Newsflash: “Skinny White Women” Haven’t “Ruined Yoga”

 

As a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, I’m pleased to see public discussion of the problems of having yoga so strongly associated with images of bendy-pretty white women (finally) taking off. As an “older yogi” who’s also been around the block a few times, however, I’m also well aware that progress on one set of difficult issues inevitably generates new ones in its wake. In this case, I’ve become concerned that the well-justified backlash against the role of “skinny white girl” imagery in contemporary yoga culture is encouraging some misguided, and at times misogynistic put downs of people who happen to fit that demographic.

In her recent Quartz article, “How Americans Ruined Yoga for the Rest of the World,” Michelle Garcia reports how disgusted she was to find that even in what should rightfully be the white chick-free zone of the “new studio around the block from my apartment in Harlem,” the receptionist working the front desk was a “blonde waif with a face scrubbed free of character.” Her contempt for such bimbos is palpable: “This is the land of pricy Lululemon gear where yogis fit their lotus between a mani/pedi and a cocktail . . . Only in yoga will people chant in a foreign language, oblivious to the meaning of the words and then closely examine their curves in pants now worn by porn stars.”

What shallow idiots, right? What stupid women.

 

Stereotypes and Misogyny

To be fair, Garcia goes on to say some positive things about yoga (“it works”), highlighting examples of work that’s “changing the conversation about yoga and femininity.” By the time we get there, however, we’ve already gotten the message that the specific group of Americans that has “ruined yoga for the rest of the world” is none other than that same herd of self-absorbed, body-obsessed white women who colonized her Harlem studio. These people, it’s suggested, are contemptibly shallow, happily trampling an ancient spiritual practice in the dirt in the stampede to hone their “yoga butts.”

Just because a woman wrote this article doesn’t mean there can’t be any misogyny there. On the contrary, it’s incredibly common for members of socially stereotyped groups to internalize many of the powerful cultural messages relayed to them via that typecasting, whether they want to or not. Even women who’ve worked hard to develop a strong feminist consciousness can find themselves falling into thought patterns that reduce other women – and/or themselves – to dehumanized objects, rather than multi-dimensional beings.

And, of course, there is a racial angle at play here as well. Everyone is well aware that the ubiquitous “yoga babe” image is prototypically white. As always, this intersection of race and gender carries a particular cultural valence (which in this case, it should be added, also has a distinctively upper-middle class “aspirational” dimension as well). Stereotypically, this white feminine imaginary may be celebrated as a representation of happiness, serenity, and “niceness.” By the same token, however, it’s not championing female intelligence, courage, or power.

As a result, it’s easy for the reaction against “yoga babe” imagery to conflate pretty white women with shallow stupidity in real life. When this happens, the power of the stereotype remains intact: it’s simply turned around from being an object of “inspiration” to one of denigration. Either way, however, the true humanity of the flesh-and-blood, body and soul person whose looks fit that basic mold is erased.

Just yesterday, the webzine Well + Good published an article asking “Does Yoga Have a Skinny White Girl Problem?” The provocative title had little to do with the post’s content, which was a nice report on the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, this popular site knows its click bait. There’s more than one way of exploiting images of pretty white women: If it’s not time to idealize them, you can always hate on them.

 

Reaction vs. Liberation

In all honesty, I can relate to the sense of rage Garcia expressed in discovering that what she’d assumed to be a personally safe, culturally comfortable space (i.e., a local studio in her Harlem neighborhood) seemed instead to have been colonized by women whose self-presentation alienated her on a deep, visceral level. Back when I first started exploring the yoga blogosphere in 2010, I was scandalized, upset, and disoriented to discover that something like “yoga for weight loss” was infinitely more popular than anything I cared about when it came to yoga. And while I’ve more or less come to terms with it, I still often find the endless parade of images of impossibly skinny, pretty, bendy young white yoga babes in print and social media deflating and depressing.

But, I also know that while this much-hyped “yoga body” is a maddeningly effective sales tool, it’s not real life. This isn’t to say that it’s not important in the “real world”: on the contrary, it most certainly is. (At least, as much as anything is today that doesn’t directly address our most pressing issues, like climate change.) But the reason it’s important is because it’s a cultural symbol. As such, it doesn’t even try to represent the true complexity of a real human being. On the contrary, the unstated goal is precisely the opposite: to reduce us (or at least, those of us who are part of the targeted demographic) to a simpler, and presumably more manageable version of ourselves.

The yoga babe image that’s now causing such a backlash taps into a lot of highly charged tropes concerning the meaning of beauty, control, power, respectability, and achievement. But, like all successful commercial imagery, it’s designed to sell some targeted demographic the sense that they can easily obtain these qualities by buying into this one neat package (whether literally or figuratively). Thus, those who identify with the image find it “inspiring.” Those who don’t identity with it may alternatively find it irrelevant, hurtful, or enraging. Very often, however, it provokes a strong emotional response – even when we might wish that it didn’t.

