Body Language Speaks Volumes

We are all aware that a lot of interpersonal communication occurs through non-verbal gestures. In this piece I would like to discuss how important it is for feminists in particular to align our body language with our words. I believe that while we are acutely aware of the feminist potential of our words, occasionally we betray these strong statements with our bodies. Feminist educators have suggested that they see a concerning absence of this physical confidence in young women (Roberts, 2002) and sometimes I see it in myself. It is sometimes difficult to avoid the passive, unthreatening, ever-smiling feminine gestures that undercut any confident verbal rhetoric I espouse. This is something I am going to address with reference to feminist psychology on power and body language.

We are doing it and most of the time we don’t realise it

The topic of ‘non-verbal behaviour’ (or ‘body language’) has received a lot of attention from the academic and popular press since the 70s second wave feminism. The event that inspired this article was reading a special issue of the journal ‘Feminism & Psychology’ on the work of Nancy Henley, and her book ‘Body Politic’, a classic feminist text now out of print. I could ill-afford the subscription that I took out last year to get my hands on that journal but was not disappointed. Nancy Henley’s work had made its mark on me as an undergraduate student. As many authors in the special issue wrote, Henley’s work makes an impression because as soon as you read it you can see the behaviour she describes all around you. Behaviour that reinforces gender order, asserts male dominance, and diminishes women is everywhere. We are doing it and most of the time we don’t realise it.


The first thing that caught my attention was the idea of non-reciprocal touching as a gendered behaviour. ‘Non-reciprocal touching’ refers to instances where one person touches another, initiating the contact and not getting touched back. One of the many behaviours Nancy Henley identified was the extent to which men use non-reciprocal touching behaviour on women. When I say ‘use’ men are most likely unaware of doing this but, symbolically, it is a physical sign of control and dominance. Henley demonstrates that it is socially acceptable for men to touch women’s bodies and thereby exert their will, in a way that it is not for women. Women, including myself, accept this behaviour, which Henley links to our patriarchal disempowerment.

Though ‘touching’ might sound like an easily identifiable form of harassment it can be more subtle. A male acquaintance, with whom I get on well, recently ‘tickled’ me as a joke. It is hard to resist this kind of behaviour because it is not commonly acknowledged verbally – to speak of it is to make an issue if it and risk the ‘frigid’ label. I see men ‘cuddling’, lifting up, grabbing, touching and ‘tickling’ their female friends and colleagues regularly. In these instances they are taking a culturally sanctioned opportunity to touch women’s bodies without their explicit permission. I do not see women or men in workplaces poke in the ribs or tickle male colleagues – it would not occur to me to do this but if it did I would refrain in order to avoid attracting unwanted sexual attention. I firmly believe that this form of unsolicited intimacy functions to make women, including myself, aware of our physicality, how we dress or stand in the workplace, our vulnerability to male physicality, and our relative powerlessness.

Family portraits show fathers with their hands on the shoulders of their wives and children

Think of Victorian or modern family portraits showing fathers with their hands on the shoulders of their wives and children, signifying higher status and control. Also parents, coaches or bosses – those in more powerful positions might touch, pat or rub the heads or shoulders of less powerful others, in these instances pushing the person down, underlining the inferiority of that person. There may be many instances in which these touches are reciprocal and/or experienced positively. However it is the unwritten rule that more powerful and/or male others might touch us in a way that we may not touch them – thereby patriarchal power structures are reinforced. In Nancy Henley’s case, a senior male position colleague positions his hands on her shoulders directly after discussing this very research.


Moving on to another powerful aspect of non-verbal behaviour, have you heard of the ‘smile boycott’? Of all the non-verbal behaviour experiments you can try this is probably the simplest, though it takes surprising effort. Go about your normal business in public/social places and do something radical – don’t smile if you don’t feel happy. Henley, following Shulamith Firestone (1977), contends that women are obliged to smile and acquiesce to men, who are under no such obligation, because they have the power. This is not to say that women perpetually try to charm men, rather that women have developed the ‘cheery disposition’ as a way of getting on where we are not in charge. Research has reinforced this connection between smiling and power, suggesting that powerful people only smile when they feel happy whereas those who are less powerful in social situations smile regardless of their emotional state (LaFrance, 2002). This rootless smiling is associated with women and I do it, a lot.

I smile perpetually and pair this with non-threatening body postures and movements in order to navigate the city I live in and avoid confrontations. By doing so I realise I am communicating that I am not powerful. I have repeatedly tried ‘smile boycotts’ (deliberately not smiling unless I am happy) which has proved extremely hard and not gone down well. Twice in the city centre I have attempted this and on both occasions male passers-by, unknown to me, have commented that ‘It might never happen’ and suggested that I might ‘Cheer up love’. I would never offer such advice to a dour looking man or woman on the street because to me it seems both impolite and risky. However, clearly these men, with no personal interest in my emotional state, felt it appropriate to comment on my appearance. In my opinion, I was transgressing standards of acceptable female behaviour – women are supposed to smile, to happily ornament the streets, something the men passing me on the street were policing.


Another very simple way to examine power in non-verbal behaviour is to look at sitting positions and the space our bodies occupy. Men take up more space, we have all seen the people-watching TV documentaries that show males enacting territorial behaviours that are easily identified – they place their hands behind their heads, taking up more space and displaying their torsos and thereby demonstrating comfort in their power by exposing their bodies. Men also commonly sit with their knees apart both drawing attention to their genitalia and taking up more space (Davis & Weitz, 1981). Women, in contrast, characteristically tuck in our limbs and make ourselves look smaller.

