I’m A Grown Woman Who Sits Like A Child. I Bet You Do, Too

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
As I write this story I have my right leg folded underneath my left on my desk chair. My right ankle is tucked under my left thigh, leaving one foot dangling off the seat while the other rests on the floor. It has some variations but I adopt this position instinctively wherever I’m sitting. One leg crossed over another at the knee; one crossed with the ankle resting on the knee; one where my legs are both crossed and one is tucked onto the chair; sometimes, both legs crossed on the chair like I’m in primary school assembly.
I sit like someone is weaving me together like pretzel dough. (If all this description isn’t doing it for you, google 'Ariana Grande my everything' for a visual guide.) But it wasn’t until I interviewed a sleep expert for another story that I actually questioned this habit.
Neil Stanley, a sleep expert, was advising me on ways to relax your muscles before bed to support better sleep. That included, in his words, "sitting in a relaxed position rather than that strange position that females seem to adopt where they sit on their feet, which I've never seen any men ever do!"
I became obsessed with this idea. I’m a woman and I sit on my feet so…is it because I’m a woman? Is it only a woman thing? If so, why? There was only one thing to do: conduct a thorough, and thoroughly stupid, investigation.
First things first: to establish if this position is really that common (and gendered). I put it to Instagram and anecdotally, at least, it certainly seems to be. An informal callout (paired with a very useful jpeg of the aforementioned Grande cover) led to many people, largely women, talking about their leg-sitting ways in my DMs.
Elena (21) shares that she sits like this daily and is her most comfortable when sitting this way. Megan (27) will only refrain when at the doctor's or therapy "because I feel like I can't get too comfortable". Otherwise, "I sit on my legs anywhere that I can…if the chair allows for it, I'll be sitting like that." Miriam (28) has to consciously train herself out of doing it, especially at work. "I’m a TA [teaching assistant] for kids with special educational needs. I’m supposed to be showing how we sit in assembly and so try desperately not to sit like a croissant myself and sit like a grown-up lady. I hate it though."
Mollie (25) has been sitting like this for as long as she can remember and attributes it to the fact her mum did it during her childhood; Shae (31) mainly does it when focusing, and dodges "some weird looks" when she does it at her desk; the only place Sophie (34) won’t do it is on the Tube or if it will encroach on other people’s space.
The majority – although not all – of the responses were from cis women. I also heard from queer cis men and non binary people who are also partial to a "leg sit". So I would hardly call this solely a "woman thing". There is no research to back this up either. When I reached out to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust over email, they corroborated that this is not a documented phenomenon, saying that they "haven’t noticed/know of evidence that there’s a correlation between women and sitting with legs tucked under".

I'm a TA for kids with special educational needs. I'm supposed to be showing how we sit in assembly and so try desperately not to sit like a croissant myself and sit like a grown-up lady. I hate it though.

Miriam, 28
However, anecdotally at least, others I spoke to certainly saw a correlation. When I speak to Kate Kahle, a massage therapist with over 28 years of experience, she knows exactly what I’m talking about. Many of her clients also have the habit. "I see so many women doing it, though I do see a few men doing it as well." 
It is also unclear whether there is a physiological reason why women are more likely to sit all curled up. Sam Bhide, an advanced practice physiotherapist for the NHS, sees it as part of a broader expectation that women sit in a "ladylike position". She adds: "Physiologically speaking, I think sitting cross-legged is comfortable for women because we have broader or wider pelvises as compared to males. So we generally sit cross-legged because we want to try and sit in a very compact position."
Orthopaedic surgeon Barbara Bergin has argued the exact opposite. Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019, she claimed that our inclination for crossing our legs or squeezing them together in some way has nothing to do with our anatomy. In fact, she says that the pressure to do so is entirely social and that sitting like a man (or SLAM as she puts it) is far better for our joints. This is because women’s wider pelvises can result in a knock-kneed stance and lead to joint pain, which is only exacerbated when we sit in a compact manner.
Sam and Kate agree that the sitting position is, sadly, bad for you. "Having your knee twisted in that position under your body for a long time is not a good thing because we are putting unnecessary load on the tendons around the knee," explains Sam. This can lead to overstretched ligaments and tendons.
Kate is even more emphatic: "I'm gonna be really categorical about it and say we need to stop doing it. It's really, really bad for us." She links it to circulation issues caused by the weight on your lower limbs, knee problems due to overstretched ligaments and tendons and, crucially, the effect that hitching one of your hips up can have on your posture all the way up your spine, shoulders and neck.
Beyond your joints, there is less evidence of other physical impacts. Although crossing the legs does appear to cause a temporary rise in blood pressure, for example, it is only people at high risk of blood clots who should avoid doing so as for them it could lead to deep vein thrombosis. Similarly, the common factor in whether you develop varicose veins seems to be genetics rather than posture.

