The Vagenda

Body Language Bullshit

One of the things on my list of pet hates (just after caravans and the phrase ‘no sugar ta, I’m sweet enough) is the notion of the so-called ‘body language experts’. Firstly, because the term ‘expert’ is somewhat oxymoronic- as human beings, we all interact with one another all the time, and, unless we have something which inhibits the picking up of social cues, like autism, we are able to unconsciously understand many social signals. If someone is giving me a death stare, I don’t need to consult someone with a bullshit PHD to work out that they hate me because I just told them that voting Tory makes you a bad person. I mean, duh. I already know that’s going to go down like a shit sandwich.
From examining the media, there seem to be three different schools of ‘body language expertise’ doing the rounds, so I will deal with each of them in turn:
1.) Using body language in order to try and work out what a guy thinks.
This article for US Cosmopolitan is a prime example. ‘Guy Beach Body Language- What His Actions Mean at the Beach’. The reason I hate this stuff is twofold- firstly, it encourages women to stay passive, and be all ‘oh, his toes are pointing towards me, that must mean he likes me,’ rather than going ‘I can see you want in my pants. Let’s grab a beer and talk about it.’ BORING. Secondly, it implies that we should be expending our vital and precious energy trying to work out how men think. This is especially dangerous if you’re being fucked over by someone who isn’t treating you well, or if you’re in a relationship that’s on its last legs, because it preys on your already existing insecurities. So you’ll read in Cosmo that him sleeping in a starfish position means that he doesn’t love you, and you’ll think, ‘oh, well that’s it then. No point going to Relate after all.’ 
Of course, the ‘what men think’ article is the bread and butter of many women’s magazines. I especially hate it because it doesn’t encourage you to actually talk to your partner about your relationship. Instead, you spent hours trying to analyse his hand signals to work if he’s really into you. I used to do this as a teenage girl all the time, and, while I don’t now, I bet there are women out there who do. The magazine is essentially jumping on the anxiety you feel about your relationships to other people and using it as a way to sell their crappy agenda. It’s bullshit.
P.S. How to tell a guy likes you on the beach: does he have a boner? If so, he likes you. 
2.) Using body language to analyse the relationships of couples that I don’t even give a fuck about
Oh, what’s that? It’s Dr Glass again
Dr. Glass reveals that when comparing photos of Brad and Jen when they were married to Brad and Angelina’s most recent red carpet appearance at The Tourist premiere in NYC, Brad is clearly devoted and “adores” Angelina. Unfortunately for you Jen fans, Dr. Glass says that there is “tension” in the photos of Jen and Brad, and most telling, Brad’s feet aren’t pointed in Jen’s direction, which is a sign of not being in love.’
This was written in 2010. So long after Brad and Jen had already split up, but I’m using it as an example of how body language experts will use their ‘skill’ to tell you SHIT THAT YOU KNOW ALREADY. Expect umpteen pictures of Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart together prior to the event accompanied by dickwads saying things like ‘you can tell from her nose that she’s being unfaithful.’ 
Also, how telling can body language actually be? A few weeks ago I went to a party with my boyfriend and some friends. There were loads of people there who I hadn’t seen for ages, so I spent most of the evening talking to them, getting high with them, and not seeing much of my boyfriend, who was busy nailing a bottle of Grey Goose and talking to other people. One of his friends assumed we were in a fight. We weren’t. Well, we were, but that was later, when he tried to make me walk for a taxi in the rain. 
3.) Using body language as a way of policing women’s behaviour
This. Fucking this. Note how the article is called ‘Body language mistakes women make’, thus putting the onus on us not to go in for ‘excessive smiling’ (‘women should be aware that, when excessive or inappropriate, smiling can also be confusing and a credibility robber’) rather than the onus on the dickhead who’s judging you. 
‘When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she agrees–or is listening to, empathizing with or encouraging the speaker to continue. This excessive head nodding can make females look like a bobble-head doll.’
When this woman tells you to fuck off, it means that she wants you to fuck off. 
I once saw a piece of performance art in which this article (or one that was very similar) was presented as though it were being taught at a business conference. I thought it was a joke. At the end, it was revealed to be a real article, and I actually felt like crying. Sometimes, when you see something written down, you don’t realise how utterly damaging it is, but when it’s presented to you physically by someone as gospel, that shit really hits home (I don’t know, maybe we should develop an off-Broadway show in which we just parrot quotes from women’s magazines.) Stuff like this:
‘Being overly expressive:
While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is comprised primarily of males).’
I mean, fuck? Now I’m worrying if I’m overly expressive. Should I be careful to speak in a monotone next time I have a job interview? Do I come across as too emotional? Am I smiling too much? All this stuff does is make you self-examine your behaviour all the time, and police it, which is horrible. I don’t want to be an emotional corporate drone- I’m a human being!
All this, strangely enough, brings me back to autism. There are theories that have been doing the rounds now (popularised by stuff like Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘The Essential Difference’) that men and women’s behaviours and tendencies are dictated by one’s brain – biological determinism. So women are more empathic, expressive etc, men are better at systematising. Whether you believe this or not (and I pretty much don’t), surely adopting what many believe to be ‘traditionally male characteristics’ to get ahead in the workplace is never going to be tantamount to true equality. Do I have to ‘be like a man’ in order to succeed in the corporate business world? And what if you happen to be an especially smily  man? Does that mean you’re fucked too? Should magazines like Forbes be encouraging this school of thought? 
I realise what started out as a pretty jokey article has suddenly become all serious. But this really, really pisses me off. Women are never going to succeed in the corporate world (assuming that that’s what you want to do, again – I don’t, but this isn’t about me) if they’re constantly having to examine and reassess their own behaviour, which is why this body language stuff is so damaging. Not only does it have the potential to mess with your head as far as your relationship’s concerned, but it can also seriously impact on your career.
What a downer.
P.S. All you NLP bullshit peddlers can fuck off too. Saying my name over and over again is not going to get you in my pants. Do one. 

