The Way We Hold Ourselves: Understanding (my) Posture through Social Interaction

My stomach hurts and I realize I’m sucking it in again. I sit up straight and try to relax, giving my organs some room to breathe. I’m listening to the person talking across from me, but now I’m also wondering: where did this come from? When did my body learn to sit this way? 

I fall away into conversation again and not two minutes later I catch it all over: the sucking in. The hunch. The pressing of my knees together and the curving down of my shoulders; the tension already building in my hips at 29. 

When and how did I learn to hold myself this way? 

It’s a question I’ve been examining more and more lately as I begin to tackle these issues—as I begin to address the developmental scoliosis in my spine and the hump at the base of my neck. I’ve been doing yoga, and strengthening my core, and learning to catch myself every time I fall into the “crouch”. Always, the mental instructions are the same: 

Even out your hips. Push your butt into your seat. Relax your jaw. Tuck your chin. Drop your shoulders. Lift your neck. Expand your chest. Breathe. 

I’m on public transit now—and think about “man-spreading”. My knees are close again and I worry about giving myself enough room to let my hips sit evenly. Do the boys have something going for them? My posture evens out as I create space between my knees, and I find it feels “dominant” to do even this.  I tuck my chin slightly, letting my shoulders fall closer to the person next to me who is also crouched, leaning away. I relax my tongue to the roof of my mouth and settle my jaw. 

Sitting this way–properly, for my health–I notice that I feel conspicuous. Almost as if I’m pressing into a space that I shouldn’t be. I feel nervous. Vulnerable. Exposed.

Then all of the sudden I want to go back into the hunch. To become small again. To not take up space. And I’m forced to wonder for the millionth time how and when my body learned that this crouch was normal–that it was better to be smaller, to cower, and to droop in a kind of submission I hadn’t even realized was within me. I consider myself strong, bold…anything but this.

I sit back, shoulders straight, and catch eyes with an elderly woman. She is bent forward, her hands resting on the cane in front of her. I can see that her back has a permanent arch. When she stands, she is shorter because of it. We share a passing commuter’s smile and I wonder when her body learned to bend forward, to become small. It is among my worst fears now, not being able to correct the curvature that gravity presses into me. I want nothing more than to…

not become her.

While scrolling later at home, with my back brace on and a lemongrass candle burning, I pass a video clip where a woman talks about body trauma–about the ways in which our bodies and faces begin to hold onto the experiences of our lives–good and bad. I think about my mom joking with me as a youngster, telling me not to keep my face in the same position for long, or it’ll get stuck that way. I wonder if she and the woman speaking are right; whether my body has become stuck from years of becoming lower and lower to the ground below.

So, I begin a process of identification. Of focusing on the source, not the symptom–so what if the assigned source so just happens to be a projection of my present state of mind? I want to explore it anyway.

Will this help me remove the burdens? To unfuse the parts of me that have become so stiff? I don’t know. But in this exploration I seek only learning. Perhaps you and I, reader, can find some insight together.

Understanding (My) Posture Through Social Interaction

Some of these bodily bents are easy to define. They are more present when I am alone than with anyone else.

Like the way I bend so close to a blank piece of paper when I’m writing, almost laying on it as I take pen to page and get ink all over my cheeks. This is a simple side effect of becoming so immersed that I forget my body, leaning so far forward that it’s almost as if I want to become a part of the small world I am creating there.

Or the fact that I sleep in the fetal position, no matter how hard I try to stay on my back. Even when there’s no one there to turn away from, I find myself waking to sore shoulders and crunchy hips needing stretching from a full night’s crouch. Again, my body is forgotten. As is the nature of sleep, it must be.

But some of the other habits? I’ve started to notice that they only appear socially. And as ‘fun’ as its been to catch them and correct them, it’s been just as difficult to remind myself why it could be that these so-called “forms” have become a part of me, specifically when I’m around other people. Why it is that my body continues to get stuck when there’s an audience close by.

