by Amara Miller
Is it possible for companies like Yoga Journal to be body positive when they are built on a for-profit corporate model with a legal obligation to sell yoga, often as an elite luxury good?
Yoga Journal’s co-optation of body positivity continues with their latest posts on “erasing yoga stereotypes” featuring the one and only Jessamyn Stanley. This past month, Yoga Journal has been revisiting their efforts to engage in more body positive content development, in what one can assume is a recent attempt to combat ongoing criticism of their stereotypical and unrealistic portrayals of what has been deemed the “ideal yoga body:” typically young, white, thin, wealthy, female, and so able bodied it is portrayed in biomechanically complex postures largely unattainable to the vast majority of practitioners.
Yoga Journal’s History of “Not Really Getting It”
For many years now, the magazine has faced heavy criticism from body positive activists about the mixed messages and unattainable ideals promoted through their advertising and articles. As early as 2010, activists like Yoga and Body Image Coalition (YBIC) founder Melanie Klein expressed frustration at the lack of diversity in images included in the magazine and the reproduction of mainstream beauty standards with a focus on weight loss, with the magazine even going so far as advertising diet pills. Around this same time prominent teacher and one of the original founders of the magazine, Judith Lasater, published an open letter to the editor expressing concerns about objectified and sexualized images of women used to sell products.
Facing a slew of activists and prominent yogis publicly denouncing the magazine and cancelling their subscriptions, in 2014 the Yoga Journal fell into more hot water when it published an article titled “Love Your Curves” in an attempt to cater to the growing body positivity movement. Unfortunately, the article admonished women to hide their curves by buying the “right” type of clothing, and resulted in more claims that the magazine engaged in body shaming, and for “hopping on the body positivity train without really getting it.”
In an attempt to engage in damage control, Yoga Journal promoted a series of Practice of Leadership panels that brought together corporate yoga industry members like Lululemon and YJ with body positive activists to discuss issues of leadership, corporate responsibility, and body image and representation. At the time, this seemed like a hopeful effort by the magazine to engage in real changes. But despite the fact that many believed they truly wanted to change, it became clear that Yoga Journal and other industry giants like Lululemon didn’t understand what being body positive actually entailed, making their actions problematic and potentially damaging. Reflecting on the Practice of Leadership panels, YBIC founder Melanie Klein has said:
“While the conversation was stimulating and I was grateful for the opportunity to directly engage with and educate these corporations along with my colleagues on the panel, I was overwhelmed by the homogeneity of those attending the conference, the teachers scheduled to lead classes and workshops and the excessive branding and commercialization of the entire event. Overall, I felt uncomfortable and out of place, a sentiment Dianne Bondy and Dana Smith echoed repeatedly throughout our time there. There was very little size, age, and race diversity. We knew we needed to change that.”
Yoga Journal’s ensuing “Body Issue” featured celebrity yoga teacher, Toesox model, and long-time collaborator with the magazine, Kathryn Budig, on the cover with a slew of mixed messages that many body positive activists found disturbing and contradictory. The Yoga Journal’s subsequent rebranding efforts continued to be further off the mark, including hiring a new editor-in-chief from the mainstream and controversial magazine SELF who continued “reaffirmations of the cover model ‘yoga body’… and articles listing the top 10 ways to find happiness, 5 reasons you’re not happy and 8 ways to be happy RIGHT NOW” (see YogaDork’s report).
When the “Body Issue” was released, the magazine encouraged readers to share their own stories of self-acceptance using the hashtag #loveyourbody, a phrase used as part of a larger movement by many body positive activists. The phrase was also directly included in the YBIC mission statement and is part of their core values, where they state: “We believe that the slogan, ‘love your body,’ is a fully-dimensional mantra promoting body acceptance in ourselves and each other. We believe that body-positivity is more than a #hashtag, marketing slogan, or commodity—it’s conscious action and lived practice.” Regardless, Yoga Journal never shared their platform with other body positive activists who were the source of the phrase and did not credit the work the YBIC was engaged in. Instead, through their hashtag campaign they promoted Budig’s new book and the magazine, depoliticizing the radical nature of the message (for my own research on the appropriation of body positivity by the Yoga Journal and Budig, see my article on these topics here).
