Personal Body Language

We got three great comments on our opening post about body language. It’s an ongoing conversation; we hope more of you will chime in. We’ll be responding to the post Laurie made about her neighborhood, especially about how the choices we make are about how we want people to perceive us.

Irfon Kim-Ahmad talks about learning how to “look straight ahead, at eye level” and “to change my ‘default expression’ to a slight smile. … I can make myself smile slightly most of the time, even when I’m just sitting there staring off into space.”

He continues, “Both of these are habits that I fall out of if I don’t think about them consciously on a regular basis, but when I do them it both drastically affects my own mood and drastically affects how people treat me. … Also, interpersonal relations, especially at work, seem to move much more easily. I assume that this also comes from seeming more approachable and not putting people on the defensive.

“… When I was young, I went to a great deal of effort to learn to walk ‘gracefully’. … I would test myself by walking around the house without making the floors creak, and by trying to walk with my head staying as much as possible in a horizontal line: minimizing vertical bobbing.”

Debbie: “I always notice how frequently people ask me for directions or feel comfortable talking to me, and I’ve always believed it’s because I make comfortable eye contact with all kinds of people in public. I use this very consciously to deal with street people, and I seem to get much less street harassment than many other people I talk to.”

Mary Kay says:

I spent a lot of my growing up time with my father and grandfather. Some people have [interpreted] bits of my body language to be male and I think I work at making that more so. Particularly in the taking up space issue. I’m entitled to space to be comfortable and I’m taking it.

Also, what things about you that you can’t change affect how your body language works in the world?
Heh. I’m short, round, pink cheeked, blued eyed and blonde haired. You write the script. Oh, and I’ve always looked younger than my age.

Lisa says:

i’ve always tried to walk “tall and proud”–good posture, shoulders back. lately i’ve been trying to dress differently–“clothes that fit,” that cling to me despite the bumps and bulges, that make me look like i feel that i am sexy. either i’m hanging out with really different people or that works pretty well. i think that there’s a feedback loop–the more that i project that, the more i am told it, and the more that i am told it, the more i project it.

Laurie: Irfon’s comment made me think about how much my construction of body language over the years has been about evoking the responses I want. I tend to think about it more in terms of self identity or imposed identity language. Also I have experienced the care he talks about in changing my body language.

When I was growing up, I was very carefully taught how to do girl: Knees together, don’t look sloppy, don’t get dirty. (I failed). As I got older, Don’t seem too smart; men don’t like it. (This one didn’t take at all). Look deeply into men’s eyes … they’ll think you’re fascinated. (This one worked all too well.) Add to the picture that I was a thin, traditionally attractive teenage girl who always wanted to take up space and be treated
with respect. Unlike Mary Kay, although I was an oldest child, I had no encouragement to take on masculine modes.

So the first things I learned for myself were how to be outrageous, how to take up lots of space and still be enough of a “lady” in the 50’s context (and, boy, is this a class thing) to get treated as respectfully as possible.

Taking on any “lady” body language disappeared when I realized that even though it worked really well, it was wrong. It was assuming a really unrighteous privilege. Nonetheless, in the 50’s, knowing how to use protected me from some really nasty sexual harassment. And somewhere in here, like Lisa, I practiced a confidence that eventually really became part of me.

Then in my late 30’s, I decided I needed to do things differently. I consciously started taking up space in a way that gets defined as male. I changed the way I looked drastically, so that I looked much more gender-neutral. I sat with my legs apart on the bus. I changed the way I walked and found that it took way less energy to take up the same space. And I could smile without it being perceived as provocative; men no longer came up to me on the street and told me I should smile.

It was restful. Time and age have modified this somewhat, but it’s still the comfortable place that I live in, in my body, in the world.

Debbie: “Although it sounds like an exaggeration, I grew up in many ways completely unaware that I had a body. Certainly, I didn’t know I had a body whose language I could interpret or affect. Although I’m ten years younger than Laurie, I got a lot of the same messages about ladylike body language and behavior, but none of them ever had the slightest effect on my actual body language, just on my expectations of myself.

So everything I did with my body language until well into adulthood was unconscious. Some of the unconscious choices have served me very well–I never had to unlearn female body language because I never learned it. Other unconscious choices served me very badly, and have taken a lot of unlearning. As an adult, the two kinds of attention I’ve paid to my body language have been 1) unlearning the things I needed to unlearn, and 2) continuing to increase the kind of open attention to the world that Irfon addressed above. Both are ongoing processes, and both pay off on a regular basis.”

7 thoughts on “Personal Body Language

  1. Debbie, I don’t make much eye contact at all, and I also get less harrassment on the street than other people. (But I don’t get asked for directions all that often.) Either both our styles work, or we aren’t getting harrassed for some other reason. I wonder what it might be.

    I don’t adjust my body language directly, most of the time. I do adjust how much attention I am paying to the environment and to specific person(s) I’m interacting with, and I think that my body language comes along for the ride.

  2. Until I was 12 I was an only child (and stand-in for the son my father didn’t think he would be able to have), and I think that might be part of why I picked up a lot of assertive, “mannish” body language. During the 7 years when I was frequently critiqued by Japanese-born women, I was often told “you walk like a man, you sit like a man” (probably because I preferred to wear pants and didn’t keep my legs together). My absolute favorite, from those years was a comment from an American, caucasian former ballet dancer who was much more successful in copying the submissive Japanese womens body language, “Lynne has a problem because she wasn’t raised as a woman, she was raised as a human being.” This was in 1972, and I registered that as a compliment, while she was trying to explain what was wrong with me–LOL!

    Another factor related to size and assertive body language, is that women (even now) are expected to not take up much room. I evidently swing my arms more than people expect, and even though they should be able to estimate my size correctly, walking in the crowded financial district I have more than once hit in the crotch some man coming up one one side or another to duck around me, and not allowing space for me to swing my arms! This has never once happened with a woman trying to walk past me. Perhaps women observe the arms swinging, and give more leeway, or women may be a lot less as aggressive about passing when there is not enough room!


  3. expanding: i think for years it seemed that fat=invisible as a sexual presence on this earth. i’ve not really had a problem with not knowing how to take up space (i’m probably ten years younger than debbie, here)–in a professional setting i am easy to notice and i am not afraid to speak right up! but, for example, i was closeted for many years at work and even though i had a female roomate, no man in sight, and took my roomate to events, vacationed with her, etc., no one figured it out!!! and i think that was totally about being fat–of course there was no man in sight and i vacationed with my roomate, poor fat girl that i was–who would have sex with me? so i think that the issue that i address lately is not masculine/feminine movement and language–it’s sexual being/not sexual being–if that makes any sense? btw, i’m not getting unwanted attention–i can turn this off at a moment’s notice ;-) .

  4. Lynne,

    This made me think of being in Japan where I am very careful about my body language being polite. And even so I know I occupy a very large space. And like here “large space” is gendered male in Japan.


  5. Lisa, that’s so interesting about making the division between sexual/not sexual being. I have to say that I think it relates to gender, especially since the combination of fat invisibility and Lesbian invisibility contributed to the assumptions that kept people from figuring it out. I’ve always had male primary partners, and people have always assumed that we were lovers, despite my weight, though there’s always been a certain amount of “poor guy; wonder why he has to settle” in people’s attitudes. So the two kinds of invisibilities interact. I can see that being both a feature and a bug …

    And that’s great that you can turn it on and off with such confidence! I’m envious; I’ve never been good at turning on the “sexual being” body language.

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