Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelley are doing some of the most important work in the yoga community. Both women are committed to writing about the complicated relationship between yoga, body image and feminism. So it’s natural that they should team up and co-edit a collection of essays exploring this tricky territory. Yoga + Body Image will be ready for the world in 2014. Melanie has all the details below – read on!
It is with great pleasure that Anna Guest-Jelley and I officially announce our anthology on Yoga + Body Image forthcoming in 2014.
I first met Anna almost three years ago. I was introduced to her work through her blog post “Welcoming the Curvy Yogini.” Not only did Anna’s words speak to me but I was taken by her brief bio at the bottom wherein she described herself as “an advocate for women’s rights by day, a yoga teacher by night.” Given my work as a Sociology + Women’s Studies professor and my activist work, I felt I had stumbled upon a kindred spirit.
Anna and I had our first phone conversation in 2011 and the synergy was palpable. We immediately realized that we had to collaborate on a project. After a few months of percolating, we realized that it only made sense to collaborate on a book focusing on yoga and body image.
Why Body Image
We decided on this topic not only because it’s something we’re both passionate about, but because it’s one we don’t see discussed often enough in the yoga community. Because for something that is often so focused on the body, yoga classes and conversations rarely include the topic of how we feel about our body and how yoga affects our body image and vice versa.
And to us, that is a major gap in the conversation — not only how individuals’ body image can benefit from yoga, but also how yoga has a complicated place in the conversation about body image, both contributing to negative perceptions via media stereotypes of the “yoga body” and contributing to positive change when the practice is focused on connection with one’s body, exactly as it is today.
While Anna and I could have written a book on yoga and body image on our own based on our own transformative experiences, we were and are fiercely committed to bringing together a diverse collection of voices that span across race/ethnicity, sexuality and sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, sex, class, age and size.
Yoga practitioners and those plagued by distorted body image issues do not come in a uniform mold. We wanted to reach readers of different backgrounds, casting a wide net and allowing people to draw inspiration from at least one contributor’s body image journey and how their yoga practice facilitated that transformation.
We closed a publication deal in January 2013. We’re so very excited and honored to be working with the fine folks of Llewellyn to bring this book to fruition.
And we are thrilled to announce our fabulous contributors, a group of people from the United States, Canada, Australia & New Zealand, who reflect the diversity of experiences we intended to showcase from the inception of the project. We invited each of these thoughtful and inspiring yogis because of their unique perspective and ability to contribute to the critical conversation we wish to create — a wide one about how yoga affects body image. We want this to pique the interest of people who never thought yoga was for them, as well as deepen the conversation among people who are already part of the yoga community.
Without further ado, here are our contributors:
Vytas Baskauskas: Yoga teacher at Yoga Works + Bryan Kest’s Santa Power Yoga, Professor of Mathematics at Santa Monica College
Dr. Audrey Bilger: Professor of Literature & Faculty Director of the Center for Writing & Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College; Co-editor of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage; Author of Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen
Dianne Bondy: Yoga teacher, writer about yoga & diversity and founder of Eastside Yoga in Windsor, Ontario
Seane Corn: Internationally celebrated yoga teacher, activist and co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World
Claire Mysko: Speaker, consultant and author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby and You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self
Nita Rubio: Priestess of the Tantric Dance of Feminine Power
Linda Sparrowe: Editor of Yoga International and author of A Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden); Yoga for Healthy Bones; Yoga for Healthy Menstruation; and Yoga: A Yoga Journal Book
Joni Yung: Executive producer and host at Yoga Chat with the Accidental Yogist and Associate Editor at LA Yoga Magazine
We are honored to have such a fine collection of intellectuals, educators, activists, yoga practitioners and yoga teachers. We are sending each of these people our gratitude for being part of this dialogue. Big thanks to our agents, Elyse Tanzillo & Frank Weimann of The Literary Group International, too.
Finally, we’re extending our thanks to you, too — for supporting us along the way, and for being part of this conversation as it unfolds.