In the following months, self-ascribed “curvy” yoga celebrity Kathryn Budig began adopting a new identity as the face of body positivity. Yoga Journal, along with several other companies like Women’s Health and MindBodyGreen, actively worked to support Budig’s efforts. Unfortunately, none involved acknowledged or realized the irony and hypocrisy of such efforts, which body positive activists like Klein drew attention to. In an open letter, Klein asked Budig to acknowledge that her “white, able-bodied, young and thin body has been a marketable commodity for advertisers and corporations… [and to] take accountability for your role in the industry or your own privilege.” Amber Karnes of Body Positive Yoga was equally frank, claiming Budig’s body privilege was the reason “why Women’s Health and other media outlets approach her first before they’d ever ask a person of color, a person in a fat body, or transgender, queer, or a [disabled] yogi to chime in on body image issues.” (The open letter and other activists’ concerns went unanswered.)
Rather than taking the effort to be an advocate for healthy body image and diverse representation seriously, the magazine and other yoga companies as well as a number of yoga celebrities (like Kathryn Budig) have capitalized on the new hot trend of body acceptance, “without really getting it,” continuing the mixed messaging activist Carol Horton argues will “produce a new round of confusion, dysfunction, and denial in the yoga community, which already has a history of serious problems on all counts.” Long story short, Yoga Journal has a long history of “not really getting it,” and recent events only add fuel to the fire, demonstrating what co-optation looks like and why we still have a long way to go to see real change.
Yoga Journal and Continuing Co-optation of Body Positivity
Yoga Journal’s co-optation and appropriation of body positivity has continued this month as they revisit attempts to address claims of their lack of diverse representation and of size shaming. However, perhaps unexpectedly, their latest approach to solve these problems continues to be problematic. In a similar vein to other prominent yoga companies like CodyApp they have been promoting larger, curvy yogis like Jessamyn Stanley (who is also a person of color, and a teacher through CodyApp along with Dana Falsetti, another Instagram curvy yoga sensation).
I commend the magazine and companies like CodyApp for their efforts to increase diverse representation, and I love that yogis like Jessamyn and Dana are making representation in yoga more diverse. We need to acknowledge how great it is that some individuals like Jessamyn and Dana are finally being represented. But how exactly are they represented? Why these yogis? And how much representation are we really talking about? The problem is that the industry rarely engages in broader structural changes to address concerns and tends to tokenize members of marginalized groups for their own uses.
For those who don’t know, tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. In essence, Yoga Journal gains legitimacy and acclaim for their efforts to represent greater diversity even while their organizational practices continue to be unequal and their portrayal of the practice inaccessible. In other words, the industry profits from maintaining the same systems that generate inequity in yoga, but because they tokenize a small number of specific diverse contributors, the company gains ethical legitimacy even while nothing substantive really changes. All talk, no walk.
I believe attempts like this are driven by a genuine desire of those involved in these companies to do better in terms of diversifying representation. However, despite the best of intentions, they still completely miss the mark in important ways in their implementation of their chosen “solutions.”
This is in large part because companies like Yoga Journal are socially distant from those most affected by their practices. They typically draw from an applicant pool that is demographically narrow, both in terms of reflecting a demographic of yoga practitioners in the USA that is predominantly white, middle-class, and female but also because the company’s past scandals mean yogis who are diverse are less likely to be interested in working with them in the first place. So the staff at these agencies, by the very nature of their hiring practices and their applicant pool, is similarly very homogenous and lacking diversity. We also know because of network segregation that most people associate with those who are similar to them in both background and beliefs, so perhaps it is not surprise that the experiences, stories, concerns, and bodies of white, middle-class women are overrepresented in the magazine (plus, that’s their target market, and when you want to make money, then caring about equity and diversity are chump change, right?).
Management and sociological research has shown that a more diverse workplace leads to better creative thinking and more creative results. Not to mention diverse workplaces broaden the network of contacts available to an organization, so they can better represent diverse viewpoints (which, let’s face it, are still pretty much non-existent within companies like Yoga Journal as well as in their products, including the magazine, website, and events). Companies with more diversity also make better decisions and are less prone to group-think. Research on television has also found that shows with a more diverse writing staff often produce more diverse and more realistic content that results in above average returns. So Yoga Journal, maybe you should get on creating a more diverse workplace if you really care about more diverse representation? Or, let’s face it, if you want to improve your bottom line because the results are in and diversity sells.
