Akimbo is a position of the body in which the hands are on resting on the hips and the elbows are bowed outward, or bent or bowed in a more general sense. It’s a position often used by models on a catwalk and actresses on the red carpet.
Models and actresses do this, and are often trained to do this, because the posture brings attention to the body. The position also exudes a natural confidence. However, off of the catwalk and red carpet, those who stand in this way may unconsciously or consciously communicate another meaning. This subtext that accompanies this stance is one of assertiveness, dominance, and impatience.
The Origins of Akimbo
If you think it’s a funny-sounding word, well, it is. Etymologists aren’t sure of its origin (African languages have been suggested), but many believe that akimbo is derived from the word kenebowe, which is of unknown origin, and is perhaps related to the Middle English phrase in keen bow, meaning ‘at a sharp angle’. The word may also be akin to Icelandic kengboginn, or ‘bow bent’.
Many are fascinated by the word as well as the position, and it has been depicted often by sculptors and artists such as Rembrandt, whose ‘Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo’ is considered one of the Dutchman’s great masterpieces. Through the centuries, authors have likewise used it as a literary device for describing a certain character. For example, Anne Brontë wrote in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: “Mr Hattersley strode up to the fire, and interposing his height and breadth between us and it, stood with arms akimbo, expanding his chest, and gazing round him as if the house and all its appurtenances and contents were his own undisputed possessions”.
Using Akimbo in your Daily Life
So, can awareness of this non-verbal signal affect how you communicate with others in your own life? Let’s look at some examples.
Parents sometimes stand arms akimbo when they are scolding their children for misbehaving. Think of when your own mother came into your bedroom and told you to behave. For parents, the position is a dominating stance and can also be considered a territorial display, i.e. “my house, my rules”. Couples who use this stance when having a discussion with each other may find that their body language makes their partner feel attacked and become defensive, no matter what words are used. Their discussion may quickly become an argument.
For people who do not know each other well, it may be interpreted as a symbol of dominance. Say a man and a woman go out on a blind date. As they stand at the bar, the woman stands with her hands on her hips and looks around the room. The man, who is chatting away about his volunteering with a local drug abuse treatment program and seems a genuinely nice guy, recognizes the move as an assertion of independence, However, since it also purports a measure of condescension, he man feels she is either displeased with him or with the bar he has brought her to. Either way, this date has probably started off on the wrong foot.
Athletes do it on the playing field, suggesting that they want to dominate their opponents. But in business those who use this stance appear dominating and demanding. For those who want to establish a hold on their office, this can be a good thing. For women, who want to establish themselves as confident and powerful, this body language can be quite useful. One of our best fictitious examples of this is the character of Joan Holloway on the popular series Mad Men. Set in the 1960s, Joan is the head secretary of an office full of sexist, egotistical ad managers. But Joan manages them all with her brand of efficiency and sassiness. Actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, is usually either holding a file, a cigarette, or standing arms akimbo.
However, variables such as smile and hand position make an incredible change to this stance. For confidence to come through, rather than dominance, point the thumbs forward, resting the fingers on the back of the body. This will give you a more relaxed appearance, and project open-mindedness. You’ll use this stance effectively to establish your own confidence and no-nonsense attitude, and keep it tame by simply altering it with a smile and an alternative hand position. Practice it and get in the habit now, so that the next time you’re on the red carpet, you’ll be ready to release your inner diva.