Woman walking strong: I stopped giving way on the sidewalk and found my power

Guest post by Amber
By: magdalenaroeselerCC BY 2.0

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”

It felt unfair to be constantly vigilant and pre-emptively moving out of people’s way. My hypothesis was that holding my ground would be much less stressful. I walked out of the bathroom determined walk straight ahead, shoulders square. I walked as if in tadasana (mountain pose) and immediately felt more powerful.

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.

I learned:

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.

Comments on Woman walking strong: I stopped giving way on the sidewalk and found my power

  1. I’ve also started doing this recently and yeah, it is amazing how many guys are totally okay with THWACK-ing you with their shoulder as you walk past. Even when I am on my side of the sidewalk, taking up minimal space.

    Also, I am quite petite (5’0″) – I got frustrated with how many times I would be at a bar with friends and a guy would just come barreling on through without having the courtesy of looking down and noticing there are -oh!- actually people there. The number of ‘bows to the head and sloshed drinks are countless.

    Stand your ground, ladies.

    • Ah, yes, I imagine that being petite would make you even more likely to be jostled around. I caught an elbow to the arm yesterday-OW-I can’t imagine ‘bows to the head. Good for you for holding your ground anyway!

  2. “Women tended to notice me at a distance and alter their trajectory far before we met. Men did not. ”

    So true. I wonder how much this feeds into the socialization of girls to be considerate of other people (at a cost to themselves) more so than boys. Other examples: hugging people whether you want to or not, smiling when told to, etc.

  3. This is fantastic! Will definitely be trying this – and thank you for also acknowledging that it won’t always necessarily be safe. More power to you and to the rest of us!

  4. I live and work in DC where everyone walks everywhere. And in my 12 years of walking everywhere that this sentence could not be more true: “..(men) 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.”

    How freeing it must be to walk confidently and with purpose. I usually just roll my eyes when I’m forced into the dirt to avoid colliding with a man, but maybe I will try this experiment on my walk home later.

  5. I did this for a while when I worked in downtown Seattle. I decided to hold my course (similar to you, unless someone had mobility issues for whatever reason). I also took to saying “excuse you” if someone actually ran into me. It was amazing how many men would not just bump shoulders with me but full on run into me because they expected me to yield. Nothing bad ever came of it, except some close contact with strangers. It was a good for me to reflect on my own ingrained social norm of always yielding to men on the street.

    • I love the “excuse you” haha! Wow, men were full on running in to you. I wonder if things will shift if we keep holding our ground. Maybe eventually when enough women don’t yield, we will register as much as a tree or pole to not run into!

  6. I do this as well. I am a firm believer that there is a correct side of the sidewalk to walk on—at least in the States, I should say. Just like driving, you stay on the right. When seemingly able bodied people walk towards me on the incorrect side of the sidewalk, I have no problems barrelling into them. I have had a few people shout at me, but for the most part it seems people take it as part of their lives. While I don’t understand the thought process, I guess to each their own. Really, all I want to do is share the sidewalk. I have no problems being ever vigilant, or moving for people who may need accommodating, but for the most part I stand my ground. At 5’2 people usually assume I’ll kowtow to them—big mistake. I’ve found that it’s a similar situation to when I was pregnant and would get on the el. While I obviously don’t think people are obligated to stand for pregnant, I do believe it is the polite thing to do. I’ve noticed that in both situations the first people to move on the sidewalk/get up on the train are women. Followed by male minorities. My apologies if that is horribly racist, but in both scenarios, after women the people who are most likely to move on the sidewalk or offer a seat would be men of color. In two pregnancies only 2 white men ever asked if I’d like to sit down. The only people who have ever full on walked into me were also white men. I don’t think white men are evil—I’m married to one, and am currently raising one—but it is interesting that it seems to be white men I’m always contending with when on the street.

    • I agree about there being a correct side. Like you said, I am not trying to waltz down the middle–simply trying to walk on my side! And yeah, I am sure race as well as class and other power dynamics come into it. My guess is that ableism is also very key to this discussion!

