Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Women and Fashion

After seeing a preview of the film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on Lisa See's novel about the practice of female foot-binding in pre-revolutionary China, Arianna Huffington recently wrote a post on her thoughts about women's friendships and the ways that women are willing to deform themselves, literally, for fashion. I want to address both topics here.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies. To me, Ms. Huffington's post is on a related topic, and highlights additional ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies: Be a critical consumer of fashion trends that require you to be uncomfortable when dressed, and ask for support from your friends as you try to become more comfortable with your body -- and encourage them to do so too.

Fashion first

What's in style comes and goes, but what's "in" for women typically has at least one element that's not comfortable, as Ms. Huffington's post points to: footwear. High heels have been around for decades (even longer, actually), and they are neither comfortable nor practical. Wear a pair for more than an hour (if that long) and your feet will start to hurt. Walk around in them -- on stairs, on city streets, on a dance floor -- and your risk of falling increases. So why wear them? In my unscientific, nonrandom sample of women I've asked, the answers range from "I like the way they make me look/walk" to "it's expected." (I didn't bother asking men about high heels since they don't wear them. But it's a safe bet that if men were expected to wear high heels, that type of shoe would have long ago gone out of fashion. Can you see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christian Bale in a tux and heels? That's a funny image. I laughed out loud when I imagined by husband in heels.)

Yes, it's true that high heels, by virtue of the physics of walking in them, lead women to walk differently than in low-heeled shoes; in fact learning to walk in high heels takes practice -- there are many YouTube videos explaining how to do it, but even experienced models sometimes lose their balance. The walk is "feminine" because it's unlike that of a man (although men would walk that way if they got the knack of wearing heels). To which my reply is "So what?" I like dressing up, but dressing up and looking nice are in a different category from enduring pain or discomfort for beauty's sake or because it's expected and part of the conventions of culture. This seems pretty close to the explanation for why (well off) women in pre-revolutionary China broke, bound, and deformed their feet. This process is described in gory detail in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I assume will be similarly shown in the film.

From foot fashion, we can go on to other elements of fashion that can be uncomfortable, although perhaps not as physically damaging: panty hose; girdles or their more modern equivalents (which are spiritual descendants of whale-bone corsets in the quest to make a woman's body conform prevailing cultural views of the perfect body); certain kinds of bras, tight fitting clothes of any kind (which make you more conscious of your body when you move and are uncomfortable after eating if not before); heavy pocketbooks (do we really need to carry all that stuff around?).

If your clothes make your body hurt or feel uncomfortable, you're more likely to become annoyed with, or not like, your body. You're certainly going to become more conscious of your body in a way that isn't necessarily positive. If your waist feels uncomfortable because your pants or skirt are a tad too snug, you'll feel as if you're "too fat." (I am aware that for some people, wearing clothes that are snug at the waist helps them regulate their food intake -- they become more aware of when they've had enough. My point is more general.) If you have wide feet and try to fit them in to narrow shoes, then you'll probably dislike your feet and notice them more as they hurt.

With A Little Help From Your Friends

As Ms. Huffington points out, women can serve as wonderful sources of support for each other, sustaining and helping each other grow. I think it would be amazing if women challenged their female friends about some fashion choices. For instance, rather than compliment a friend on her new high-heeled shoes, what if you said, "Those shoes are nice, but I think it will be hard to be comfortable in them. Your feet will hurt and that'll put a damper on things. Why not wear something that looks nice and is comfortable?" or "Your new pocketbook is nice, but it's so big -- it could throw off your balance and hurt your shoulder." See what I mean? And if you decide to wean yourself of damaging fashion trends, let your friends know (and why) and ask for their support.

While we're on the subject of sacrifices for fashion, I've got one more topic to discuss: pockets, or the lack thereof, in women's clothes. Men's clothes have functional pockets, which is why they don't need pocketbooks. (Men might carry briefcases or backpacks for additional items, but their most important items -- wallet, phone, keys -- are likely carried in pockets in their clothes.) Their pants have nice big front pockets, their back pockets may even have buttons so things like a wallet won't fall out, their sportcoats and suit jackets have breast pockets big enough for big wallets, and assorted other pockets. Their coats have pockets.

