by Kim Belmonte

I’ve never tried picturing the crowd in their underwear.  That’s the advice people sometimes give you when you’re nervous about speaking in front of a crowd.  Instead of picturing everyone’s skivvies, before a presentation in front of a group, I’ll sneak away for a few minutes and stand in the hall with my hands on my hips, shoulders back and legs spread shoulder width apart.  A couple of deep breaths in this superman superwoman pose, and I feel the nervous jitters subside, my confidence return, and I even remember that I [sometimes] love talking in front of crowds.

I’m not the only one who’s been mimicking superwoman to feel more confident.  There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the media lately about “power poses.”  Ann Cuddy, a psychologist at Harvard, gave a Ted Talk in 2012 where she described how body posture can affect hormone levels that change how you feel and how others perceive you. She explained that posing in a way that is powerful (like with your hands on your hips and spine straight) instead of in a way that is submissive (like hunched over or with your arms pulled in tight to your sides) can have a positive impact on your mood and brainpower.  Not surprisingly, she described how women often adopt more low-power poses than men.  She suggests that women should “fake it till they make it,” which is what I try to do before I give a talk.

But other researchers have found that holding power poses might work in different ways for women and men: in some studies women feel prouder of their performance on a task when they’re in slouched positions, while men feel prouder in an upright body posture.[1] Why in the world might there be a gender difference? Some have hypothesized that there is a relationship between context and body position: If you’re already feeling down, you might feel better in a slouchy slump, but if you’re feeling proud, maybe you’ll feel really proud if you hold your chin high.[2]  Because women hold a relatively lower status in our society, what if being in a slumped position feels more comfortable because it “aligns” with women’s social status?  On the other hand, since we know that women tend to self-objectify, or internalize the idea that their bodies should be treated like objects for men to look at, what if slouching is actually a way for women to redirect the focus from their bodies onto their performance?

Researchers Megan Kozak, Tomi-Ann Roberts and Kelsey Patterson[3] wanted to dig into this gender difference.  They ran a clever experiment with college women[4] looking at how three variables – self-objectification, status, and posture – affected women’s mood and performance.   For the self-objectification variable, participants were either asked to change into a tight tank top with the [fake] explanation that it was necessary for researchers to observe the curve of their spine, or they were asked to don a loose fitting sweatshirt and given the [again fake] instruction that it was to hide the curve of their spine.   For the status variable, women were asked to sit either on a throne (to indicate high status), or in a small children’s chair (to indicate low status). Finally, for the posture variable, they asked women to either slouch forward or sit up straight in the chairs.

After getting into position and staying in their posture for five minutes, participants took a few questionnaires measuring their positive and negative emotions and self-objectification. After these measures, participants were allowed to sit in a way that felt natural while they took a math test and a survey about how they thought they did on the tests.

To recap, there were two different ways participants could dress (tank top or sweatshirt), two different ways they could sit (slouching or upright), and two different kinds of chairs they could sit in (a throne or a child’s chair). And what did they find? Well, it turns out that your Grandma was right about sitting up straight!  The researchers found that women who sat up straight reported more positive feelings about their performance than women who slumped (and vice versa for negative feelings).

But, interestingly, it wasn’t just sitting up straight that led to improvements in women’s performance.  When women sat up straight and were less objectified, their performance improved. That is, women dressed in the baggy sweatshirts tried more math problems and felt more proud of their performance than women wearing the tight tank tops.

But what about when women wore the tank tops?  It’s an interesting story, actually, about how research doesn’t always go as planned. Putting women in the different chairs didn’t work quite like the researchers had expected. You see, the researchers thought that sitting up straight in a revealing shirt might make women more self-conscious because their torsos and breasts would be more on display.  And they were right—sort of. The effect of wearing a tank top depends on whether you’re sitting in a throne or an itty-bitty chair. Women wearing a tank top on the throne were slightly more satisfied with their performance on the math test. But sitting in a kid’s chair changed things. Slouching in the kids’ chair made women feel more self-conscious about their bodies because they were concerned about their “muffin top” or “belly rolls” and their cleavage being on display.  When they sat up straight in the little chair, however, the belly roll was less of an issue. This is the opposite of what the researchers expected! They thought that sitting up straight would be more objectifying because women’s bodies would be more on display and instead found that slouching is more objectifying because women were self-conscious about their bellies and bosoms.

So what does this all mean regarding the relationship between self-objectification, power and posture? We know from other research that self-objectification can make your brain “freeze.”  All that focus on how your body looks takes brainpower away from thinking through a set of math questions.  And the same is true in this study.  In general, when women could focus less on how their bodies looked, they were more able to focus on the task at hand and felt more satisfied with their performance.  Conversely, when women felt really self-conscious in their bodies, they weren’t able to perform as well on a test and tended to have more negative feelings about themselves.  But we also learned from this study that the way you hold yourself—and perhaps move in the world—could have an effect on how positively you feel.  So what does this mean for my wonder woman posturing before my next presentation? I think I’ll keep doing it—I’ll just make sure I’m wearing a blazer and not wonder woman’s typical outfit!

[1] Roberts, T.-A. & Arefi-Afshar, Y. (2007).  Not all who stand tall are proud: Gender differences in the proprioceptive effects of upright posture. Cognition & Emotion, 21, 714-727.

[2] Riskind, J. H. &Gotay, C. C.  (1984).  Physical Posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion? Motivation & Emotion, 6, 273-298.

[3] Kozak, M., Roberts, T-A. & Patterson, K. (2014). She stoops to conquer? How posture interacts with self-objectification and status to impact women’s affect and performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(3), 414-424.

[4] These women were ages 18-22 years old, and mostly white