Gender and the Body Language of Power

by Lisa Wade, PhD at Sociological Images

Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness.  Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself.  She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways.  She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.

body languageComic by A. Stiffler at Chaos Life

Likewise, burping and farting, raising one’s voice in an argument, and even laughing loudly are considered distinctly unfeminine.  A feminine person doesn’t use her body to forcefully interact with the world, she lets others do for her when possible.  ”Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.

Stunningly, when you think about it, these features of feminine body comportment are, in fact, not uniquely feminine, but associated with deference more generally.  Bartky again:

In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat.  Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return.  What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…

Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness.  Both men and women use their bodies in more feminine ways when their interacting with a superior, whether it be their boss, their commander, a police officer, or their professor.

New evidence suggests that this is not pure theory.  Psychologist Andy Yap and his colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement.  They did.  In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation.  A sense of powerfulness, reported by the subjects, mediated the effect (a robust finding that others have documented as well).

In a real world test of the theory, they found that large automobiles with greater internal space were more likely than small ones to be illegally parked in New York City.

Research, then, has shown that expansive body postures that take up room instill a psychological sense of power and entitlement.  The fact that this behavior is gendered may go some way towards explaining the persistence of gender inequality and, more pointedly, some men’s belief that they have earned their unearned privileges.

Cross-posted with permission. Lisa Wade, PhD, holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University.  She is an Associate Professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.  You can follow her on Twitter, on Facebook, or visit her personal website.

4 thoughts on “Gender and the Body Language of Power

  1. To Robyn: I could very well have written what you just did. I’m now in my 40’s, and have never really fit the stereotype of “femininity.” Have always laughed loudly, have a rather deep voice, and have definite opinions (which I do express). I know some folks have trouble with that, especially in this rural area, but them’s the breaks. FFS, I even wear my hair short AND have a husband who supports my efforts! What’s the world coming to?/snark

  2. So interesting! I am a woman who doesn’t mind taking up space (I don’t remember ever consciously doing it,but I haven’t always been comfortable with it), and now that I think about it, it’s not all that accepted. I speak loudly, laugh loudly, and usually take up space wherever I am (unless I’m nervous about something), and I do think it makes me feel more confident. Not sure what came first, though.

    But where I live now, women don’t do that. Many of them take as little space as possible, are quiet and do not really speak their minds (at least in public, as women in the country I live in right now probably have one of the best equalities in the world), and when they do speak their minds (in public), they’re deemed wrong in some way (or fussy, or always looking for trouble).

    It’s an interesting theory that would do to be made more public. Because like in the experiment, once you “fake” it, you usually make it – meaning that if you just force yourself to take up space, you will feel more confident.

    And the car comment at the end – so funny, but true! If I had a cent for everytime I saw a huge car taking over two bays…

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