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

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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

40 Comments on “Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

  1. You are doing such a valuable service for women here. I try to practice what you’ve written here. It is especially important to be aware when you’re going to your car in a parking lot. And I do check under the car quite often.

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    • I plan on covering that subject as well, tomorrow. It’s hard to segment information in blog post length and some concepts are worth emphasis. I might have to turn it into a weekly segment or bore readers with a very long series.

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  2. Another great post!

    As a confidence booster (or at least to gain the crazy-eyes), I’d recommend watching any season of 24 consecutively.
    Just don’t go driving in traffic afterwards.
    Bad bad idea…

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    • And don’t watch “Falling Down” with Michael Douglas before heading out to breakfast. Now I have the tune “Hungry Eyes” going through my head, except with the lyrics “Crazy Eyes”. Might need to cut back on the caffeine…

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  3. I LOVE this post. Thank you. I couldn’t agree more with you, either. Perception is reality. Look like you can take care of yourself, that you’re unafraid and you’ll most likely be left alone by predators. They’re looking for weakness, not strength. Even better, when you feel empowered, you ARE empowered. They should be teaching this in schools.

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    • Thanks, Fransi. I started thinking about this idea of space after reading “Women and Self Esteem” by Sanford and Donovan in the late 80s. They had a chapter called “Where It’s Hardest to Feel at Home: Women’s Experiences in Public”. It’s such a simple concept, how we move in and claim public space confidently and without apology.

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      • It is always the simplest concepts that are the most valuable and meaningful. Every time. Thanks again for a wonderful post. I hope you do something, beyond your blog, with this series.

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  4. I can’t remember what journal it appeared in, but I saw actual research verifying the efficacy of the above. Somebody interviewed a bunch of prisoners and showed them pictures (videos?) of a variety of people. The prisoners generally agreed on a subset of people who they thought of as natural victims. The subset were doing the opposite of your advice above. Congrats! You’re scientifically verified!

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  5. Our community center offers R.A.D. training free of charge to all women in our city. It is taught by a police officer who donates his time.
    Excellent series, Michelle! Useful information everyone needs to know.

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    • Thanks, Honie. These courses are offered nationwide. I was looking at their current website and had to laugh. I don’t remember getting to wear pads, but I remember the “attacker” had on a huge, red styrofoam diaper. Women always assume the groin is the best target, but eyes and ears are equally effective and may incapacitate an attacker faster. More tomorrow….

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  6. Pingback: A Blogger for Self-Defense | The Green Study

  7. Pingback: Effects of posture on social interaction | Biotechnology + Innovation

  8. Michelle, yep! I’m barely 5 feet tall but not only do I look like I have an attitude, I actually DO have an attitude. So far (knock on wood) I have never had any problems. I can be open and friendly while traveling in weird places, and that has served me well… but when actually transiting from point A to point B, I walk fast, look around, if someone seems creepy I will actually look them in the eye, and if I need to stop and get my bearings or something… or make a phone call… I always back up to a building or storefront, facing out toward the street.

    In college, there was a spate of sexual assaults / gropings around campus and I had to be out – due to a shortage of classroom space, some of my classes were held at night. At the same time, the college had a no-weapons-on-campus policy to include blades over 3″. So – I know this sounds silly, but – I put a paring knife in the outside pocket of my purse with the handle just out of sight but quite accessible, and kept that pocket turned in toward me. I never pulled it out, was never even approached – but had anyone attacked me at the time, I was ready to pare them a bit. Not the greatest weapon, I know, but I sure wouldn’t want to be sliced with the thing.

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    • I think women have been socialized to appear smiling and friendly without regard to context. I’m okay looking a bit surly in public, but I can be friendly and personable in the right context. En route, as you point out, is not the right context and that’s what I’ll be writing about for tomorrow – moving from point A to B.

      At some point, I’ll be covering adaptable defense weapons. For me, it was a metal nail file and an old bottle of perfume (alcohol-laden stinky stuff given to me – the poor woman’s mace). At the time, I was thinking eyes, but have since learned that there are some really great nerve-laden places to hit with a sharp implement. A paring knife is even better – less flexibility, more power.

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  9. I never used to be afraid in public, but as I age and lose strength, I have discovered some of the fears you talk about. My piano teacher was always telling me to “Sit up straight!” Good advice for many situations.