We’ll keep you updated as we go! To stay connected:
It’s based on Melanie Klein’s essay on feminism, yoga, body image and the media. In her essay, she distinguishes between the practice of yoga and the culture of yoga, including the rise of the increasingly commercialized consumer industry of yoga of the last decade.
This post specifically seeks to delve further into this dichotomy, exploring the roots and implications without drawing any firm conclusions. As the book was a collaborative effort, showcasing a myriad of voices and opinions, we hope you’ll comment and create a dialogue in response to this hot-button topic.
Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums
To see what a lady looks like.
Admittedly, I was a bit tipsy. Actually, I was drunk.
“All these women around have the same face. Why do they all have the same face?” I inquired holding my third glass of red wine precariously askew.
I was leaning heavily on the table with my right elbow as I sat at my sidewalk table at Porta Via in Beverly Hills. Even though it was years before the rise of the “Real Housewives” franchise, today one would have assumed that they were casting next season. Women between the ages of 20 and 75 walked up and down North Canon Drive with high-end designer outfits and eerily similar features.
“I mean, they all have the same face. It’s like the twenty-first century version of The Stepford Wives around here.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting or looking for an answer for the surreal parade I was witnessing that summer evening. As a sociologist with an emphasis on gender and media studies, I already knew what I was seeing. While Los Angeles is certainly a parallel universe to the rest of the union in many ways, the astronomical increase in both surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures isn’t limited to the 90210.
Increased requests for vaginoplasty and vaginal rejuvenation, anal bleaching and virgin waxing joins the rise of the more “conventional” procedures—botox (including those in their early 20s) and other fillers and plumpers, liposuction (often given as graduation gifts), breast implants and facelifts (again, on the rise for those in their mid-20s to the their mid-30s). And this is happening across the country with those on limited budgets going into credit card debt, cashing in on military discounts or competing for a slot on make-over reality shows.
And this trend is indicative of our cultural climate, not the individual women (and men) who chose to voluntarily go under the knife or get injected.
This discussion is not intended to mock or blame the individuals who pay thousands of dollars for their insecurity or vanity (or both).
This is not an individual phenomenon anymore than it is an individual choice.
I’m not discounting individual agency but people make choices within a given cultural environment, one that is sociohistorically specific and variable. That cultural landscape’s taken-for-granted norms and values play an influential and powerful role in determining what we consider desirable/undesirable, good/bad, beautiful/ugly. And the images that shape our desires, aspirations and notions of beauty are inescapable. We’re soaking in them. Both the claim that people are foolish for taking out loans to increase their bust size or to have those individuals claim they’re only doing it for themselves dismiss the environment in which those seemingly individual decisions are being made.
It’s awfully challenging to “love yourself” and defy beauty norms when all around you you get the message that you’re just not good enough. But you can be if you buy this cream/filler/diet pill/body sculptor/pimple cream/fill in the blank.
As Taylor Kirkham writes, “It’s human nature to crave feelings of acceptance from our peers. The problem is that we are continuously fed the myth that we’ll gain this approval not by accepting ourselves, but by battling our bodies and tearing our self-image into shreds.”
It is a waste of time to hate a mirror/ or its reflection/ instead of stopping the hand/ that makes glass with distortions.
~ Audre Lorde
Yoga celebrities didn’t exist when I started practicing yoga in 1996. Yoga pants hadn’t been invented and there were just a few studios operating in Los Angeles County. My consistent practice developed in an old dance space with wooden floors brined by decades of sweat. I’ve always been drawn to the grittier elements of life and the raw, authentic and noncommercial flavor of Bryan Kest’s style and studio space resonated with the street-wise, punk rock valley girl I was in a former life. The enormous room teemed with people of all ages, sizes and ethnicities. Nobody donned designer spandex. Most people didn’t even own “mat bags.”
As yoga gained in popularity at the beginning of the new millennium, the practice inevitably filtered through the lens of the popular culture.
