“So,” I asked Christine, “do you want to be powerful or powerless in the world?”
She winced in psychic pain.
“Isn’t there are another choice?” she implored.
I found Amy Cuddy yesterday, a Harvard social scientist who focuses on non-verbal communications. Her 2012 TED Global talk shows how your body language shapes not only how other people see you, but also how you feel about yourself, about how you act.
So, do you want to be powerful or powerless in the world?
Like many transwomen, I play small and defensive in the world, crouched in a way that tries to hide much of what I want to conceal about myself. In my mind, that concealment should let what I want to be seen be revealed, but I suspect that is just wishful thinking.
Instead, that playing small makes other people wonder what I have to hide, makes them see me as suspect and creepy. Not so good.
Going to the grocery store after midnight was the preferred mode for one transwoman, who believed that being there when there was no crowd allowed her to duck scrutiny. Being there at an odd time, though, alone in a quiet market, made her more visible. What did she have to hide?
I really hoped that working with a performance coach would help me with this presence stuff, help me build confidence in presentation, but their limits of seeing me in a reductive way meant they want more to fight than to comfort & encourage in possibility.
Playing small has been my go-to since I was three and found out that staying out of my mother’s eyeline could keep me from getting creamed. My family was not affirming about my having presence, more picking out flaws and potential dangers than about pride.
This translated into a guerrilla strategy to take power. I wouldn’t be the shiny one up front, the figurehead who others saw as appropriate. Instead, I would be the jester, the trickster, asking just the key question at just the right time. I was unpredictable and magical, free to spring a surprising insight.
Staying in the shadows is the key to that role, but as a visible transwoman, staying in the shadows just marks you out as suspect, not as plain.
I know why the “low-power poses” that Ms. Cuddy describes make me feel safer, more comfortable. I also know, though, why they don’t actually make me safer, because they show weakness and lower my resistance to stress.
Leadership demands the power to handle stress, according to Ms. Cuddy, especially in social threat situations, like when we are being evaluated. For a transwoman, who always feels herself under strong scrutiny, this is a big deal.
I know how to use many of the techniques that Ms. Cuddy offers in mufti, but they don’t feel as easy when presenting as a woman. Does the very act of taking power erase my femininity? How do you shift power as you shift gender, which was the first question I asked at the first gender conference I went to, some 23 years ago now.
Deliberately cutting back on my presence so that I don’t appear too damn big as a woman, well, that is a comforting idea. Let others see me as cute, not powerful. How else will people see my tender heart, not just my capacity to shake the ground?
So, do you want to be powerful or powerless in the world?
Isn’t there another choice?
Women understand this challenge. Many of us only find our own power when we have something to fight for, something we can’t get by just being nice. For me, fighting for my parents was vital, so I pulled out the stops, used the tools that needed to be used.
I disconnected my mother’s respirator mask in the ICU which got me a spanking from the doctor — the attending assigned a baby doc to do the deed — but which also proved the point that she needed a full face mask like the one we found she had to use on her C-PAP. I entered the fight and I won.
That ballsy choice, though, wasn’t pretty or sweet or nice. It wouldn’t play as well on a date or in a gaggle of gals. Power plays have their limits.
In “The Confidence Code“, the authors wonder why WNBA players don’t have the omnipresent confidence of NBA players, but they also see the women go back into the locker room where they again have to be one of the girls. They don’t even trace back into romantic relationships where at least some of the women, I am sure, like letting their partners take the lead and be out front.
So much of my angst about presence comes from a lack of effective mirroring, especially from people who see and value the feminine in me. I know how much I encourage other transwomen to come from their strength and not their attempt at being cute, but finding people who are comfortable with power, especially the power of a mature woman, is not easy.
I believe that transpeople can be empowered in the world (1997). The thread of how to take power while trans is loaded into all of my work, though driving exuberance from a community around that has been very hard, especially because many transpeople define themselves by their abject powerlessness.
If we have not claimed our own empowerment, owned our own relationship with power, then encouraging others to take power is scary because the fear of megalomania runs deep, even tainting how other transpeople’s choices will reflect on us. It’s crabs in a barrel; nobody gets out of here alive.
It is time, past time, for me to take power in the world as an embodied transperson, time to go to the front of the room, open up and speak.
Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?
What does presence look like? Presence is being attuned to who you are and being able to express that, but what it looks like to other people is that you believe your story, that you are confident without being arrogant and you are communicating in a way that is fluid & harmonious because you are being authentic. When we are not being authentic, when we are lying, all of a sudden there are all these asymmetries, there are all these things that aren't going together in what we are saying & what we are doing. Believing your story, having "grounded enthusiasm," is really important, because if you don't believe your story there is no way other people will believe your story. If people pick up any hints that you aren't really "in this," aren't open to challenges that can make what you better, why should they buy what you're selling? — Amy Cuddy
More from on presence & power from Ms. Cuddy after the jump. She is probably worth your time.
Ms. Cuddy has very smart and very useful things to say, though it is clear to me that her sharp embodied experience as a professional ballet dancer very much affects her worldview. It amuses me to consider having her spend some time in a fatsuit. . .