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    • It’s really amazing what your body posture says not only to others, but to your own mentality. In the TED video, one of the exercises involved raising your arms above your head victoriously and the speaker suggested doing this to boost confidence, like before a job interview. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve been trying it, even to boost my writing (great excuse to get up out of my chair and stretch) and it does change my attitude/energy, if only slightly. Humans are weird and amazing!

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  10. Awesome post! After several incidents I took a few self defense classes, and that change my life. Very good advises in this post. Simply things that everyone can apply and have great advantage of.

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  11. Nice advice Michelle – thanks for sharing. Works well in the business world, too. Make yourself a risky target…

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    • It’s simple stuff, but easy enough to implement. The TED talk, I think, was really directed towards the business world, but still useful info. Thanks for stopping by, Bill!

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  12. Thanks to the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ image, I’m thinking about other purposes for Prancercise.

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  13. Good stuff here, Michelle. I’ve found that assuming a power posture feeds my internal warrior as well, something I often need.

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  14. This is very useful information, I am grateful that you have shared what you have learned with your readers.

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  15. Pingback: “OMG I’m getting mugged NLMAO”: Moving Mindfully | The Green Study

  16. Agree with ever word! I read about a study years ago. They filmed random people walking down the street and then showed the footage to violent criminals (the kind that attack people) in prison. The question they asked was, “Who would you target?” The goal was to identify “victim behaviors.”

    You mentioned posture. One I recall involved the synchronization between your arms and legs. “Victims” tend to walk such that both left leg and left arm move forward together (or right arm and right let). “Non-victims” tend to alternate. Left leg goes forward with right arm (and vice-versa).

    Situational awareness is very important (especially these days when so many are head-down in their dumb phone). It’s been my observation that most people are “situation-challenged”… very unobservant.

    One tip I recall from a seminar: Do make (brief) eye-contact with strangers. It sends the message, “I see you, and I can identify you later.” It also sends a message that you aren’t fearful…. bullies flock to the fearful…. the bold scare them.

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    • I really didn’t mention eye contact yet, because there are some scenarios where eye contact can serve as an alpha dog challenge, especially if we’re talking about someone unbalanced. I have to, at some point, write about personal intuition and judgment, because it requires one to be tuned into people to know what the next action, if one is needed, will be.

      Self-defense is a sprawling subject to write about, so I’m hoping to at least cover the basics and help people give some thought to their own practices. You brought up some great points and that alternating limb concept is very interesting – I’ll have to read up more on that, as I had not heard of it before.

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      • Indeed; that’s why I mentioned “brief” although it’s a good point about the unbalanced. The very drunk or very stoned can also be very unpredictable.

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  17. Very good couple of articles so far. Speaking as someone who teaches self defence for a living, I’m very glad to see you raising more awareness about this subject. As you mentioned in your last article, the world would be a better place if everyone knew something about defending themselves, and more importantly, where able to stick up for themselves and assert themselves in a way that made it difficult for others to bully or intimidate them.

    You talk about controlling personal space in this article, which is undoubtedly a key concept in self defence. Not only is it about managing your space in a physical sense (which is extremely important, especially when someone is trying to enter it for nefarious reasons) it is also about asserting yourself. When you prevent an aggressor from entering into your space you are essentially drawing a line in the sand and stating (through body language mostly, backed up with verbal commands) that you will not be messed around. Quite often just asserting yourself in this way is enough to put most would-be attackers off from going any further. Most attackers want an easy time of it, they seek “victims”, not people who are going to disrupt their normal pre-attack rituals and make things difficult for them.

    Controlling space through some kind of non-aggressive guard/posture will also give one a chance to try and sort the situation out before it goes physical. Or if it does go physical, at least you are in a much better position to attack or defend.

    Intuition is key in these situations also, as you mentioned. Every situation is different due to the many unpredictable variables involved so although we can have broad strategies and tactics that can be used across the board, how these are applied will depend upon the circumstances you find yourself in. Each set of circumstances must be evaluated on an individual basis then. Sometimes you just won’t have time for evaluation though. Sometimes you just have to act. For these times it helps to learn to hit very hard for quite often this is the only answer. Sometimes people don’t like to hear that, but it is the truth and the sooner you accept that you may have to hit back, the sooner you can start learning how to do it right and get over and mental barriers you have in relation to that.

    I won’t go on all day here. I publish a blog called Combative Mind that has loads of info on this stuff. Feel free to drop by anytime.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting – it’s great to have an expert weigh in on these topics! I’ve been struggling to find key points to hone in on, suitable to a few blog postings. There are so many aspects to self-defense, starting with avoiding an attack altogether. I, too, feel passionate about empowering one’s self with self-defense skills.

