“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 The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.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.
Originally posted at FemineUs, a student run blog created as part of their final project for my WS 30: Women and Pop Culture course. Cross-posted with permission. Created by Alexa G.; feminist, blogger, CrossFit badass and all-around amazing young activist and scholar.
Nearly a year ago I became a CrossFitter. For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about, CrossFit is a high-intensity workout program that’s designed to help build all-over strength. I didn’t enter the program with a specific goal in mind. I wasn’t looking to lose weight nor was I looking to shape myself into a top-tier athlete. At the very least, I figured I would get into better shape and be a bit healthier. So I started taking classes, became hooked to the challenge it provided, and soon found both my body and mind undergoing a radical transformation.
Over the months my body began to change dramatically. Strength I didn’t know I had came out of nowhere. You want me to deadlift and back squat my body weight? I can do that. And you want me to shoulder press and front squat half of my body weight? Hey, I can do that too. Don’t forget plenty of sit ups, pull ups, and push ups for good measure. Having been skinny and without any kind of muscle tone my entire life, being able to do these kinds of exercises was a big deal for me. I felt stronger and more confident than ever- something I hadn’t always felt about my body before.
But even though my body has changed for the better, part of me feels uncomfortable with my new-found biceps and muscular calves. Instead of celebrating my strength and confidence, I sometimes find myself wanting to be skinny again. I’ve put on 20 pounds of (what I’m guessing is mostly) muscle weight and have gone up two pants sizes because of it. And I know that this isn’t a bad thing because I’m the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been. So while I am blessed with greater health and wellness, I still find myself wanting to go back to a body that wasn’t healthy for me.
I find myself caught in an odd position here. Here I am, a self-declared feminist who is uncomfortable within her own body. I’m well aware (and I’m sure you are too) of the ridiculous and unrealistic beauty standards that women are expected to live up to. But even though I do have this feminist consciousness, I still compare myself with this impossible beauty standard. This is all embarrassing for me to admit to because I do know better and I do know that being a size zero is unhealthy for someone like myself. But even with this knowledge, there is a part of me that still longs to be skinny and tiny and everything that popular culture tells me I should be.
And I know I’m not alone with these feelings. Countless books have been written for, by, and about women on the topic of body image. Some of these books deliver a lighter hearted, but still serious take such as Leslie Goldman’s Locker Room Diaries. Others, such as Susan Bordo’sUnbearable Weight deliver a more academic take on Western beauty ideals and culture. Both are fully aware of and discuss the consequences and impact that these beauty standards and images have had on women. Goldman speaks freely about her own battles with eating disorders and talks to women of all ages about their body image.
Am I planning on giving up CrossFit any time soon? Not if I can help it. I do my best to ignore what popular culture tells me I should look like, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected in some way.
Lani’s recent post on Christina Hendricks’ curves prompted me to point out that the public scrutiny of and derogatory comments about women’s bodies (celebrity or not) is referred to as bodysnarking.
Miss Jay says that social-networking sites mean teenagers now focus even more on how they look. “I know girls who have entire photo albums just of their face at different angles. On the flip side, the unflattering photos can’t just be tucked away somewhere. They become the basis for publicly displayed ridicule,” she says.
It sounds a lot like the way we treat famous people. “The conventions that a lot of these celebrity magazines use have trickled down to everyday conversations,” says Claire Mysko, the author of “You’re Amazing! A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self.” She mentions celeb sites like PerezHilton.com, TMZ.com and photo-rating site HotorNot.com that obsessively scrutinize people’s flaws and assets.
“I remember sitting at a restaurant with a friend who made a comment to me that the waitress shouldn’t wear shorts because of the way her body was shaped,” says Sharon Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketer’s Schemes.” And few women seem immune from being the objects of such scrutiny — from people of both sexes. New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen, commenting on the political prospects of Hillary Clinton, noted that she has a “Wal-Mart shopper’s bad hair” and a “big bum.”
Bum, however, is just the beginning of the bodysnark lexicon. Jezebel’s Ms. Holmes, who has worked at InStyle, says that 10 years ago people would have looked at you weird if you used such now-common and harshly descriptive words and phrases as “pooch,” “muffin top,” “fugly,” “cankles” (fat ankles and calves that lack definition) and “whale tail.” Also, she notes: “In the ’90s, magazines weren’t really publishing unflattering photos. Today we have been trained to look for the potentially mockable thing, whether it’s of a celebrity or of someone we know.”
It seems counterintuitive, somehow, that ugly pictures sell magazines. But according to Ms. Holmes, stories about celebrity weight-loss with before-and-after photos now fly off the shelves.
As the article notes, bodysnarking as sport among women along with fierce competition is nothing new but the rise of social media has propelled this mean-spirited and hurtful pastime to epic, and public, proportions.
Placing women — especially celebrities — under the microscope is certainly not new. Neither is the fact that women can be mean to each other. What’s different now is how new media — blogs, social networks and YouTube — have encouraged and escalated public participation. Where it might once have been considered déclassé to remark on someone’s appearance, at least publicly, today it’s done with the same ease as sending a text message.
And the impact of this public body hazing has tangible consequences. Women and girls understand at a gut level that their bodies are public property and not entirely their own. They understand and expect people they don’t know to survey their bodies, dissect and comment on their appearance. This creates an incredibly vulnerable place to be inside one’s own skin. That vulnerability tends to breed insecurity and insecurity too often leads to dangerous, costly and time consuming body practices.
The next time you feel compelled to call a stranger or your best friend (!) a “skinny bitch” or comment on the size of her ankles, remind yourself that these comments aren’t benign and that we have the ability to create change in our lives and the lives of other women at every moment. Ultimately, this creates cultural change and, perhaps, that shift will foster a healthy, happy environment for our bodies and minds.
Suzanne Somers appeared on Oprah today and discussed her use of bioidentical hormones which she has sustained for a decade.
Not surprisingly, this fountain of youth can be obtained through extensive time, effort, and cost. Yip, that sounds realistic for the average woman. 60 pills daily? Sure. Estrogen daily? Bring it on. Progesterone two weeks a month? Check. A husband to make me my smoothie each morning to choke down those pills? Yup.
Somers invited cameras into her home to show her daily routine, seen below. First she rubs hormone lotion on the inside of her upper arm, always estrogen and two weeks a month progesterone. She then injects estriol vaginally, which she did not let cameras see.
Then there are her pills, all 60 of them. 40 in the morning with a smoothie and the rest at night. She admits the pill quantity is extreme, saying, “I know I look like some kind of fanatic.”
Hey, you said it.
This is a prime example of the five feminist critiques of the beauty norm in our culture:
1. COST (Hello!): time and money
2. Double-standard: her husband doesn’t seem too tripped out about his age and he looks FAR older than she does.
3. Choice and control: embracing a cult of youth and thinness as established, designed and perpetuated by large institutions that profit from this standard measure of beauty
4. Physical and mental health: dangerous drugs, toxic cosmetics and toiltries, barbaric exercise and food practices
5. Maintaining other forms of inequality: ageism, racism, classism