Fitness, yoga and body image

What a loaded topic, huh? 

Let’s take some deep ujjayi breaths, friends, and talk about some critical issues. 

This weekend at the Yoga Journal Conference, some blogger friends and I were invited to attend a panel hosted by lululemon, “The Practice of Leadership: Yoga and Body Image.”

In Attendance: (from the website)

Melanie Klein, MA, writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies, co-editor of Yoga + Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body (October 2014) and co-founder of the Yoga + Body Image Coalition

Dana Smith, yoga teacher, certified Master Life Coach, Holistic Health Practitioner, author of YES! Yoga Has Curves and ally and adviser of the Yoga + Body Image Coalition

Dianne Bondy Yoga, trail blazer, motivator, risk taker, educator, yoga teacher, author, contributor, Yoga + Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body (October 2014), a founding board member and partner of the Yoga + Body Image Coalition and founder of Yogasteya.com, a body positive online yoga studio for people of all sizes, genders and abilities

Carin Gorrell, Editor-in-Chief, Yoga Journal

Rachel Acheson, VP Brand and Community, lululemon athletica

Brigitte Kouba M.A. (aka Gigi Yogini), Positive Body Image Advocate & Yoga Instructor, co-founder of the Yoga + Body Image Coalition

Facilitator: Hala Khouri, Founder Off the Mat, Into the World 

Pretty amazing lineup, right?

I was really interested in what they had to say, and here are some notes I took from the panel:

[Direct notes are in bold. My thoughts follow each topic and are not bolded.]

Buddha

Your body is reality; your body image is your perception of that reality. It’s the psychological blueprint we have of our bodies and it can fluctuate day by day, or hour by hour. Body image is extremely subjective and can be affected by various things. Research has shown that our body image is affected from 30 minutes of watching commercials, and any body image issues can be formed in a variety of ways.

As someone who has struggled with body image issues over the years, it’s something that I’ve become more mindful of over time. The importance of having a positive body image has dramatically increased since having a young, impressionable daughter. I want her to be confident in her own skin, but as much as I WISH that for her, I have to SHOW her. At the same time, no matter what I do here at home, I have no affect on what will happen when she goes to elementary school and has girlfriends. All I can do now is give her the tools for strength, confidence and self worth to hopefully minimize the affects of others. It’s a tricky thing, especially because I learned of the infamous “thigh gap” when I was eight years old. A friend told me you couldn’t have perfect legs unless you had a thigh gap. Horrifying, right? (And for the record: you can not exercise or diet yourself into a thigh gap. It’s largely genetics-based and depends on the width of your hips and pelvis.)

What is considered “the ideal” and how is this image perpetuated in the yoga community? According to one panelist, this is “white, skinny and flexible.” There’s no emphasis on total mind-body health, and it’s important to consider that someone could look great on the outside be a mess on the inside. 

I also wish there was an emphasis on overall health instead of achieving a certain aesthetic. Concurrently, that’s a difficult thing to “show” via the media without truly knowing someone. 

We need to create health and acceptance in the yoga community.  I haven’t experienced a lot of snob yoga (maybe since I don’t usually practice at hoity toity yoga studios). My favorite studios have every demographic represented: race, sexual orientation, age, gender identification, income ranges, body sizes and types. Everyone is welcome. 

Lunge  1 of 1 3

Aspirational marketing is problematic, and we need truth in advertising. I TOTALLY would love to see more *normal people* in advertising. I also feel like everyone says this, and everyone says they’re going to make a point to do it, but no concrete changes (that I know of) have occurred. If a magazine wants to promote more truthful snapshot of their reader demographic, don’t talk about it: do it.

Different images are inspiring to different people. I found this particularly intriguing because something that inspires one person could cause self-loathing and shame in another. Check out Pinterest for example. The “motivational category” ranges from beautiful quotes to photos of emaciated girls and crap “weight loss tips.” Just for kicks, I searched “motivation” on Pinterest, and was terrified by what I saw.