The yoga industry began to pick up rapid speed and yoga began to take on a new look. As Julian Walker details in his chapter of the book, alongside the practice and community of yoga, “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty and impressive gymnastics” cropped up. In a fairly short period of time, the industrialized consumer culture of yoga began to reflect many of the mainstream values and norms, including its narrow beauty ideal.
I immediately felt threatened by the encroachment of the dominant culture’s influence on this safe haven I had found in my practice and my community. It had taken me decades to find healing from my own distorted body image, one that was in large part forged at the hands of the prolific and repetitive images of unattainable beauty alongside the influence of the women in my family. I wanted to take the practice and community I loved (and continue to love) so deeply and hold it protectively against my chest.
Since my sociological imagination and feminist radar first went on high alert, many other yoga practitioners have asked critical questions about the objectification and sexualization of women to sell yoga products, standard advertising themes when it comes to the representation of girls and women. Those critical questions have not always been met with critical and constructive dialogue. In fact, the responses were often hostile and defensive. Personally, I was disheartened by a “conscious” community that frequently speaks out against animal cruelty, genetically modified food and environmental issues that didn’t feel equally compelled to address the exploitation of women and their bodies.
I’ve always felt obligated to ask questions about the communities I’ve been a part of. I appreciate the other outspoken and thoughtful yoga practitioners, like my fellow book contributors, who feel compelled to pause, look around and engage in critical dialogue about North American yoga in the 21st century. As Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio notes in his chapter of the book, “…there’s a reason that ‘intention’ comes after ‘understanding’ in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: intention alone without understanding, can cause much suffering.”
For me, my sociological training and feminist ideology married well with my yoga practice. They are committed to raising consciousness and digging deeper. They’re about understanding.
I don’t want to leave it up to the universe. I want to engage critically and thoughtfully in what is emerging around us. The yoga community is not immune from the rest of the culture or the mainstream images that have been replicated in the subculture of yoga. Just because you throw some mala beads on or pose in anjali mudra doesn’t make objectification and sexualization any less so.
And yoga isn’t immune to eating disorders, disordered eating (which is not the same as a clinical eating disorder) or fractured body images. As Chelsea Roff remarks in her essay, “Eating disorders are prevalent in the yoga community, I would argue even more so than the general population. Many hide their self-destructive behaviors under the guise of detoxing, cleansing or a pseudo-spiritual path to enlightenment.”
While the practice has the capacity to heal, the yoga industrial complex upholds unrealistic representations of beauty present in fashion magazines and mainstream advertising.
I appreciated Kathryn Budig’s candid remarks about her own body image issues in a recent interview. The interview didn’t include a conversation regarding the notion of the “yoga body” and it’s proliferation in much of the popular yoga photography or the advertisements and images populating many of the major yoga magazines. But I appreciated the honesty and courage to be vulnerable. (I also appreciate her photo shoot with Daniel Stark that produced images that are much less digitally altered and polished than most).
And this body insecurity isn’t limited to women. One of the most popular (and drooled over) male yoga teachers in Los Angeles, replete with chiseled abs and perfectly sun kissed skin, recently confided his own body insecurity to me. “Do you know how much pressure there is for me to fit the body ideal of the male yoga teacher down to having zero percent body fat?”
Yoga is a subversive practice in so many ways. In a culture that repeatedly tells us we’re not good enough and that we’ll be happy when we lose another five pounds or if we buy fill-in-the-blank, yoga lets us be exactly as we are moment to moment. Yoga doesn’t ask us to change because we’re fine just the way we are. In the same way there is no such thing as a perfect asana, there’s no such thing as a perfect ass because we’re all individuals.
I’d like to preserve the unique face of yoga before she is unrecognizable.
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.
For the women in my family, the body was a sFor the women in my family, the body was a source of anxiety, shame, a measure of discipline and worth – something to fret over, scrutinize, and punish for bad behavior. Food invoked anxiety and fear. Calories were meticulously tracked and exercised away as quickly as possible.The women openly complained about their “flaws” and lamented the numbers on the scale, while many of them ravenously ate a couple extra hundred calories in secret. I learned that life began five pounds (or, in my case, 10 pounds), from now.
I didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in, or good about my body. The body as a source of joy and vitality was an alien concept most of my life. I enjoyed food and wanted it, but I knew that made me weak, undisciplined and “bad.”
It didn’t help that I inherited my height from my father’s side of the family. I learned that beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself. And that I had to conquer it no matter the costs because, hey, baby, you’re worth it.
My mother and the women in her family were all diminutive women with tiny feet, tiny hands, bird-like shoulders, and bitty waists. They were delicate flowers that liked to remind people that they were “petite.” From the time I’d entered fourth-grade, I was referred to as “big-boned,” “solid,” “big like her dad’s side of the family” and in need of “losing a few pounds.” I had surpassed my great-grandmother in height by the time I was 11. By seventh-grade, I was taller than my mother and grandmother. Measuring 5’3” and weighing 130 pounds, I was an “Amazon,” that poor freak of nature that had inherited the wrong set of genes.
I knew none of these comments were compliments. In fact, most little girls want to secretly flip someone the bird when an annoying aunt or family friend hovers and croons, “My, she’s gotten to be such a big girl!” “Big” and “girl” don’t go together well in our culture. But I didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to say, “Whoah, whoah – back the hell up. Don’t you all know you’re talking about my body right in front of me? Don’t you know your tones are either derisive or filled with worry about my size? Don’t you know this kind of body talk objectifies me and makes me feel like shit?”
Nope, I was too deeply mired in my own shame and guilt about my body. Oh, why oh why wasn’t I born short with a delicate bone structure? Plus, these were my family members and adults in my life that I respected, admired, and trusted. I believed they had my best interests at heart. And they did. They really did. I don’t doubt that for an instant.
My mother and my grandmother, the two women I idolized more than anyone else and who loved me deeply, were projecting their own anxieties and insecurities on me because they didn’t know any better. We’re all prone to absorbing the socially constructed images and messages in our cultural environment.
And they’re no exception.
Like me, their own families, peers, and the society they grew up in influenced their sense of self and their measure of worth as girls and women. Like me and legions of other girls and women, they internalized the notion that what matters most, aside from any other skills or talents, is how pretty they are (and in our culture, pretty is synonymous with skinny). Not how they feel, not what they can do, not how healthy they are.
And, let’s be honest, there are lots of skinny people who aren’t healthy. In fact, health never entered the conversation in my household. Losing five or ten pounds was never a matter of health, but a matter of aesthetics.
I mean, ceaselessly dieting, from the Atkins diet to the pineapple diet (where you consumed vast quantities of pineapple because pineapple would “eat” away the extra fat you were carrying), over exercising, diet pills, caffeine, and excessive calorie restriction isn’t exactly the yellow brick road to optimal health.
After years of compulsive and punishing exercise (my mother got me a gym membership when I turned 12), severe calorie restriction, bouts of binging and purging, and Slim Fast shakes for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class led by Bryan Kest.
It was the mid-nineties, I was 24-years-old and my life was about to radically change. Everything I knew about my body, everything I felt toward my body, and my negative self-talk was about to undergo a seismic shift. For the first time since early childhood, I was about to learn how to be comfortable and radiant in my own skin. For the first time in my life, I was about to learn how to love my body.
I settled in on my mat in a space that would become the rare and sacred space devoid of competition. A space uncluttered by external chatter, removed from the world of advertising and one that would quiet and soothe my own self-critic. Kest began that first class by inviting me back into my body. “Welcome to your bodies. Welcome to yoga.”
“I can’t enjoy how pretty I look if I don’t feel good.” – Bryan Kest
I’d spent almost two decades trying to have the reality of my body conform to the image that had been created in my head. The women in my family, boyfriends, my peer group and, most importantly, the prolific realm of pop culture, had influenced this image of physical perfection, and its correlating value. The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.
The women in my family were consumed by their weight and their desire to measure up to mainstream standards of beauty; lamenting weight gain with bouts of depression and self-loathing, celebrating weight loss with great fanfare and sizing other women up. An unhealthy preoccupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise. And all along the way, the images around me assured me that the pursuit of pretty by any means necessary would be pay off. After all, baby, you’re worth it.
