Have you heard the latest out of Harvard? Our body language affects not only how others view us, but how we view ourselves. From the research of social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy,* how we pose can affect our brain chemistry. Pose in a power pose for two minutes -- think hands on your hips like Superman or Wonder Woman -- and you will increase your testosterone and decrease your cortisol levels (the stress hormone), making you feel more powerful and less stressed out. In her research, Cuddy and her team applied power posing to real-world scenarios. She found that job candidates who held power poses for two minutes prior to a job interview scored significantly higher in the interviews than those candidates who did not power pose.
After I read this on the front page of the New York Times style section a few weeks back, I at once locked myself in my bathroom, put my hands on my hips, and started timing. It felt awkward and unnatural. Sad really. My body had spent forty plus years tacitly speaking the language of anxiety and passive-aggressiveness. This new language of power was so foreign to me. It was like when I tried to learn calculus in twelfth grade. Ridiculous, it can’t be done.
“Where’s mom?” I heard my son ask.
“She’s in the bathroom. Give her some privacy,” answered my husband.
“No, no. It’s not that. I’ll be out in exactly 52 seconds,” I yelled through the door.
The second minute was easier. My body adjusted slightly. I emerged from the bathroom feeling, if not exactly powerful, then freshened up some, like when you use those steaming hot washcloths on a red-eye flight.
After my power pose experiment, I wondered what effects other poses might have. If I stood in pee pose for two minutes, would I suddenly have the urge to pee? The pee pose, popular among starlets photographed on the red carpet, is when you cross your legs while standing to make your body appear more narrow. Your silhouette tapers from your hips to a single leg, if you will; it’s like doing ballet’s fifth position when you’ve never taken a ballet class in your life. Put another way, think of a four-year old girl telling her mother she has to go to the bathroom and her mother responds “in a minute” but the checkout line at Marshall’s is taking forever. I stood in pee pose for two minutes. Afterwards I detected a vague desire to empty my bladder but I can’t be certain that’s from the posing. I’ve been that way ever since childbirth.
Then I tried the smoking pose. I held a pen between two fingers like a cigarette and pretended to smoke. I brought it to my mouth, took a drag, exhaled an imaginary cloud, and flicked pretend ashes into a pretend ashtray. I played with my hair while holding the pen, careful not to singe my ends like that one time in high school. I became instantly more glamorous, more like a writer. I hadn’t done any of those gestures in over twenty years. It was like riding a bicycle. I didn’t miss the taste and smells of smoking but by God, I missed the posing. I was channeling J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf—all the greats smoked. I’m not going to start smoking again, but I’m giving serious consideration to pretending to smoke in an effort to improve my craft.
Asshole pose was next. I lifted both hands in the air and raised my middle fingers straight up, facing an imaginary foe. Like a reflex, my mouth went into an angry smirk. I tried talking my mouth out of its outrage, reminding it that my hands were just posing. But the mere act of raising my middle fingers agitated my brain into a state normally associated with talking on the phone with my health insurance company. I needed a loving pose quick to realign myself.
Wrapping my arms around my body to give myself a hug wouldn’t be right. Cuddy says that making our bodies small is the opposite of a power pose. Small makes us feel weak and subservient. I remembered the “facehold” pose. As predictable as the ocean tides and August back-to-school sales, the pose for love in Hollywood is a man cupping a woman’s face in his hands and gazing into her eyes with a look that says, Despite the obstacles of your disapproving parents, crazy ex-boyfriend/husband, high-powered career, death of my former wife/child, and the tsunami/tornado, it was you all along. How could I have been so blind?”
I executed the pose on myself, assuming the Home Alone position, hands on cheeks, chin tucked into the base of my palms. I was overcome with, not love, but the need to rest my elbows on my desk and shut my eyes. I had inadvertently recreated my favorite napping position from college.
Still needing to do something, I laid my hands over my heart chakra (or heart for those of you who don’t believe in such things). My hands rose and fell with each breath. The rhythmic movement soothed me. After two minutes, I had completely erased any lingering effects of acting like an asshole. Who would have guessed it could be that easy?
*Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk, with over four million views: