Women’s Typical Poses in Advertisements: A Pain in the Neck?


Something about Kong Hyo-jin (공효진) got me all hot and bothered last week. And no, I don’t mean her lingerie photoshoot for Calvin Klein.

Rather, it was her ads for Uniqlo (유니클로), all over Busan at the moment. Surely, I thought, the creative team could have anticipated how their ads would look on the side of buses, and designed something that didn’t look like she was literally squashed into them?

But then I caught a subway train on Line 2, every carriage of which was decked out like this:

And suddenly I realized that her squashed appearance wasn’t an accident:

Still, what’s the big deal?

Well, just try it for yourself. Assuming that you have, and that your neck no longer hurts, then now you too may be wondering why her head was placed so awkwardly. Moreover, why is it overwhelmingly women that have this “head cant” in advertisements too, albeit not usually tilted quite so much?

(Sources: unknown)

Sociologist Erving Goffman believed it made women look subordinate, and hence that the disparity was evidence of sexism. But as I already discussed that back in February, my original aim here was just to pass on further evidence of the sociological pattern.

Yet the more I looked at the ad, the more I liked it despite myself. And I wanted to know why.

One possible reason, I thought, was Kong Hyo-jin’s luxuriant, flowing hair, another recurring theme of advertisements. Combined with her hands on her hips, it reminded of this ad with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) especially:

(Source: unknown)

And in particular, the wind effect:

…makes it look as though whatever she is looking at (presumably a male viewer) is powerful enough to nearly blow her away while she marvels at him and waits for his approach. She doesn’t look like she intends to act, but rather like she hopes to be acted upon–sexual but still submissive.

As discussed in detail here. But of course that wouldn’t apply to all cases of women with windswept hair in advertisements, and so I did a little investigating. And just guess what I found was #1 in “The 13 Most Common Female Courtship Signals and Gestures” in my Korean edition of The Definitive Book of Body Language (p. 290)?

Basically, that says that when women see a man they are interested in, the first thing they tend to do is start touching their hair, as raising their arms allows them to more easily give off pheromones via their armpits. I’m surprised that it doesn’t also mention that it would also serve to thrust their chests out a little too, and that as women tend to have longer hair than men then touching it also shows off that secondary sexual characteristic; but it does note that even women with short hair do it, so that latter may not be all that important really.

The head cant though? It’s more complicated, and for a little while I confused it with number 7 on that list (pp. 293-4):

But which is not actually referring to the head cant, but rather how women will raise their shoulders and look at the object of their affection while he’s preoccupied, suddenly looking away when he looks at them (which in turn makes him secretly look at them afterward, according to the book). Apparently, the round shape of their shoulders is suggestive of breasts also, which is not as ludicrous as it sounds considering breasts themselves likely evolved (to such a disproportionately large size for primates) through looking similar to buttocks.

Still, I did know that a tilted head showed interest in something or someone though (sexual or otherwise), and sure enough I soon found this (pp. 231-2):

Apologies for lacking the time to properly translate all of the above scans; if anyone would like me to, I’m quite happy to later in the week. In the meantime, it basically says that in addition being an expression of interest, tilting the head also serves to expose the neck, the obvious submissiveness of which is exaggerated by also having the effect of making the person shorter and/or smaller, which is quite the opposite of standing up straight to emphasize our height when we want to compete or fight with others in some sense.

Finally, it notes that it is often seen on women in advertisements, although it doesn’t say why. Upon reading that though, I finally realized what many of you probably knew all along: Kong Hyo-jin is in that pose because it’s sexually appealing to men, as easily confirmed by this, this, and this article on dating advice, and that’s why I was drawn to it I guess.

Hell, even knowing all that, I still like it!

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. Or rather, that seeing that pose so often on women in advertisements isn’t. After all, there are many many other ways to appeal to heterosexual men, some quite the opposite of looking submissive, so it’s strange that that particular one would be so common (and, related, that you find women taller than accompanying men in ads much less than in real life). Moreover, why is the ad designed for a male gaze too, when presumably the intended consumers of the women’s clothes advertised are women?

But I started this post because Kong Hyo-jin’s pose looked so strange, and just because it did ultimately prove to have a logic is not to say that women in advertisements aren’t still frequently placed in some bizarre, awkward poses nevertheless. Consider the other Uniqlo advertisement in the series on the bus for instance:


Next, on the subway:

And finally, the full length version:

Now, despite deconstructing advertisements for over 3 years, just like everyone else in a developed country I too am exposed to 500-1000 advertising messages a day. So some common advertising themes I just simply get used to, a sure sign of which is that I originally thought that this was the more normal and natural-looking of the 2 advertisements, and hence had no intention of writing about it.

But in fact, it’s anything but “natural”. Again, I invite you to adopt Kong Hyo-jin’s pose for yourself just to see how strange it really is.

The crucial thing is her arms: one folded over the other, it reminds me most of a gesture that you’ll frequently see on new students and colleagues and so on on their first days at schools and workplaces. Just like on the woman below on page 103 of The Definitive Book of Body Language:

As I first mentioned here, the logic behind it is that when someone is nervous, then their instinctive reaction is to protect their exposed fronts using whatever comes to hand, be they bags, books, folders…or of course their own arms. Meeting people with folded arms doesn’t exactly create a warm and open first impression though, and so with the other partially open, hanging arm, they try to express that at the same time.

Yes, it is indeed an awkward compromise, but even having read the 1989 edition of Body Language above at the age of 13, and being perfectly aware of what I was doing (and why) thereafter, nevertheless I still couldn’t stop putting my arms like that on my first days at all 6 of my high schools (in 3 years in 3 countries). For those lacking self-confidence, as I did back then, it is an amazingly powerful instinct.

In Kong Hyo-jin’s case however, while I guess the expression of nervousness does accentuate an image of submissiveness, it’s just too much of a compromise to expose one part of the body – the neck – while protecting others with the arms. It also contradicts her “bashful knee bend” too, which I discuss here.

But why? I confess I simply don’t know, being a little mentally subdued after having to reconsider my original opinions about the first ad so much. Now seems as good a time as any then, to throw the floor open to readers, who may see something that I’ve missed and/or have alternative explanations!^^

46 thoughts on “Women’s Typical Poses in Advertisements: A Pain in the Neck?

  1. I’m certainly naive but I see a practical use rather than a nervous-submissive message in the second ad. She might be trying to show her neck but what is actually rendered leads the viewer to stare at the scarf instead. Same goes with the protecting arm, which actually leads to show the trendy way of putting a long sleeve top below the short sleeve shirt. Only the shirt and the denim is advertised, but if the whole outfit didn’t look trendy people wouldn’t think about buying them. In other words, the model pointing at the trendy parts of the outfit helps selling the advertised ones.


    1. If the ad creators wanted to draw attention to the scarf, they should have used a brightly colored one that would stand out from the model’s dark hair and shirt. Her head is slanted so much that it looks like it was Photoshopped by someone wonky eyed.


      1. I do agree with Ivo below that the simplest answer can sometimes be the best one, and in absence of any input from the creative team then your explanation is as good as any other Tobi. But although I really mean no offense, I do think you’re reaching a bit with that explanation (alas, pun fully intended!), as there are so many alternative, genuinely natural and/or more comfortable ways to highlight the features you mention.

        One that comes instantly to mind would be to have her have one hand behind her head, thereby doing the hair thing as mentioned in the first ad, and also have her head slightly titled (ditto), both of which would serve equally well to show off the scarf and having a long sleeve top below a short sleeve shirt. Combine that with having her other hand on her hip like in the first ad, leg slightly bent (as it already is), and a smile on her face as if she’s pretend-posing for a boyfriend or something (not as if she’s a professional model)…then hell, I’m perfectly serious when I say that I’m feeling very cute just doing it myself at my desk as I type this.

        Instead, you have semi-closed arms that send a completely different message to the sultry, knowing smile and exposed neck and so on. Indeed, I wanted to conclude in the text – but wisely decided to post instead of spending yet another day on it – , that I personally think that the advertising team literally, and unthinkingly, just threw some of the of the usual and familiar elements of women’s advertising poses together, not realizing how much they would clash in this case.


  2. The idea Tobi has does appeal to me, sometimes the simple answer could be the best one.

    However, I do have a question regarding page 103 of The Definitive Book of Body Language you show in your page. The posture the woman makes on this page (one arm in front, holding the other arm which is to the side of her) is something I haven’t seen yet in Korea, but now that I am in Korea I see women take a posture I have never seen in the Netherlands (my native country) before: they make this position, but then with the arm to the back instead of the front. What does the book say about this posture?

