Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Body Image

The One Move You Can Make to Overpower Bad Body Image

The surprising fix for feeling fat without leaving your chair

How are you sitting right now? Are your legs crossed? Are your arms close to your side? Are your shoulders hunched over? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are much more likely to be a woman than a man.

Continue this exercise throughout the day. Notice how you and those around you navigate everyday tasks. Riding the bus? Which gender is more likely to be mushed into the back corner seat? Watching television? Which gender is more likely to be the target of infomercials pushing steroids and weightlifting regimens to “bulk up?” Going to a department store? Who is more likely to find clothing sizes such as 0s and 2s? I was recently gift shopping for my father-in-law who has a slight build and the store didn’t even carry “small” sizes in men’s athletic shirts.

Typical postures for men and women.

Although there are natural size differences between men and women, people are bombarded with messages—from the media and from other people—about how much space their bodies should physically occupy. “Sit like a lady” communicates that good girls constrict their body comportment, so that their legs are crossed and their arms fall at their sides. Boys are less likely than girls to be reprimanded by teachers for using their “outdoor voices” inside (Martin, 1998). Although such ideas are restrictive to both genders, it is particularly alarming that we teach girls and women in particular that they should stay small in basically every facet of daily living (Henley, 1977). Given this reality, is it really surprising then that women are less likely than men to speak up in the board room later in life (Sandberg, 2013)?

Unfortunately, such messages often cause girls and women to wish that their bodies were smaller—thinner and leaner—resulting in extreme behavior such as unhealthy dieting or excessive exercising. Although this has been identified as a major problem, few successful interventions have been developed to disrupt this process.

In a recent paper I published in Psychology of Women Quarterly with Dr. Jill Allen and Dr. Jessi Smith, we wondered whether physically taking up more space might be a possible antidote for the link between negative body image and detrimental eating tendencies in women. Building on research showing that expansive, open postures bestow feelings of power, promote increased risk taking, and reduce cortisol levels associated with stress (Carney, Cuddy, & Zap, 2010), we examined whether adopting an expansive posture could be a simple strategy that women could adopt to disrupt the association between negative body image and restrained eating.

To examine this possibility, we brought 97 mostly white undergraduate women into the lab and assessed their body shape concern— the degree to which they “felt fat.”

We also introduced a body posture intervention in which we asked one group of women to sit in a constrictive posture, placing their hands and feet on pieces of tape that were 4.5 inches apart. Another group of women sat in an expansive posture, placing their hands and feet on pieces of tape placed 31.5 inches apart. We did all of this under the guise that a medical monitor required them to place their hands and feet in these positions. In actuality the medical monitor was bogus, but this subterfuge allowed us to place participants in the postures without cluing them into the purpose of the study.

While sitting in these postures, participants completed several different measures—one of which was a taste test in which they sampled and rated chocolate covered pretzels. We reasoned that those women who “felt fat” would restrain from eating this high fat snack. Participants were given 10 pretzels and 3 minutes to eat as many as they wanted. The number of pretzels remaining at the end represented the number of pretzels they restrained from eating.

Consistent with our hunch, those women who felt bad about their bodies and unobtrusively sat smaller, taking up very little space and constricting their bodies, engaged in restricted eating. However, when the group of women who reported feeling fat sat bigger, taking up more space and expanding their bodies, they engaged in less restrained eating.

The take home message is clear: If you feel fat, rather than making your body smaller, try occupying more space. This move may make you feel better about your body and allow you to break disordered eating behaviors. When you hop on the bus, sit by yourself, so that you can stretch out rather than squeezing in between two people. Even while you are sitting alone at your computer, extend your legs and arms outward rather than constricting them across your body.

Although this initial finding is promising, several questions remain. In particular, might similar principles apply to problematic behaviors often observed in men? For example, when men feel small, but feel like they should be big, they may engage in unhealthy behaviors to take up more space, such as excessive exercise and steroid use. Is it possible that sitting in expansive postures may contribute to steroid use for those men who are insecure about their muscular physique? Although counter-intuitive, this line of reasoning also suggests that sitting small could be an antidote to unhealthy exercise and steroid use in men.

Do you make yourself smaller or bigger in ways that conform to your gender? Do you feel crummy about your body? Try adopting a different posture than usual. You might be surprised by how you and others see you differently.

You can follow my posts through twitter and facebook.

Copyright 2013 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.


Allen, J., Gervais, S., & Smith, J.L. (2013). Sit big to eat big: Body posture moderates the body shape concern-restrained eating pathway. Psychology of Women Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0361684313476477

Carney, D., Cuddy, A., & Zap, A. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368. doi: 10.1177/0956797610383437

Henley, N. (1977). Body politics: Power, sex, and nonverbal communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Martin, K. (1998). Becoming a gendered body: Practices of preschools. American Sociological Review, 63, 494-511. doi:10.2307/2657264

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Knopf Publishing.

More from Sarah Gervais Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today