Seems Like a Touch, A Touch Too Much

by Mary S

A couple of years ago, whilst browsing in a store, a man suddenly came up to me and put his hands on my shoulders. I was shocked, but managed to say, “What are you doing?” “And he said something like, “Oh, you were in my way,” as if that made any sense. I wish I had come up with something more cutting in response, but the experience really rattled me, and I just walked away.

Of course, sometimes I actually am in people’s way, and, as a small female, I am constantly getting touched, generally by men. Strangers place their hands on the small of my back to let me know they are behind me and want to get by. Recently, a male flight attendant squeezed my shoulder after taking a drink order. Men on the subways sit with their legs wide open, taking up more of a seat. (My new tactic is to slowly press on their legs with mine until I am taking up more space, which really works! Try it!)

As someone so small, I’m probably less in the way than a large man, but something tells me large men don’t  constantly receive this kind of attention. Like having strangers refer to you with affectionate pet names or comment on your appearance, it reinforces the idea that, as a lady, I am pretty much public domain. As Feminism 101 has taught us, women aren’t supposed to take up a lot of space, and sometimes the simple act of doing it can be transgressive. Recently I got into a fight with a man who kept commanding me to smile. “I bet you don’t say this to men,” I said to him. “I say it to everybody!” he retorted, and I wanted to point out a stereotypically threatening man behind me and tell him to go ahead and tell him too. But why bring that guy into it? Despite my occasional screaming fight with some dude on the street, I’m all about good manners in everyday social situations. I would never comment on someone’s appearance, (except for the occasional outfit/hair compliment) or draw someone into a personal discussion. We have social etiquette for a reason.

It’s not like I recoil at the human touch or anything. And one of the things I find so fascinating about living in New York is the constant negotiation of space, of dodging and crowding and living tenement-style. We’re all going to jostle up against someone else at some point (or, for extended periods, if you take the rush hour subway into Manhattan, which I have been doing for my my BUST internship) and sometimes a quick tap on the shoulder might be called for. I have a female friend who is much taller and bigger than me, and one of the first things she ever said to me was, “I bet people treat me so differently than they treat you.” I agreed, saying that people tended to be automatically patronizing towards me, while she said that people clearly viewed her as threatening and acted aggressively towards her. (Really, this behavior is kind of aggressive either way, but in a different mode.)

That’s the other side of the coin: whatever your gender and size, people are going to make assumptions about you, for taking up too much space or too little. And it can be hard to confront, especially because it seems to fall within the lines of normal social convention. As much as I’d like to whip around and say, “Don’t touch me!” when I feel an unnecessary hand, it may not be the most effective response.

So, I’d like to ask: Any advice? Does this happen to you? How do you feel like your size or gender affects how people see you?

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.