The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time: feminism and then yoga. After wandering around fairly aimlessly for over a year, running away and living in Maui for a period of that time, I had landed in “Sociology 22: Sociology of Women” in the fall of 1994at Los Angeles Valley College. I didn’t know what Sociology was or what it might have to say about women, but it sparked my curiosity. “I’m a woman,” I thought and, “this should be more interesting than meeting my general requirements for a major I’m not too committed to.”
“It’s not you. You’re not an isolated case. It’s systematic and it’s called patriarchy,” said the radical 60-something woman at the front of the room with the “War is not good for children and other living creatures” medallion swinging from her neck. She wore a turtleneck encased in a neat blazer and put one leg up on the seat of the chair for leverage as she lectured with more gusto, authority and confidence than any woman I had ever encountered. I was utterly smitten and completely enthralled, all the while having my mind blown during each and every class. The world was transformed. My paradigm shifted from one that viewed my body image issues as seemingly personal troubles to understanding them as public issues that were (and are) systemic in nature. In short, my soon-to-be mentor, in all her fierce fabulousness, had ignited my “sociological imagination.” And it was distinctly feminist.
My sociological and feminist education included a healthy dose of media literacy, a field of study that was just beginning to blossom at the time. I was offered the ideological tools and skill set to deconstruct mediated images and understand the role of the advertising industry in the creation and manufacture of these endless streams of images and messages that flood the cultural landscape. This allowed me examine my tortured relationship with my body in a systematic and structured way, lifting the clouds of shame and guilt that followed my every move.
Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with my body. Maybe there was something wrong with the messages the mainstream medic culture proliferated, contorted and unrealistic messages that were raking in profits from my insecurity and from the body image issues of girls and women around me. (The mainstream media’s targeting of male body image issues didn’t begin in earnest until several years later.) The realization that I wasn’t the problem was a relief and ultimately liberating. It also left me utterly pissed off.
Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminist sociology had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody and practice it, especially after spending decades learning, practicing and perfecting self-loathing.
My friend, Marla, led me to a spacious dance loft in downtown Santa Monica, a space large enough for over 120 sweaty bodies to get their downward facing dog on by donation. The room was bursting at the seams with a sea of bodies and their body heat warmed the cavernous room. A hard-talking high-school dropout from Detroit was leading the practice in the most conscious and loving way amidst his occasional farts, burps and f-bombs. It was 1997, and I had landed in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest.
I knew I had stumbled upon something utterly delicious and profoundly nurturing for me. It had taken me a lifetime to find yoga and over a year of active searching to find a teacher that fit my needs. His street-wise attitude and working-class background meshed with my own and I felt comfortable. I was finally home.
To read the rest of this essay, purchase the book HERE.
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. In the complete essay, I detail my budding relationship to feminist ideology and my yoga practice. I examine media culture at large and reconcile my experience of yoga as a practice of self-love with an increasingly commercialized yoga “industry.” I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the eleven other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image, and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website, and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.
By Melanie Klein–My students and I talked back to mainstream media by creating our own messages. We let them know that we’re fed up with what we’re being given and told them what we want.
Sometimes anger can spark real change, especially when it gets us to move away from thinking “What’s wrong with me?” and start questioning what’s wrong with a culture that makes us feel so bad about ourselves so much of the time. Margaret Cho knows a little something about that. She went off in a much-publicized and justified Twitter tirade last week. After being on the receiving end of some snarky comments about her body, Cho lost it. As she eloquently put it, “I blew a f****ing gasket. I screamed out loud and tracked the perps down and blocked them, but not before really ramming it to them in the strongest language I could use.” For years she’s been told she needed to lose more weight, she wasn’t pretty enough, and worse. Cho reacted to this latest criticism in a massive, over-the-top rant, during which she basically told the haters to shove it.
