by Melanie Klein
“Yoga, Feminism and Body Image” was posted four years ago, and represented my virgin voyage from writing about these issues in purely academic and feminist circles. I was grateful for the opportunity to merge these areas of my life with my yoga community. Both my rigorous academic training, laden with feminist analysis, and my yoga practice played equal valuable roles in my personal liberation and my social justice work in both the classroom and the wider civic community.
Almost immediately, that post got thousands of hits and an outpouring of support, as well as emails from people who could relate. Clearly, this resonated with people. And I was fortunate to meet people who had similar experiences as a result of a consistent yoga practice. In fact, this is how I connected with Anna Guest – Jelley, a kindred spirit and soul sister. Together we curated and co-edited the forthcoming anthology, Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (October, 2014).
But I couldn’t continue to only focus on the transformational and positive aspects of yoga on body image, even my own. In fact, when I was expanding that initial post into what later became my essay in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice, my editors Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey asked me about the business and industry of yoga. Specifically yoga photography, magazine covers and ads that commodified and objectified women’s bodies in ways that replicated the images in the dominant culture. How did that figure into the whole yoga-as-a-transformational-tool-in-cultivating-positive-body-image?
Those questions inevitably and, unfortunately, were already planned points of analysis for my essay. In fact, I had already raised some of these issues in September, 2010 with my post “Should Members of the Yoga Community and Yoga Publications Emphasize Weight Loss, Size Zero Bodies and Advertise Diet Pills?”
I was dismayed and surprised how many people reacted. Apparently, it was “un-yogic” and “spreading negativity” to ask critical questions and call out individual yoga celebrities and yoga publications on their, I assume, unconscious replication of sexist, racist, size-ist, and age-ist images found in high-end fashion magazines. It was the same sort of intellectual-shaming Judith Hansen Lassater was bombarded with when she raised similar questions about the ToeSox ads, pointing out that yoga advertising was playing the same game as the major media outlets, “exploit[ing] the sexuality of women” to sell products.
I was disappointed to discover that this “conscious” community was willing to call out corporations for environmental degradation, the exploitation of animals and related issues but, when it came to the exploitation of women’s bodies – not so much. Apparently, even the yoga community felt that, if you are questioning the sexualization and objectification of women, you must be offended by the female form, prude and a hater.
Luckily, since these debates first surfaced, many other visible and vocal members of the yoga community have demanded that sexism, racism, classism, size-ism, age-ism, able-ism and homophobia are social justice issues just as important a food politics and environmental concerns.
That’s why I am grateful that Off the Mat spear-headed The Practice of Leadership series. It’s crucial that we have these conversations. And I’m grateful that Yoga Journal and lululemon are sitting at the table. These are charged issues and people will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable, possibly defensive.
And in these conversations, it’s not in an effort to blame others, whether they are individuals or businesses profiting from these one-dimensional and static images. It’s about raising awareness. And isn’t that what a yoga practice is all about?
I find that, for the most part (but not always), there’s simply a lack of understanding on these issues. And that’s certainly true when it comes to notions of ideal beauty and body image, the topic of Saturday’s panel discussion at YJLIVE!: SAN DIEGO. The images we’re inundated with in the larger media culture (as well as yoga culture) present us with incredibly limited definitions of beauty and health. In fact, beauty and health are often confused, and too many women and men often undermine their health in the pursuit of socially constructed (and bull shit) notions of “perfection.”
And it’s precisely because we’re saturated with these prolific and repetitive images that they appear normative – they’re so deeply ingrained in our mediated culture, and ourselves, that we take them for granted – they’re expected. And they influence and shape our consciousness.
I see these emerging conversations as an opportunity to take part in a good old-fashioned consciousness raising group. This is exactly what feminists did in the 60s and 70s – they decolonized their own minds, examined their own internalized oppression and worked on shifting the current dominating paradigms. Because there is nothing rebellious or revolutionary about replicating the same-old, tired stereotypes.
What’s bold and daring is creating something anew, representations that are authentic, inclusive and equitable.
If yoga culture is truly a conscious community devoted to evolution and enlightenment, we need to dig deep, do the work and have the dialogue, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a result, we can shape the culture instead of replicating the toxic aspects of the larger culture thereby reflecting the existing sexism, age-ism, heterosexism, size-ism, racism etc. that exists in that space.
As I stated in “Yoga’s 21st Century Facelift and the Myth of the Perfect Ass(ana),“: “We have the ability to consciously direct the culture of yoga, creating something subversive, powerful and real that reflects the uniqueness of each one of us just as we are.”
Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.
image credit: Sarit Z. Rogers