Armpits, Calorie-counting, and the Objectification of Women in Yoga Media
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | July 16, 2021
Here’s a little tidbit about me – I prefer not to shave my armpits.
There, I said it. *cringe* I can see my mom and sisters rolling their eyes 🙄 at my hippie-ish inclinations.
(me, in New Delhi, 1994)
Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about my armpits any more in this blog and I certainly won’t be posting any unkempt selfies. 🤣
I merely use this factoid to make a simple, straightforward point: women need to feel good about their bodies, whether or not they conform to cultural norms.
Here’s something else I’d like to tell you about myself: I don’t restrict calories.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to eat healthy meals, and live a healthy lifestyle in general. I don’t own a donut fryer or guzzle Mountain Dew for breakfast.
But I haven’t counted calories in decades. It doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m not interested in obsessing over everything that goes into my mouth. Most men I know don’t obsess about what they eat so why should I?
I have too many other things to think about.
But I work for myself, and live in little geographic and digital bubbles where I can make sweeping pronouncements and blissfully ignore the fact that there’s a much larger, corporatist, capitalistic, patriarchal, paternalistic, heteronormative culture that dominates the toxic discourse about women’s bodies.
The yoga world is in no way immune.
The reality is that women’s bodies remain a kṣetram, or battleground for attention and dollars within (and without) the yoga world. In 2019, two researchers at the University of South Carolina looked at the depiction of yoga in women’s magazines.
Their analysis found that yoga in the media:
- Objectifies Women’s Bodies – No big surprises here. They found that yoga is frequently used in the media to justify a very narrow standard of acceptable bodies.
- Commodifies Brand Promotion and Consumption – In addition to using yoga to sell clothes, books, and beer, yoga is also used to promote thin, lightweight computers. 🤪
- Depicts Yoga as a Commercialized Personal Vocation – The researchers noted that teaching yoga is presented as a way to sell other products like clothing, food, and lifestyle. Aligning oneself with brands is a way for yoga teachers to make extra money and increase their celebrity and following.
- Stresses the Physical Rather Than Mental or Spiritual Benefits – Articles about yoga tend to focus on its physical benefits including (surprise!) lots of weight loss advice. “More than half of the articles…focused on the benefits of yoga for specific ailments…Many articles described yoga postures that are effective for knee pain, back pain, abdominal muscles, legs, belly, lungs, nipples, genitals, bones, buttocks, breast, heart, and nostrils.” Yoga for your genitals…who knew? 🤷♀️
- Is an Exclusionary Practice for White Women- The majority of images of yoga in the media are of thin white women (more about that here). “More than 80% of the images showed White and slim women practicing yoga asanas…Some images not only objectified women’s bodies but also promoted racial difference as exotic.”
A few more salient points from the researchers:
- Women of color are rarely featured in images of Western women practicing yoga.
- White women who are not slim and petite also are rarely featured.
- “White women are given a limiting standard, and this is exacerbated by the image of a woman of color as an orientalizing contrast to reify that same standard.”
As I mentioned in last week’s blog, none of this is surprising. I’m grateful to these researchers because instead of simply relying on anecdotes and feelings, we have data confirming the reality that depictions of yoga in the media are generally nauseating.
What can we do?
- Love yourself first
That’s not my unshaven inner hippie talking (okay, maybe a little). But the thing is when you love and value yourself, you tend not to look outside yourself for affirmation. This is what deeper yoga practice can truly offer – a sense of self-worth, purpose, meaning, self-compassion, and self-love. What if we all really loved ourselves? What if we resisted the trope that being thinner and younger makes us more lovable? What if we stopped dumping our dollars into buying stuff that ultimately, doesn’t make us happy?
- Put yourself out there
Yoga needs to be presented with much more diversity. What if we flooded the media with #normalyoga pictures? Are we too ashamed of our bodies? Because we don’t live up to this unattainable, artificial, media-driven standard that keeps dangling the carrot of perfection before us? That’s precisely the problem, our insecurity keeps us buying which tells advertisers that it’s working and perpetuates the whole toxic cycle.
- Reduce conspicuous consumption and stop supporting frivolous and/or sexist, racist brands
Read up on companies before buying from them. I admit that I like nice yoga clothes, I buy them. But what if we felt a little more at ease about doing yoga in shorts and t-shirts again like we did in the 80s? What if we made a conscious effort to spend less on yoga stuff and put our dollars towards studying and deepening our understanding of the practice? Or supporting yoga non-profits that bring yoga to schools, prisons, and underestimated populations?
- Teach your children well
What if we taught and modeled to young people to be much more skeptical of, and put energy toward resisting the capitalist-driven allure of bigger, better, more? What if we showed them that we loved them unconditionally? What if we taught them that their lives were inherently valuable, meaningful, and sacred? What kind of world would we live in then? Would we see a reduction in depression, anxiety and suicide among youth?
My attitude toward myself and my body began to change and soften as I took more and more time to study and practice yoga. I hope that other folks can start to have that experience too. I hope that they can use these practices as a way to fall in love with themselves, and, in turn, begin to change the world.
Check out my free resource page here. And please save the date, October 2-3 I’ll be leading The Yoga and Neuroscience retreat. Hope you can join me!
Please wait while comments are loading...
You nailed it again, Kristine! The more I practice, study and teach, especially focusing on Subtle Yoga, the more I feel so fortunate to have learned about you from one of my yoga colleagues, Lisa McKernan. This is what we teach at he studio, Yoga Balance and our students love it. Thank you for putting this out there.
Thank you Liz, you are doing really important work!
Kia ora kristine
Ups to you for calling out the crap that is too often associated with yoga in our modern world.