Women cross their legs, tuck their feet under seats, place bags on their laps and fold their arms over their breasts

Public transport provides an ideal environment in which to observe this. Even before reading Henley I had noticed how women on trains and buses sit sometimes, they cross their legs, tuck their feet under seats, place bags on their laps (over their genitalia), and fold their arms over their breasts – the opposite to the male display. Sitting like this, which I did before I became aware of it, we make ourselves small and obscure the (different) shape of our bodies. I know there are many reasons why we might want to do this, including wanting to go unnoticed and consideration of other passengers, but this is a blatant non-verbal manifestation of patriarchy – we only need look at the man sitting opposite who has appropriated more room to stretch out his legs, put down his bags etc. It happens in classrooms too.

I frequently attempt to resist this one. I sit with my legs uncrossed and knees apart, I unfold my arms and rest them openly one on each leg when they seem to gravitate towards being folded at my chest or crossing over my lap. I am comfortable in my body, I try not to let my positioning of it undermine me. I am not recommending that we all adopt masculine-identified space-grabbing postures as some form of mimicry. However I am recommending that we think about how we take up space and position to our bodies. As Nancy Henley notes, if you challenge these conventions you may encounter resistance. If you want to move away from non-verbally intimidating situations or make yourself smaller, you have my support. We should listen to our instincts, but I believe an awareness of the power dynamics of non-verbal behaviour can only arm us with a better understanding of our relationships and ways of communicating.


Another interesting site of non-verbal behaviour is the couple relationship, where a greater amount of touching behaviour occurs. Stereotypically romantic images, e.g., Mills & Boon book covers, wedding photos, often employ images of women being held against the chests of their male partners, with the man’s arms around the outside of the woman. Symbolically, in this position, the man is in physical control. The woman’s arms are pinned to her body and she can be cuddled or lifted, she is in a physically less powerful position than the man. Thinking about this led to the realisation that, unconsciously, I had opted for everyone who hugged me to enfold me in their arms (placing their arms around the outside of mine). In situations of greeting, affection and intimacy I was getting hugged, rather than hugging. As Henley suggests, women are expected to ‘cuddle to’ touch rather than assert their physicality onto others by touching them and I had been doing this. The unintentional message was that I wanted or needed to be protected. This is not the case so I am giving the other way of hugging a try, and predictably it’s more difficult to change than I’d anticipated.

Research has shown that heterosexual women commonly stand on the side of their partner’s dominant hand

This kind of awareness rapidly escalates, like all the best awakenings. When you hold hands which side do you stand on? You may not be aware of any pattern but research has shown that heterosexual women commonly stand on the side of their partner’s dominant hand (right or left), allowing men increased access to touching women comfortably (Major, 1981). Now as my partner dislikes holding hands I’m mostly free of this one (phew, no experiment necessary!). However then I began to think about sleeping positions in a similar light. Which side of the bed do you sleep on? Does it give your partner access to you with their dominant hand but not you? It depends on how you are lying of course, and people move around more in bed so it’s not as simple to identify – but it’s worth thinking about, as all of these small behaviours contribute to the communication that makes up our relationships. What about where you usually sit on the sofa or in the car?

Additionally I noticed some time ago that where pavement space is limited women tend to drop back behind male companions, like children walk behind a guardian or characters in films follow their action-hero/ine leaders who have the major weapons, to protect them from oncoming hazards. Women may move aside because they are more aware of the needs of others passing by and bound by politeness to make room for them, however if this was the case shouldn’t women step in front of male companions at least some of the time? Until this occurred to me, I always dropped back, now I often drop forward. I do not require any companion of mine to police my path by moving to walk in front of me and therefore influencing my pace and progress. It’s just another thing to think about.

Final thoughts

You may think I’m going over the top and you are entitled to that opinion. You may also think that a lot has changed since Nancy Henley was writing in the 70s and that ‘body language’ is no longer an important issue. I hope that in the above examples I have demonstrated that it is both important and current and that manifestations of patriarchal hierarchy are all around us in this form. I think that Nancy Henley and those who have continued researching this area are right, we need to think about what we learn to say outside words. If you are intrigued I recommend that you seek out Henley’s work, she provides excellent practical advice for women and men.

This is an arena where once they are identified, it is easy to see power differences and get to work at resisting them, at communicating with our bodies that we are confident and capable and physically present women. Essentially I want all women to behave in physically and psychologically comfortable ways and if they choose the behaviours that I seek to resist then I support this. However I don’t want us to mistake the non-verbal behaviours patriarchal society has taught us for what we have chosen. Just as we think carefully about what we say, I propose that we can and should examine and be aware of our non-verbal behaviour.


Davis, Martha & Weitz, Shirley (1981) Sex Differences in Body Movements and

Positions. In C. Mayo & N. Henley (Eds). Gender & nonverbal behaviour. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Firestone, Shulamith (1977) The dialectic of sex: the case for feminist revolution.

London: Cape.

Henley, Nancy (1977). Body Politics: Power, Sex and Nonverbal Communication.

NY: Simon and Schuster.

LaFrance, Marianne (2002). Smile Boycotts and Other Body Politics, Feminism &

Psychology, Vol. 12 (3): 319-323.

Major, Brenda (1981) Gender Patterns in Touching Behaviour. In C. Mayo & N.

Henley (Eds). Gender & nonverbal behaviour. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Roberts, Tomi-Ann (2002). The Woman in the Body, Feminism & Psychology, Vol.

12 (3): 324-329.