Like many body positivity activists, I’m committed to creating more inclusionary and diverse images of women in mainstream media. I’m concerned that the increasingly unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty in popular culture are contributing to rising rates of body image and eating disorders in young women. That’s why I’ve been busy developing a documentary that seeks to give the latest icon of “thinspiration” — the yoga body — a makeover.
But lately it hasn’t been going so well. Because after watching the recent “This Girl Can” video (which featured women of all shapes, colours and sizes, leaping, dancing, jumping, gyrating and jiggling with abandon) I’m beginning to suspect that all this focus on image itself may actually be counterproductive.
Part of a British health initiative to promote physical activity, this video sets out to overcome the most cited obstacle in getting women to the gym, the fear that their butts will not look good in tiny shorts. Its shots of heaving breasts, quivering buttocks and bouncing bellies, overlaid with text like “hot” and “foxy” have been hailed by many in the body positivity movement as ground breaking and visionary. But I am not as enthused.
I admit, when I first watched the video I wanted to leap to my feet and cry “You Go Girl!” Almost. I couldn’t understand why the text didn’t reflect the joyful exuberance being seen onscreen — why not words like powerful, free or strong? Sure it’s revolutionary in bringing bodies of differing sizes and colors (and cellulite) to the screen, but it’s still about being sexy. This ad isn’t selling exercise because it makes us happier, healthier or more resilient, it’s about exercise as performance, one in which sweat and jiggling are the new signifiers of desirability.
But here is the critical point — it reinforces old disempowering stereotypes i.e. that women exist to be looked at — even when pushing weights. And it conditions us to see our bodies as observers, through the lens of a camera, a mirror and/or other people’s perceptions. This is important because when we view ourselves from the outside in, we dissociate from what our body is feeling, a quality or state of being that neuroscientists call interoception.
Interoception is our ability to sense our bodies internal states (whether it is hungry, cold, in pain or tired). It is not ‘thinking’ about your body — as if contemplating our physical image in a mirror, but on experiencing what our body is feeling inside. And here is the kicker. Growing research suggests that poor interoception is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image disorders!
Vivien Ainley and Manos Tsakiris of Royal Holloway, University of London found that low interception is linked with self-objectification (experiencing our body as an object in our life) and leads to a preoccupation with outward physical appearance. They suggest women with low interoception lack an internal sense of self and this can lead to a false sense of their own body, i.e. they may be slender but view their bodies as large.
In a 2012 paper submitted to the Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers Marika Tiggemann and Elyse William suggest that young women with eating disorders have, on average, lower levels of self-awareness and interoception than healthy controls. And those women who most frequently thought of themselves from other people’s perspectives – had the most eating disorder symptoms.
In fact, just looking in a mirror, as a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found, can hinder how you listen to your body — especially when it comes to food. Researchers asked two groups of women to watch a movie on a computer — but only one group had a mirror placed in their room. There was a bowl of M&M’s placed next to the computer. Researchers found that the participants with the mirror consistently ate more M&M’s than the participants without a mirror.
This research challenges the commonly held notion that self-objectification, disordered eating and eating disorders are due to cultural factors like media and advertising. It suggests instead that women with eating disorders think of themselves as objects because of their impaired interoception. And this leaves them even more vulnerable to messaging telling them how they can get their “best body”.
Even more fascinating — and suggestive — is another study from 2006 which found that women preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Umm — like critically analyzing the constant onslaught of advertising selling them the latest fat blaster core workout or butt sculpting yoga pants?
So is helping young women develop interoception the real key to developing body positivity? A recent study in the International Journal of Women’s Health suggests so. It found that adolescent girls with good interoceptive skills had lower rates of body image and eating disorders.
And does this explain why yoga has been shown in countless studies to be a such a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of eating disorders? Because doesn’t yoga encourage interoception by directing us to pay attention to what our body is feeling, moment by moment, breath by breath? Obviously some women in yoga do get caught up striving for the “yoga body”, but I’m curious if any statistics exist as to whether practicing yoga in a studio with a mirror has any impact on interoception or self-objectification?
And so I’ve been asking myself – is giving the “yoga body” a make-over going to help promote interoception? By portraying yoga bodies of differing shapes, ethnicity and abilities (a la this Girl can — without the sexualization) am I not keeping women entrained in a way of seeing their bodies as exterior to their inner selves and inner experience?
Of course it’s important to help young women become more critical and media literate about the thousands of images they are besieged with daily. But is the project of diverse representation enough? Many, many women who already understand how body image in mainstream culture functions to uphold the beauty myth, white privilege, gender stereotypes, the male gaze etc. still suffer from disordered eating and body shame.
