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.
The sweet J. Crew ad I celebrated last week has ignited a “pink scare,” with socially conservative commentators outrageously upset. The ad features a mother– J.Crew’s creative director, Jenna Lyons–and her son delighting in one another’s company on a Saturday afternoon by painting their toenails hot pink (and thereby selling J. Crew’s Essie nail polish). The ad doesn’t make much fanfare of the nail painting and is fairly inconspicuous. As Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals- Redfine Girly, comments on Good Morning America‘s coverage of the gendered hoopla:
The camera has to zoom in SO much on the toes to make the news story, you completely lose sight of the delightful moment between loving, doting mother and happy, beautiful son.
In, what Nikita Blue calls, “ominous paranoid ramblings,” Dr. Keith Ablow goes off in a “conspiracy-theorist tangent,” claiming this ad contributes to “psychological sterilization,” erases gender differences and homogenizes males and females by propagandizing them to choose a gender identity that is not the “natural” one they were born with:
Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?
Media Research Center’s Erin Brown claims the ad exploits Lyons’ son, Beckett, through the “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” According to Brown, ads like these and irresponsible mothers such as Lyons will create more confused boys, much like the controversial “Princess boy.”
Sexist and homophobic concerns like the ones expressed by Ablow and Brown raise several important points worth exploring. First and foremost, the notion that there is a direct correlation between color, gender and sexual identity is ludicrous. Color codes are recent social inventions, constructs originally inverse. Phyllis Burke’s Gender Shock and Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter trace the sociohistorical origins of pink and blue segregation–gendered coding that wasn’t instilled until the early 20th century. Prior to that, glancing at a babies clothing didn’t reveal any trace of gendered identity: They all wore white gowns. Photographs of my great-grandparents, both born circa 1902, are identical and indistinguishable. Check out this photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884!
Once color coding got underway in earnest, the colors were reversed. Pink, a color close to red, was equated with strength and masculinity. Light blue was a “natural” sign of femininity and, according to Orenstein’s reasearch, equated with “intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy, and faithfulness.” Given that history, it becomes clear that color codes are arbitrary, socially constructed and have no bearing or impact on one’s “natural” gender or sexual identity. As Dr. Logan Levkoff explains:
Dear Fox, colors don’t have genders. Colors are just colors. Liking certain colors [doesn’t] mean you like girls or boys, or want to be either of them, now or in the future.
Secondly, there’s nothing “natural” about gender. Gender is a social construct reflecting cultural dictates within a specific historical context and those gendered prescriptions change as the culture changes. Just as culture is dynamic and fluid, so are gendered expectations. Obviously, Ablow and Brown aren’t familiar with the difference between the biological concept of sex, referring to maleness and femaleness and the continuum between the two, and gender, the socially constructed definitions and expectations of masculinity and femininity. Their critiques of J. Crew’s ad demonstrates rampant essentialism–the idea that one’s biological sex is destiny while ignoring historical and contemporary contradictions to that idea. If having a penis “naturally” led boys and men to embody “masculinity” and a vagina “naturally” equated with all things “feminine,” we’d see much more historical and cultural uniformity.
Third, not only is the idea that the J. Crew ad squelches “naturally” assigned gender identity ridiculous given the difference between biological sex and socially constructed gender, but Ablow’s quote doesn’t address the real culprit in stifling natural and healthy explorations: the color-coded assault by marketers on children’s play. It seems to me that the hyper-segmented pink world of the princess and the blue world of the boy warrior is much more responsible for shaping gender identity than an ad featuring hot-pink toenails on a boy. In that way, J. Crew is a small sign of opening up gendered possibilities–possibilities that represent authentic personal choice.
In Brown’s opinion piece, she goes on to say that mothers such as Lyons or Sarah Manley are setting up their sons for a hard time in the future. There she’s right, and this gets to the crux of the issue. The system of patriarchy values masculinity and devalues femininity. In fact, within patriarchy, masculinity is a fundamental mainstream cultural value. In the Good Morning America segment, Manley rightly points out that if the ad featured a girl playing with trucks in the mud there wouldn’t have been this type of outcry. While girls are awash in a sea of pink, they are more likely to be encouraged and celebrated for exploring and developing “masculine” characteristics, while boys are discouraged and shamed for developing “feminine” characteristics precisely because of masculinity’s cultural capital. What Ablow or Fox don’t acknowledge is that these are simply human characteristics, gendered one way or the other and thereby differently valued. As I wrote on my Feminist Fatale blog last week:
J. Crew’s ad doesn’t depict misguided and dangerous decisions made by J. Crew or parents like Jenna Lyons. The reactions and social outcry against it depict the dangerous world of gender policing within the system of patriarchy.
I recently watched afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and I was shocked to find a flood of highly gendered toy commercials. These ads not only market toys to children but it also promotes and encourages gender specific values that are very limiting to boys and girls in different ways. The values and skills promoted in these commercials can play a critical role in the socalization of youth and their development of emotional expression, conflict resolution, the confidence to pursue various careers and the ability to maintain healthy relationships as adults.