    I know, it’s a silly question, but I was really wondering what that posture signals, since it is so new to me.


  3. As for the posture 103, I remember reading that Wayne taking that same posture at the end of the movie “The Searchers (1955)” as a sort of tribute to a dead friend. I have some difficulties believing that the posture itself would have “non-manly” or “indecisive” meanings. Hey, we are talking about John Wayne here!

    The picture of him doing this can be seen in the IMDB’s site. I won’t even try to post the picture here, because I’d very likely fail, just like the link below…


    Look at the 2nd picture on the upper left.


      1. Thanks for the comments everyone, but I’m about to hit the sack sorry, so will reply properly tomorrow night. But just quickly Finn, what’s the picture’s number? (after you click on “See all 81”)


          1. I see it now thanks. One important thing to remember about interpreting body language though, is that context is everything, and John Wayne doesn’t exactly look like he’s about to start his first day on the ranch in that photo. Actually he looks like he’s simply holding his arm because he’s injured it to me.


          2. It does look like that if you do not know the story behind it.


            “Western star Harry Carey died in 1947. Director John Ford cast Carey’s wife (Olive Carey) as Mrs. Jorgensen (the mother) and Carey’s son (Harry Carey Jr.) as one of the sons (Brad) as a tribute to Carey. In the closing scene with John Wayne framed in the doorway, Wayne holds his right elbow with his left hand in a pose that Carey fans would recognize as one that he often used. Wayne later stated he did it as a tribute to Carey. Off-camera, Olive watched. ”

            Anyway, thanks for writing such an interesting blog.


          3. And thanks to you for the link in turn, but unfortunately it doesn’t explain how it was “a tribute to Carey”, or why he did that with his arms instead of something else.

            Either way though, I’d wager that 9 times out of 10 when you see it in real life, it’ll be for the reasons I described.


  4. I never realized head-cocking was so strange or feminine… couldn’t the real explanation for it be that cute animals do it all the time? I know my kitten does it frequently, as does my grown dog. (Call them, pretend to toss them food, and when they realize the trick, they’ll cock their heads at you: ‘what the heck, man?’)


    1. Just to clarify: it’s not actually particularly feminine really, as just like those dating advice sites I linked to said, both sexes do it to each other when they’re interested in each other. It’s just that for whatever reasons, you see women doing it in ads far more often than you do men, and so it’s easy and natural to come to think of it as feminine because of that.

      Agreed that it can be cute though: submissiveness and cuteness often (but not always) go hand in hand after all.


  5. In response to the sort of gendered out-of-placeness of the poses struck in these ads, maybe models in even female-targeted ads and magazines tend to be in more submissive or otherwise heterosexually-attractive poses because women are either socially or naturally programed to subconciously recognize these poses as such (in otherwords, attractive to heterosexual men), leading to emulation in hopes of increasing physical attractiveness and thus the chance for reproduction? Just a thought.

    Phew. Bit of a run-on sentence there….


    1. Why is being submissive in women considered attractive to men?

      I just wonder why they are portrayed more in advertising as James point out that men and women do these kind of gestures toward someone they find attractive. If this is the case, would these poses such as head-cocking just be attractive poses instead of “heterosexually-attractive” poses?


      1. Yes, that’s precisely my point (well, your first at least): if they make the person look submissive, but are in fact attractive on either sex, then something is up when it’s overwhelmingly women you find them on in advertisements.

        Having said that, although empirical studies do find that overall Korean advertisments tend to present women in a more sexist fashion than US ones, they do also tend to present Korean men in a much more cute and submissive fashion also; see here for more on that.


  6. I don’t tend think of myself as culturally conservative, but it’s not as though the images that are concluded to be so sexually imbalanced in the reading you linked to me or the many other posts you have made seem unusuall. As is in fact pointed out by that reading, men and women do not currently have true social equality, so why should we expect that they should be portrayed in equal manner in advertisements?

    As nice as it would be for every ad to be as avant-garde and feminist as may be necessary to change the course of society, it seems unrealistic to expect or even hope that every ad will be, or, with all due respect, to study ads that strike may strike someone as particularly anti-feminist. Granted, there are many cases that are so far out of the norm that they’re worthy further study, but otherwise, these sort of ads just seem reflective of our current societal reality.