  7. I LOVE THIS POST! After I had abdominal surgery a couple years ago, I did a bunch of physical therapy to rebuild my core muscles. The physical therapist taught me that I should use my stomach muscles when I walked — I had no idea, but apparently, this is a thing you can do?! Once I trained myself to engage my core when I was walking around, I realized that it meant I actually walked around really differently… not just posture, but attitude, too. It was a really subtle but profound change in how I walked down the street. I think a lot of it was mental/emotional… just FEELING stronger meant that I WALKED stronger, which then became a feedback loop (feel strong / walk strong / feel strong walk strong).

    • Thanks Ariel! That means a lot coming from you! I have noticed the same thing about core engagement but while hiking. I transferred the idea of core engagement for yoga balance poses to helping me balance coming down uneven trails. Fell on my ass a lot less! I am so glad you got bonus awesomeness out of your recovery!

  8. I started doing this on my university’s campus, 50,000 students. I had to cut straight across a major thoroughfare that turns into a mass of students at class change. I was surprised to find that by squaring my shoulders and looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, I could walk straight across that river of bodies and not hit anyone.

  9. Surprisingly, men in my area (suburban NY) are pretty cool and tend to avoid collisions. It’s the women (especially “pretty young things”) who have no reservations about blindly body-slamming a fifty-something woman like me (even though I stay to the right side of the sidewalk)…and then getting all indignant that *I* didn’t get out of *their* way.

    But the real epidemic around here is when you come up against a crew of two or more who don’t understand the concept of “single file”. It’s rarely a dominance-thing — they just start lane-shifting into the grass. Older folks (like those of us who remember the moon landings) grok shifting to single-file until you pass each other. If we all give way a little, nobody ends up with dirty shoes.

    I can’t tell you how many fights my BF and I got into that began with me saying, “Don’t you DARE walk in the dirt! You’re not a dog on a leash…you have just as much right to this sidewalk as THEY do. You can walk in front of me or behind me, but either way, you stay on the sidewalk.”

    (He’s a lover, not a fighter. What can I say?)

    But I think we’ve reached grumpiness parity so that we grumble, but we hold hands and grumble *together*. Awwwww! 🙂

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent. I’m feeling much better now…


    (Note to self: Consider switching to decaf.)

  10. On a related note, if I’m in a crowded movie theatre, I take one arm rest, as my right. If there are people on either side of me, and they want to hog up 2 arm rests each, it’s not gonna happen. I paid for a ticket, I want an arm rest, too! And again, it seems to mostly be men that want to spread out, & take up two. I’ve also not budged, when a guy beside me tried to take my already-in-use arm rest by “accidentally” knocking into my arm, several times. I just held fast and looked directly at him, until he said “Oh – sorry.” each time. And…there wasn’t a free one on the other side of him. I felt that was his conversation to have, with the guy beside him . But he didn’t, he just squirmed for most of the film. For sure, I could’ve moved my arm, if if was someone who appeared to need it, or even if this gent might have just asked me – but otherwise, nope, I’m gonna own my space.

    • I cannot abide space hogs. I see it all the time on public transport here in the UK, men who sit and spread their legs and just expect you to budge over. I’ve had enough of it so if someone does it I push back until we are in full contact from shoulder to knee and then lean over and hoarsely whisper “you’re so warm”. Some of the reactions have been quite comical.

  11. I’ve totally found this works. Similarly, sometimes in the past I’ve had trouble with people taking up my personal space. Thankfully nothing sinister, just stuff like reaching over my head to grab a cup in the canteen at work, or sitting and reading the newspaper with it spreading into my face on the train. It used to really bug me until someone said try not moving out of their way and take up more space yourself. I found as soon as I started to sort of hold my head a little higher, spread my shoulders out more and hold my ground, people started to give me more of my own space back. Not every time of course, because some people are jerks, but it was surprisingly effective and made me feel a lot more confident- instead of shrinking out of people’s way.

  12. Just last week I was walking down the sidewalk with a bunch of porcelain swan vases in a bag in my arms, and I saw this adolescent boy far ahead of me, just kind of talking loudly and throwing his arms about with his friends. I tensed up but braved passing by him anyway–only for the stupid little brat’s arm to go flying up and break off one of the swan heads!! I was furious, and annoyed at myself for not going around his group. You’d think he would notice me and my friend coming his way with our arms full, but NOPE. Entitled brat!
    Everything you have written here is so true. It’s time to start taking up some space of our own!