Is this just the result of overexposure to one too many unrealistic images of bodies in media? Perhaps. But what if “looking” sets us up to compare ourselves to images (whatever their size, color, age or ability)? Does this encourage us to dissociate from our bodies, predisposing us to self-objectification? Does this suggest that the deeper work of body positivity is about breaking the cycle of images — period?
This presents a challenging quandary – because how do I as a filmmaker use images to bypass image itself? Do I, on a black blank screen, ask the audience to take a moment to breathe into their belly, to experience one by one (Yoga Nidra style) the sensations occurring in their body, heart, fingers and toes? Could creating this simple moment of being present in our bodies, help connect us to the real yoga body? The one that waits inside each of us, ready to be felt and called into being?
I’m not sure. But lets face it, when comes to visceral impact, it just ain’t going to compete with the “This Girl Can” video – or its message. For young women already convinced that they need to “look good” in order to feel good, this soft approach is a hard sell.
That’s why my work on the documentary has ground to a halt. Because I need a new direction, one that doesn’t focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class. And so, once again, dear readers, I ask for your help. What kind of film would be most useful in promoting interoception? Ideas, suggestions -and critiques are most welcome…
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I love these questions!! I too am an artist, and I question, how to communicate visually in a way that will influence for the good. Maybe you use tension, show the contrast between a woman who is happy and living inside her body, vs. a woman who lives outside her body and is miserable. Upset your viewers, at first. Surprise them, too. Play with their expectations, they think they agree with you, then you show them a new way of thinking about this. Then does this lead to a teaching moment? Lead them through a guided meditation, give them an experience of being inside. I would suggest not just yoga, but also acupuncture, Nia, some martial arts, taking hikes with friends in nature… sitting meditation, walking meditation. I would also include some simple movement with the guided meditation, that helps them connect with the body.
Great ideas! Thank-you, this is just the kind of feedback I’m looking for. 🙂
Definitely so many layers to this conversation and thank you for unpacking some of them.
I personally loved the promo. My experience of it was the making visible what is so often invisible in media, which is women who don’t always fit whatever chosen standard of the day. I found it liberating.
You pose some important questions, of which I’m sure there are different answers and nuanced sides to each. I look forward to hearing about what you discover.
When I first watched the video something about it just made me want to leap to my feet and cry “You Go Girl”. Almost. Because I couldn’t understand why the feelings of joy and exuberance being evoked by these images weren’t being reflected by the text. Why use words like hot or foxy instead of words like powerful, free and strong? To convince women that all bodies, large or jiggling or otherwise – were sexy? Seems like a revolutionary new message, right? But doesn’t it also reinforce the very old idea that being “sexy” is how we are valued and matter as women?
Good points. I will watch it again thinking about what you said and see what I see this time.
I just watched it again. 🙂 . I see what you mean about the words. Simultaneously, to me the message I got was more about the strength and fierceness of loving to move in our bodies… and that sexy doesn’t have to be about objectification but it can be about connected and alive in our bodies.
I appreciate dialoguing about the different nuances and layers. I’m with you that “sexy” as our worth as women has got to go.
Thanks for taking another look. It occurs to me that our dialogue and posing these questions (especially to young women) makes this video a great tool for media literacy!
I would enjoy a documentary or Reality TV approach (Ye Gads! Sorry, but you know what I mean; with a Frontline or PBS tone) of a group of women who began their journey in life with a certain body image and then you interview them where they are now with their perceptions of their bodies.
There could be so many scenarios: 1. Older woman who is content now with her body but grew up hating it 2. Older woman who is not content now with her body but grew up loving it 3. Then getting younger women/girls with good and bad images of their bodies into the discussion with these other women to find out how they have come to a place of contentment/discontentment. (Not in an Oprah way on bar stools on a stage; more of a movie feel.)
Of course yoga would be one of the main ways they came to love their bodies and self image! This could have the potential to be “ho hum been there done that” or risk getting preachy but if done with the right creative insights and technique, this might help women to “see themselves in the mirror” in a healthy way, with interoception
Perhaps the answer is still right there in the mirror. You’ve jumped to the conclusion without taking your viewers on the journey to your conclusion. Help them see that the mirror is indeed the problem — that external gaze. Only then can you posit the next step — that developing interoception is the path to freedom, the breaking of the mirror. So that’s my suggestion: break the mirror.
Yes, I’ve thought of this -that the mirror & interoception is the last chapter of the story I was building – but I haven’t been sure… but you’ve said it so well, its seems logical…thanks Guy!