      1. Exactly Marvin. And Luke: the point is that considering how we encounter 500-1000 advertising messages a day, then any sexist depictions contained therein are a strong socialization agent by which we come to regard that sexism as “natural”. I can’t see how it harms anyone to be better informed of that and hence realize that they’re anything but, and moreover it’s not like advertisers don’t respond if enough consumers, duly informed, complain about their ads.


  7. HAHA.. OoH so true! they always pop the hip! I was just laughing throught this whole post! The whole reaching for the hair and head tilting… ! maybe it’s just .. being nervous and there’s nothing else to do–so you play with your hair? raise your arm a little?.. stick our your chest?? mola mola… ha!


  8. Well it’s hard for me to believe that I’m even going to say it, and I’m bound to both regret doing so/receive an e-beating for saying it, but the simple truth is that the sexes aren’t equal. I think we can agree, on the contrary, that humans are some of the most sexually dimorphous mammals on the planet.

    In my defense, I sincerely believe that women have the potential to fly past men in our society, given the chance, and given that the only truly notable and fairly consistent (but certainly not without exception) advantage that men have over women is physical strength, which isn’t actually all that useful in most stratums of modern society. The fact that women have (again, generally) less testosterone in their bodies means that they can react in more situations in a more thoughtful and careful way, with more finesse, instead of simply taking a big hammer to things, as men are so wont to do.

    Now I most certainly understand that what you are doing is attempting to expose that which programs into us a belief in feminine inferiority (in terms of power), thus leveling the psychological playing field so that whatever strengths a person may have, regardless of gender, they can play out in whatever way they may without unfair external cultural influences. It just seems to me as though this particular field of study is saying “look, there’s a problem”, when in fact people already know this, and anyone who denies it is putting his/her head in the sand or worse, denying it for his/her own benefit.

    I think that even if most people are aware enough to know that this is, in fact, an issue, they either don’t care enough to fix it or don’t have enough time to, and so are content (content, not happy) operating in our currently-inegalitarian society. I also tend to think that the people who are drawn to a blog such as yours are those who are not content with the state of society and wish to change it; in otherwords, it serves as little more than an echo chamber (there’s no way to make that not insulting, is there?).

    I sincerely hope that you don’t take all this as demeaning your work; quite the opposite, I admire it (as I said before, I’ve been following this blog for more than a year now) and am fully aware that the more such study is done on this topic the greater the chance of resolving the issues it presents. Perhaps I’m just too cynical and pessimistic to think that there’s much of a chance to begin with.


      1. Don’t play the semantics game. I said “some of the most” dimorphous, and even if I’m wrong on that point, it doesn’t mean that men and women are identical, a point which you can’t argue against. Nor does being wrong on that point affect the rest of my argument (not even the part that specifically singles out the primary difference between men and women- physical strength [again, most of the time]).

        I’m obviously exposing myself to harsh criticism with that long post, but at least come at it with a criticism that affects the main point if you’re going to attack it.


        1. Every claim is worth attacking if it was worth making.

          By the way, do you know what the word ‘semantics’ means? Semantics is the *only* thing that could possibly be worth discussing. Everything else is meaningless syntax.


    1. Don’t worry Luke, I’m not at all offended by your comment or take it as a criticism, but we will have to agree to disagree on most of it. I don’t agree that ” we can agree…that humans are some of the most sexually dimorphous mammals on the planet” for instance (do you really mean “among” some?), as I’d actually always thought they were among the more similar ones myself, although I don’t know enough about other mammals to say really. More to the point though, I don’t really see the relevance, and find the depiction of the differences between men and women in your next paragraph rather simplistic. I do agree with the 3rd though, and after all, apart from the the obvious physical differences most real or alleged sex differences are just slightly offset bell curves really, meaning that many members of one sex are in fact better at something that is supposedly the exclusive preserve of members of the other sex.

      Also, I’m not offended by your point about my blog being an echo chamber, but again I’m not sure I see your point: the same is true of the entire media and especially the internet, regardless of the subject(s) focused on and its adherents.


    2. “I think we can agree, on the contrary, that humans are some of the most sexually dimorphous mammals on the planet.”

      This isn’t true at all. Human beings actually aren’t very sexually dimorphous. They are less so than many primates. In fact, because the physical differences between women and men have huge overlaps (and that there are more difference within each sex than between them).

      And when you say men have more physical strength than women – on average, men do have more upper body strength, but on average women have more lower body strength. It’s why during physical fitness tests in high school, the girls had to do more situps but the boys had to do more pushups.