Characterized by an unequal power dynamic, Yoga Journal and companies like CodyApp include diversity on their terms only. And their terms are fairly steep.
There is always an unequal power dynamic in their choice of diverse models and contributors like Jessamyn Stanley or Dana Falsetti. For example, these individuals have had to generate their own fandom and following to even be noticed by the likes of companies such as Yoga Journal or CodyApp. It wasn’t until they were Instagram stars in their own right that they were able to obtain industry opportunities with companies hoping to gain followers by latching on to something already trending. In other words, such companies capitalize on the unpaid labor of these women, and the fame that these yogis had to create all on their own, while facing obstacles of sizeism (and for someone like Jessamyn, racism) within yoga, along with more isms I’m sure, isms that are often supported by and at times generated by the very yoga companies like Yoga Journal and CodyApp that now benefit from affiliation with these Instagram stars. Irony, much? So there is unequal power in the relationship between these types of companies and these women they are hiring to help make the companies seem like they are increasing diverse representation.
Yoga Journal and companies like CodyApp also only include diversity on their own terms by focusing on maintaining a particular representation of yoga that is inaccessible and largely unattainable to the average practitioner: namely, these Instagram celebs fit the acrobatic image of the practice companies like Yoga Journal want to promote, in ways that body positive activist organizations like the YBIC are actively seeking to disrupt. Rather than working with politically active yogis working to promote diversity in yoga, they prefer working with other celebrities like Kathryn Budig, or more recently, a small number of Instagram self-made celebrities—tokenized, diverse teachers such as Jessamyn Stanley who can do biomechanically complex, flashy asana or postures. When a curvy yoga body is the one doing such difficult postures it makes for the sensational, surprising, wow-factor that sells big and can inspire their readers to just try harder (and spend more) to reach physical goals. But this coverage is still generating an exclusive and ableist understanding of the practice of yoga as predominantly just complex asana. It presents the yoga body as one that must do complex postures, even if it is larger. And it symbolically erases the diversity of the yogic experience for practitioners.
For example, the first of a series of recent posts on Yoga Journal’s website featuring Jessamyn Stanley is all about “Tight Hips? You Need Jessamyn Stanley’s Hanumanasana Prep.” It claims, “Monkey Pose can be accessible to everyone” (an argument that, by the way, could be potentially dangerous as it has been questioned by recent research on biomechanics) and “features North Carolina-based teacher, body-positive advocate, and Instagram star Jessamyn Stanley breaking down the pose to help out tight hips.” The post then cycles through a series of asanas with an image of Jessamyn in each pose, including warrior II, reverse warrior II, triangle, one-legged down dog, two versions of crescent lunge, half splits, and full splits. None of the images feature demonstrate with props (although the text provides an “option” for blocks). Is it truly accessible to everyone?
The other two articles featuring Jessamyn Stanley, including a version of one slated to come out in the November issue of the magazine, blatantly appropriate from the YBIC. One, announcing an excerpt from Jessamyn’s new book Every Body Yoga utilizes the phrase, “yoga is for all” claiming “That’s the message yoga teacher and body-positive advocate Jessamyn Stanley spreads to her students and 233K Instagram followers.” The problem? It’s the message self-proclaimed fat and black YBIC board member Dianne Bondy has been using for years as part of her #yogaforall movement that centers of generating more inclusivity in the practice for all practitioners, “regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability.” It’s the name of an online Yoga For All Training Dianne Bondy and her partner Amber Karnes (both body positive activists) run for teachers on how to make yoga classes more accessible for everyone. And it’s a phrase used to describe inclusive classes in Bondy’s online website Yogasteya.com, “dedicated to celebrating students of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities” whose “motto is ‘No Yogi Left Behind.’” However, Yoga Journal, of course, mentions none of this.
