It’s a tongue-in-cheek trend with symbolic meaning.
The way that women sit has, historically, been rigidly policed. In the Victorian era, it was considered shockingly ‘unladylike’ for women to sit with one knee over the other. Today, modern etiquette experts still advise women to sit with their legs tightly together, with any crossing – if it absolutely must be done – taking place daintily at the ankle (à la Kate Middleton and Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries). And many adult women will recall, as slouchy teenagers, being instructed sharply by older relatives to ‘sit up straight’ or ‘close your legs’.
With all this cultural conditioning, it’s little wonder that you rarely see women in public sitting with their legs spread wide. But an increasing number of women are posting photos of themselves on social media doing just that – using the hashtag #womanspreading.
The tag, of course, is a reference to the term ‘manspreading’, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice whereby a man, especially one travelling on public transport, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats”.
But the ‘womanspreaders’ of Instagram are nowhere near so antisocial. Rather than ruining other people’s train journeys, their photos show them lounging on sofas or reclining with friends. There’s a tongue-in-cheek, defiant jauntiness on show here, one that’s quite delightful to see.
These examples of ‘womanspreading’ are clearly lighthearted, but they have weightier connotations. Sitting like this is a clear rejection of traditional ideas about how women ‘should’ present themselves in public life. It’s a way of saying, without actually having to say anything at all: “I know some people might think I look unladylike, and I really don’t care.”
It’s also a means of literally ‘taking up space’. This is something that’s been written and spoken about extensively as a feminist action, given the long history of men being given more room to manoeuvre, both physically and metaphorically, through the world.
Most of all, though, you’ll probably just be really comfortable. In other words, it’s a win-win.
Main image: instagram.com/amazingishgrace