Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back?

I read a review of the advice book by that professor who has been working so hard to prove that a white male Canadian academic can be a player in the misogynist olympics. The lines the reviewer quoted from his book were enough to tell me his ideas weren’t worth my time, even if I hadn’t known about his defense of so-called “incels,” his endorsement of enforced monogamy (I first wrote enforced misogyny, which is probably true, too), and his silly opposition to using people’s preferred pronouns.

According to the reviewer, Kate Manne, rule number one in Jordan Peterson’s advice book is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”

Anybody with any physical training will tell you that’s nonsense. That’s considered the classic military posture; we say those words and can immediately visualize rows of soldiers standing stiffly at attention. Every so often one of them passes out.

My many years in the martial arts, complemented by some training in Alexander technique and Qigong, have given me a foundation in how our bodies work. It’s something I know with my body, not just by reading about it or hearing someone say “stand up straight.” We are physical beings and how we deal physically with the world affects who we are.

The combination of stand up straight and shoulders back makes you rigid and stiff. It also puts an unnatural arch in your back. To actually move from that position, you have to shift out of it, which is inefficient. Since he doesn’t appear to have been in the military, I would guess Peterson is one of those men who heard this in tough guy movies and, because he knows nothing about his body, thought it was valid.

I assume his goal is to keep people from slumping, which isn’t a good position, either. The thing is, slumping isn’t remedied by standing rigidly.  The best way to stand is neither stiff and rigid with the shoulders back nor slumped over. It’s standing upright but relaxed, with your shoulders down (not pushed forward or back), and visualizing that you are extending through the top of your head and along your arms and legs. By extending I mean relaxing starting from your center (just below your belly button) and letting your energy and breath move toward all your extremities.

It’s easier to show you this than to describe it, but the end result is a relaxed upright position from which you can move in any direction. Tai Chi standing meditation is a great way to learn it, and gives you the skill to work on it by yourself.

The reason this tells me I don’t want to waste time on Peterson’s book is not just that he’s wrong about something that is basic to movement, but also that what he’s saying is the canned advice that’s been given to men for a very long time. That is, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be a great thinker, he gives people advice on how to stand when he hasn’t spent anytime studying how they should stand and he repeats bad advice on the subject.

That indicates to me that his work is superficial, based on some rules of male behavior that have been passed down without thought for many years. I see no reason to listen to advice from someone who is just regurgitating the same old nonsense.

By the way, according to philosophy professor Bryan W. Van Norden, arguing in The New York Times that free speech doesn’t mean people who don’t know what they’re talking about are entitled to a venue, Peterson apparently thinks men have no respect for women because they can’t physically fight them. That makes me assume that Peterson doesn’t think women can fight.

He’s wrong about that, too. But what would you expect from somebody who doesn’t know how to stand?



Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back? — 14 Comments

  1. So many things people are wrong about and then they double, triple, etc. down on the false when provided the facts, such as this anciently, famously white supremacist, secessionist military academy in South Carolina:

    Though the piece doesn’t mention this, having read a fair amount of Robert E. Lee’s writings, I feel fairly certain that ‘sublimest’ wasn’t in his vocabulary or even his rhetorical one. He was an engineer, and they write dry. Like Grant was an artillery mathematician and quartermaster, he too never used any but the words necessary to express what needed to be said, as clearly comprehensible to everyone, as could be. (Unlike me, alas.)

    Then, reading along, I see that Lee supposedly wrote this letter while living at Arlington on his way to — New Mexico! I go, WAIT! in 1852 he didn’t live at Arlington, and he NEVER went to the New Mexico Territory! I keep reading and go, Whew! because this is part of the debunking, that these are contrary to documented fact.

    But the Citadel doesn’t care and continues to force feeding this fake quote to the cadets. No wonder we despise confederates and their latter day descendants.

    • I was reading about what Andrew Johnson did to destroy the kind of work that should have been done after the Civil War and found myself thinking that John Wilkes Booth got what he wanted when he killed Lincoln.

      We need to end so many myths in this country, and yet people cling to them like a lifeline.

  2. Sigh. So many men who would benefit, at least in the long run, from meeting my daughter. And perhaps he has Obamacare, so that he could get medical treatment after she expresses her opinion.

  3. Egad, I should have known it was only a matter of time before the Peterson scourge made its way to this wonderful enclave of thoughtful online discussion. He’s pretty much impossible to avoid up here, north of the 49th. And his supporters are many and rabid. They don’t care that none of what he says makes a whit of sense when systematically and logically unpacked. “He’s read a lot of books, so he knows his stuff” (this is an actual quote I read in one discussion) is the general consensus—no matter that these same people routinely denigrate any activity that exudes even a whiff of intellectual enterprise beyond reading the latest sports scores.

