My space by Steph Conroy

Image by Eirik Uhlen on Unsplash

Like most people, I have always shared my space. When I was born, we lived in a brown fibro house by the sea in southern Tasmania. It was small; a kitchen, a lounge, a bathroom, and two bedrooms; one for my two parents, and one for me. Until my brother was born and it was the four of us existing in the tiny house by the sea. I didn’t like the new baby, taking up the space in mum and dad’s hearts, filling the brown house with his cries. In retaliation I tormented him. I pushed back into his space.

We moved around a lot when I was little, and from Tassie, we ended up in Katoomba, NSW. My room there was really big. Everyone had their own room, even mum and dad. This house was old but there was space to stretch my legs. And we had a garden! You just had to be careful of wearing bare feet outside because of the funnel webs in the grass. If you walked up our street and turned left, you’d be on Main Street. This was one of the only places I really went on my own, outside the house, tentatively exploring other spaces. Late at night, the sounds of the TV crept in under my bedroom door. If dad was watching X-Files, I would hear the music and my heart would freeze and I would shove my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes tight. Then it was the vast, black space inside my head and my racing thoughts.

When I was a teenager, we moved to Melbourne. I became aware of new spaces, including friends’ houses for sleepovers, and the shops. But still, my presence in these spaces was largely out of my control. It’s interesting to think how much of our space is dictated by others when we are young people.

And more interesting still to think of how this never really changes for those of us who grow into women.

As they age, it feels like men are awarded more and more freedom, often at the expense of women. They learn through observation that it’s okay for them to take space. Insidiously, they decide how much space I should take up with my body: ‘Oh you went for a walk, you should keep it up.’ ‘Are you sure you want a burger? Wouldn’t you rather a nice salad?’ ‘Such a pretty face, now you just need to lose the weight’. In response to comments like these, I have punished my body, trying to make it smaller, more acceptable and pleasing to men. They decide, in their way, which spaces can be occupied by a woman. My presence in places I wasn’t ‘supposed to be’ ranged from me making men uncomfortable (me disagreeing with them at poker nights), to them feeling sorry for me (Uber drivers asking if I was heading home alone), to men causing me to fear for my life (walking down a street after dark, or Uber drivers asking if I was heading home alone). Sometimes men have dictated my space by dominating it, reducing the amount of space there is for me to sit or speak. On a few dark and terrifying occasions, men have stepped right into my space and taken it by force.

It wasn’t until I made the decision to travel alone that I felt a true sense of liberation from controlled spaces for the first time. This wasn’t intentional, but a fantastic side effect I have only learned to appreciate in hindsight. I found I was able to make decisions about where I would sleep, places I wanted to enter and be, with no time restraints, no one expecting me to be anywhere or not wanting me in the spaces I had entered. Some of these spaces I paid for, like accommodation with a private balcony, but others, like the beach, were free to enjoy. The seas were there to be languished in, the stretches of sand for throwing my sun-drenched body upon. It occurred to me that, especially in my anonymity, I’d never had so much freedom.

Men did enter my space when I travelled. Many questioned my not having a boyfriend or a husband. I was followed to my tent one night by a man asking, in the dark, if I wanted company. One told me I should exercise more. But having had a taste of my own space, I became fiercely protective of it. I challenged the man who told me I should exercise more, responding that it was my body and none of his fucking business. I told the countless men who asked me why no husband that it was my choice, and the guy who followed me back to my tent? I told him to fuck off.

Like children, women don’t always have the ‘luxury’ of claiming space for themselves, or so aggressively keeping men out of it. Defending our space can be dangerous work. But it’s important work. Because those blissful moments spent alone make us more aware of who we will allow to enter our space, and who needs to stay the fuck out.