How many times have you apologized for taking up mental, physical, or emotional space in the world around you (be it at work, home, etc.)? This powerful Pantene commercial hits that nail right on the head.
Well, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said it best…
“Well behaved [womxn] seldom make history.”
Now, this isn’t to say you should go out into the street with a baseball bat and break some windows. I simply want you to consider what could happen if you weren’t guilty or ashamed when taking the floor in your workspace (be that corporate, home, the stage, etc.). What if you primed yourself for confident speech through the way you carried your body? What if we made our own choices, and how would that impact change within you, and for others around you?
Body language can influence a person’s entire psyche, and combat the messages we are constantly bombarded with. Evolutionarily, we make ourselves smaller when we feel in danger – a closed position protects our vital organs, and can help us brace for impact. When explained that way, we can see the effect on the brain – we go into a fight-or-flight mode, and norepinephrine and epinephrine is released to send us into survival mode. This sends a person immediately into a set of limiting beliefs – which can truly manifest as “I’m smaller, therefore weak”, and further appear as the statements showcased in the ad. Womxn are more apt to do this due to status, because think about it: Russia decriminalized domestic violence in 2017, women in Saudi Arabia just got the right to drive cars on their own, and trans women of color are still being murdered at an alarming rate in the USA. Our world can definitely prime us for fear - but, it is how womxn choose to interact and respond that can make a difference.
Strong body language can begin to combat the positioning womxn are conditioned to accept by default. If small and closed gestures signify protection, defense, and fear, then big gestures indicate confidence, bravery, and acceptance of action. Further, these positive body language gestures prime our brains to be more critical, active, and present because they facilitate feelings of empowerment and confidence (Amy Cuddy examines this at length in her TedTalk). In other words, you can use your body to quite literally change your mind.
So the big question – how do I raise my awareness, and change my body language to affect confidence?
Create a Bad Ass Alter-Ego
Take a moment to recall an instance where you have felt submissive, either due to or resulting in weak body language – what would your alter-ego do? Visualizing an alter-ego of yourself (a la Beyoncé in Lemonade or Sasha Fierce, or Lady Gaga’s dramatic stage performances) can help ascertain certain actions to bolster your positive body language vocabulary. Maybe the alter-ego walks with longer strides, and they have a certain swagger. The alter-ego might keep their head level and focused toward the horizon with an intentional gaze. The alter-ego has eyes that convey their worth, and the worth they see in others.
Reading those statements, how does it make you feel to know this person lives within you?
In the performing arts (which I learned through my experience as an opera singer), visualization is a huge tool when helping to create a character. The more times you visualize (and the more SPECIFIC you are with the details), the more real the character becomes. Visualizing your inner, confident, badass might feel weird at first. But, over time, they’ll start showing up more and more, until you are able to summon their traits in moments most advantageous for you. Fake it ‘til you make it!
Think back to that closed body language - do you want to talk to that person? From an instinctive, biological perspective, we might be afraid that person will lash out as a defense measure or might be trying to hide on purpose (so we avoid them on purpose). But, this doesn’t just manifest in making ourselves smaller. Crossing the arms over the chest or torso indicates defense, and perhaps an unwillingness to collaborate. Casting the eyes down or not looking at the subject in a conversation can also signal you’re not paying attention, a lack of interest, or even disrespect.
Opening your chest, and keeping your eyes focused on your conversation partner signals a desire to understand the other person and further engage. This posture also indicates you’re more receptive and open to new ideas or information. And, guess what? The body language primes your brain to do just that - you’re more likely to remember new information and form new ideas in this stance.
Smiling can actually be your greatest weapon. Smiling actually releases dopamine and serotonin into your body - two neurotransmitters that help your body relax, and actually cause a sense of euphoria. Those two things combined help you feel more present and confident, whether or not you mean it. Plus, people will be even more willing to engage with you - it can literally be a cue for “sure, come on over!”
Poise for Participation
When you sit down for a meeting, borrowing tools from our discussion above can be influential. Set an intention for what you want to communicate when you enter the room, organize your body and mind into a collaborative posture, and maybe consult with your alter-ego.
Often in meetings, there are levels: people might be seated or standing. If you’re seated, leaning back is a much more powerful position. It’s the physical equivalent of speaking at a subdued volume, causing the people in the room to lean in to hear what you’re saying. If you’re standing, focus on keeping your body relaxed, upright, and open. An easy way to temperature-check yourself is to see if your shoulders are back or slumped forward.
If you’re engaging in a one-on-one meeting (perhaps with a manager or boss), mirroring can help build rapport and camaraderie. Humans constantly telegraph subtle communication with body language. When you tap into the other person’s gestures, it shows you are paying attention, want to understand them better, or are empathic with their experiences.
These are all practical steps to help you #womxnup in the way you present yourself through body language and verbal communication, and just to make you feel your own worth and confidence. Awareness is the first step, practice the second, and repetition the third. With such a strong link to neuroscience proven through the discussion here, this isn’t just an opinion - you have a very clear choice in the matter, and I hope you dare yourself to defy what you are comfortable with.