Feminism and the Yoga-illusion
Thanks to Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N., this week’s news is brought to you by the word Feminism. Sadly this has become an unpopular word with her fellow Millennials so I appreciate her courage to initiate a generationally appropriate discussion about gender equality. I admit I find the campaign title HeForShe a tad confusing because to me it connotes transgender rights (which I am also in favor of). But being an old-school(?!) feminist I would prefer the name SheForHe for the obvious reason that it puts women first. I was raised in the 1970’s on the Free to Be You and Me soundtrack and when I was Emma’s age I took it for granted that feminism was a universally accepted and popular concept. I took it for granted that feminism meant women would define the terms and agreements by which we would participate in the modern world.
My favorite Free to Be You and Me story was the one about princess Atalanta that I retold to my Saturday morning yoga class a few weeks back. I had no idea there was a cartoon version of this story until I looked it up online just now. Putting aside how disturbing it is to see images of a story that has lived in my head for the better part of 40 years, I have to digress (further) here to note that despite their killer heel-striking both Atalanta and Young John’s physiques appear pleasantly un-photoshopped. Unlike every single yoga teacher that has ever graced the cover of Yoga Journal.
Which is what this post is really about. Yoga and feminism. Or, how the use of women’s bodies in yoga marketing is defining the role of women in 21st century yoga. It seems to me that yoga femininity is a stand-in for Yoga Feminism and that’s not really working for me.
As a yoga teacher I have to constantly acknowledge and remind myself of how dangerous and insidious the yoga-body-ideal is. When I look at the cover of Cover Girl or Cosmo I expect, I know (because I am a smarty-pants X-generation, yoga-teaching, enlightened, feminist) that those images are altered. It is after all a fashion magazine. But when I see the pictures of my friends in Yoga Journal, in clothing, vitamin and prop advertisements, my eyes (and brain) fail me. Instead of seeing photo shopped art I see an ideal that is supposed to be achievable through dedicated hard work, positive thinking (and the right social circles.) No synthetic makeup, silicone implants or crash dieting here, just a whole lot of all-natural, wholesome yoga.
Hah! If you think the yoga-world is immune to the ills of masochistic, body-manipulating marketing you are soooo wrong. While it’s true those women are of course beautiful in real life (because we all are), their images are just as manipulated as the ones in any fashion magazine. With or without manipulation the limited range of figures chosen to represent our business contributes to a dangerous illusory ideal. One that I myself spent years chasing down. Fueled by how much attention I got or didn’t get at various yoga gatherings I pushed myself toward that perfect, slim, strong, flexible, flawless ideal. And what added to my crazy-making chase of perfection is how much the subtle differences in weight and fitness mattered. The years I showed up 10-20 pounds lighter then my average weight the compliments poured-in, I was offered pro-deals and free merchandise by retailers and I was accepted into the pecking order of slim-fit-accomplished yoginis (meaning I was invited to fancy meals and parties and given premium mat space.) But the years I showed up at these gatherings 10-20 pounds heavier than my average I was shunned and or given a ton of unsolicited, concerned-sounding advice (including a few offers for nutritional counseling!). The success of my business as a yoga teacher beyond the confines of my local studio appeared to depend entirely on my weight. I know it sounds extreme but it really was that extreme. In no other community has the size and condition of my body counted for so much.
Four years ago I was teaching at Wanderlust in Vermont when I noticed that I was the largest teacher there. Once I noticed I could not stop noticing. The students came in a broader spectrum of shapes and sizes, but the teachers came in one size and it was not mine. I decided I’d had enough of the national yoga scene. I was sick of trying to fit my body into a business that I didn’t admire and that certainly wasn’t admiring me back.
Now, this isn’t a story about sour grapes. I am very happy living and teaching in a rural community where everyone buys their yoga clothes at T.J. Maxx. I am very happy that when I walk into my studio nobody comments on my body or my clothing, nor do I comment on theirs (even if the crotch of their favorite tights is starting to rip out).
This is a story about the insidious message we teachers send to the yoga community when we agree to sell our looks and our bodies to market a practice that really has nothing to do with either. Really. Either you are born with that ass or you are not and no amount of Warrior II is going to make it go away. I love my body, I love feeling strong and supple. But I don’t agree with the idea that women should be outwardly celebrating and showing off their bodies as a sort of self-improvement trophy. Nor is yoga-adornment ($100 yoga pants and thousand dollar crystal om-necklaces) a self-empowered reclaiming of feminine beauty. It is time for the yoga world to get over the idea that femininity is feminism. It’s not. This generation of yogis is literally shaping the role of women in modern yoga, do we really want that role to be based on our shape?
This is exactly the conversation that Carol Horton, Chelsea Roff and others are having about the confusing (at best) Yoga Journal article titled “Love Your Curves” which gives advice on how to flatter various body shapes with proper yoga attire, and then this month’s response (including what appears to be a mostly un-edited Kathyn Budig on the cover).
I wish I could say I have always been above the marketed yoga-ideal. I wish I could say that I was always content with my body, running faster than the wind like Princess Atalanta. I wish I could say I don’t compare and evaluate my form with others, that my sense of worthiness doesn’t fluctuate with the scale. But it’s not true. Being a feminist does not make me immune to the cacophonous perfect-body, perfect-person message that floods the yoga world. It’s a sad commentary on the state of the popular yoga world (though a great boon to my well-being) that the further I move away from it the better I feel. So much so that these days, tucked away in the nearly media-free enclave of Downeast, Maine, I feel pretty great! Hell, I just finished a full Ironwoman, does anyone really care how big or small my various body parts are? I’m closing-in on 40 and I don’t mind that I look ten years older than I did ten years ago. I trust that my body-mind-spirit in all of its diverse forms has something meaningful to offer the world. That’s a big reason I’m still in this line of work. The world of Yoga and Wellness can use all the Feminists it can get.
And on that note I want to plug my upcoming Fall Cleanse. Because it’s not about attaining the perfect, squeaky-clean yoga-ideal. It’s about you as you are, not as you aren’t. It’s about taking three weeks to focus on taking care of yourself with love and care. It’s about nourishing your body-mind-spirit in a way that allows you to sit comfortably in your own un-photoshopped skin. It’s a cleanse that my feminist, ERA-necklace wearing Granny would be proud of.