Saturday, October 4, 2014

Power Posing: It's a Man's Man's Man's World? Miss C Poses a Question to Amy Cuddy

Does the way we stand and sit affect the way we perceive ourselves?  Researcher and Harvard B-School professor Amy Cuddy thinks so, and her TED talk on the topic is the current "bright young thing" of the internet.

Cuddy distinguishes between powerful and weak poses--the first involves opening up the body: taking up space on a chair, feet planted firmly, arms in a variety of positions from what my son calls a "Brazilian goal" (named after his favorite soccer stars where they run the field with arms held high and out) to hands on hips (the Wonder Woman), to arms resting on chair arms.

The weaker poses involve crossed legs, crossed ankles, crossed arms, and, especially, chins in hands.

They are, as Cuddy notes, often gendered poses.  And indeed, they are.  That troubles me.

Because if I wear a pencil skirt to work, I pretty much *have* to cross my ankles or my knees when I sit down.

Cuddy also argues, via scientific experiment, that individuals' testosterone levels rise when they assume said power poses. And that, apparently, is a good thing for someone in a position of power (her actual experiment compared levels of testosterone with cortisol, the hormone emitted in stressful situations).

So then.  Are we women being instructed to find our inner testosterone by assuming power poses? But is there not a fundamental problem in the first place that power is being equated with testosterone, which is usually equated with men?

Maybe there's a different way to--ahem--pose the question.

Consider this: Cuddy recommends that people assume two minutes of power poses before going into a situation where power dynamics are involved--a job interview, for instance. She argues that such poses are part of the "fake it till you make it" philosophy: adopting the pose will make the person look more powerful, even if they don't yet feel it.
Here's my take:  I've done a good bit of community theatre; I sing and dance with our faculty rock band; and I certainly perform every day in the classroom. If I step on one of these stages right after, say, taking notes at my desk, or reading a music score, I'll bet that my initial performance will fall flat because I haven't got into character yet. (And yes: "the professor" is a character.)

In other words, all Cuddy is saying that that we have to warm up before an event, and we warm up not only our minds, but our bodies, even when the event appears to be a strictly intellectual one (like discussing de las Casas or Crevecoeur).

But what can we do about the gendered aspect of these power poses? Feminist scholars and theorists have long discussed how women are encouraged not to take up space, through posture, through diets, through staying in the house instead of entering the public sphere.

Personally, I see NO PROBLEM with crossing one's legs or ankles.  I think it looks attractive and smart. And yes, I find that arms folded or shoulders slumped do give off an unappealing, unengaged vibe. But I do take issue that we're all looking to--or need to--increase our testosterone levels.

And what do we do with Lisa Taylor in the Helmut Newton photo above? She's definitely taking on a power pose--legs apart, hand on hip (coding masculine along with the "assessing" look in her eyes).  But she's also twiddling her hair, a decidedly female pose. Or juxtapose, if you will.

Have gentle readers thought about Amy Cuddy's thesis?


materfamilias said...

This is a great post, showing the benefit of our academic training in teasing out the complexity of an issue. Assumptions about what constitutes power need to be questioned before we allow ourselves to be prodded into positions that supposedly signal that power. . . although I absolutely agree with your point that it's worth warming up the body before a classroom performance as much as it's necessary to warm up the mind. (So perhaps I should be grateful that my office is in a satellite building that requires me walking a few minutes before class!)

Jen Lawrence said...

When I worked in male dominated industries (banking, consulting) we'd sometimes get women's professional development sessions where, for the most part, they seemed to counsel us to behave more like men. Short hair, pant suits, legs akimbo. I listened for a while and then ignored it all. Glad it's not part of my world now!

LPC said...

When I first read about this, all I thought was, damn, wish I'd known this when dealing with the Psycho Jerk;).

Peggy Peters said...

I think anything you can do to boost your confidence is great. I've felt that by behaving in my particular way, dressing "properly or at least like an adult", and projecting confidence I have managed to do/get the things I have aspired to. I think feminine can be just as powerful as's just different.

However, I writing this at a "certain age" where my femininity has achieved a bit of gravitas! I think it is a bit more of a minefield for younger women.

I enjoy your blog very much as I too, am a Canadian expat...but in Sri Lanka.