      You make a good point about the need to react quickly and to be prepared to use physical force. This is a something I feel very strongly about, especially in regards to women, many of whom can’t imagine striking back or out with power.

      I know that intuition is key in any situation. Unfortunately, it is also subjective and difficult to address if someone does not innately sense when a situation is “off”. Oftentimes, people (and again, it is often women) have overridden their own sense of intuition so frequently to meet the cultural mores of being “nice” that the “trust your gut” instinct is rusty.

      I did browse your blog Combative Mind – a lot of good information. I really enjoyed the article about martial arts dogmas. I am fortunate to have a martial arts instructor who is forthright about the differences between MA training and self-defense techniques.

      Thanks again for commenting and near the end of this series, when I do a post on training resources, I’ll list your site as well.

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      • Yes, unfortunately physical force is necessary sometimes. However, social conditioning etc. makes that difficult for people to accept sometimes, which is why I emphasis quite a bit the mental/internal aspects of self defence in my work. Anyone can hit, but not everyone can actually bring themselves to do it, which is why you need to work on yourself just as much, as I think you mentioned as well.

        With intuition, the same thing applies. Social conditioning and the need to be nice and not offend anyone can be real barriers to self protection. In fact many predators play on this aspect to human personality and will turn it to their advantage. De Becker’s book “The Gift Of Fear” is a good read on these subjects.

        I look forward to your next posts. Thanks Michelle.

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  18. Here’s another type of self-defense — the one that squashes personal guilt. I knew my leaving was going to be inconvenient for the company where I worked but the job was killing me. I was feeling guilty and nervous about giving my notice. So I planned and rehearsed my little speech, and one key thought going through my head was my Zumba teacher saying, “keep your chest up;” not just shoulders back, but chest up, which aligns my body and pulls my entire torso up. I could see her in my head as she said it. I come from a line of round-shouldered slouchers so this was important for me to remember. The stance allowed for no uncertainty about my statement when I quit, and I remember now to use it often.

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  19. I’ve worked night shifts much of my life, usually in urban areas where the possibility of street crime is always present. Sometimes my jobs have required me to go into unsafe neighborhoods.

    I’m not very strong and have no self-defense skills or experience,. But I do have some accumulated “street smarts.” I understand vulnerability or power “signals” and street “etiquette.” The first rule is simple common sense — Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t go where you’re not supposed to be or are not welcome. The obvious fault lines in society are real, and they matter (much more late at night than during the day). Obvious danger zones should be avoided. Remember, you may be trespassing on someone else’s space, neighborhood, turf. Avoid giving offense to others. My brother lived for a long time in a center-city area, and occasionally heard of acquaintances being victimized by crime. He said they were usually in a place they had no business being, and late at night. Night is almost always more dangerous than day.

    If I’m someplace where I’m supposed to be and attending to legitimate business, I’m rarely afraid. For example, I once drove patients to medical appointments and frequently went into potentially hostile neighborhoods. But it was daytime, the car was marked, it was clear I had good reason to be there. Even if I had to wait on the street for a patient for 20 minutes, I acted relaxed and unafraid. I didn’t cringe when a person or a group walked by. I was there to provide a service, and I believed people in the neighborhood would give me immunity and would even protect me. With that belief, I could act unthreatened and invulnerable, and of course, people treated me accordingly.

    As another example, for many years I worked nights at newspapers. I’d often be coming home and stopping at an all-night store in the wee hours. If unsavory looking people were loitering nearby, I paid them no attention. My reasoning was that if I was out at that time of night and acted totally unafraid, onlookers must conclude that I was armed, or perhaps that I’m an undercover police officer. (BTW, some convenience stores are very safe places in the middle of the night, because that’s where uniformed police stop for coffee and donuts and to use the restroom. Everyone knows that there’s either a police officer inside the store right now, or that one might pull into the parking lot at any moment.)

    Eye contact is a tricky subject. Sometimes it’s appropriate, friendly and reassuring. Just as often it might be an unwelcome intrusion. Tread lightly here. I think street smarts regarding eye contact and acknowledgement of other people can only be gained through long experience. I would never meet someone’s eyes with a glare or a stare. This is especially dangerous in cases of “road rage.” If another driver cuts you off, ignore it. Don’t glare at them, blow your horn, or give them the finger. Be aware that many people are full of anger; nothing to be gained by provoking them.

    There’s a lot more that could be said about eye contact and acknowledging or ignoring another’s presence, but I’ll stop here.

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