This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on Power, Privilege and Responsibility in Yoga. Read Part 1 here.
by Kerri Kauer
Privilege is complex. Because while I have white privilege, I do not have heterosexual privilege. Many images of yogis in popular press, and in advertisements often reflect soft pornography that serves to (hetero)sexualize women and minimize and trivialize them to mere objects for the consumption of a male gaze. Take, for example, this image from the Yoga Journal online store.
The sexy pout, the submissive posture (no asana I’ve ever done), the “come hither” look. This imagery is everywhere in mainstream media and magazines, and it has become part of the yoga lexicon as well. If Yoga Journal is advertising pants, for example, they are doing so in a way that reproduces hetero(sexualized) images of women that reduce them to sexual objects. The exclusion of queer or trans bodies sends a subtle but powerful message: you do not fit into, or are invited or welcome, into this culture. And, it sends a message to consumers that yoga is a viable “workout” to obtain the idealized body, which often perpetuates self-objectification and internalized oppression.
One could argue, “Well, sex sells.” Yes, sex sells…magazines. But we have to ask ourselves if the use of these sexualized images represents healthy embodied practices, such as yoga or meditation, or does it serve to reproduce narrow and often exclusionary ideas about what it means to be sexy or healthy?
This more subtle form of power works because we begin to buy into the idea that in order to be healthy, or beautiful, or a “real woman”, one must look like a passive sex object, wear particular clothing, a smile, a toned (but not too muscular) body, and be white. In other words, one must look like Kathryn Budig. The example of her on the cover of YJ’s October issue reproduces the homogenized imagery evident in every other popular fashion magazine.
Magazine covers are chosen specifically to draw in readers, and they are very carefully and meticulously created to boost sales. Contrast the “jumping tree” image with an empowering image of Anna Guest-Jelly actually doing a yoga asana, or sitting in meditation, with the sub-text reading “self-acceptance.”
Which cover image do you think embraces diverse bodies, and actually upholds a #loveyourbody paradigm, and which image seems to co-opt and depoliticize a growing movement of body acceptance and fat positive work happening within factions of the yoga community? This not only reinforces gendered stereotypes about what ideal female body should look like – thin, white, submissive, (hetero) sexy – but it excludes other bodies that are actually more reflective of the groups of people who are practicing yoga.
These images and subtexts are problematic because they reinforce the idea of health and wellness only as individual choice and personal lifestyle goals (e.g., how to be more flexible, what foods you can choose to eat), associated with the same image of a thin white woman, while omitting discussions about systemic or institutionalized forms of oppression and discrimination that make access to health and wellness practices available and welcoming for all irrespective of class, race, gender, sexuality, or body shape and size.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series. STAY TUNED for PART 3 on “Effecting Positive Change.” Read Part 1: Power and Privilege in Yoga – Discussion Recap
Kerrie J. Kauer, Ph.D., visiting scholar in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (University of Pittsburgh), 200 RYT, advisor to Yoga and Body Image Coalition and contributor to Yoga and Body Image Anthology.