When you’re repeatedly told you don’t meet the ridiculously narrow and unrealistic expectations of beauty, that negativity can mess with your head for a long time until you eventually just get sick of it…and then get totally pissed off. And the way I see it, getting pissed off is a whole lot healthier than retreating into self-hatred.
While not all of us have our anger at this body-hating injustice shared across the internet, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t valid. As I quoted in an earlier post:
It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.” –bell hooks
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked with grave concern as chicken grease ran down his fingers and his chin. We’d just finished a rigorous hike and I was starving—famished, ravenous and slightly light-headed. I mean, really, we’d been cavorting, frolicking and climbing the local mountains in the summer heat for over 6 hours and I hadn’t eaten anything except for an apple. Maybe.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I replied. He paused mid-bite and questioned me with raised eyebrows. “I’m good–really,” I said sounding far too relaxed and nonchalant about something as serious as a meal after physically exerting myself as excessively as I had. But, nope, I wouldn’t change my mind. I was not going to let him see me eat, especially a greasy, messy meal like that. Mind you, this is the same guy I wouldn’t take a pee around. I’d turn the faucet on when I had to go really bad to make sure he didn’t hear me, otherwise I’d hold it until I got home. I know I wasn’t the only 17-year-old girl to pull a stunt like that.
If there was anything I’d learned up to that point, it was that girls and women don’t have bodily functions or odors (unless they’re created in chemical factories and mask your natural female body smells), and they aren’t supposed to be seen eating (unless it’s yogurt, salad or other “girl” food) or sweating (unless they’re sweating like women should—hello, female antiperspirant industry).
Fast forward to 15 years later:
“Are you going to eat that?” the student I had been mentoring asked with nervous excitement. “Yes,” I said awaiting the sweet taste of carrot cake as my fork hovered close to my lips. “In public?” she continued.
“Um, where else should I eat it? In the bathroom or the broom closet?” I laughed as I sank my teeth into the cream cheese frosting knowing perfectly well that those were considered viable options, ones preferred over this scenario—that of a woman eating cake out in public in broad daylight. I’m talking a slice of cake, not a bite of cake and not an entire cake. A slice of cake. On a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon. There was no special occasion. I simply wanted some cake and I felt no shame or remorse about it. Shame and guilt had led me to stuff myself in private after starving myself publicly one too many times in the past.
“Wow. I admire you. I wish I could do that,” she said slowly. I asked her what was stopping her and she went on to tell me about her mother, a woman who kept a scale in the dining room so she could look at it while she ate dinner and remind herself not to eat too much. And when it came to cake? Well, her mother always cut much smaller slices for the girls and reserved the big frosted pieces for the boys at the family party.
We continued to have lunch on campus between classes with a few other students for several weeks and each time I’d enjoy something sweet without embarrassment or great fanfare on my end. One day she sat down and said, “I have to tell you something.” She giggled like someone about to dish a shameful secret. “I went to my cousin’s birthday party over the weekend and when my mom handed me a thin slice of cake on a paper plate, I told her that I wanted a big one. She looked at me with surprise as I put the plate she handed me back on the table and grabbed one of the large slices. I felt great.”
My body is a battleground. I have spent most of my life waging a war on it. I have vivid girlhood memories of my worth being measured by my waist size and numbers on a scale. I was taught that I must “suffer to be beautiful.”
This troubled relationship with body and self continued into middle school, as I hid my budding curves; into high school, when I combined starvation, purging, and over exercising; and well into adulthood, including during my pregnancy and postpartum experience.
But I am not alone—and sadly, this body hatred is nothing new. I am part of a lineage of women who declared war on themselves, from my great-great grandmother who donned the organ-crushing corset, to my great-grandmother who internalized the Victorian feminine ideal of daintiness and measured each bite meticulously; to my grandmother who cinched her waist with girdles and ate diet pills for lunch; and down to my mother who embodied the emaciated silhouette of the 1970s and aerobicized her way into the 1980s and early 1990s with her food-and-exercise diary tucked in her purse.