    This is a man who has given up a highly-paid, tenured position at one of the nation’s most respected universities in favour of a demonstrably far more lucrative, crowd-sourced career, touring the global lecture circuit with his white male victimhood schtick. Blathering on about “freedom of speech,” as if anyone is actually preventing him from speaking. He even gets his lobster physiology wrong. But none of that matters to his supporters. He will argue—and technically, this is true—that he has not said anything that specifically supports racism and misogyny. Oh no—he’s much too vague (read: slippery) for that. But he has also not publicly disavowed the racists and misogynists who have very openly adopted him as their justifying guru. Therein lies the truth of his message. He’s a big part of the problem we’re discussing in the “Time to Act” thread.

    What’s the antidote to populism?

    • I actually stumbled on him awhile back because someone I know and respect quoted something from him that made sense, so I investigated further and found it was the exception rather than the rule for his material. I ignored him after that, but then saw this quote about shoulders back and realized that what he said had no foundation.

      I think the opposite of the hate-filled populism we’ve seen lately is something that values and cares for all people. My patience with the hate is hitting its all time low.

  4. I’d love for you to post more about Alexander technique, if you’re interested. It’s something I’ve heard about in passing, but I don’t really know details.

    • Alexander technique was developed by Matthias Alexander, an actor, in the late 19th century. He was kept losing his voice on stage (at a time when there weren’t microphones), so he began experimenting with his body to figure out why. The link in Robert’s comment below will probably give you more history and more information about teachers.

      The central principle is move your head and your body will follow. It corresponds nicely with the Aikido principles of extending from your center. I studied with one of my Aikido teachers, who had studied with Marjorie Barstow, a direct student of Mr. Alexander (which is what I always hear Alexander teachers call him). We used to train in a group, each of us bringing a movement that we wanted to work on, so that we learned not just by Pete (my teacher) putting his hands on us and guiding us, but by watching others.

      It’s good for writers, who hunch over their keyboards. It’s very good for musicians, who can cramp themselves up over their instruments. It’s very good for martial artists, both for improving your technique and for protecting you from injuries caused by repeating bad movement. I started to learn how to protect my knees.

      People teach it different ways. I’d recommend starting with a small group class, because that would give you the overview of the whole process.

      I might blog on this if I decide to take any classes again. I’m a little rusty, because it’s been awhile. But I highly recommend it.

  5. You’re absolutely correct about “standing up straight” – all that happens is a re-arrangement of your harmful tensions, not any kind of actual improvement. The Alexander Technique has a lot to say about this kind of thing, and a great deal more as well. I suggest anyone who wants to learn more about it go to There is a whole section of that page devoted to musicians.

    • Thanks for the link. It’s been a long time since I did any Alexander training, but I found it very useful as a martial artist. It was Alexander work that gave me the vocabulary as well as the physical understanding that made me understand “stand up straight with your shoulders back” is bad advice.

      • All my youth, my mother told me to stand up straight with my shoulders back. It hurt, so I didn’t. That was the way my mother stood; it wasn’t until after she died that I read a medical report that said, in part, that her back problems were largely due to that selfsame ramrod posture.

        It took years for someone to say “drop your shoulders,” which immediately improved my posture 100%.

        • Yep. Amazing, really.

          And your experience proves my point. I see no reason to listen to general advice on how to live from someone who is so wrong on something so basic.

  6. Hunched shoulders are also a stress response. Half my business as an LMT was trying to help people relax their shoulder carriage. It’s amazingly difficult to convince people that a large part of their upper back pain is because their chest muscles are too tight from either activities or lack of activities. (Also–we do not use the anterior delt enough, and boy do we know it when we repeatedly reach for something on a shelf above our head.)

    A friend who is an expert in Critz Technique, which I worked in for years, spends a lot of time teaching people how to comfortably lead with their chests, point their center in the right direction, and let their leg swing to where the foot wishes to be. We saw less of people who took the effort to understand what she was demonstrating. (I was amazed how simply a deep breath and lifting my ribcage completely changed my stance, allowing me a full roll and push-off on the foot. But I was a 36C at 11 years old, and no girl raised where I grew up was going to stand properly in the bras they had us wearing. That was advertising, and we knew better. Had a lot of hunching to unlearn.)

    • Yeah, hunched shoulders are a real problem — and, as you say, a gendered and cultural one. But the solution is not stiffness and rigidity. Actually, stiffness and rigidity is rarely the solution to anything.