In praise of big women

Are You an Impostor?
November 11, 2014
Strong words for women
November 13, 2014

Today’s Western women are culturally trained to think that small is beautiful—Cinderella’s lost slipper was no size 10. Whether it’s buying jeans a couple sizes too snug (hence the widespread muffin-top phenomenon) or downplaying our own accomplishments, we’re often more comfortable when we make ourselves small. This isn’t such a great thing as a general life principle, and it’s definitely a bad idea when you’re in front of an audience.

How do you make yourself big? It’s not actually a matter of physical size. Good thing–I’m 5’2” at best. Being big is a matter of presence, not poundage. Some ways to get started:

Stand up straight. Hunching and slouching make you look weak, even sloppy and apathetic. If you’re presenting while sitting, sit up straight—it’ll help you breathe better too.

Widen your base. If you’re standing as you speak to your audience (usually a good idea), keep your feet about hip-width apart. Placing them close together may feel safe or attractive, but makes you look small and vulnerable. What’s more, your body will remain stiff, making tiny little gestures, to help you maintain your balance.

If you’re sitting, try not to twist your ankles and legs into a pretzel—you’ll be off balance and your body will hold onto tension. Not to mention that contortionist displays may distract your audience.

Take advantage of the space around you. Use your hands, arms and elbows to help illustrate your points (within reason, of course). You don’t have to gesture as dramatically as an opera singer or a baseball umpire, but do explore the possibilities in your full range of motion, and adapt them for the size of your audience and venue. If you dance or do yoga or Pilates, try some of these moves at home to experiment with how extending your arms can change the way you look and feel.

Get loud. Project your voice so that the audience members farthest away from you can hear you without strain. I once attended a job talk for a female candidate with a voice so soft that I could hardly hear her at five feet away. She was undoubtedly intelligent, but came across to us all as timid, lethargic and, well, boring.

The way to get enough volume is to breathe from your belly, not your chest. This means, yes, not holding your tummy in to look small and svelte. But no one will be looking at your midsection—they’ll be entranced by your words and your confident image. Wardrobe note: don’t wear clothes that are tight around your waist. They’ll constrict your ability to use that all-important diaphragm muscle in breathing and projecting.

The take-away here: creating a powerful presence has little to do with the size or shape of your body. It’s how you use your body that counts. Whether you wear a size 2 or 22, when you’re in front of a group, big is beautiful.

Obviously, exuding confidence and power as a speaker involves more than just physical techniques. In my next blog I’ll address the verbal side of things–how to avoid common pitfalls that plague many female speakers.

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