10 thoughts on “Body Language Bullshit

  1. The whole ‘women must act like men to succeed’ thing is very damaging, I think. The university that I did my undergraduate at has a fairly predictable ‘Finals Gap’ in essay-based subjects, with men receiving more Firsts than women. One suggestion to counter it (although this was certainly not condoned by most of my tutors) was to encourage women to write more ‘aggressively’ and less ‘discursively’ – i.e., more like men. My general feeling was that, actually, discussing a problem, rather than going ‘argh, I am going to attack this question and then argue an interesting but largely baseless angle on it’, had rather more intellectual merit. I’m not sure if there *is* such a thing as a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ essay – really I think there is a certain ‘traditional’ style which could be unfairly favoured – but it seems very problematic to ascribe certain qualities to male essay writing and *then* tell highly intelligent young women that in order to succeed they should not follow their own gut instincts, but try to imitate men.

  2. Dear Vagenda Team
    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and love it, particularly because it is British, whereas a lot of Feminist blogs are written across the pond, so your points are often a lot more relevant to my experiences and observations.
    But please, remember that when you’re slipping in a bit of Tory bashing, that Tories can be Feminists too! Despite what Harriet Harman seems to think!
    I am a case in point and I manage to be both a Feminist and an active member of the Conservative Party without creating a paradox fueled black hole or similar.
    We do exist and I’d love for more of us to have our voices and views heard in Feminist spheres, but Tory bashing on prominent blogs won’t really help.
    We can agree to disagree on many points but I assure you we will have a lot of common ground with more left-leaning Feminists.
    We have the same ultimate goals, and in fact I feel that many of my “Conservative” views have actually lead me towards Feminism in a big way.
    So please, keep up the great work with the blog but don’t exclude the FemiTories!

  3. Ugh, it always pisses me off when I see people peddling this kind of ‘body language advice’ as though it’s harmless. It’s not.

    The fact that the paragraph about worrying brought you back to autism wasn’t strange at all: You’d just described what most autistic people spend large portions of their lives feeling. Constant self analysis is what people on the spectrum are taught we have to do from a young age, so we do it, and it hurts us as much as you’d expect.

