Written by Harriet Clarke
Artwork by Laura-Joy Pieter
I have been thinking about the idea of liminality recently; of living between tensions, between mindsets, or between states. As a woman (inclusive of any and all lived experiences) there is a specific feeling I’ve had and many other woman I know have felt the same. It’s the feeling of simultaneously taking up too much room in the world and, yet, not enough. It’s the strange sensation of being on two opposite ends of a spectrum; of living within a binary; of constantly being pulled and pushed by two opposite norms. It’s living between two tensions, and trying to figure out just how to be. This feeling is not unique to women, yet it is so commonplace among women that it would be disingenuous to ignore the link to gender.
The feeling of taking up too much room encompasses the physical, emotional and mental. Women have been conditioned to be small in all aspects of our being. It is difficult not to take on the irrational obsession with thinness pushed by the media. It deeply affects how you live your life, including the clothes you wear, what you eat, and your opinion of your self-worth. We are often only told that we look good when someone notices we’ve lost weight.
Outside of the physical, there is the constant pressure to be less assertive, less vocal, quieter, less emotional, and less opinionated; as a result, it seems that we often lose our voice before we have the chance to use it. As an example, within heterosexist discourse, the trope of the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ has become all too familiar as a means of marginalising women’s experiences in relationships. By being vocal about your emotions you are branded with a label which allows for ridicule and alienation – and ultimately perpetuates a fear of expression.
By being ‘too much’ of yourself, you are made to feel as if you are taking up too much space. This could be feeling comfortable about putting on weight, being seen as too vocal, or being too outwardly emotional, to name a few examples. There is a constant fear of backlash, a lack of self-confidence, which leads to a desire to retreat to the smallness we are socialised to embody.
There is a shared experience among women, that as well as feeling you take up too much space, that there is also not enough space to make your own. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re not able to take up as much room as you need, deserve, or desire. Women, alongside other marginalised groups, are undermined in most aspects of life. It is the feeling that there is so much to discover, share, and learn but the stigma around taking up space prevents you from exploring that. This discourages any desired self-expression and personal growth which makes being heard especially difficult. Björk summed it up well when she said that as a woman “everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times”. The struggle to break out of the small space we’ve been given is all-encompassing, yet conflicts with the expectation to remain small.
These opposing ideas create daily multi-layered conflicts. It’s believing that there should be a larger female presence in public discourse and having a desire to achieve in this realm, while enduring the crippling feeling of inadequacy, that you’re not good enough or that you shouldn’t put yourself out there in the world. It is knowing that a comment on your weightloss should not be a compliment whilst also having been conditioned to believe skinniness is something to be desired. Compounding this is the knowledge that you’re likely to be perceived as a ‘bitch’ if you’re not grateful for the plaudit of physically taking up less space.
Living life through this conflict of ideas is extremely tiring. However, in discovering just how commonplace this feeling was amongst the women I spoke to for this piece, I found some comfort and mutual understanding. Getting pulled in two different directions takes away from simply being. Living out these conflicts impedes on just figuring yourself out.
There is no simple solution to such a complex problem, it’s exhaustive nature makes it difficult to see a solution. Yet, these shared histories with other women may be a way to break out of such a conflict. By banding together more closely and acknowledging these feelings it can make a movement towards at least feeling at peace with the intricacies and dichotomies which plague us. Equally, this allows for these contradictions to become more vocalised, move further into public consciousness, and thus potentially allow for a disbanding of so many toxic ideas which cause this issue.