Women's clothes? I can only wish. Yes, I know that the goal for women's fashion is to make women look sleek and not boxy. But surely there must be a way to design fashionable clothes that look good and have functional pockets somewhere, so we can keep our wallets, keys, and cell phones on our persons without having to wear men's clothes. Then we can have our important stuff with us at all times. Think of the advantages! Less need to guard our pocketbooks. Less rooting around for our cell phones or keys. Less shoulder fatigue. I look forward to those fashion designs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Superhero Stance

You're probably familiar with what I'll call the "superhero stance": the physical pose in which the superhero stands with legs spread apart, arms on hips, elbows bent. The superhero stance projects "power." The superhero stance is an example of what psychologists refer to as open postures, in which limbs are spread out in a way to take up more space-such as legs apart. Open postures contrast with closed postures, in which the body takes up relatively little space. Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that open postures convey a sense of the individual having power and closed postures convey a sense of the individual having little power (Carney, Hall, & Smith LeBeau, 2005; de Waal, 1998; Hall, Coats, & Smith LeBeau, 2005).

Can assuming the superhero stance make you feel and act that way, and alter your hormone production? That's what researchers Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap wanted to know. (Okay, they didn't examine the exact superhero stance exactly, but they did examine other two other open postures.) Here's what they did. Participants (male and female) were randomly assigned to pose in either two "high power" or two "low power" positions. The experimenter physically posed each participant in the poses.

High-power poses were sitting in a chair, arms behind the head, elbows out, and feet up on a desk (like a boss, "relaxing"), and standing in front of a table, legs about a foot apart, leaning forward and hands on the table bearing weight. Both these poses take up a lot of space for sitting and standing, respectively.

In contrast, the two low-power poses had those participants taking up little space; in the sitting version, the participants sat straight up, feet on the floor, legs at a 90-degree angle and hands on the lap while elbows were in, touching the sides. The low-power standing pose had participants put their legs close together and their arms were placed as if they were giving themselves a hug. Participants in all groups held each pose for one minute.

Low-power poses

Afterward participants moved on to a gambling task, in which they were each given $2, and then had the option of either not gambling (keeping the money, no risk involved) or a risky opportunity to roll a die and either double their money or lose the $2; they were told that the odds were 50/50. What's the purpose of this part of the study? To see whether assuming either a high-power or low-power pose led participants to behave accordingly-to be more willing to assume risk (high power, with the theory that if you're powerful you're more willing to assume risk), or play it safe (low power). Participants were also asked to rate how powerful they felt, on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).

The researchers also took saliva samples at the start of the study (for the baseline) and 17 minutes after the last pose; through saliva they could measure a hormone associated with power (testosterone) and a hormone associated with stress (cortisol). Why testosterone and cortisol? Previous research on testosterone and power indicates that the testosterone level increases when a person anticipates competing as well as after winning, but the testosterone level drops when the individual loses e.g., Booth, Shelley, Mazur, Tharp, & Kittok,1989),. In other words, testosterone goes up with the possibility of or with actual power, and decreases when power-or the opportunity to attain power-is lost.

Cortisol is sometimes referred to as a "stress hormone" because levels of it often rise with stress; people who are powerful tend to have lower baseline levels of cortisol and when stressed, their cortisol levels don't rise as much as to people who are relatively powerless (Abbott et al., 2003; Coe, Mendoza, & Levine, 1979; Sapolsky, Alberts, & Altmann, 1997).. Chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with various stress-related illness such as high blood pressure (Sapolsky et al., 1997;), and these illness are more common in social groups that have low power than in those who have high power (Cohen et al., 2006).

Based on past findings about testosterone and cortisol, the researchers wanted to see whether assuming a pose for such a short amount of time would lead the brain to shift hormonal gears and create the typical high-power or low-power hormonal pattern. The answer was "yes." Participants who assumed high-power poses had their testosterone levels increase relative to their baseline, whereas participants who assumed low-power poses had their testosterone levels drop. The flipside was true of cortisol levels.

More importantly, the researchers wanted to know whether posing in high- or low-power positions would lead them to adopt the behavioral pattern typical of the power level associated with their pose. This answer, too, was "yes": Whereas 60% of low-power posers chose to risk gambling their $2, 86% of high-power posers risked their $2. (When reading about these results, I couldn't help but think of folks who work in the financial sector who no doubt regularly assume high-power poses as they jockey for promotions, for recognition, or to make a good impression [e.g., "I am powerful]. Perhaps assuming that pose leads them willing to risk too much? Perhaps the culture should encourage a more of a closed position, or at least something in the middle?) High-power posers also reported feeling more powerful than low-power posers, with an average rating of 2.57 versus 1.83, respectively.

