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Power poses, feminism, and taking up space

One of the ways that women’s sports challenge traditional gender norms is by encouraging, indeed requiring, women to take up space and look powerful.

If you read my post Do ladylike values clash with the norms of sports performance? you’ll know that feminist theorists have written about the restrictions on the movements of the bodies of women and girls and on the pressure for girls and women not to take up space. And as Tracy has noted there are many different ways that fitness is a feminist issue but this is certainly one of them.

Those habits, being small and not moving confidently, can hurt women in a variety of contexts. As a counter measure, Tracy and I have both been impressed with the idea of power poses, postures that make one more confident.

Here’s the basic idea from a Huffington Post piece on how two minutes of power posing can have tremendous effects:

“Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy has documented how positive and negative body language shapes your self-perception and your hormone levels.In Cuddy’s experiment, done in collaboration with Dana Carney at Berkeley, one group spent two minutes doing low-power poses — head down, shoulders sunk, eyes averted, looking small. The other group did high-power poses – hands on hips, chest lifted, staring boldly out at the horizon a la Wonder Woman.Then they took a saliva sample. The high-power posers showed a nearly 20 percent increase in testosterone (the dominance hormone) and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone). The low-power posers saw a 10 percent decline in testosterone and a 17 percent increase in cortisol.Cuddy says, “These two-minute changes (in body stance) lead to hormonal changes that can configure your brain to be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress reactive and feeling shut down.”

That’s Ann Cuddy and Wonder Woman above.

Now Mark, of Mark’s Daily Apple, says power poses are the one thing he loves about yoga.

“Although the study only tested four particular poses, the overall expansive/constrictive principle is key. Those who practice yoga have likely observed these sensations. (Warrior pose and goddess pose – two “expansive” positions – have their commanding names for a reason.) Manipulating our physical posture, embodied cognition suggests, can have a dramatic psychological impact.”

Read more:

And we both strongly recommend watching Ann Cuddy’s TED talk for the full effect. She’s amazing and she sold me on the idea.

15 thoughts on “Power poses, feminism, and taking up space

  1. Yoga poses- yes. Putting your feet on the table/arm over seats on transit with legs spread as wide as you can- no. I can see that power poses are good for boosting confidence, and standing like Wonderwoman on a public street/giving a talk seems like it might be a good tool to use. But some of these examples (particularly the “man-spread” on transit or the feet on the table come accross as really rude and insecure.

    1. But when you’re alone, fine? I guess what’s puzzling is that these postures can cause self confidence rather than merely reflecting it. In general, women ought to take up more space, men less…

      1. I dunno. On one hand I want to say “yes, do whatever you want when you’re alone”- on the other I wonder if some of these poses are so rooted in aggressive and gendered culture that seeing them as powerful is what triggers the physiological boosts, not the other way around. If the latter is true (and I suspect it is) its a good idea to think critically more about the poses themselves. Hope that made sense- Im just sorting it out in my head.

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