    I have Aspergers, and I wasn’t even ten when I started fretting over every word that came out of my mouth, trying to arrange my body and vocal tone into the most friendly seeming one, hoping that if I could just crack the right joke at the right time then maybe my peers would finally see me as one of them. Nobody suggested it might be a bad thing- the medical profession encourages people on the spectrum to take this course of action, and society in general always seems to measure autistic success by how well we could pass as neurotypical. In fact, standards for us seemed to be even higher than they were for NTs. They were allowed to make mistakes, but if we did, it was a problem that needed solving.

    I even read a book once that encouraged teenage girls on the spectrum to kowtow to peer pressure as much as possible. Everything that neurotypical teen girls are encouraged not to do- changing the way they dress in order to look more fashionable; giving up interests that don’t include clothes, makeup or boys; trying to befriend the most popular girls only; making ‘fitting in’ top priority- was given to autistic girls as an instruction. This book got a stamp of approval from several professionals. Fortunately for me, I’d grown out of the ‘erase all differences between self and peers’ mentality by the time I got given the book, so I just handed it back. Sadly, there are many others in the world who cannot say the same.

    As it turned out, worrying over every move I made didn’t magically fix every problem in my life. It left me insecure, depressed, and self-hating because I could never match up to my own standards. It caused me to measure my self worth against how well I did socially- a day where I didn’t socialise much was a ‘bad’ day, regardless of what else happened in it. My grades fell and I gave up hobbies because all my energy was going into ‘learning to be more sociable’. It did me far more harm than good.

    The worst thing about this is that nobody seems to realise these lessons and expectations are damaging. Professionals teach autistic children to neglect their boundaries, view themselves as a problem in need of solving, ruminate over their every move, and sacrifice everything they love because it’s not ‘normal’ enough… and then scratch their heads in bewilderment at the astronomic levels of mental illness among autistic adults. Magazines like this one encourage readers to analyse everything about themselves without the slightest acknowledgment that doing so could cause you harm. When I read the “you probably nod too much, you look like a bobble-head doll” excerpt, I wanted to put my fist through the screen. I’m not surprised that this kind of ‘advice’ is being given, but it really grinds my gears nonetheless.

  4. Oops- didn’t really mean to do that. >.< Anyway… The fact is, as was as good as said in the article, it’s all a big con. As was said several times, it only really teaches you to be paranoid, to search for meaning where there is none. The man on the beach might be striding confidently past because he’s showing off, or he might just be in a good mood. Your husband could be cheating with the woman who started talking to him on Facebook, but he probably isn’t. As for the ‘celebrity couples’ pictures… how are you supposed to tell anything about somebody’s relationship from a random split-second freeze frame? The logic is basically “She took her eyes away from him for a moment, therefore she doesn’t love him and is probably cheating.” Which is bullshit. It also doesn’t escape my notice that it’s only body language associated with women that’s being run down. There’s an idea in society that things associated with men are correct, with things associated with women being deviant. It’s dreadful that magazines aimed at women seem to be among the worst for propogating it. US Cosmo is apparently awful for discouraging actual communication between partners. /essay.


    Every day I read Vagenda and I see how much more sexist bullshit there is in the world! Its empowering and depressing in equal measure haha :)

  6. great article, and I completely agree – I also noticed while reading it there is a link to another Forbes article, a “related issue” entitled “Think looks don’t matter at work? think again” , it had me frothing at the mouth over my morning coffee.REALLY undermining bullshit.

  7. I think there is something in analyzing body language consciously rather than subconsciously, except actual real ‘body language experts’ are known as psychologists and use there expertise to determine whether someone is an abuser, a victim of abuse or has a mental problem, they don’t get involved with these ridiculous articles.

  8. Possible typo: the article goes “All this, strangely enough, brings me back to autism. ” And then it goes on to say absolutely no more about autism.

  9. I entirely agree with the point – the stupid convention like total control of your body language just to make it look like something someone else may want you to be… So many people are victims of this stupidity today. Being one’s natural self is the best thing to be. But following those body-language rules is unnecessary stress that takes so much away from people…