Aspirational means telling the whole story instead of a snapshot.  This struck home for me because I have a blog, which is a very small snapshot of a life. While I’m not going to make a point to regularly air out dirty laundry, I do like to keep things real over here. I have great days, I have fail days, I have confident days, and I have shitty days. We’ve all been there, right? As much as you may want to show a larger part of your unique snapshot, there are people waiting to critique it. For this reason, I feel like many bloggers are guarded in what they say and unable to share their lives in a matter that they’d like. It’s a tough situation because people say they want to whole story, but in the end, it’s not really the truth. For example, a mommy blogger that I adore is often nitpicked for presenting this “perfect unattainable life.” Her hair is beautifully coiffed, her children dressed to the nines, and her photos are spectacular. On Instagram, she posted a photo with her nails chipped, and instead of a chorus of “Go you! Thanks for keeping it real! I have kids and have a tough time keeping my mani fresh, too!” she was met with a host of nastiness like “Eww, your nails look awful. Get a manicure.” Sometimes with this one, you can’t win, so you really just have to do what’s best for you.

If you have your self worth, you’re more easily able to brush off the instances where other project their insecurities or pain onto you.

While I do think it’s important to show all sides of various situations and issues, there is only a small piece you can see in advertising/TV/marketing/blogs. Do we need a photo of a model looking awesome with a small disclaimer to indicate her mental and physical health, where she grew up, and the struggles/challenges she’s faced? No. I think it’s up to us to use our judgment and take the things we see with a grain of salt.

We need to create space for health, which means different things for different people. 

As a whole, we all need to be more welcoming and kind to others. Everyone is on a different spot in their unique journey, and as morbid as it sounds, we all have the same destination. 

On the yoga and body image front, do you think that yoga companies and individuals are promoting an unattainable ideal? What do you think needs to change?

I walked into this panel with one eyebrow raised because I have a mixed history with lululemon. I worked there for a while and absolutely loved it. In Tucson, I quit to focus on my book proposals and teaching classes, and I went on a full-up boycott when the CEO blamed the size of women’s thighs for their poor fabric quality. I’m pretty sure steam shot out of my ears when I saw the cringeworthy interview on TV. Aforementioned CEO Douchebag has since left, and I’ve started shopping there again (since the company is under completely different leadership), and I know they’ve been making a conscious effort to repair their bruised image. I really enjoyed listening to the VP of Brand and Community speak; she said she is making a point to get more sample sizes represented in their advertising and website.

There are also various aspects of yoga that could be promoted and shared, instead of the crazy hand balance and gumby poses. Even though I am guilty of aspiring to achieve the gumby poses, the journey is so much more valuable than the final posture. That’s a huge takeaway that I had from this weekend.

How has your fitness journey affected your body image?

I’d love to hear any of your thoughts below. Yoga Journal is also encouraging the conversation on this Facebook page and with the Twitter hashtag #practiceofleadership

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Comments

  1. Yaara Leve says:

    I also wanted to add–I too have struggled immensely with body image. I’ve always hated my body and never felt skinny enough. I think it stemmed from being in the dance world and being in the competitive skating world–where coaches would come up to you–at like 10 years old and say that you needed to lose weight!! At freaking 10 years old! I don’t find that yoga has helped in anyway with these issues unfortunately. And I think it’s because I’m finding that the yoga world is not so different from the dance world.

  2. Julie VerHage says:

    Words can not describe how much I love this post!

  3. GillyBear says:

    I find there can be quite a bit of all-or-nothing attitude surrounding the yoga lifestyle which might deter people who are beginners or who are self concious. When I first started doing yoga I was definitely self concious cause I am just generally a larger frame and it seemed liked most of the studio was the stereotype you mentioned above. While I used to love Lululemon, I’ve experienced my fair share of judgement in their stores and the comments regarding sizes/thighs etc are just off putting.

    I lost a dress size or two a year ago, I was strong and I loved the way my body looked. Then after a couple months I started feeling fat and uncomfortable, but after taking my measurements it seemed I hadn’t actually gained any weight back and my clothes still fit well. Is my normal state to be ashamed of myself and hate my body? It made me realise that my body image is pretty messed up, and it’s something I should always take into consideration when assessing my fitness.

  4. My fitness journey has definitely meant a lot of things for my body image. But not, I think it has finally brought me to a place where my body image is based on my health, and not the minute differences in appearance or weight or comparing myself to other women.

  5. I’m glad you addressed the issue of Lululemon and their sponsorship of the program. My first thought was, well that’s ironic, but I’m glad to see that they are working to make changes.

    I coach high school girls (cross country), and trying to coach and help girls achieve a positive body image is so important (I actually just wrote a post about coaching girls). Women in general have body image issues, which date back to our early years, sometimes from hearing our mothers complain about their own bodies.

    It is such a complex issue and we aren’t going to get much help from big businesses, magazines, or other marketing sources. Helping girls with their self esteem needs to start at home, with their parents, their coaches, their teachers.

    My experience with yoga has been very positive (albeit somewhat limited). I have seen students and teachers of all sizes and backgrounds, and have always felt supported and included. I wouldn’t want to go to a class or a studio where teachers made me feel that I was not the right size to feel accomplished or comfortable with my yoga.

    Sorry, I’m rambling a bit, but I feel strongly about the issue of body confidence and self esteem, but it is hard to express in one comment :-).

  6. This is a great post! I recently redeemed a Groupon to a CorePower Yoga in the city that I live, which is one of the known nicer/richer cities in my metro area. I was worried that it was going to be a bunch of skinny, flexible, white trophy-wife types in their $100 Lulu gear. It wasn’t. The classes I attended were on the smaller side, but there was a good range of body types in them, along with ethnicities. I feel that myself and some female friends and family members spend an awful lot of time thinking about how we look and often wishing we looked different/better. I wished this was not the case. I’m in my mid-30s. I don’t remember feeling this way in say my early and mid-20s. Is it because of all the internet and social media and access to things that we didn’t have when I was in high school and college? I hope I grow out of it by the time I’m in my 40s!

  7. Corinne Conley says:

    I read your blog consistently and usually it is one of the highlights of my day! I am in the process of getting my doctorate and came across this ad by ALWAYS which helps to pick out “normal” people and give a definition of “like a girl” means. All I have to say is kudos to ALWAYS for standing up in the fight! I think I know which brand I am buying the next time the special time of the month comes. Just thought I would share the link as it seems relevant to today’s post on bodies.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&list=RDHCW-GKbattXnE&v=CGyEd0aKWZE

  8. I have practiced yoga for over 10 years and I have unfortunately been met with some of the snobbiness that has been discussed by other commenters. I am a larger build Latina and sometimes I get weird/snotty looks when I walk into a new studio. I also work in a hospital in an affluent area and many of my colleagues are also the stereotype; white, thin and attractive with pretty (usually blond) hair. They are all “OMG obsessed!” with yoga and soulcycle, and have made snarky comments about the fact that I also do yoga, but that’s ok…. Because I know that there will ALWAYS be haters and someone who is thinner, prettier and younger than you. It just makes me sad that these women who call themselves yogis have missed the greatest gift that yoga has given me, self acceptance and appreciation/thankfulness for my healthy body.

    • Fitnessista says:

      it just seems so weird to me to meet snobby/judge-y yogis and yoginis. they’re definitely missing the point of the practice, because it’s about what happens on YOUR mat, not anyone else’s.
      keep your head up, and keep doing your thing <3 xo

  9. Great post with a lot to think about. I think women especially deal with body image issues at every stage of their journey and throughout life. I’ve been overweight before and now I am on the smaller side due to exercise and cleaning up my diet and still feel self conscious that my lifestyle makes others who don’t exercise or focus on fitness feel bad. I’ve been told I’m too thin and working out too much. That if I put on a few pounds I would be perfect. I didn’t receive as much blatant commentary on my weight when I was heavier, but now it seems like it’s fair game. I’m still learning how to deal with this. I recently started a blog and I really appreciated your point about being more transparent and showing the whole picture. I will try to be more aware of that going forward.

  10. About the thigh gap…..I’m glad you mentioned it! I have never had a thigh gap no matter what size I have been. I weighed 107 pounds in high school at 5’5″ and have been 180# and everything in between never having a thigh gap. You are right, for some people’s anotomic make up it’s just not possible. Everyone’s body and genetics are different. There are some things we just can’t change. I have been trying more to focus on health and feeling well. I think that’s what makes us glow and beautiful 🙂

  11. Such an important topic, Gina. I started struggling with body image in 2nd or 3rd grade when the jeans my “little” friends wore didn’t come in my size. I always felt different because I wasn’t skinny. Fast-forward to 4th grade when some boys started calling me names because of my weight. I still think of that to this day–and I’m 35! I’m also a middle school teacher, and I worry so much about my girls and the messages they’re getting from the media and the pressure that puts on them. I struggled with disordered eating for many years, under- and overeating, over exercising, etc, and I’ve finally realized it’s such a waste of time and energy. Life is short. I want to love my body now, not later. I’m tired of loving myself conditionally. I want to be healthy and happy and take care of myself for me, not so others will approve. Still, I have good days and bad days. Definitely a work in progress.

    • Fitnessista says:

      no day but today 🙂 awesome comment, and it makes my heart warm to hear that you care so much about the girls in your class. teachers like you, leading by example, make such a huge impact. xo

  12. Justine Mckenzie says:

    I’m glad to see you talking about body image on your blog Gina! I know you’ve talked about it before, but I just want to give you a virtual *high five* for your post. I’ve been trying to remind myself that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (teddy roosevelt). I’ve realized that my #1 trigger for sending myself into insecurity about my body is comparing it to others. I’ve tried to be really diligent with how much I use social media in order to keep myself from comparing – bye bye facebook!

  13. Hello. I remember suffering from body issues for most of my life. Even though I’ve always maintained an active lifestyle, when I was younger I always felt the need to be like somebody else either in appearance or demeanour. Fitness can be very extreme in that sense. There is a competitive element to it when you are younger that unless you train professionally, seems to dissipate over the years. I began counting calories when I was an early teenager and at one point suffered a mild eating disorder that lasted for over a decade. I am now 33 years old and although it is not true for everybody, I do feel that age has helped me to change my perspective. In my case, once I turned 30 I cared less for others and more for myself. I began to see beauty in all silhouettes and although I still do have the occasional shitty day, I am much more forgiving of myself. I still maintain an active lifestyle although it is now much more internal rather than external. The thirties truly is shaping up to be the best decade of my life 🙂

  14. Rebecca says:

    Loved everything about this post. I started focusing on fitness and running as I wasn’t happy with my body but now it really is about total well being, which includes trying to show myself love every day. I love feeling strong and healthy, but it can so easily tip into obsessive focus about looking a certain way or comparing yourself to others (and not just body image but ability as well) – even among the fitness community, when we really should all be supporting each other. I don’t practice yoga but I see this in the running community and it makes me very sad.

    Thank you for being honest with your thoughts about this, I think all women struggle with it to varying degrees, and by sharing with each other we can help overcome the negativity!

  15. All our family love yoga. Especially my wife. Now she loves her body even more thanks to daily yoga practice, even though she hated some parts of her body in the past.

    But the best thing about yoga is that it improves not only the whole body, but the state of mind and soul at the same time.

  16. As a yoga teacher the balance of focusing on the form and also knowing that yoga, at it’s core isn’t about the physical at all is interesting (to say the least). I love yoga and I came to it at a very difficult time in my life, it has really helped me but I struggle with the expectations of what a yoga teacher “should” look like (this is in my mind but is also portrayed in fitness ads) As the popularity of yoga has grown I think the focus tends to shift more onto the physical and not the internal focus of the practice. I think any yoga is good yoga, I try and keep that in mind when I teach. I’m there to share, whatever people take away is their experience.

  17. Thanks for this post! It was a really valuable read for me as I’m becoming more serious about my yoga practice.

    Initially, yoga just felt really good – my body was doing things I never thought I could do, and I was so proud of myself. I was practicing at home, no one saw me, and it was just about improving myself. But I’m increasingly finding that “practicing yoga” has become “being good at inversions.” I started following some yoga tumblrs to see fun poses, but now it’s become like, “Can I do that? Am I good enough?” Instead of feeling proud of myself in the moment for what I can do, I feel pressured to do more.

    But I’m mindful of this pressure and trying to be careful about my practice. I feel like I’ve come a long way, both in yoga and my health/fitness in general, that I don’t want to squander it through competitive, petty, and self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, or internal monologues. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but posts like this help a lot!

  18. I still have huge issues with body image. I don’t think I look bad as a “person” but as a fitness professional I feel like the public expects me to look a certain way, and while I would never consider myself “fat” I certainly don’t have a six pack or a thigh gap! P.S. How traumatized am I that you were introduced to a thigh gap at age 8? I thought it was an invention of the internet in the past few years, I had no clue it was a couple decades old!

    I pretty much black listed lululemon during that whole debacle too, and still haven’t really gone back (aside from a few things here and there, and more because I’m trying to cut back on spending than anything). I gotta say that despite their change in leadership, the fact that they hosted a panel on body image is a little laughable since they still cater to such a small range of sizes!

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