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Gender performance through body position.



Feminist scholars argue, but have minimally tested, that gender is performed, not possessed (West & Zimmerman, 1987; Butler, 1990). We demonstrate that bodily comportment provides gendered information, influencing perceptions of another’s gender and our own gender. In Study 1, participants read descriptions of body positions, rating each for masculinity and femininity. Results indicated that various positions were perceived as masculine, feminine, and gender neutral. In Study 2, participants viewed drawings of males and females in masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral positions, rating each on traits and emotions. Females were rated higher on feminine traits/emotions than males. Within sex, ratings of traits/emotions were influenced predictably by position. In Study 3, participants stood in positions from Study 2, rating themselves on the traits/emotions. Again, females rated themselves higher than males on feminine traits/emotions, with position influencing self-ratings. These studies support our hypothesis that bodily comportment influences perceptions of our own and others’ gender.
Gender Performance through Body Position
Margaret A. Thomas
Earlham College
Nicole E. Noll
Harvard University
Feminist philosophers have argued that gender is a
performance. In other words, according to these theorists,
gender is something we DO, not something we HAVE (e.g.,
West & Zimmerman, 1987; Butler, 1990).
Past psychological research indicates that gender is made up of
a constellation of traits, behaviors, and appearance-related
variables (see Spence, 1993). Consequently, there are many
ways in which individuals can perform gender. For this
research, we have focused on performing gender via posture.
Posture provides a wealth of information to a perceiver about
the gender of another person. Women and men hold their
bodies in different positions in public spaces (Vrugt &
Luyerink, 2000, Study 1). These specifically gendered bodily
positions affect perceptions of the individual engaged in the
position. For example, people in masculine body positions are
rated more positively than those in stereotypically feminine
body positions (Fling, Prieto, & Rosenwasser, 1986).
Additionally, bodily positions lead the perceiver to assume
masculinity or femininity (Vrugt & Luyerink, 2000, Study 2).
More provocatively, recent research shows that holding the
body in a specific position can affect the performer as well,
leading to changes in hormone levels and risk-taking (Carney,
Cuddy, & Yap, 2010). Thus, posture may affect other aspects of
behavior, physiology, or self-beliefs.
161 participants (100 female) from two different schools rated 50
verbal descriptions of body positions for both masculinity and
femininity using 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much) scales.
Using step-wise within-subjects ANOVA, we found that some
positions were rated as more masculine, some as more feminine,
and some as gender neutral. Within each of these groups, we
analyzed the positions to find two within each category that were
equally masculine and feminine. The final sets were all different
from each other on both masculinity and femininity (ts (158) >
2.53, ps < .01) and the neutral positions did not significantly differ
from scale midpoints (ts < 1.58, ps= n.s.).
Example Final Positions
Masculine: standing, feet at least shoulder width apart, hands in
front pockets
Feminine: standing, feet almost together, hands clasped behind
lower back
Gender neutral: sitting, feet shoulder width apart, hands on knees
Based on the theory of gender as a performance, as well as past
research on how body positions affect both the perceiver and the
perceived, we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 1: Perceivers can and do interpret gendered
information from bodily positions. (Study 1)
Hypothesis 2: The bodily positions individuals perform will
influence how others see us as gendered beings. (Study 2)
Masculine positions will push perceptions of performers
toward masculinity, feminine positions toward femininity,
and gender neutral positions will fall in the middle.
Hypothesis 3: The bodily positions individuals perform will
influence our own sense of our own gender. (Study 3)
Self-ratings of gender will follow the same pattern
articulated above.
92 participants (40 female) rated male and female figures in line
drawings of each of the six final positions from Study 1.
Participants rated each figure on 10 traits (e.g., tender,
competitive, forceful, sensitive)
using the same scale as in Study 1.
We computed a factor analysis
of the trait ratings, which
yielded two factors: broadly nurturing (e.g., tender, α = .91) and
broadly agentic (e.g., competitive, α = .85). Next, we computed
two ANOVAs, one for each factor. For both factors, there were
significant main effects for body position (Fs (2, 182) > 45.87, ps<
.001) and for sex of poser (Fs (1, 91) > 119.79, ps < .001).