Related Links and Articles:
Read Media Literacy, an article by Cynthia Peters discussing and analyzing media literacy programs and how we need to transform them and hold the media accountable.
The Reel Grrls remix was made by Sahar & Diana, check out more remixes made by Reel Grrls participants here.
Reel Grrls is an amazing after school program that teaches girls and young women video making skills in a safe and encouraging environment.
Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is an organization whose mission it is to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers. They are a coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents, and individuals who are working to stop the commercial exploitation of children
To learn more about what “Male Identified” and “Male Dominated” means read Allan G. Johnson’s The Gender Knot and check out articles and videos on his website agjohnson.us
Our media landscape is populated with endless streams of images and messages glorifying, eroticizing and diminishing the serious nature of violence against women, an issue that some have called a hidden pandemic and others have labeled an epidemic of global proportions.
Lohan and the photographer have angrily responded that the images are just art and people shouldn’t get so upset. That, of course, isn’t the point. The bigger question is why photographers, artists, fashion editors, and others continue to find images of sexualized violence toward women compelling.
What is important to remember when photographs like these are released is that they are part of a spectrum. They do not stand alone as just one photograph or just one photo shoot. These images are part of a larger trend of images that feature domination, aggression, violence against women, and “dead” women (or as Jennifer Pozner dubs them, “beautiful corpses“). Through the use of body language, make-up and clothing victimization is implied and violence becomes commonplace. This gory stream of images, featuring mangled women with mouths agape and eyes glazed, is practically unremarkable in the pop culture landscape, especially in advertising. These 3 sets of images follow close on the heels of my recentposts critically examining the rampant misogyny and striking resemblance between Marc Jacobs ad campaigns and images of actual crime scenes of murdered women.
The comments from the post at Elephant Journal, a journal catering to the “enlightened,” “conscious,” and “progressive,” proves that sexism is still en vogue, should not be taken seriously and enlightenment ends when it comes to women’s issues.
The list of comments below has been compiled from Elephant Journal’s facebook page and the post located on their blog. Critics accused me of being “too serious,” “too sensitive,” “selfish,” “whiny,” “prudish” and, get this, sexist.
That’s right, since Spanx released a new line of “shapewear” or “profile-enhancing underwear” for men in February, the “body compressing” tanks, crews and v-necks have become undeniable “retail hit,” as reported in the New York Times. Thanks to Spanx, men can be cool, classic and contained. But Spanx isn’t the only company tapping into men’s growing insecurities about their midsections. According to the New York Times article, Equmen, Sculptees and RiptFusion have also released popular products for men, including a sort of (ssshh) “push-up bra” for men.
While these expensive products are racking up sales, most guys keep this new line of roll squishing undies on the down-low. In fact, online sales outweigh in-store sales. Why all the hush-hush shopping for such these hot new retail products?
We believe beauty is not always thin, and beauty is not always young. In Exploring Beauty, women are invited to explore their thoughts about the nature of beauty. The paring of their ideas and images expands the definition of what beautiful is. – Exploring Beauty
Exploring Beauty is the work of artist Erik Hagen, a US citizen currently transplanted in The Netherlands, an attempt to explore the nature of beauty and expand its cultural definitions. In a collaborative effort with each volunteer model, Hagen pairs the image with the interview in order to bring the essence of each woman to the reader.
In an image-based culture that proliferates streams of homogeneous images reinforcing unrealistic and dangerous images of beauty, these unaltered photos of women are a breath of fresh air, rich and full of life. Not only do Hagen’s images offer diversity and authenticity, the accompanying stories provide depth and character, reminding us that women are not solely defined by their physical appearance. Hagen’s work allows us to fully experience a woman’s beauty; her mind, body and spirit.
Like many men, in Hagen’s youth, he preferred a beauty standard that reflected the dominant beauty norm, young and thin. As he grew and matured, he came to recognize and appreciate a woman’s character and story as a primary component of holistic beauty. In addition to his growth as a man, his move to Europe continued to expand his boundaries of beauty. Unlike many parts of the United States, Holland’s beauty definitions are broader and fuller.
Engaging in this intimate exploration of beauty, both Hagen and his models have emerged changed, moved by the collaborative experience and their contribution to change prevailing attitudes that have created epidemic levels of low self-esteem and body hate.
Projects that allow us to see what a real woman looks like, are important efforts in combating the manufactured images that tell us that we are defined and valued in narrow, one-dimensional ways.
The barrage of images of ideal beauty drown diversity, tout the unreal as real and leave us wondering, “What does a real woman look like?”
This is what real women look like (feast your eyes):
All photos taken by Melanie Klein, May 6, 2010, as part of a dual-part class project. The body collage and photo-shoot allowed students to compare and contrast manufactured images of beauty and authentic representations of beauty. Body collages were taped from floor to ceiling to allow students to “feel” the onslaught of one-dimensional images and place themselves in front of the mass illusion disseminated via the mass media and remind themselves that “this is what a real woman looks like.” Body image film to follow.