It has been and is still often co- opted to being yet another fitness gym style exercise regime with all the add ons, far removed from its spiritual base where it was a daily practice for everybody regardess of gender class age or ethnicity, combining breath & asana and all that flows from being present with the gift of our breathe ourselves our lives each other in this world we live in.
Kia kaha to you.
I’m 67, and very blessed to have had excellent teachers over the last 45 years here in aotearoa/nz ,who are deeply
Committed to the underlying principles and values of yoga.
Kia ora and Ngā mihi maioha Madeleine, I appreciate your comments and you are so fortunate to have had authentic teachers. I feel like we have to talk about these things, even if it feels like we’ve been doing it for so long, until they are really brought into the light and changed. It’s not okay for young women to be continued to be subjected to the nonsense we all went through. xo
All so true, thank you for putting it out there. I have gone to two different yoga studios that sell clothing. Well there is no way I could buy anything, I am not an x-small. Gotta love your body for all it does for you everyday.
my neither! Thanks so much Eileen!
Do you believe I could still be useful as a yoga teacher at 78?
absolutely – you have a life’s worth of wisdom to share!
YES, Sylvia, you can be a useful yoga teacher at 78! I’m 62. I completed a 200 hour YTT during the pandemic. I work full time (not in the yoga world), facilitate an online yoga class once a week for friends and coworkers, and plan to move into more regular yoga teaching when I retire. I think the lessons we learn as we age allow for a more nuanced, mindful, and – yes – slow practice, which is hugely beneficial in this high stress country. You can do this!
beautiful! Thank you Terry!
Yes- a thousand times over and a thousand times louder ! The processes that woman and GIRLS out there bodies through is horrible. I have witnessed SO MUCH PAIN for the sake of reaching a social norm. A client of mine, whose father is a doctor, suggested that maybe if she was bulemic, that wouldn’t be suck a bad thing ….
Another doctor I know said she wouldn’t consider having children because she and her partner are fat !
I could go on and on. The destruction of psyche and bodies- all for the sake of a number… a clothing size number, a scale number, a calorie number ….
I agree, it’s so sad, you must hear so much of this in your line of work Jayna. Mental health is truly biospsychosocial. thank you!
YES!! to everything here! Thank you for verbalizing, writing, posting all of this!!
Love this again you are our voices!!! I appreciate this and helps me to validate why I do yoga. In my beginning of yoga I too thought that it was to have the “yoga body” I am now i that transition of awareness of the power of yoga for mind health! This I teach my students about brain helath and the love of their mat.
Thank you Laura!
Thank you so much for sharing this. As a Yoga teacher who teaches accessible Yoga I find it very disheartening for Yoga as a whole to see how it is projected in the media. Our studio was recently featured in a local paper and I was asked to submit pictures of our teachers to be featured in the article……and guess what picture they used??? An image of one of our slimmer and younger teachers in a very challenging asana that most people, not even I could achieve. This was a beautiful image of a very wonderful teacher but Yoga is so much more than a pretty body, in minimal clothing, doing pretty poses but once again that is how the media want to sell it. We need to keep doing what we do and maybe on day the media will get hold of the real essence of Yoga.
Thank you Leah. Yes, I don’t begrudge thin, lithe, talented women – they are certainly beautiful! However, the images are so alluring and so pervasive and can reinforce toxic stereotypes and bring so much shame to others, that’s where it becomes problematic.
I agree with most everything, but I would tweak#2. I don’t think we need to flood the media with images of us with real gal physiques; as you note, the physical is only (maybe less than) 1/3 of the reason we do yoga. I don’t think it is possible to fully convey the mental and spiritual aspects of the practice in magazine pictures, plus…I don’t feel the need to prove anything to those who are consumed with attaining the “perfect” body. They are on their own path.
Much love and light to you and yours…
Thanks Karen! Great point!
I LOVE your teaching style Kristine, and since connecting with you I’ve modified my own teaching style so much. Slow, mindful…..connecting movement with breath. My yogis seem to love it too.
Thank you for YOU!
Thank you Leigh, that is so humbling!
I recently started teaching and doing yoga on Zoom with a group of women in a recovery program. I decided to donate some books to them to either take and keep themselves or keep in residence to share. As I reviewed them, I was aware that I had one book with a young overweight white women, and no books with other cultures or races and everyone was young, white and thin. I do have some Rodney Yee books but I thought I’d save that for the men’s group if I get to work with them. Just saying I got some awareness in just looking through the books and journals. I need to use that awareness when I buy if I buy a next book. Besides learning a special yoga style I love the discussion of culture, ethics, focus and the breath. Thanks Kristine.
I started teaching and doing yoga on Zoom with a group of women in a recovery program. I decided to donate some books to them to either take and keep themselves or keep in residence to share. As I reviewed them, I was aware that I had one book with a young overweight white women, and no books with other cultures or races and everyone was young, white and thin. I do have some Rodney Yee books but I thought I’d save that for the men’s group if I get to work with them. Just saying I got some awareness in just looking through the books and journals. I need to use that awareness when I buy if I buy a next book. Besides learning a special yoga style I love the discussion of culture, ethics, focus and the breath. Thanks Kristine.
Thank you Carol. I’m often amazed at how oblivious I am when it comes to yoga images in the media. Once I picked up a typical looking yoga journal issue and looked at the cover. It wasn’t until I saw a photo on the inside, the model posing with her whole crew, that I realized how anorexically thin she was. It’s amazing how the media shapes our perceptions – and also scary.
Thank you for this Kristine — your voice, your message is so important. I am sharing with so many women I know. Thank you, thank you, thank you.