Sarah Lang learns about the phenomenon of ‘manspreading’. Is it always disrespectful or sometimes necessary? (Plus if you love a rant, check out our previous rants and raves here!)
Manspreading. No, that’s not another word for mansplaining, though a mansplainer may also be a manspreader. I had never heard the term until recently, but it turns out that ‘manspreading’ has its own Wikipedia page.
According to the online Oxford Dictionary, manspreading describes “the practice whereby a man adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat. It is a behaviour that is commonly spotted on public transport”.
In the New York Times, Emma G. Fitzsimmons writes that: “It is the bane of many female subway riders. It is a scourge tracked on blogs and on Twitter. And it has a name almost as distasteful as the practice itself. It is manspreading, the lay-it-all-out sitting style that more than a few men see as their inalienable underground right.”
Manspreading often occurs on a bus, train or subway. If you’re sitting next to the manspreader, you feel squashed – or the manspreader is taking up two seats so you have to stand. I’ve dealt with manspreading on a bus and a train, but I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Did they not notice, or not care?
Manspreading also happens on planes, where only armrests separate the seats and feet can intrude. The recent New York Post story ‘I Manspread On Planes: I Don’t Get Why That’s A Problem’ is about a 26-year-old who posted on Reddit that, during a six-hour flight, he sat in the ‘middle seat’ between two women.
“I’m tall and am never comfortable on planes,” he wrote. “My knees always dig into the seat in front and it can be quite painful.” Partway through the flight, his knee began inching to the left, level with the armrest. “I’ll concede it’s possible that at some point I was occupying space that rightfully belonged to my window seat neighbor,” he wrote.
He adds that the passenger didn’t say anything to him, but asked a flight attendant to order him “to keep his f–king leg in his own f–king seat”. He felt “deep shame” and “instantly retracted” his leg. She ignored him when he apologised. He then “got a good but painful workout of whatever muscle it is that keeps your knees together.”
Some Redditors told him off, while others sympathised. But we say, sir, pay for extra leg room, ask to sit in the exit row, or, yep, squeeze those muscles.
In my opinion, manspreading doesn’t happen only when you’re sitting next to someone. It can happen when you have to face a man sitting across from you, generally on public transport. Consciously or not, they’re pointing their crotch at you. You don’t want to look, but you also don’t want to crick your neck. This kind of manspreading can also happen in a social or work setting, and can make others uncomfortable.
Why does manspreading happen?
Well, there’s the “physiological explanation”. Fitness writer and author Lou Schulder wrote an article for Vice called ‘In Defense Of Manspreading’. He quotes a spine-biomechanics professor, who says that most men will find the “least-stressed sitting position” is with their knees apart.
There is also the “sociological explanation”. Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk – an American research fellow – published two studies based on speed-dating analysis. They found that the spreading-out of legs and arms is more sexually attractive when males do it (as opposed to when women do it). I say ‘you do you’ when it comes to dating, but otherwise, don’t take up two seats or point your crotch at me.
Manspreading is a global problem. A Madrid bus operator put up signs showing a red cross next to a male figure manspreading. The move followed a petition by a women’s group, and the hashtag #MadridSinManspreading (‘sin’ means ‘without’) became a thing. Meanwhile in New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority ran a poster campaign, showing a red figure of a manspreader, and two figures forced to stand. The poster says “Dude, stop the spread please!”
The BuzzFeed video ‘Women Try Manspreading For A Week’ – which has 3.5 million views on YouTube – is worth watching. It sees three women, travelling separately, adopt the manspreading position on public transport for seven days. They feel incredibly self-conscious. One says “the key to manspreading is not noticing. How can you do this everyday without being conscious of it?”
In the U.K, Brighton University graduate student Laila Laurel won the prestigious Belmond New Designers Award for the wit and innovation behind a pair of chairs she designed, titled ‘A Solution for Man-Spreading’. One chair enables a woman to sit with her legs slightly parted, while the other chair obliges men to sit with their legs together.
Laurel noted many instances of manspreading on public transport. In one instance, a woman had to sit sideways on her seat with her legs in the aisle due to a man taking over her foot-well. “I think men have a tendency to command space and require women to move for them far more than vice versa,” Laurel says. “In order to achieve gender equality, it’s imperative to consider many different aspects of sexism.”
Talking about manspreading isn’t about women shaming men. And it’s not about taking photos of the crotches of manspreaders, or tipping water on them (yes, this has happened). It’s about men doing what they can to prevent women from feeling uncomfortable both literally and figuratively.
I think it comes down to awareness, necessity and intent. If a man absolutely has to manspread because of space limitations, that’s one thing (and they should apologise in advance). But if a man can avoid manspreading, he should. And we shouldn’t have to ask him not to.