Via James Fallows, a link to a slideshow by Monica Tan:

[…] what (apart from BMI) would distinguish a white American within a crowd in Berlin or Manchester, or an Asian American walking down the street in Seoul or Beijing. The answers involved clothing, hair styles, heft, even head shapes — but most of all body language and the way people carry and present themselves.

Monica Tan is a writer from Sydney now working in Beijing, who may or may not be pictured at right.

I put it that way because Tan has produced a wonderful slide show challenging readers to apply their “judging nationality by appearance” skills. She includes a photo of herself, a Chinese Australian, among photos of eight Chinese-Chinese women of similar age. Thumbnails of all nine pictures are below. I encourage you to go to her site and page through the nine-picture slide show to see if you can tell which one of these women grew up in a rich Western country, versus the rest who were born and raised in China. Then, you can go down to the very bottom of her post, where she reveals who is who.

Indeed. Fallows claims that he picked out Tan right away, and so did most of his readers, according to his follow-up post. Here’s one quote:

I’ve never traveled in Asia or Australia, but I immediately picked out the Chinese Australian among the Chinese Chinese women in the slideshow at first glance. I looked at the photos several more times to attempt to figure out why it had been so easy, and the best I can come up with is that Monica Tan’s smile is bigger, she’s standing straighter, and her shoulders are more open.

Fallows and others mentioned posture, directness, confidence of stance. And that got me thinking…

Some of you know well enough what I look like. For those who don’t, here are a couple of photos from the last 2 years. The quality isn’t great. I don’t have many photos of myself – never got into that habit – and of those, there are fewer still that show me standing and facing the camera, as in Monica Tan’s photos. I’ve thought of having a photo taken specifically for the purpose of this post, then decided against it.

And this is me in 1981, at the age of 15.

And in 1990, aged 24.

If you have a friend or family member who looks like I did at 15, there’s not much point in telling them to stop slouching and to stand up straight. My parents and friends told me that many times over, and each time I curled up just a little bit more in response to their disapproval. Once your muscles, skeleton and connective tissue have settled in, you can’t just straighten out your back and uncurl your shoulders by an act of will, not any more than you could stop your heartbeat or control the function of your liver.

Several years of martial arts training have helped, as did other sports, physical exercise in general, therapeutic massage and bodywork. It’s not just physical changes, either. I’ve found the metaphorical meaning of “standing up straight” to be quite literal: once the change in posture becomes physically possible, it still takes a mental adjustment to stop curling up the shoulders as a matter of habit, to allow yourself to display more confidence. I don’t want this to get misinterpreted as some sort of New Age therapy where you close your eyes, visualize your new perfect posture, believe in yourself or something, and – drumroll! – it happens. It was a long and complex process with many setbacks, usually driven by its physical side, with the mental changes following a few steps behind and failing to catch up sometimes.

I don’t think I slouch much these days… except sometimes when I’m tired and low on energy, when a bad situation gets the better of me. I know I do that because I’ve seen photos of it. I take each one as a warning sign.

But we should get back to the questions that Tan and Fallows were asking about appearance and nationality. And I’m not sure that I could answer that, really. There’s a lot to be said for growing up, or not, in a culture that values confidence and makes it a default. In my case, though, there was a confluence of specific personal circumstances that framed the way I grew up, much more so than any general nationality-related considerations. Getting straightened up may have had to do with being embedded in a different culture, but also with better living conditions, and yes, I’m including here the 5 years in graduate school. Something else to remember: I had the money to pay for the martial arts classes, the massage and physiotherapy. I could afford to buy a new bed each time the old one started sagging and giving me back pains. And, as stressful and time-consuming my job can be, it’s not exactly hard physical labour of the back-breaking kind.

That’s my 2 cents, anyway.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

2 thoughts on “Unslouched”

  1. Several years of martial arts training have helped, as did other sports, physical exercise in general, therapeutic massage and bodywork.

    As an ancillary benefit, now if someone tells you to stop slouching, you can beat the hell out of him.

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