by Alisa Joy McClain
I’m a fat woman climber. And, I’m a person who directly pushes back when people invade my space. Given Bettina’s recent post about mansplainers at the climbing gym and Susan’s mention of my name as a Boundary Hero in the comments, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the internal thoughts that have enabled and empowered me to say, “NO,” when someone has overstepped a boundary with me without spending precious emotional labor trying to protect their image of me or getting them to like me.
A frequent event for me at the climbing gym is this: I am waiting to get on a boulder or a wall. I’m positioned a polite distance away but close enough that my claim should be obvious. Because it happens often enough that my mere presence is not enough of a stakeholder, I’ve widened my stance and put my hands on my hips to non-verbally say, “I mean business. I am here with purpose.” When the space becomes available, it is not terribly unusual for a guy to just step between me and the wall like I don’t exist or that my fat body is actually invisible.
I have some choices here.
1) I can just move to another wall; give up my claim.
2) I can stand there and glare at the guy, passive aggressively communicating my displeasure and hoping he notices and is more aware in the future.
3) I can wait and let him know verbally at the end of his use of the wall.
4) I can politely interrupt him before he gets started and say, “Excuse me. I’m sorry, but I was waiting for that. Do you mind if I go first?”
5) I can interrupt him before he gets started and say, “I was waiting for that.” I usually do this in a slightly raised voice, aiming for mild social distress as a negative reinforce.
More and more often, I opt for number 5 or its equivalent.
So, these are things that I have thought about over the years to make this a near-automatic and pretty unapologetic response.
Option 1: If I give up my claim, the guy is definitely going to keep doing it to me and everybody else. He was probably oblivious to my existence and will continue to be oblivious to my existence.
Option 2: If I wait and glare, he’ll probably write me off as a bitch and I am the only person who has been inconvenienced. He has already demonstrated that I do not exist for him, so I have serious doubts my glaring will result in a behaviour change.
Option 3: It is still largely me that is inconvenienced, and I actually have already decided that a person who doesn’t observe the space and see if anyone is waiting doesn’t really care that much about social interactions and community environment. In the past, at most, I have gotten a non-satisfying apology, a glare, or actual verbal abuse when I pursued this option.
Option 4: I tried this for a while, but when I ask nicely and politely for something I shouldn’t have to ask for at all, it feels like I erase myself. It feels like this guy has given me his emotional discomfort with waiting, and I have accepted the burden and will tend to the burden carefully to ensure that I don’t give it back to him while meekly asking for a tiny share of respect. This option doesn’t feel good, and I don’t’ think it’s my job to help grown men who are actual strangers to me (and have already shown me I have no interest in getting to know them) develop basic social skills.
Option 5: My best option so far. In this case, I am returning the burden of discomfort. It’s like a ball he threw at me when I wasn’t willing to catch it, and I’m just tossing it right back at him. “Sorry, I think you dropped this.” I affirm my own right to exist. I am just loud enough to make sure that anyone nearby can hear because I feel like it protects me from an escalation in violence. I’m relying on social expectation to help this guy reconsider his options next time because his actions told me that my opinion of him is already not enough to change his behavior. The world tells me on a regular basis that I don’t deserve space in the world, and asserting myself and my right to exist in these interactions is one of the ways I reject the word’s erasure of my existence. I am treating myself with respect. This guy is probably not going to like me very much, but he already didn’t respect me and I don’t actually want to invite him into my life. I don’t owe the person who just told me that my existence is at their convenience any great efforts in kindness. Every once in a while the guy I do this to will offer a genuine apology, and I will then profusely thank them. That’s when they re-earn my respect and my effort towards active kindness. Janis Spring says “You don’t restore your humanity when you forgive an unapologetic offender; he restores his humanity when he works to earn your forgiveness.”
Bystanders are often uncomfortable with my choice of option number 5. When I’m with friends, I have to remember to not exercise option number 5 on their behalf (when the guy gets in THEIR way) because it’s their choice to do so or not and not mine and I don’t want to make my friend uncomfortable if they aren’t choosing these kinds of interactions. Susan mentioned her visceral discomfort in her comment about me on Bettina’s post. I get it. It’s also part of what I choose when I decided option number 5 was my default. I understand that discomfort as one of two things:
1. an expectation that I, as a woman, continue to defer to men or 2) a rejection of their own desire to do the same; not yet ready to take on the social disapproval of stating a boundary firmly and with expectation. Whelp, I am not going to start deferring to men; I’m just not house trained. And, I compassionately understand the bystander rejection of my boundary setting, but I’m not going to bend for it. After all, to not set boundaries for myself feels like participating in my own social erasure, and I have to live with myself for the rest of my life.
Harriet Lerner has written some great books on women’s anger and boundaries. In it, she says, “You can have change or you can have people like you. You often can’t have both.” When you put it that way, I’ll have change especially over winning the favor of men who will mansplain to me, take my space, or generally treat me as less than them.
I just don’t need them to like me nearly as much as I need to like myself.
Alisa Joy McClain spent the first half of her life thinking she couldn’t do cool exercise-y things because she was fat and is now spending the second half of her life enjoying the body she has and all the cool things she can do with it like rock climbing, cycling, and scuba diving. When not trying to be a fat athlete, she can be found reading books, playing pinball, hanging out with her family and children, and ranting about various social injustices.