“When I talk about embodiment,” she said, “I ask everyone to raise their hands if they are crossing their legs. All the hands raised are from women. Why is that? Because girls and women are taught to keep their legs closed, not to open their legs.”
As I listened to my academic hero, Dr. Deborah Tolman, I immediately became conscious of my legs tightly crossed under the table. Crossed because I was nervous. Because I wanted to make a good impression, to behave appropriately, to focus. Crossed because, as she explained, I was taught that the way to make a good impression is to keep my legs shut.
Taught? Well, no one told me that directly, but these are the messages girls (like me) receive about how to behave properly, how to be a good girl, to be ladylike.
I often purposefully uncross my legs. But I find it hardest to uncross my legs at restaurants, like the one in which I had the pleasure of eating lunch with Dr. Tolman. Mostly I have trouble at restaurants because the chairs are generally a little too high for me to sit with my feet squarely on the ground, and I cross my legs because, well, partly because I’m leaning forward anyway, and partly because that posture is quite ingrained.
Ah, ingrained. Ingrained does not mean innate. Sometimes, things that now feel like they come from within us, really came initially from outside us. We take these messages that we learn growing up and the ideas become part of us, part of how we hold ourselves. That’s part of the new concept of embodiment that I’m exploring in my work at Tufts and in my conversation and correspondence with Dr. Tolman, paraphrased above.
The ways in which we hold ourselves and how we feel right inside our own bodies are drastically shaped by the social and cultural influences that impact us from day one.
And feeling “right” does not always mean feeling “good,” especially with regards to the ways in which girls and women, and how we are socialized to “be” in our own bodies. I find, with my own body, that while I impulsively cross my legs, that position often does not actually feel good. It causes my lower back to hurt a lot. My IT band tightens (and it tightens so much and so often that I know now which part of the body is called the IT band). And yet, I keep returning again and again to that position, to that crossing. Why is that?
I was shy at that lunch. Nervous, eager, listening. Would I have uncrossed my legs if I felt more brave? Or, conversely, if I had purposefully uncrossed my legs, would I have then felt more brave as a consequence? Would I have opened up, so to speak?
Honestly, on a day to day basis at this point, I generally uncross my legs in an attempt at better posture and reduced back pain. But there are other choices that I am currently exploring, in an attempt to actively influence my own experiences of embodiment.
One such area is makeup. A while back, a friend of mine shared an article that said that women who wear makeup are judged as more competent, and she asked me what I thought. My response was to decide to stop wearing makeup to the office. Not because I want to be judged as less competent, but rather because I wondered if the reason I wore makeup was that I, too, had received messages that women who wear makeup will be judged as more competent. To be honest, it feels weird on some days, and natural and easy on others, to show up at work without any makeup. I’m not committing to no makeup as a permanent lifestyle choice, but I am trying it for now. For this semester, let’s say. Because for me, knowing that I am not wearing makeup and still being able to feel present and competent really matters. I need to know for myself that I’m not dependent on a cultural standard of beauty with which I disagree. Please note, I have nothing against people who choose to wear makeup, and I often choose to wear makeup, I just need to get to the place where I feel that makeup is a choice rather than an obligation. Towards this end, I have undertaken this exploration of my own embodied experiences.
Perhaps, as a result of not wearing makeup, I am crossing my legs less often. Perhaps not.