mother nature – creator of all things. That’s me.

While I’m like ‘hey, this is pretty cool’, I’m also a bit like ‘eugh, I’m so huge.’ And I honestly thought this would be the first time in my life I’d not give one flying fuck about being a big mamma. So I’m kind of annoyed at myself.

From day one us ladies are taught to take up as little space as possible.

Both physically and vocally. It’s hardwired into us by media, society, culture. Don’t be too loud, too domineering, too fat or too clumsy… We’re offered some impossible ideals. And we try our best to squeeze our tragically human existence into their neat and shiny edges.

A lot of my early ideas about womanhood came from Disney.

Not your new age Frozen sisterhood type stuff. Just a lot of dainty princesses being saved by handsome dudes on horseback. Let’s just take a moment to conjure up that image. Broad sexy man on a very large stallion towering over a pretty lady with a waistline the size of her wrist. Princey is taking up a whole bunch of space while our princess is ground level and looking very small.

I was fascinated by Thumbelina. And you can’t get more dainty and fragile than our pocket-sized princess. This small girl, born from a flower, goes forth to find love/safety (in these kinds of films the two are pretty interchangeable) in her fairy prince. She spends the entire film running away from pervy animals who keep picking her up and making the moves on her.

Thumbelina is a nice moral fable for children. One that simultaneously teaches us that men can’t control their urges (they are literally animals in this story) and that a woman will make you work for it –Thumbelina’s principle role is to resist advances and then be rewarded for it. So girls, stay chaste. And boys, keep trying.

There’s a whole bunch of kid’s stories that push a similar narrative. And we wonder why boys keep chasing girls around the playground for a peek up their skirts.

Thumbelina got me thinking about size.

Her size makes her fragile. She’s just a passive victim of her circumstances. Whereas her male counterpart Tom Thumb really makes himself known despite his tiny frame.

In the real world petite women in general are subject to all sorts of fantasies built around gendered stereotypes. There’s lots of odd stuff out there but I found this one website called Beautiful Women Pedia. And I must thank them for teaching me what is beautiful and what is not. I was so confused before. This vast sea of different races, heights, hair lengths and facial features. This concise guide to feminine attractiveness gives me some very strict guidelines to measure myself against.

So thank you. You wise, wise misogynists.

Beautiful Women Pedia tells me that tall women are pretty gross.

And at 5’ 11’ I’m feeling sad. They also say that big women aren’t great either. According to Beautiful Women Pedia this tall-preggo needs to lose some inches vertically and horizontally asap.

They tell me that ‘petite women appear to be more feminine and dainty while taller women are perceived as being more masculine to men. Small women take smaller steps, are less noticeable, and are considered cute and adorable like “Hello Kitty”…’

They go on to talk about gender roles and science and how taller women threaten a man’s masculinity. Then there’s a lot of stuff about picking women up. ‘He can easily pick her up and whisk her away at ease… a man can just pick her up and fool around with her…’

And I don’t know what’s weirder. That these dudes just want to get it on with a pink cartoon cat or they want a woman small enough to pick up and fool around with. That sounds a lot like abduction to me. Just sayin.’

There’s a lot of strange stuff on the internet about small women.

I kinda got sucked down the Google rabbit hole. One where Alice is perpetually chugging on the small potion and the men are rubbing their hands in glee.

So I pulled myself out of that dark place and gulped some air back at ground level. I started looking at the spaces my fellow ladies occupied in the real world. No Disney, no Hans Christian Anderson, no internet. Just excellent broads on the street, on the subway, on buses, in crowds. And I found just what I thought I would. We keep squishing ourselves. And I squish myself while stooping.

I’ve been trying to shrink since I was about 14.

I was a really tall, gangly sort of teen and my posture is shocking. I always stooped to look smaller and skipped meals to minimise an already large frame. I still fold myself over on public transport – neatly, with legs crossed at the thigh, not the knee.

I’m only aware of how small I’m trying to make myself when I see this guy– limbs sprawled about the train carriage like a melted cheesestring. Legs akimbo, arms resting across the shoulders of two imaginary, or invisible, companions. But there’s no one else there. And as other women board the train they just sort make neat packages of themselves around him. And he just sits there. Oblivious.

So I’m thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I part my legs a little, throw my head back in nonchalant defiance and spread spaghetti arms to my left and right. It feels good. I’m like, really comfortable. People sort of give me funny looks. But I don’t care because I’m reclaiming my space.

Back on the pavement women teeter on impossible stalks.

It’s like 6pm on a Monday and there’s a lot of clickety clacking. Women in stilettos that make comfortable steps hard to manage. And while I like a pair of ridiculously impractical shoes as much as the next person, I’d never really thought about just how debilitating they are.

If we circle back round to Beautiful Women Pedia you’ll remember them saying ‘Small women take smaller steps, are less noticeable, and are considered cute…’ And it’s that ‘smaller steps’ bit I want to look at now. Heels do force us to take smaller, tentative steps. We’re trying desperately not to fall and we usually need a friend to prop us up. There’s a dependency and a fragility to all this.

And it echoes some of the things I’ve read about feet binding in China. Obviously at the extreme end of the spectrum but, in essence, how different are the reasons behind it all?

Feet binding was astonishingly common in 19th century China.

The toes of young girls were forcibly and continuously broken and bound to deliberately deform the feet into small points. Sometimes their toes would fall off and girls regularly died from infections. Bound feet were seen as a mark of beauty and a prerequisite for finding a husband. They also boasted wealth, showing that the family could afford to support a woman who was practically immobile and bound to the home. Her only purpose was to look beautiful and bear children.

The ideal foot length was set at only four inches. And women with bound feet would have to bend their knees to walk, swaying slightly to keep upright. It looks incredibly dainty and was even thought to be a total turn on by some men.

China had a thing for small feet even before foot binding – but so do we.

The tale of Ye Xian was written around 850 by Duan Chengshi. The story is about a girl who loses her shoe. A king finds it and is so enamoured by its tiny size that he vows to marry the owner. He finds the girl, she tries on the shoe and – hey presto, wedding bells.

And you know what’s coming… How could I not make a direct connection to Cinderella here?

So, while you might think that foot binding and a Saturday night stiletto are lightyears apart, just think about it – are they really?

Let’s be as big as we like.

From kids stories, to street level, 19th century China, to a 2018 Google search, the message is clear. Women, be small. Be shorter, be skinnier, be quieter. So what better reason to be louder and bigger than ever before?

Spread yourself all over public transport, stomp about in big boots, get fat, be as pregnant and huge as you like, be tall, speak out, argue, make your point. Ladies, let’s stop folding ourselves into tiny packages.

I’m going to be whale sized soon enough. And I’m gonna take up all the space I want.

Illustration by Lily Bonner


Lily writes professionally for The Writer on the daily. But she’s a lyricist and author by night. She loves Angela Carter, comic books, Gilmore Girls and fanciful ideas. Her sweet spot is some place between whimsy and wit.
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