I had always been envious of the way men walked in public—the way they exuded natural confidence, and walked with their shoulders drawn up and backs straight. I had never seen a man flinch at fast movement and hunch into himself, doing what little he could to prevent the imagined worst. I was jealous of the leisurely pace most of them adopted—ambling from one place to another, poking their heads into shop windows, and literally stopping to smell the roses. There was something interesting about their lack of speed. Men didn’t need to scurry from place to place; they just belonged on the streets, their feet fitting into the gaps in the pavement, the way mine never did.
My jealousy soon turned into morbid curiosity. I wanted to know what it felt like to own the roads, to have confidence seep out of me like so many beads of sweat. And the only way to experience this was to walk like a man. So that’s what I spent a day doing: surreptitiously following men I saw on the streets and imitating the way they placed one foot in front of the other.
Unwitting Man Number 1: The middle-aged security guard of my society
He was not a particularly tall man, and he had a large paunch. I noticed him on the walk home from the corner grocery store. I think he caught my attention because of the way he swung his arms; with fists clenched, he swung them out at ninety-degree angles, elbows perfectly bent. His legs seemed further apart than was entirely natural, and he walked with his paunch pushed out, proud of his pockets of beer and rice. He even managed to waggle his hips a little; they followed the swinging movement of his stomach.
I clenched my fists and awkwardly held my arms away from my body, trying to mimic his perfect ninety-degree swagger. Once I spread my legs a few inches farther apart, it actually became easier to do that, the seemingly awkward swinging motions supplementing the waddle I had begun. Next, I pushed my stomach forward and attempted to follow with my hips. This, too, was made easier by my angrily swinging arms. Soon, I was well on my way to walking like a man.
At first, all I got was curious looks from passers-by. Girls don’t walk with their feet apart and their arms swinging wildly, creating space with their bodies rather than squeezing into the spaces allotted to them. Soon, I began to feel the sense of confidence that I had craved so desperately. The sound of my feet pounding on the pavement replaced the pounding of my heart—something that never happened when I walked past a liquor store on a Friday night. I’d never thought of myself as someone who was easily fazed. Rather, I had considered myself to be relatively carefree while walking in public. Apparently I wasn’t—not until today.
When we reached my society, he turned around suspiciously, and my short stint as a shadow was over.
Unwitting Man Number 2: A thirty-year-old who seemed to be coming back from a jog
He was balding already, with sparse hair clinging to the back of his dome-shaped head. He was short but in good shape (probably because of all that jogging he was doing earlier). He walked with a slight stoop that may have been a result of fatigue or habit. His arms stayed close to his body, swaying while he ambled.
This didn’t seem too hard to imitate.
I stooped low and pulled my arms close to my body, slowing down my usual swift walk. This was something I did while walking with friends around my society or my college campus—not on the road, though. When I walked on the road, I swung my arms out wide (but never wide enough to attract attention) so that I could walk as fast as possible. No matter how tired or ill I was, I never ambled on the road when alone. I didn’t actually expect anything to happen. I lived in a good neighbourhood, but why take the risk?
Unwitting Man Number 3: A boy who was around my age
He couldn’t have been older than twenty. He was tall, fit and had broad shoulders (not unattractive either, I noticed, when he turned around once, and I innocuously pretended to tie the shoelace of my slipper). He walked with his legs far apart, but not so far apart that his posture seemed unnatural like the security guard’s had. He didn’t limp, but his gait was sloped; he loped like a panther, leaning heavily on one leg with his arms swinging, steadying his walk. Occasionally, he used his hands to type on his phone but they were mostly by his side, moving slowly and awkwardly at times.
I shuffled my feet apart, leaned heavily on one side, and stuck my arms out to steady myself. I couldn’t quite capture his odd, loping gait but I think I got everything else pretty accurately. Even though he walked so oddly, he moved fast. In my new awkward positioning, I had some trouble keeping up with him. Somehow, in my attempt to keep up I managed to get a close replica of the panther movement, something specifically designed to help this person move faster. Despite the fact that his arms weren’t swinging too far out, he seemed much bigger than he was. Something about his peculiar posture singled him out and called attention to him. As I followed him, I realised I was calling attention to myself too, by walking in this manner. But, for some reason, I didn’t feel myself shrinking from attention like I normally did. Maybe it was the limp, or maybe it was the swagger that existed even with a limp, but I didn’t particularly care that people were noticing me while I walked.
Women aren’t allowed to occupy public spaces in the manner the men I shadowed did. We are constantly aware of the eyes on us while we move—we are constantly being watched, and we don’t like it. We don’t allow ourselves to move with confidence, with an awareness that we belong. I think it’s hard to remember that we belong in public too, and we aren’t meant to just crouch at the backs of kitchens, in the shadows of “greater” men. I’d like to think that, through this experiment, I’ve taught myself not to fear the roads as much as I used to. I’ve learned that I deserve to be there, that I can mark hard concrete with soft, firm footprints, and show life (and men, in general) that it ain’t got nothin’ on me.