This is not just my legacy. This is an experience shared by countless girls and women, beginning at earlier and earlier ages and affecting them well into their later years. This legacy of low self-esteem and self-objectification–punctuated by disordered eating, continuous exercise and abusive fat talk–keeps us stuck in an unhealthy cycle that holds us back and prevents us from being truly empowered. As bell hooks states, these practices are “self-hatred in action. Female self-love begins with self-acceptance.”
Okay, so how do we get to that self-acceptance? As the number of girls and women engaged in these destructive habits increases exponentially, the good news is that campaigns such as Operation Beautiful, Fat Talk Free Week and the NOW Foundation’s LoveYour Body Day are rising up to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective self-esteem.
Campaigns like these give us great opportunities to take action for change. I have also found that self-affirming rituals such as banishing self-criticism and honoring my body through reverence and celebration to be rewarding and transformative. In fact, I have felt the most beautiful and whole when I have silenced the critic in my own head, limited my level of media exposure and engaged in loving practices such as yoga that allow me to cultivate respect for my body as opposed to deepening my disdain and disappointment.
Your mother gave birth to you–her body was the vehicle for creating, carrying and birthing a miraculous new life, your life. While we may not always see ourselves as miraculous, stop and ask yourself this question: why not? When did your body, a source of wonder and magic in childhood, stop being the source of the miracle that is you? Ask yourself why self-loathing is heaped on generation after generation of women, whose bodies should garner respect and gratitude. Can you switch the conversation in your head? Can you identify two things that you appreciate and respect about your body? Maybe even five? Can you identify one new thing every day?
Respect is the connective strand that binds Carmen Siering’s 20 ways to love your body post. If we can learn to respect our bodies, perhaps we can learn to love our bodies over time, and eventually turn that self-love into personal liberation.
How many times have you looked at a model in a magazine or an actress on TV and thought, “Hey, that doesn’t look like me or anyone I know”? This group of students decided to talk back about the difference between media fantasy and their reality.
It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.
Let’s face it, we’re plugged into an awful lot of media. Sometimes we’re aware of what we’re consuming, like when we turn on the television, go to a movie or download a new song off iTunes. But much of the time it isn’t an active choice. Think about all the billboards and ads we’re subjected to without our consent. Add up the images from the voluntary and involuntary sources and you’ve got a tidal wave of images —and most don’t look anything like us or the girls we know. Several of the students in my Women and Pop Culture class decided they’d had enough-they were going to talk back to the media and tell them what “real” women look like.
I wasn’t trying to make a political or intellectual statement when I decided to get rid of my television in college.
I was trying to send a message to my live-in boyfriend, the one who was perpetually tuned in to sports channels and too distracted by video games to do his share of household chores. My message was simple and practical. Like, hey, pick up your wet towel off the bathroom floor. Or, hey, time to make dinner for me.
I’d been a pop culture junkie since girlhood and when I broke up with the TV, I felt like my best friend and I had broken up. But I noticed something extraordinary in a few short months. For the first time since I was 8-years-old, I felt good about myself. I wasn’t as critical, meticulously evaluating and judging every inch of my body. It took me a few weeks to figure out how the usual “fat talk” had diminished.
I didn’t completely cut media out of my life. I still enjoyed movies, read a weekly tabloid or two, and of course I continued to be subjected to the usual onslaught of media messages on virtually every cultural space available; billboards, buses, check-out stands, the free “postcards” (ahem, ads) in restaurants etc. But just that one effort to minimize my level of exposure had produced some important results: an increase in my self-esteem and a broader, more inclusive image of beauty- one that was less defined by unrealistic standards and Photoshop.
I’d always known that I didn’t fit the cultural beauty ideal, but it certainly didn’t keep me from making endless dangerous attempts to squeeze myself into that narrow definition. But it wasn’t until I stopped watching television that I realized the monstrous amount of images I had been exposed to, their negative consequences and the incredible difference between what is expected and what is real.