We found that information about gender can be gleaned from
body position, that body position affects perceptions of others as
gendered beings, and, most provocatively, that body positions
influence our sense of our own gender. These results support all
of our hypotheses.
Based on the results of these three studies, it is clear that gender
has a performative component that involves engaging with and
displaying gendered information in social interactions. Although
body positions are clearly not the only ways in which people can
perform a gendered identity, this research provides needed
empirical support for a widely believed philosophical theory.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York, NY: Routledge.
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.
Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.
Fling, S., Prieto, M. M., & Rosenwasser, S. M. (1986). Perceptions of same- versus cross-sex-typed physical stance. Social Behavior and
Personality, 14, 183-192.
Spence, J. T. (1993). Gender-related traits and gender ideology: Evidence for a multifactorial theory. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 64, 624-635.
Vrugt, A. & Luyerink, M. (2000). The contribution of bodily posture to gender stereotypical impressions. Social Behavior and Personality, 28,
West C. & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and Society, 1, 125-151.
Feminine Position Masculine Position
= Male
= Female
Agentic Traits Nurturing Traits
25 female participants* held their bodies in each of the six
positions from Study 1 for one minute. After each position, they
rated themselves on the same traits used in Study 2.
We computed a factor analysis of the trait ratings, which yielded
two factors: broadly nurturing (e.g., tender, α = .87) and broadly
agentic (e.g., competitive, α = .88). Next, we computed a within-
subjects ANOVA. There was a significant interaction between
body position and type of trait (F(2, 48) > 24.89, p< .001).
Specifically, in feminine body positions, participants showed the
highest levels of nurturing traits and the lowest levels of agentic
traits; in masculine body positions, participants showed the
lowest levels of
nurturing traits and
the highest levels of
agentic traits; and
self-ratings for the
positions were
generally in the
* Data collection is ongoing, for both male and female participants.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. But can these postures actually cause power? The results of this study confirmed our prediction that posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants: High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern. In short, posing in displays of power caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, and these findings suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices. That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.
The purpose of this article is to advance a new understanding of gender as a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction. To do so entails a critical assessment of existing perspectives on sex and gender and the introduction of important distinctions among sex, sex category, and gender. We argue that recognition of the analytical independence of these concepts is essential for understanding the interactional work involved in being a gendered person in society. The thrust of our remarks is toward theoretical reconceptualization, but we consider fruitful directions for empirical research that are indicated by our formulation.
The present study investigated the way in which the bodily posture, viz, the sitting position, of men and women contributes to gender stereotypical impressions. We expected that men would more often adopt a “wide” sitting position (legs apart and arms away from the trunk), while women would more often adopt a “closed” sitting position (upper legs against each other and arms against the trunk) and that these sitting positions would generally be seen as masculine or feminine. In the first study the sitting positions of men and women traveling on the Amsterdam Metro (underground railway) were observed. The results showed that men more often sat in a wide position, while women more often displayed a closed sitting position. In the second study, photos of men and women sitting in a wide or a closed position were judged. The results showed that a wide sitting position was considered more masculine and a closed position more feminine. We expected also that (in)consistency between gender and sitting position would have an impact on the impression gained of the stimulus person. The results lend support to this expectation.
Seventy-five undergraduates did semantic differential ratings on one of four pictures: a male or female in a “masculine” or “feminine” stance as described by Wex (1979). The results generally supported the four hypotheses. The “masculine” stance was perceived as (1) more masculine (p < .000) as well as (2) more potent (p < .000), active (p < .000), happy (p < .05), and well-adjusted (p < .05) than the `feminine' stance. (3) The cross-sex-typed stance was seen as less heterosexual, than the same-sex typed one (p < .05). (4) Interactions on masculinity, potency, activity (p s < .0001), happiness, adjustment (p s < .05), and successfulness (p < .07) indicated that the cross-sex-typed male tended to be rated less favorably but the cross-sex-typed female more favorably than their same-sex-typed counterparts. A bias against “masculine” personality traits in females (Broverman et al., 1972) thus did not hold true for physical stance.
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