The first and most obvious, then: the sucking in of my stomach.

At home, that little belly is hanging out over my sweatpants like its nobody’s business. Add a stranger to the mix though and suddenly I’m sucking in, trying to…what? Fool this person who doesn’t care about my weight into thinking I’m thinner than I already am? And as much as I’ve tried to kill this little reflex, it’s always there. When? I ask. When did that become a part of me?

The source of this one might be a little more obvious than some of the other body-forms I’ve been observing. In fact, I think it’s fairly common a trope for adults to envy youngsters with their bellies hanging out. But when I think about my slightly over-weight youth and the pains I went through to appear “thin”, I know that while my fears of being seen as fat may have gone away mentally, that they’re still making their mark on my body. So much so that sometimes, after a long night out, I’ll get home and have a massive cramp just under my ribs. I can tell my diaphragm is pissed, too, since it hasn’t had the chance to move all night–what with my stomach and intestines getting all up in its business. Only when I’m alone again can I let myself go.

There are others, too: the dip of my head to show I’m listening, causing an already arched neck to tighten and doing my spine no favours for sure; the pushing forward of my lower abdomen to make myself seem “more relaxed”, causing ruptures and nerve shocks in my lower spine; the twisting of my legs around each other while sitting so as not to take up space, forcing me to press all of my weight into one side–something I always pay for later in pain. No amount of epsom salts can cure it. No amount of massage stops all these signs from happening again the moment I become immersed in a social space, forgetting and remembering at intervals so I’m sure I look like some kind of fidgety old fool: straight, bent. Straight, bent.

In exploring the social interaction basis of these forms, I do not feel they are caused by the individual across from me, but are accumulated micro-passivities from years of not finding the confidence or the know-how to sit properly; to bring my shoulders away from my ears and to feel comfortable not leaning forward when someone’s talking. They are not caused by another, but propelled by their presence nonetheless.

From here I begin to understand this involuntary crippling-crouching-hunching trend as a manifestation of something else. I watch and listen to the thoughts rolling through my head as I correct, correct, correct, and am shocked to uncover the strange and odd “reasons” that manifest in my asking, laying dormant behind the body movements always sticking to me:

“They won’t think I’m interested if I don’t crane my head toward them.”

“I look too proper and severe when I sit up straight.”

“Don’t shift around too much, there are people standing close behind you and they’re watching.”

Altogether, I’m beginning to feel as if these so-called ‘body traumas’ are more a representation of years and years of literally bowing to social pressures to be something else. And I mean, if just sitting up straight feels dominant and aggressive to me, then of course I could probably go a lot further into the socio-cultural reasons for why that might be (hello patriarchy!), but for now I’m keeping it personal.

So how do I start making flexible what was once stiff? The exercise helps, but a diligent and accepting mindset will be the crowning jewel of this journey, I believe.

So, as always with the “first step”, I shall accept what this body has become.

Yes, Mom. My frame has gotten “stuck like that.” I’ve held it back, let it become small, and have forgotten to trust it–to thrust out those drooping shoulders and say to the world: IM HERE, and I have a body to prove it.

Now, it’s all about the correction. So in the same way that I’ve worked to address the mental boundaries I’ve let accumulate upstairs, I’m working through my body to do the exact same thing: to face the weight of a life lived and lift it off, and to be carefree in the truest sense of the word. I am on a path to letting go; of reminding my body to breath, and listening to the rush of my blood flowing freely throughout me, unencumbered, in the way that it always should have.

Hopefully, the healing will make me whole again, and I can start to stand tall outside of the room of my own.

What about you?

How are your hips? Are you sucking in? Crouching? Leaning only to one side?

Well, we can do this together:

Even out your hips. Push your butt into your seat. Relax your jaw. Tuck your chin. Drop your shoulders. Lift your neck. Expand your chest. And most of all?


Header Image Copyright Jessica Barratt


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