Taking Up Space

I often feel small when traveling to new places. Here in Panama, I’m merely one freelance writer with negligible experience writing on a topic in which few have active interest. Though most days, I relish the challenge and appreciate the opportunity, it can be hard to adjust to the country’s everyday cultural challenges.

Piropo or catcalling is an ingrained part of Latin American culture and one of the ways in which the culture’s misogyny manifests. The other day, I saw a phone commercial here that half-jokingly encouraged men to catcall women via text. (It’s important to note that street harassment is also a major issue for women in the U.S., especially for women of color. Latin American culture is not more misogynistic than American culture – it is merely differently misogynistic.) Though I experience less street harassment here than I did in Peru, possibly because my skin color stands out less in Panama, I sometimes dread going outside.

When my dad was here, I was perceived as “belonging” to him (since in patriarchal cultures, women are mainly valued for their relationships to men) and was never catcalled. Now that I’m by myself, I’m fair game. Men whistle, hiss, stare, grin, whisper/shout unwanted greetings, and otherwise impose themselves on my personal space. 

On days where the daily struggle to adjust is harder than others, I focus on making myself feel larger, on taking up space that I deserve as a human being existing in a place. Little things help. When walking down the street, I don’t immediately move aside to make room for a man walking the opposite direction (something women are socialized to do in public spaces). Maintaining my right to space on the sidewalk in certain situations makes me walk more confidently, even when I don’t feel it.

I make myself feel bigger when I take time to recuperate after difficult days or setbacks. I’ve been stood up for meetings about four times already. People usually don’t respond to my e-mails. Traffic and the unreliability of transport via taxi can considerably delay my journeys. Setting aside at least one day a week to not think at all about my project makes me work harder on the other days, even if I sometimes have trouble seeing my progress. Similarly, taking a gym break — especially lifting weights — makes me feel bigger, for obvious reasons. 

It’s normal to get stuck in ruts on a regular basis, especially at the front end of a solo international move. I just have to make sure I have the tools to hop back out again and again.

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