What we really need are better alternatives, not angry reactions. That’s why the work of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition is so important. We understand that this movement is not about tearing down pretty-bendy white women, or anyone else. On the contrary, it’s about defusing the power of cultural tropes that define the “yoga body” in terms of stereotypical feminine imagery. To the extent it’s successful, it will be liberating for anyone who’s affected by such imagery – which means most of us, as it’s exceedingly rare to have advanced in your practice enough to have fully unraveled the imprint of such cultural conditioning.

Yoga is hard work. But when we support each other in our practice, it’s a lot easier – and more fun. We don’t have to be driven by negative emotions to participate in projects of cultural critique and political change. Working together, we can co-create a joyful process of conscious evolution.

 

 


4 Comments

  1. Karl

    Very nicely put Carol.
    I’m lucky enough to share my love and my life with a lean strong bendy blonde yoga babe, and am frequently bemused by calls for images of “real women” in yoga publications– as if these are not real people too!
    Undoubtedly there’s room for much greater representation of diversity, and the yoga and body image coalition is doing great work in its yoga body campaign. But as you so rightly note, there is nothing to be gained in denigrating one body type in the name of greater inclusivity.
    One thing that occurs while reading your analysis, though, is the extent to which this bendy-babe-bashing is in fact a surreptitious complaint about class and inequality in America. Although yoga is certainly not immune to issues of class and inequality, this is an entirely separate matter. A vibrant and rigorous discussion about these issues is well worth having–but is derailed when the focus is misdirected to young bendy yoga babes.

    • Hi Karl – Thanks for your comment. I think that there is in fact a connection between issues of class inequality and the bendy yoga babe image, in that the latter is connected to cultural commitments that direct our attention away from these issues in favor of “working on ourselves” – while not noticing that those who have more resources to do such work and get celebrated for it tend to be white, etc.

      But, that is a very different matter from projecting whatever negative feelings we have about such symbols directly onto people we happen to encounter who remind us of them. It’s easy to do and understandable in many cases. But I also believe that it’s something that we need to work against if we’re prone to it, particularly if we are committed to a holistic yoga practice that extends off the mat and into our lives.

  2. Devils advocate here;

    A few things came to mind as I read this. I won’t mention them all. But one is the friction between two African dance studios: One run by Black folks in a neighborhood predominantly populated by Black folks and one in a predominantly White neighborhood run as a non-profit by a White woman. The Black owned studio, which was there first, resented the other perceiving a usurpation of culture. It’s been years of to and fro.

    I came from a dance world in New York where I was one of the few white women who danced in a condemned building on the lower East Side with women and men of all colors, drummers of all colors and our commonality was being underground. The teacher, an imposing figure, would scream “TEN BUCKS” at us to make sure we paid and then he doled half of it out to the extensive band who wandered in through the whole class as they felt like it. The class ended when he said so. It was the only class that week so if you wanted to dance, you showed up. When that building was torn down to make way for something that was of course better, it displaced us and it did not feel better.

    Then I thought of the gentrification of this town with its mixed neighborhoods as I wonder where all the poor folks go when their places are bought up by real estate investors. I watch the town changing and again, I can imagine the resentment. Shiny,expensive, re-packaged does not feel good to everyone and in fact it pushes them aside.

    These are simply images born of emotion that surfaced immediately as I read the author’s furious words. I am not saying that yoga and our landscape should not evolve or that we should resent someone for having a different life than us. These changes and differences are inevitable.

    People are exhausted by the constant fighting in this world whether it be in our homes, our yoga life, our government, other nations but the fighting is there because many people feel their worlds slipping away and doing so at an advanced pace. And they don’t feel a better world or a familiar world there to hold them which is why I get the author being pissed. However, I would bet she doesn’t hate skinny, privileged white chicks but fears her own life disappearing. I say this as a privileged skinny white chick who used to move pretty well in rooms with people of many colors and backgrounds and never, whether it be in African dance or yoga, do I recall any resentment but a great deal of love.

    That’s my devil’s advocate reaction. Tomorrow I will probably rail against everything inevitable as I often do. And did I mention that this is an excellent post? Thank you for instigating awareness.

  3. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying at all. In retrospect, shouldn’t have picked on that one article so much, as I could have found other examples that didn’t bring up the same complexities (as they’re coming from other white women and not about Harlem-based studios). But, the writing was so vivid in this one that it grabbed my attention. Someone else just posted today about the hate she feels floating around in the reaction to yoga selfies. My reaction to this is complicated because while I generally really dislike the yoga selfie stampede, I feel even more committed to the principle that making it really personal, as in hating on some person or people that you happen to encounter in real life or online, is even more problematic.

    But you’re right about feeling pushed aside and it’s unrealistic to think that that’s not going to cause anger, upset and a lot of negative reaction. I’m fine with anger and upset but feel that part of the yoga practice is trying to channel those energies away from reaction and toward positive action. Not sure if I succeeded in communicating or actualizing that well in this post or not, but that’s the underlying intent.

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