Body Language Expert Amy Cuddy Describes Her Childhood Roots

By Lisa Scheid
Reading Eagle, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Amy Cuddy is well known for her bestselling book “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenge.” Her research explores how body language can change how we see ourselves. She’s famous for showing how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on chances for success.

Reading Eagle, Pa.

She’s a best-selling author. Her 2012 TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” has reached tens of millions of people.

She’s spoken all over the world, on scores of television shows and to professional groups. She’s published her research in prestigious journals.

Yet, Amy Cuddy is still the small-town girl who fell in love with ballet at Linda Petsu’s School of Dance in Wolmelsdorf.

Back then, she was known as Amy Casselberry, and she was still living the childhood in Robesonia that would reverberate through her groundbreaking work as social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor.

“I’m interested in the idea of communicating through movement, and dance is the ultimate form of body language,” Cuddy said in a telephone interview in late June. “How we express ideas through movement, through posture. … It’s no coincidence that I study body language.”

Cuddy readily admits she started dancing because she wanted to wear a tutu. Soon, though, she found herself taking every class she could.

Even at 5, she was the kind of person who went all-in.

Five or six years later, she headed to Berks Ballet Theatre, where she experienced a rigor her gifted body and mind had not encountered.

“The first day of I took classes, I was crying by the end,” Cuddy said. “I had so much to learn.”

Captivated viewers
Cuddy’s mind-body research may have lead to her 2012 TED Talk, the second most-watched in the program’s history, but it was her warmth and humility that captivated viewers, now at almost 35 million.

And it’s the universality of her message on feelings of anxiety, fear, and social pressure that resonated with people all over the world.

“When we feel powerless, we collapse inward is true in Tanzania or Dallas, Texas,” she said.

Those responses became part of her bestselling book “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenge.”

Released in December, it is already being published in 28 countries.

Cuddy’s research explores how body language can change how we see ourselves. She’s famous for showing how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on chances for success.

Cuddy, who lives outside of Boston, last visited Berks County two years ago to be inducted into the Conrad Weiser Hall of Fame.

Her childhood
What does she remember about her childhood?

“The simplicity,” she said. “Although that was not how I thought about it at the time.”

She remembers spending days that stretched in to summers at the Robesonia community pool, going to fireworks on the Fourth of July and throwing seed corn at houses on Halloween.

“Life was really nice and simple,” Cuddy said. “I’m really glad I grew up there. Really not many people grow up in towns the size I grew up in.

“There’s something special you can’t really explain, something magical about it.”

Cuddy graduated from Conrad Weiser in 1990.

“My graduating class was 150, and I thought it was enormous,” she said. For comparison she noted her son starts high school in the fall with a class size more than triple her graduation class.

“I loved high school,” she said. “I felt like everyone was friendly.
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Sure, there were cliques, but she made some great friends.

Her ambition was to leave small-town life behind, not because she disliked it, but because she wanted to experience more. And she has. But she carries Robesonia with her.

“I still feel like a small-town girl,” Cuddy said. “I’m usually impressed by size and scope. I still see the world through those eyes.

“Twenty-five years later I compare everything to Berks County in 1990s,” she said with a laugh.

Suffered injury
Cuddy said she dealt with an imposter feeling even as she approached the upper echelons of academia. She did not have a fancy pedigree, and early in her college career, Cuddy suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Doctors said Cuddy, who had been in Conrad Weiser’s gifted program, would struggle to finish college. She finished school and went onto graduate school. She proved them wrong.

What did she take with her from her Berks County upbringing?

“I feel very close to the average American,” she said. “By average,I mean hard-working people who don’t have a million options, so they choose from the options they have.”

She learned to work hard.

“I worked at the novitiate (Jesuit Center in Wernersville), a flower shop, McDonald’s,” she said. “Everyone worked. I didn’t know people who didn’t work in high school.”

She baby-sat Elsa Wertz’s children. Wertz, Cuddy’s third-grade teacher, was the one who recommended her for the gifted program and one of the teachers Cuddy acknowledges in her book. Cuddy now collaborates with research with Wertz’s daughters.
Wertz recalled Cuddy was generous as a student — and fashion-forward.

“I think (her parents) put a small fortune in leotards,” Wertz said.

Cuddy also thanked English teacher Kathy Mohn for encouraging her to write.

“She was a prolific journal writer,” Mohn said. “I think of her as having the presence of a dancer, a charisma.”

Mohn also noted Cuddy’s determination and drive, which she thought would take her far regardless of how she chose to use it.
Cuddy also credited high school social studies teacher Barbara O’Connor with encouraging her to follow her own path.
O’Connor said Cuddy was independent-minded and aware of her classmates.

“She was willing to explore new ideas and question why people think that way,” O’Connor said.

Cuddy said her fame from the TED Talk and book has made her more worldly.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been only four years,” she said. On Instagram, Cuddy recently shared a photo of herself right before the life-changing talk.

“Looking at the picture and thinking about how I felt,” she said. “Wow, have I learned a lot.”

Finding hope
Cuddy said she’s become more hopeful because she has encountered so many people striving to do well for themselves and others. Simultaneously, she’s also seen more of the ugliness in the world.

“I see a lot more than I could four years ago,” Cuddy said.

Cuddy is working on a young readers version of her book. She particularly interested in how in middle school girls’ body language goes from expansive to collapsing.

She is also collaborating with Harvard’s women’s athletic teams to learn how athletes are resilient after small failures such as a missed shot or bad serve.

“Coaches really understand the mind-body connection,” Cuddy said. Coaches watch players after successes and failures and see the destructive impulse that prevents them from taking risks, In understanding this, she wants to probe the question of how we recover from failures in life.

It should be no surprise that the woman who encourages people from the boardroom to the classroom to literally open their arms wide would herself be expanding her realm of influence.

This fall, Cuddy has taken a leave from the school of business to teach at the Harvard School of Public Health. She’ll be focusing on well-being at the relatively new Center for Health and Happiness.

“I feel called to this work, serving people who feel powerless,” Cuddy said.

It’s work that was enkindled in her childhood.

“I really do not take anything for granted,” she said. “I know we are all close to (she pauses) … there’s nothing like long-term job security.

“I’m really, really proud to be from Berks County with such soulful, hardworking people.”

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