I'm gonna be really categorical about it and say we need to stop doing it. It's really, really bad for us.

Kate Kahle
It’s definitely not a surprise to hear that sitting with my limbs gathered like the sticks in a game of Kerplunk is bad for you. People I spoke to cited tight muscles, aching limbs and shifting position regularly to avoid aching ankles. Both therapists advise against sitting in these positions for long stretches of time. Sam says: "Keep moving every 30 to 45 minutes if you're sitting in the same position for a long time, no matter what that position is." Likewise, Kate advises trying to train yourself out of it and instead sitting in the most supportive position possible. The ideal seated position, she explains, is with your knees slightly apart (at about 11 and 1 on a clock), sat back into the chair with your feet on the floor and your legs at clear right angles. This way, your chair will be doing a lot of the work for you and it will help your muscles to relax.
But I don’t think anyone who enjoys folding themselves up like a store-bought T-shirt, myself included, thinks it is physically good for them. And yet we persist. Why?
As mentioned, there is the spectre of how women are "expected" to sit. These expectations are long-ranging: as far back as the 1300s there is evidence of women being coached to sit with their "knees pressed together to signal virginity". Folding your legs up underneath you definitely isn’t a "ladylike" position but it still feels gendered and feminine to many. You are making yourself smaller in a way that feels unobtrusive and unassertive – something women are still encouraged to do.
This would align with why it isn’t exclusive to cis women. Barnaby, 30, is one of the men who replied to my callout and says he rarely sees straight men sitting the way he does. Reflecting on it, he tells me: "That’s probably more to do with straight men wanting to appear masculine and avoiding sitting in ways that are deemed more feminine (leg sitting, legs crossed) than it is to do with women or queer people being more comfortable or relaxed, or it being a 'woman thing'."
Another factor could lie in the issue of taking up space and who feels comfortable doing so. I mean this both in the ideological and literal sense of taking up space in a room.
Eilidh, 29, says she sits on her legs most on sofas and attributes this to her 5 foot 3 inches height (which, she adds, is roughly the average woman’s height). "Sofas are often so deep that if I sit with my back against the cushions, my feet don't touch the ground and awkwardly dangle, which feels gross," she explains. Kate also cites this as her experience: "On most chairs, seats and sofas my feet dangle to the floor. It really makes me angry and it makes me feel ungrounded and vulnerable."
A leg sit is a way to make a space that doesn’t fit you properly work. For people on the shorter side, a folded position has the extra benefit of adding some height and bringing you to someone’s eyeline. On the other hand, Barnaby and Jo, 29, are both over 6 foot and also contort their bodies to make seats more comfortable. As Jo puts it: "I’m 6 foot and girthy so many seats don’t allow the space for it – usually when the chair is not supportive I feel more supported by my body when I sit on my feet or legs."
To me it would be reductive to say that sitting with your legs twisted like your teen brother’s headphones is something people do to avoid being assertive or taking up space. Unlike a prim crossed leg or knees squeezed tightly together, no one encouraged young women to assume this position. Rather, I think that because it is feminised, many men might be socialised out of an inexplicably comfortable way to sit. As Megan says: "It is interesting that I can think of young boys in my life sitting more comfortably like that."
The inescapable core of this story is that sitting on your legs is comfortable in a way everyone has struggled to define. It feels reassuring and casual, and conveys a sense of safety – something you just don’t get when you are holding your knees together. In that way I believe Barbara to be right – it is far more relaxing, especially during a long day of sitting, to have your legs somewhat spread. But by sitting on your legs, where your knees are spread but one foot is tucked up with the opposite thigh, you avoid the potentially crotch-revealing pitfalls of Barbara’s "sitting like a man". And when you grow up being both told to sit in a certain way and to fear people peering between your legs, that is a small, subconscious victory. Even if you shouldn't do it long term.

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