So it seems that participants who assume a couple of superhero-type stances for a grand total of two minutes (!) feel more powerful and act that way. Wow. Stand like a superhero, feel like a superhero, act like superhero. Does this mean that when Clark Kent hunches and tries to make himself look unpowerful, his testosterone levels low and cortisol levels high? Does he take fewer risks as Clark than when he's standing tall in his boots and cape? Does he feel less powerful? If he's like us, the answer appears to be "yes."

(There is a wonderful scene in the first Superman film, by Richard Donner, in which Clark Kent and Lois Lane are about to go out and grab dinner; Clark is in Lois Lane's apartment waiting for her to get a sweater and as Superman he has just finished being interviewed by Lois and flown her around Metropolis. She is star-struck. As Clark waits for Lois, he's hunching over, trying to appear timid and unpowerful. He has a moment when he decides to tell Lois his real identity; he stands up tall, takes his glasses off and changes the tilt of his head. His body fully assumes a position of power and it is a pleasure to watch this embodiment of power as he allows himself to take up more space. Christopher Reeve did a fantastic job in that scene.)


Abbott D.H., Keverne E.B., Bercovitch F.B., Shively C.A., Mendoza S.P., Saltzman W., et al. (2003). Are subordinates always stressed? A comparative analysis of rank differences in cortisol levels among primates. Hormones and Behavior, 43, 67-82.

Booth A., Shelley G., Mazur A., Tharp G., Kittok R. (1989). Testosterone and winning and losing in human competition. Hormones and Behavior, 23, 556-571.

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.

Carney D.R., Hall J.A., Smith LeBeau L. (2005). Beliefs about the nonverbal expression of social power. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 29, 105-123.

Coe C.L., Mendoza S.P., Levine S. (1979). Social status constrains the stress response in the squirrel monkey. Physiology & Behavior, 23, 633-638.

Cohen S., Schwartz J.E., Epel E., Kirschbaum C., Sidney S., Seeman T. (2006). Socioeconomic status, race, and diurnal cortisol decline in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study.Psychosomatic Medicine, 68, 41-50.

de Waal F. (1998). Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hall J.A., Coats E.J., Smith LeBeau L. (2005). Nonverbal behavior and the vertical dimension of social relations: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 898-924.

Sapolsky R.M., Alberts S.C., Altmann J. (1997). Hypercortisolism associated with social subordinance or social isolation among wild baboons. Archives of General Psychiatry, 54, 1137-1143.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is and she also blogs on Huffington Post.

Monday, July 11, 2011

San Diego Comic Convention 2011

If you're going to the San Diego Comic Convention, please stop by for my panels:

Saturday, July 23

1:00-2:00 Comics Arts Conference Session #11: Psychology of the Dark Knight: How Trauma Formed the Batman and Why He's Got a Thing for "Bad Girls"— How realistic is it that a young Bruce Wayne would vow to spend the rest of his life avenging his parents' murders and "warring on all criminals"? How did these seminal events shape the man Wayne becomes? And why is he attracted to "bad girls"? For answers to these and other questions, psychologists Travis Langley (Henderson State University) and Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes) ask Batman writer Grant Morrison, one-time Catwoman Lee Meriwether (Batman: The Movie), journalist Jill Pantozzi (Newsarama), and executive producer Michael Uslan (The Dark Knight Rises). Room 26AB

Tags: Comic-Con Special Guest Spotlights & Appearances | Comics | Comics Arts Conference | Superheroes

Sunday, July 24

4:00-5:00 The Superhero Battlefield— What drives superheroes to keep fighting the good fight without getting burned out, disillusioned, or transforming into villains themselves? Trauma psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi (UCLA) explores the minds of your favorite comic book heroes and villains, linking them with the very real minds of actual trauma survivors. Alongside Dr. Letamendi are fellow psychologists Dr. Robin Rosenberg (The Psychology of Superheroes) and Dr. Travis Langley (Batman in his Belfry), as well as guest panelists including writer Len Wein (Swamp Thing). Room 4