The final Yoga Journal article, “How Jessamyn Stanley is Erasing Yoga Stereotypes” claims “This North Carolina–based teacher and Instagram star is changing the perception of what a yogi looks like.” They fail to mention that this language is co-opted directly from an ongoing campaign by the YBIC to change representation in the practice by disrupting #whatayogilookslike. The magazine fails to even mention the campaign, despite the fact that since Yoga Journal’s largely staged Practice of Leadership panels, the only time they have featured the coalition publicly was over a year ago when they ran one online article featuring several images that YBIC produced and provided for them as part of the activist group’s #whatayogilookslike campaign and media series (along with a number of other magazines, so it’s not like Yoga Journal was going out on a limb with their coverage). So despite largely ignoring the YBIC and avoiding engaging in dialogue with activists since that token inclusion, the magazine has appropriated a number of their slogans and campaigns without giving them credit or even acknowledging the organization and their work.
According to the YBIC, the #whatayogilookslike campaign was originally created by the YBIC to showcase the faces and stories of people not usually represented in the pages of major yoga publications or covers (like Yoga Journal) and included a participatory social media campaign that actively sought to disrupt the dominant, stereotypical imagery of the yoga industry to provide real, diverse yogis to share the diversity of their practices. The YBIC also created a media series initially intended to be utilized as “a full cover image with a group if diverse yogis representing all the facets of human diversity that exist, the kind that pulls out to reveal a double cover… I envisioned something powerful and bold that not only represented diversity but also strayed away from the ‘yogalebrity’ covers in which you have one featured ‘star.’ I think it’s crucial that we celebrate our communities, not idolize individuals (as if these individuals have not been bolstered by their communities). Furthermore, it was a vision that sought to move beyond tokenizing one person. Like, hey, ‘here’s a person of color.’ Check. Or, hey, ‘here’s a curvy yogi.’ Check.” (Emphasis added, see Klein’s interview here). But as Klein reports:
“The initial cover idea has never happened. The idea was pitched to 3 major yoga publications, including Yoga Journal. Every single one of them turned it down. Frankly, I was shocked Yoga Journal didn’t jump on the opportunity since they were at the beginning of re-branding and the pitch followed the panel discussion by a month wherein Yoga Journal said they were committed to making big changes. Instead, their rebrand was rolled out with their “body issue” and Kathryn Budig on the cover.
Dianne Bondy and I approached them again earlier this year. Maybe the idea was ahead of its time, I thought. I figured that after last summer’s cover of Runner’s Magazine featuring Erica Schenk and the rapid rise of the body positivity movement, they’d be ready to feature some size diversity. But, not only that, I assumed they’d be prepared to go the distance by not only featuring a larger-bodied yogi but yogis that represent the full range of human diversity with the group cover photo idea I’d pitched 18 months earlier.
Their reply was a flat-out ‘no’ with a note about how they’d be happy to cover the movement in the pages of their magazine, something that was never addressed again when I replied with a “sure, how would you like to cover it?” Dianne and I never heard from them again.”
The appropriation of the YBIC and body positivity by Yoga Journal is especially ironic given that in a personal facebook post Jessamyn Stanley acknowledged the influence the YBIC and Dianne Bondy had on her own practice, in essence demonstrating Melanie Klein’s observation that even ‘yogalebrities’ are bolstered by their communities. Stanley even drew attention to the fact Yoga Journal ignored both Diane and the YBIC in their article:
“So I’m in the November issue of Yoga Journal and I feel really weird about it. Don’t get me wrong, my inner yoga nerd is a few steps beyond excited. But sometimes I feel like I receive credit where credit ISN’T necessarily due. For instance, the YJ article is headlined with something to the effect of “Jessamyn is changing what a yogi looks like.” But that theme, ‘#whatayogilookslike’? It’s actually a whole media campaign by the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, not me. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever really set out to challenge any stereotypes- I just wanted to document my asana practice and become part of a larger community of yoga practitioners outside of my tiny home yoga bubble. In fact, I never would’ve taken a single asana photo had I not been inspired by pictures of Big Gal Yoga& Dianne Bondy Yoga on Tumblr. It’s not that I’m not thrilled to be recognized by our industry’s standard, but I think there are other people in our yoga community who need to be acknowledged for smashing stereotypes, maybe even more than yours truly. I just think the community of body pos yoga is way more robust than just a fat hermit with an exhibitionist streak who turned her instagram into a yoga confessional.”
