‘Manspreading has crossed over to the realm of running, and it’s not OK’

Taking up space in the world seems hardwired for men – but right now, it reeks of selfishness, says Helen Coffey

Wednesday 03 June 2020 08:12 BST
Man running marathon
Man running marathon

Something has been niggling at me during my mandated daily exercise under lockdown.

It’s a realisation that’s crept up on me day by day – the same realisation that the person who first coined the term “manspreading” must have experienced when it gradually hit them that men everywhere were taking up an inordinate amount of space on public transport.

A global pandemic that’s put the kibosh on using the Tube and train for the majority of us should really have pressed pause on the phenomenon. After all, where is there to manspread now? Your kitchen table? Your own sofa? But then I started going running again, and I realised the practice has not stopped at all – merely migrated.

For those of us not blessed with a rural setting, outdoor exercise can feel like a minefield during quarantine. I can’t embark on a 30-minute circular jog from my front door without crossing paths with at least 50 people. I live in London’s Zone 1 and this, seemingly, is my punishment for not getting the hell out of Dodge when all my contemporaries started moving to the ’burbs several years ago.

It taints the activity with an unwanted wash of anxiety. What if I get It? What if I already have It and am unknowingly passing It on?

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, there was an unspoken code of conduct I instinctively followed when running, especially somewhere with limited space like the canal path that forms part of my regular route. An innate considerateness took over. Pausing to let people pass on bikes, saying thank you to those who paused to let me pass, keeping to one side of the path – all these things came naturally.

Since lockdown started, this “code” has simply intensified. I attempt to make myself physically smaller, squeezing in to the very edge of the trail, refraining from breathing as I pass people. That’s right – I literally stop breathing. Some part of my brain took the decision to hold my breath when others cross my path, and I do it, not consciously, but instinctively.

Women have more practice, I suppose, at making ourselves small, and non-threatening, and unnoticeable

I’m not saying this for a pat on the back or to raise awareness of what a great person I am (although it would be nice to get some recognition for a change – where’s my bloody medal, eh Keir?). It’s more just an observation about our natural behaviour – I unconsciously adapted mine to fit a scenario in which social distancing was required but difficult to observe. I wouldn’t have even been aware of it had it not been for the discrepancy between my own response and that of others. And, when I say others… I mean men.

Yes, yes, I know – hashtag NotAllMen. But hashtag AConsiderableNumberOfMen. And definitely hashtag NotWomen. All the female joggers I pass seem to be doing the same unthinking contortions as me. We have more practice, I suppose, at making ourselves small, and non-threatening, and unnoticeable. We have form when it comes to bending over backwards to make everyone else in the room feel comfortable (often at the expense of our own comfort).

But it is striking how many men do the opposite. They choose to plant themselves, instead, in the middle of the path, arms and legs pumping, striding flat out. They make no allowances, no exceptions, seemingly unaware that the person they’re approaching is doing a frantic parody of a Viennese Waltz to try to adhere to the, under such circumstances, impossible 2m rule. It’s no concern of theirs. They’ve picked their lane and they’re going to stick to it, thanks very much. Wide-legged stances and an unwavering trajectory, as if following invisible tramlines, send the clear message: “This space is mine. I dominate. Better give me some room, love.” All others must leap out of the way, grateful for the small toehold they’ve been granted.

It feels selfish. It feels scary. It feels borderline dangerous

Normally, this kind of behaviour is amusing, bordering on preposterous. Exasperating, sure, but more something to roll your eyes at and bitch about over a coffee later. But now? It feels selfish. It feels scary. It feels borderline dangerous. As they pass, limbs moving like pistons, chugging forcefully out through the mouth like an unstoppable steam engine, I think about how I would feel if I lived with someone vulnerable or was vulnerable myself. I think about the courage it would take to get outside, and the fear I would experience every time I stepped out of my front door – fear that I could catch the virus and take it home. And I think about the menace I would feel if a 6ft sprinter was bearing down on me, making no concessions to social distancing, no effort to slow down, his audible “CHUH” of exhalation triggering a surge of panic as his spittle flew towards me through the air.

And again I say: hashtag NotAllMen. But if women’s contorting to fit is unconscious, so too is men’s ballooning to fill as much physical space as possible. Maybe all you need to do to change that dynamic is to become aware of how you’re wired; maybe all you need to do is acknowledge and fight that urge to expand.

So if you are a man reading this, just think before you spread – and make sure it’s hashtag NotYou.

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