I was in a restaurant having a pleasant dinner with my family, and as I walked toward the back to find the restroom, a male server came barreling down the dead-center of the walkway. I leaned to the side and half-stumbled to get out of his way.
Once I got to the bathroom, my heart was still beating hard from the near-head-on collision. And I started to get mad. This guy wasn’t carrying a tray of food. He didn’t even try to share the space with me. He didn’t apologize to me, the customer. I couldn’t understand his actions as anything other than feeling entitled to that space.
I decided to experiment with what I thought of as “walking strong”
Within a few weeks, I was visiting my best friend in the small English town where she lives. I was spending a lot more time on foot, navigating crowded sidewalks, than I do in car-centric America. When I started to feel stumble-y and annoyed, I remembered the feeling in the restaurant.
I laid out ground rules for fairness:
I would give way to anyone who had difficulty walking — a mom wrangling children, older people, people with disabilities, those carrying heavy boxes, etc. I would also stick to my side of the sidewalk.
However, if all things were equal, I would not give way in any manner. No leaning, no curling in of my shoulders, no altering my course, and absolutely no stepping off the sidewalk into the street. I was going to hold my ground.
On the sidewalk, I had a constant buzz of adrenaline, feeling like I was playing chicken with every person coming at me. I quickly noticed something…
Women tended to notice me at a distance and alter their trajectory far before we met. Men did not. Walking up a long hill, a group of young men came towards me taking up the whole sidewalk. I felt my insides squinch up but kept my shoulders square. At the very last second, the one closest to me dropped his shoulder back to avoid contact.
On a side-trip to Edinburgh, I played chicken with another group of men, older ones this time. The burly man closest to me did not drop his shoulder back. We ran smack into each other, shoulder to shoulder.
And then we kept walking.
It was kind of shocking that #1, this man had absolutely no problem colliding with another person on the street. But even more so #2, Nothing else happened. It seemed the worst-case scenario turned out to be a non-event. I found this strangely exhilarating.
How I hold my body really makes a difference in how I feel. When I walk strong, I feel more powerful and therefore less fatigued by interacting with the world. I have more energy and enthusiasm for exploring. This will probably work for you, too — it’s science!
You are noticable when you walk strong. My bestie told me guys in Edinburgh were checking me out. I am not convinced that I was more attractive, but I did notice more people looking at me than usual. Maybe I was simply appearing on people’s radars for the first time as “someone to not walk all over.” Whatever it was, it felt good.
Gender inequality exists on a visceral, bodily level. Most men are not aware of sharing space because they have no reason to. They have de facto power. They are all Moses, parting the Red Sea of the sidewalk simply by walking down it. Most women, on the other hand, are made out of cat whiskers. They sense everything before it even happens and are constantly adapting in order to fit in.
There are many ways we women constantly give way, but we don’t have to
As common as the gender power imbalance is, I have tried this experiment over and over again and never gotten into any kind of confrontation. Men might not preemptively get out of my way, but for the most part, they seem able to adjust.
After I briefly shared this story, a relative told me it empowered her to not try to bend and please so much in the workplace. She held her ground for what she wanted and needed job-wise. She was excited to report that it worked out for her!
Now, I know that my experience is not universal, because there are many, many places where being too “strong” as a woman will garner violence. I honor that truth. But if you take a sober assessment and determine your surroundings are safe enough for a little experimenting, I would encourage you to hold your head high. It’s okay to be strong.