This incident reflects the ways Yoga Journal includes diversity only on their own terms in that how the content is included always reflects their constraints on the type of content they are most interested in curating: extreme asana, and no politics since it doesn’t sell and is controversial. They decide the format they want: short inspirational fluff articles often written by their own staff. Recall how their most recent articles are about Jessamyn Stanley, not written by her, which would have given Jessamyn a platform and helped amplify the voices of underrepresented yogis, a route that would have been a better choice if they truly cared about increasing diversity and diverse representation. Yoga Journal also uses the framing they want, even if this means appropriating body positivity and continuing to tokenize marginalized yogis. On their own terms, indeed.
In appropriating the discourse and messages of the body positivity movement, but without engaging in any larger structural changes in their organizational practices or composition, companies like Yoga Journal present a distinctly watered down version of body positivity that depoliticizes and decontextualizes the media and industry critique inherent in the movement. Yoga Journal focuses only on an individualized form of body acceptance in ways that continue to send mixed representations about the importance of diversity.
For example, each of the three articles featuring Jessamyn Stanley advertises Stanley’s upcoming “love-your-body workshop” at YJ LIVE Florida. But her inclusion in Yoga Journal’s conference has not made an ounce of difference in the actual marketing practices Yoga Journal uses to draw in (their predominantly homogenous) audiences. All of their ads for YJ LIVE Florida feature thin, white, female models (all blonde, stereotypically enough).
While Jessamyn Stanley may be included in the November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal, she’s definitely not included on the cover, which features teacher Liz Arch who largely fits the stereotypical yoga body and practice and has, perhaps no surprise, been featured in SELF and on the covers of numerous magazines previously. Jessamyn is the “teacher spotlight,” yet the table of contents doesn’t even display her image, which is featured all of once in the entire issue on the single page story they wrote about her. In their TOC, the magazine instead opted to include photos of a close up on a (white) woman’s hands and stomach, a picture of a bowl of food (for their “Eat Well” section), and a picture of (ironically, a brown) dog on a yoga mat for the section Jessamyn’s feature is included in. The picture of the dog is in connection with a one-page feature titled “In Focus” about animals sharing their favorite yoga poses that is mostly just images of different critters on yoga mats (which apparently is more important that spotlighting a diverse teacher promoting body positivity). So in their table of contents Yoga Journal prioritized sharing images from a one-page article on animals “doing yoga” over an image of Jessamyn Stanley breaking yoga stereotypes in all her controversial, fat black femme glory. But I guess, dogs over diversity?
Ultimately, Yoga Journal includes images of diversity that are still largely inaccessible, focusing on complex asana rather than more accessible postures or a more diverse understanding of the practice. They still overrepresent the stereotypical body, including more diverse bodies as inspirational, but not regularly featured, content. Instead of truly listening to the concerns of body positive activists or providing activists and marginalized yogis space to tell their own stories, they portray a highly controlled and distinctly apolitical retelling of body positivity that co-opts the movement for the benefit of the company.
So where do we go from here?
How do we create and contribute to a body positivity movement that promotes radical change, without allowing the movement to be co-opted and appropriated by “big yoga business?” How do we do so in ways that still work with companies to bring about structural-level changes that promote broader diversity and accessibility in the industry and practice?
I’m not sure of the answers, but perhaps the first step is to engage in the practice of allyship. We need to truly listen to the concerns of those diverse voices involved in generating creative solutions to these problems, especially those traditionally marginalized in the practice or industry as well as those social justice, body-positive activists who have been engaging in this type of work for many years. And Yoga Journal and other companies, stop dominating the conversation and co-opting the movement, please.
Amara Miller is a yogi and PhD candidate in sociology, as well as a feminist, artist, teacher, and perpetual student. She seeks to utilize her sociological understanding of the world to inform both her practice and teaching and better combat systems of oppression, including inequality and inaccessibility within the of practice of yoga. Her dissertation looks at the impact globalization, commodification, and appropriation have had on the process of cultural transformation of yoga in the last fifty years and the way in which teachers and activists involved in body positivity resist these changes. You can find her on facebook at Amara Miller Yoga, on Twitter @AmaraMiller27, or through her blog http://allthingsyogablog.wordpress.com.