Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture
This is the 2nd in a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force.
Introductory Post: A Blogger for Self-Defense
The most common piece of introductory advice given for self-defense is to “be aware of your surroundings”. I’d step back from that and say first and foremost be aware of yourself. By the time I came upon this advice, I’d finished my Army tour, taken several self-defense courses (the R.A.D. system) at college and as a single woman who lived alone, was painfully aware of my surroundings – on the bus, in deserted college hallways, on the dark walk home from the bus stop, in the parking lots of restaurants and malls, in my apartment stairwell. I was as paranoid and jumpy as I could possibly be – and likely not prepared for any of the scenarios I’d imagined.
How you carry yourself in public spaces is the very first line of defense. It’s about preventing an attack before it occurs. It’s about making yourself a risky target for a would-be attacker. In an ideal world, the responsibility for the commission of a crime lies with the criminal. I want to be absolutely clear that victims are not responsible for the crimes committed against them. When we judge a victim – “well, if he or she hadn’t been there or worn that or drank too much” – we are finding a way to tell ourselves that it could never happen to us. We want to know we can prevent it, but the reality is that anyone, anywhere at anytime can be targeted for a crime.
The Walking Bullseye
For years, I was acutely self-conscious in public. My shoulders would slump forward, I wouldn’t make eye contact, I avoided crowded areas, I would not look around me. I was often carrying bags – a backpack of textbooks, groceries, possibly a purse. I rode the bus a lot. I would sit in the back as far away from other people and if I had to sit next to someone, I’d pull myself in as tightly as I could. I wanted to be invisible. I looked passive. I looked like an easy target.
Strangers would strike up creepy and inappropriate conversations with me. Panhandlers never failed to see their mark. On occasion, I’d have to get off the bus a few stops early so that an invasive passenger wouldn’t see where I lived or worked or went to school. These were defensive maneuvers, because I was already on the potential criminal’s radar. The key is not to even register as a possible target.
Climbing Out of the Shell
For women, some of us survived puberty by sinking into ourselves, hiding our busts, curving our shoulders forward. As adults, we carry tension in the neck and shoulder area until we become turtles. Pull your shoulders back and then let your shoulder blades lower down into a relaxed position. Inhale and exhale deeply. Straighten your neck, lift your head and actively use your eyes to see your surroundings. Use your peripheral vision. Practice walking with that posture.
If your muscles have elongated or shortened from poor posture, seek out strengthening and mobility exercises. There are a lot of good resources focused on improving posture. I was lucky to catch a great community course by Janice Novak, but there are other excellent resources as well. Look at yourself in the mirror (my least favorite thing to do!). Where are your shoulders? Try different positions. What makes you taller? Imagined you are defending someone you love. How do you stand then? What is your posture of power?
I am still a self-conscious person, so if I’m not having a confident day, I hear “Stayin’ Alive” playing in my head. Nothing weirder than a middle-aged woman doing a John Travolta strut down the street. Better yet, I paraphrase Robert DeNiro in my head. “You lookin’ at me?” I look like I’m cruising for a brawl. Still, what I don’t look like is someone who is giving anything up very easily, including the ability to defend myself.
I recently watched an interesting TED video: Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are. The takeaway for me was twofold: 1) The marked difference between weak and powerful body language is about space. 2) Faking power and confidence can physiologically change you and how you carry yourself.
Claim Your Space
While public space should be governed by civility and courtesy for others, it is also about personal boundaries. When I worked downtown years ago, I boarded a full bus with one seat left. I understood immediately why the seat was open. A man in his twenties was sprawled out, legs spread wide in front of him, taking up his seat and half of the one next to him, while staring insolently ahead.
I could feel eyes on me and looked up, noticing that several people were standing, having chosen to avoid a potential confrontation. I immediately thought, because I am nothing, if not completely vulgar, Unless his nuts are the size of basketballs, I’m sitting there. I sat down, scooted over until he moved, and said loudly and clearly “EXCUSE ME”. He muttered under his breath, but the numbnuts moved his body over. I just made myself a risky target for any potential attacker on that bus – publicly demonstrating lack of intimidation and assertiveness. And when a situation presents itself for me to both use my ass and be one too, I’m all in.
Criminals are actively seeking out the vulnerable, the isolated, the passive – the easy mark. Start with the simplest steps to look unappealing to them.
Stand up tall.
Be confident (or fake it until you are).
Claim your space.
Observational Practice: Look at people when you’re out and about – how much space do they claim? Imagine that you are a criminal. Which people would you pick for targets? Why would you pick them?
Tune in Friday
“OMG I’m getting mugged NLMAO”: Moving Mindfully