  9. Alright then, stop attacking on syntax then. And I suppose then that I should be attacking you on semantics. After all, you decided to begin this back-and-forth by taking apart one particular sentence without even taking into account of whether your deconstruction was right (which it wasn’t).

    And you still have yet to attack the central point of my argument.


    1. I was writing a lengthy reply, but then I realized I’m not even sure about what your argument is… let alone the central point of this argument.

      Maybe you can clarify in a couple of sentences what your argument is? I would very much appreciate it.


  10. I think the pose is two fold. One it is to present to the male viewers her sexuality, but then also inform the ladies who will be looking at it that she is modest/shy about this sexuality. What feeling comes up for me as a woman is to take care of her. We are sexual beings but, being modest and nervous about your sexuality gives comfort to women that we won’t be challenged for our man. Therefore, we can take care of this woman and show her the ropes of being a woman. We can be buddies and go shopping because she isn’t going to steal my man. I think this is what this ad means to me.


  11. I wanted to share this image i saw in one optical shop here in the philippines. I took a picture of it using my phone. It may not be Korean ad, but one look and i think its crazy. and sorry if its not directly related to this post.


    1. If I’d said something really outrageous and/or obscure then I would indeed provide a source and explanation, but it’s a well-known theory (albeit by no means universally accepted) as to how human female breasts evolved. Take 2 minutes googling “breasts” and “evolution” yourself if you’re interested.


      1. I am aware of some evolutionary theories about human breasts, but all I found about that one is this from the Wikipedia article for Breast:

        “Some zoologists (notably Desmond Morris) believe that the shape of female breasts evolved as a frontal counterpart to that of the buttocks … However, this theory has since been generally disregarded due to the discovery that other primates, such as orangutans, routinely mate in the face-to-face position even though the females do not have prominent breasts.”

        Do you have some recent references about this?


        1. Well, I found several references in a quick search myself. And it’s still quite a valid theory despite Desmond Morris’s mistake, although I admit that I should have originally written “…considering one theory of how breasts themselves evolved (to such a disproportionately large size for primates) was through looking similar to buttocks”.

          Either way, sorry, but however unintentional, I personally find it pretty rude to open a conversation with simply “Source? Explanation?”, as it’s my experience that it’s usually done by trolls. And there really is plenty of information about the theory out there if you’re prepared to look.


          1. I am still now, as I was when I made the first comment, merely interested in recent references giving arguments and/or indicating scientific consensus for the quote from the blog post. I just thought you’d have a couple of links or titles to share and that would be that.

            I did a larger search this time and again did not find the types of references I was looking for. I found this:

            Section “Breasts and Butts”:
            “Szalay and Costello (1991) have continued this line of thinking, but argue that permanently enlarged breasts sexually arouse males not because they look like buttocks, but because they mimic the appearance of female genitalia.”
            Szalay F.S. and R.K.Costello. 1991. Evolution of Permanent Estrus Displays in Hominids. Journal of Human Evolution 20:439-464.

            And I found this (the book Women’s Evolutionary Enigmas discredits the buttock-mimicry theory):

            G.Vandermassen. Women’s Evolutionary Enigmas, Book Review (David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton, How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories). Evolutionary Psychology 2009 7(4) 527-533
            “Inevitably, not everyone will share their assessment of the relative merits of each account. A case can be made, for instance, that the finding that estrus was not lost in the course of human evolution, and that ovulation in women is not so concealed after all, should have warranted more attention (see Thornhill and Gangestad, 2008).”
            Reference: http://www.amazon.com/Evolutionary-Biology-Human-Female-Sexuality/dp/019534099X

            And Wikipedia only gives negative comments in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Naked_Ape_%28book%29 about its reception by “academics”.


          2. I mean the book How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories discredits it*


          3. Just a quick note to say sorry that my reply to your first comment was so dismissive, as I can see now that you do genuinely want to know more about the topic. I’ll reply properly just as soon as I can then (but probably not until Sunday sorry!).


          4. Also

            is favorable

            says it’s “problematic”

            but I’m not sure if these articles reference the arguments from, for example, Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind (“reliable indicators of youth, health, fertility, symmetry, and adequate fat reserves”).

            T. M. Caro. Human breasts: Unsupported hypotheses reviewed (http://www.springerlink.com/content/gk34152k55505x20/)
            discredits the theory


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