Years later when I began teaching a college course called Women and Pop Culture, I wanted to create a similar experience for my students, an opportunity for them to come face-to-face with the barrage of unrealistic expectations that profit from our insecurities and the reality of female beauty. The result was a project called the Body Collage. Each student was required to fill a poster board with images of beauty from mainstream magazines. I took each poster and covered 2 walls from floor to ceiling and then photographed my students in front of this “empire of images.” The results were striking.
“The power of the body collage was, not to sound redundant, powerful. Being able to stand in front of the endless images of “real” women and realizing that I myself was the real woman, was beyond inspirational.”- Chandler R.
“My mom and I have probably have about 4 different (fashion) magazine subscriptions so each month as I browse through them I am shown what is the ‘ideal’ and what the media considers ‘beautiful.’ It was so easy to get these images because these magazines are half ads. The first section is just a parade of these women’s “perfect” bodies. Then there are the actual fashion spreads. Standing in front of the wall filled with these images was like standing in front of my months subscriptions. The only thing missing was the occasional article. It pretty ridiculous how these ads force and coerce people into believe that this is the ‘standard’. Seeing the bodies all put together only illuminates the fact that the size 0 frame is anything but normal, average or the ‘standard'” –Devin R.
“It made me upset when I looked at my finished collage and I didn’t even see one person who looked like me. I’ve always felt like I am the one who looks different and that there is something wrong with me, but I was wrong because I didn’t realize that these images in the media are fake and altered and in no way reflect what real women look like.- Charlene G. “Looking at all the collages together, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by all the images that are plastered around you and it’s amazing how we think we can ignore it but we can’t.”- Diana S.
“When viewing the wall of images that the class created with everyone, I realized that not a single person in the room looked the way that all of the models did. It really emphasized just how unrealistic and altered the images really are. Everything from the models’ waist sizes, breast sizes, and perfect skin are in some way altered through Photoshop, the makeup they have on, or the extreme measures most models take to become so skinny. There was really no diversity, which is ironic because the United States is probably the most diverse country in the world. The high, high majority of real women were not represented in any of the collages, which shows how cultivated our media really is.” -Kaila M
“The wall of all these fake women that have been altered to look ‘perfect’ was an eye opener for me. None of the women in the class that stood in front of the wall looked like none of the women on the wall yet those are the images that are bombarding us to say how we need to look. When I was doing my poster I started to get mad of how I was cutting out all these women from all these different magazines and I couldn’t relate to none of them. I had a Spanish magazine were Latina women were being shown in it and it got me even more pissed because Latinas are known for having curves and not being stick thin yet every single woman I cut out was changed to look skinny and flawless.” -Maribel M
“Look! I married you a certain way! I like women who look a certain way! It’s my right to like women who look a certain way and I shouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life not being happy,” Brad exclaimed.
The retort from my friend Jasmine’s husband was a reaction to her staunch refusal to get ‘another set’ less than two months after removing the implants that nearly cost her her life. For nearly a decade Jasmine endured numerous health complications that Western doctors claimed had nothing to do with her silicone breast implants.
Brad seemed different from her last fiance, which is why Jasmine married him. He seemed open-minded, kind, forgiving, gentle, nurturing, and accepting. When she sprouted a few stray gray hairs in her late twenties he urged her not to pluck them saying he loved her “wisdom hairs.”
Tim, her boyfriend a decade earlier, told her she was perfect and the “girl of his dreams.” Well, almost. She was the girl of his dreams except her breasts were too small and she’d be perfect if they were bigger. In fact he’d marry her if she’d consider breast enlargement surgery. Within a week Jasmine, then 18 years old in 1990, found herself under the knife. When she woke up the static and lifeless silicone orbs on her chest were much larger than what she had agreed to during the initial consultation. The consultation that came within days of her halfheartedly agreeing to consider them.
Jasmine was genetically tiny and naturally beautiful by today’s standard. Now she embodied the girl on the back of a trucker’s mudflap. Tim’s version of the perfect wife. As promised, they were quickly engaged and twenty-five-year-old Tim, the ‘hot guy’ in town, paraded her around like a trophy–until she had the courage to leave him for being emotionally abusive and controlling.