Power Pose

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I had my picture taken at the end of July. My photographer, Kim Mallory, is a sensitive woman, so she quickly registered my anxiety, a surging awkwardness that made me feel subtly out of control of my own body’s movements. Kim is good at what she does, so she could deal. By the end of the session, her guidance had me smiling without so much tension that my teeth threatened to rocket out of my face. The portrait above was one of her later shots, taken after I became more relaxed and conversational.

I’ve been mildly dysmorphic since I was little. I’ve acquired the complement of attitudes and habits that mark the lives of mildly dysmorphic people. Fortunately, a combination of mindfulness training and lifestyle habits that reinforce healthy psychology has helped me to manage my tendency towards morbid perfectionism. But on occasion I do feel a twinge of it. Sitting for a professional photograph is one such occasion, I guess.

Actually, I was caught off-guard by the intensity of my reaction. Especially given the context. Kim is donating her (consummately) professional services to The Sparkle Project BC, an initiative to equip young girls to live self-loving and self-directed lives. She is photographing each Sparkle woman who is going to be featured in Sparkle: An Inspirational Handbook for Young Girls. Anyway, this is a time in my life when I’d like to bring my most awesomely adult self to the party, rather than my craven twelve year-old edition.

But why are we having our pictures taken at all? I inwardly whined.

It’s not that complicated, I patiently reasoned. The people who read the book need to connect as deeply as possibly with the women featured in it. Seeing our eyes, expressions, personal styles, and bodily postures is another way to connect with and feel the ‘reality’ of the women in the book. What people can see about you tells part of the story.

Right, I conceded (like a little trooper). My portrait is communication. And what am I trying to say?

After the session, I did what I usually do when I need to work through something: I fired up the ole Google dot com. As someone who at various times has wished I could move through the world invisibly, I wanted to understand more deeply what it means to communicate something with only my body.

My searches eventually brought me to an article discussing the work of Amy Cuddy. She’s a social psychologist who studies, among other things, nonverbal behaviour. She’s a Ted Talk darling, fairly well known for a presentation she gave on her findings related to body language. Now, the fact that our bodily postures influence how others perceive us would probably come as a shock to very few people. But what Cuddy has discovered—namely, that our body language an immediate and powerful impact on the brain chemistry that dictates our emotions, behaviour, and social outcomes—was nothing short of a revelation to me.

Body language experts talk about the ‘power pose’, which looks the same throughout the animal/human kingdom: a body that is visibly opened up. Chest forward, arms opened, viscerally confident. A ‘low power pose’, on the other hand, is wrapped up, slumped, and closed off. Picture an animal that has been injured and needs to defend itself. Cuddy wanted to study the impact of these poses on self-perception, so she conducted an experiment with subjects who assumed ‘high-power’ and ‘low-power’ poses for two-minute intervals. After each pose, she tested their risk tolerance and body chemistry. The results were incredible:

After just a 2-minute “high power pose,” the risk tolerance of the high-power posers soared. The risk tolerance of the low-power posers, meanwhile, shrank. This, the researchers found, was the result of a profound change in body chemistry. Testosterone is the “dominance” hormone. After a mere 2-minute pose, the testosterone levels of the “high power” posers rose 20%. Testosterone levels for the “low power” group, meanwhile, fell 10%. Testosterone is one key chemical for “power.” The other is cortisol. When cortisol levels drop, people are better able to handle stressful situations (a good thing in a leader). After the 2-minute poses, the cortisol levels of the “high power” group fell sharply. The cortisol levels of the “low-power” group, meanwhile, rose.

Cuddy also ran an experiment in which subjects assumed high and low power poses before going into job interviews—interviews in which they were not allowed to respond to any of the questions verbally. So who did the impartial evaluators want to hire, based on nothing but the ‘presence’ of the interviewees? You guessed it. Power posers for the win. Is it any wonder that in one of Madonna’s most iconic empowerment anthems she urges her listeners to ‘strike a pose’ so that they can become ‘something better than [they] are today’?

After reading about Amy Cuddy’s experiments I took another look at the picture Kim took of me. My shoulders are straight and my arm was crooked and resting on my hip in a kind of modified ‘wonder woman’ pose (one of the specific power poses that Cuddy directed her subjects assume). I was, in that picture, well on the way to relaxing into that particular moment, accepting that I was choosing to be seen—and not just by one person, but potentially many. I imagine my brain was shifting gears at that moment, boosting the testosterone I needed to confidently present myself without fear of some primal harm being visited upon me. Even if I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be that visible person, I was choosing to become her.

That’s what blows me away about Cuddy’s work. It legitimizes something that I’ve been passionately practicing for quite some time: fake it until you are it. I believe the feeling of playacting one’s way through a difficult or novel situation is more uncomfortable for some than others. I’m a naturally sensitive person who was also conditioned to behave in a very expressive and honest manner.  This is a gift, because it allows me to connect easily with others. But the task for people like me is managing vulnerability so that it doesn’t become a liability.

The idea that the chemistry dictating my expressivity can be influenced by my active choices is powerful. If I choose it, I will become it. If I stand like I will meet whatever approaches me with strength and confidence, that’s not false advertising.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

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August 21, 2014

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