  13. I’ve done this ever since reading Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky in college. It’s a small protest against society, but in the end it means very little. Curse societal norms!

    “The night before I had made up my mind not to carry out my fatal plan and to abandon it all, and with that object I went to the Nevsky for the last time, just to see how I would abandon it all. Suddenly, three paces from my enemy, I unexpectedly made up my mind–I closed my eyes, and we ran full tilt, shoulder to shoulder, against one another! I did not budge an inch and passed him on a perfectly equal footing! He did not even look round and pretended not to notice it; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day! Of course, I got the worst of it–he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had attained my object, I had kept up my dignity, I had not yielded a step, and had put myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home feeling that I was fully avenged for everything. I was delighted. I was triumphant and sang Italian arias. Of course, I will not describe to you what happened to me three days later; if you have read my first chapter you can guess for yourself. The officer was afterwards transferred; I have not seen him now for fourteen years. What is the dear fellow doing now? Whom is he walking over?”

  14. As someone with an invisible disability this angers me greatly. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why. I don’t have the ability to move quickly even though I appear able bodied. Arseholes who run into me on the street cause me immense physical pain. It’s rare that a man does this to me, if they do the generally apologize. I’ve suffered more from women who feel they don’t need to share the space. There is taking up your own space then there is potentially injuring or causing pain to others because they don’t meet your physical definition of impairment.

  15. Interesting. I find I naturally tend to expect people to get out of my way, so I do the shoulder bumping thing with lots of people. I am Canadian though, so I do say Sorry! even if someone bumps me.

  16. I wonder if men running into people is sort of like a handshake. I’ve heard it said that men will judge another man’s strength/power on the strength of their handshake (and because of this I always make a point to give a firm handshake in a business setting). Maybe this is similar. If you run into someone and they are un-phased, that person is considered strong. If the person falls or stumbles, they are weak.

    I have nothing to back this up other than comments from other men about why they don’t change course when walking anywhere.

  17. I do this occasionally, when I remember to. I love doing it! It’s a great social experiment, and I feel so much more confident. I typically avoid showing that I even acknowledge the other people, that I’m on a mission, so to speak. Stand up straight, chin up, and walk with purpose. I’ve never collided with anyone while walking like this (though I’m sure it helps that I’m nearly 6 feet tall and built like a barrel-chested valkyrie lol).

  18. Interesting and insightful read. This definitely works. If a man or woman does not get of your way (and they are equal), another option is to hold your ground and either politely ask them to walk around you or pretend you didn’t hear/see them. 😉

  19. I normally walk on the right side, but there has been some people who will walk on the left and absolutely refuse to move. If you bump into them, because they refused to move, they exclaim “You trying to start a fight or something” or they will want to start a fight with you. I think these people are looking for trouble or setting things up to start trouble. It is definitely done intentionally. Some people who do it by accident will see you and move out of the way. However, the sidewalk hog/power tripper/ego booster, etc will not.

    If 99% of the people in North America walk on the right side, and that 1% walk on the left, then logically you should walk on the right side. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve sort of read on why they might do this. They feel powerless, so by walking into people and forcing them to change course, if you comply, this gives the powerless person more power. If they already have power, and just want more of it (eg. ego, bully, etc), then they might also do it.

  20. Hey! I already was frustrated with people not going to the right of the sidewalk. I always had to go the outer edge of the sidewalk if I didn’t want people to bump into me. Now with the Covid-19, I am extra frustrated. 1) Male cyclists are the worst! The road is 2,5 meter wide (there are no cars/motorcycles allowed on that road). I am also cycling, but I am on the ride side of the road (30cm from the edge). But a male cyclist comes from behind (i didn’t notice him, because I hear a lot of wind). And he keeps just 30cm distance… while there is nobody else in the next 200m behind and in front of me. It frustrates me so much!! I get so mad I have to stop cycling every time to calm down 🙁 .

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