Growing up, I was never allowed to cross my arms when talking to my mom. I thought I understood why; it was just sassy behavior that was not tolerated. Which is true. However, I realize more and more that the way we carry ourselves, has a effect on our behavior. When I crossed my arms, I took a stance of power and defiance. In other words, the way I stood made it more comfortable to talk back. My body language put a barrier between my mom and me, giving me a sense of security in my defiance. Often, we consider other people’s body language and how it impacts our judgment of them. But I am interested in how our own body language influences our physiology, thoughts and feelings. In many circumstances, body language is not a symptom of our moods. In fact, it may be the other way around.
Social scientists have spent much time studying the effects of our body language. Particularly that of power and powerlessness. It is in our nature to take up space, spread out, when assuming the role of dominance. Unfortunately we see this nearly everyday… in men and women. It is typical of a man to sit with legs spread out, leaning back in chair, maybe an arm draped over the chair next to him. Literally taking up the space of two people. And that is not to say that women don’t do the same. Women may sit however they like. But more often, we see women sitting with crossed legs. Quite the opposite. This embodies the social belief that females are the less powerful gender. That women should make themselves smaller than “the man.” An experiment was conducted, by Dana Carney and Amy Cuddy in 2010, to compare the effects of these opposing behaviors. She found that people who sat in “low power” positions experienced a 10% decrease in testosterone, while those who assumed “high power” positions experienced a 20% increase in testosterone.
Being reintroduced to the academic lifestyle, I have been paying attention to how students embody space in the classroom. For the most part, girls and boys embody their respected gender norms. More interesting though, the students who participated most in class were the ones who situated themselves in “high power” positions. These peers don’t hunch over; they keep their hands on their desk or table; they sit up tall or lean back, yet they don’t slouch. It seems as if, by doing this, their body convinces their mind into confidence. Which is wonderful. Every student deserves to feel confident in a class discussion, feel that their voice wants, and needs, to be heard. And maybe body language can help us get there.
I have the bad habit of folding into myself and keeping my head down when I am unsure of how to participate in class discussions. So the challenge I propose to myself and other young women is simple:
Sit with your back straight and your chin up. It may feel uncomfortable, but it truly seems like it is worth trying.