This topic just came up in my yoga class yesterday. I have a big, yellow, blank wall in my home studio. One of my clients suggested that I fill with either a large mirror to cover it or lots of different sizes of mirrors for a decorative effect. Having been a dancer in the past, I realize the benefits of pointing out proper alignment and being able to correct yourself with the use of a mirror. I also was tempted by the idea of making the space seem bigger. However, the thought of having those mirrors in the midst of the yoga classes made me feel like I would be inviting an unwanted guest to a dinner party. Case in point:
I was teaching a Kids’ Yoga class at a dance studio where I had the children look at themselves in the mirror while doing Downward Dog. The kids giggled excitedly while seeing their faces upside down. All I could see when I looked in the mirror were my wrinkly, saggy, ancient jowls hanging off my face. It was there and then I knew that mirrors would not prove to be a beneficial of healthy part of my personal yoga practice.
One of the most freeing experiences for me as a Yogini has been to “break” the habit of using a mirror, so to speak, and to just enjoy doing my yoga poses with wild, peaceful interoception.
Yes, please don’t abandon the project of diverse bodies! Representation matters so much.
Also, may I gently say that the headline is kind of alienating? Fat bodies are going to feel fat because they are, and good interoception is going to help people be aware of their whole bodies, including their fat. The problem is all the stigma, judgement, and health assumptions that come from other people when people are fat. Good interoception can help people connect with their bodies in positive ways and have healthy self-image – which is not going to change anyone’s actual size. If your focus on interoception is only about how it can help young people with body dysmorphia that leads them to view themselves as much larger (and again, here fat is presupposed to be ugly, undesirable), you are leaving out amazingly beautiful and fat potential yogis who could also benefit from strengthening their connections to their physical bodies.
Of course “fat” women could benefit from developing their interoception, as would All women in our image saturated culture. I am not presupposing that fat is undesirable -only that fear of fat (rightly or wrongly) drives many women to pursue thinness. The purpose of the post is not to examine our cultural bias against fat but to ask if our focus on creating, looking and comparing ourselves to images (whatever their size,colour age or ability) actually encourages us to dissociate from our bodies? I realize this is a leap – many of us in the body positivity movement are accustomed to thinking that if we had diverse and inclusive representation of all bodies – then self-acceptance and body love would naturally follow. But perhaps it is much more complex than that? Many, many women who already understand how body image in mainstream culture functions to uphold the beauty myth,white privilege, gender stereotypes, the male gaze etc. etc. still suffer from disordered eating and body shame. Is this just deep rooted conditioning from seeing waay too many unrealistic images of bodies in media? Perhaps. But what if the very act of seeing the body from the outside (even if that body is tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, able bodied or disabled) actually predisposes to us to low interoception and self-objectification? What should we do then?
p.s. I do hear your point about the post’s title, I am not entirely happy with it either, suggestions?
p.p.s. thank-you for your comments – they helped me clarify some points that I’ve now included in the post!
This is a really important article. Thank you for the citations and the insight. Much wisdom here. I’m going to send it to my old therapist who now runs women’s groups for food, weight and body image.
Oh– also it says “interception” a few times…typos I think? Thanks for a great piece of writing!
Drats! About the typos I mean! I so need an editor. Thanks for pointing them out, there comes a point when I just don’t see them anymore.
Great article, great questions, great comments! Thank you! Here’s one little story I have: I usually do yoga in a room with no mirrors. One day, I was in a class with a big mirror in front of me. In tree pose, the instructor encouraged us to look into the mirror to find our balance. The difference between feeling inside my body to find my balance in tree pose (which is what I do 99% of the time) to finding balance for this woman in the mirror, disconnected from me, was dramatic!!! Perhaps including some sort of an exercise where people could feel and compare for themselves could be interesting.
Yeah! I was not suggesting that you presuppose anything about fat folks – our culture presupposes, is what I meant. And I’m absolutely behind you re: outside images of bodies encouraging us to objectify our own bodies rather than inhabit them. YES! Representation is extremely important though, so whatever your film’s final shape, I hope it keeps that baby and gets rid of the bathwater only.
As regards the title, that’s a hard question to which there isn’t a simple or clear answer. The word “fat” does so much work because of its fucked up connotations – in one word encapsulating the feeling of self-loathing, disorder, and disvalue that our culture places on larger bodies. “Self-conscious” or any other “self-____” doesn’t encapsulate it. The Yoga Body: Interoception & Body Shaming, or something of that nature maybe?
I know that I read your piece in spite of the title, because when I saw it, I automatically assumed it was going to be one of those “but you’re not REALLY fat, so it’s okay” kind of posts, and I’m glad I read the whole thing because it wasn’t.
This conversation is bringing back the memory that some of my worst years of relationship with my body were the years I studied yoga intensely in Los Angeles. (I don’t really want to name the system and the studio. I don’t know if it was the system or the city or the overall culture of yoga in the nineties.) We were taught with so many visual cues. There wasn’t a mirror, but we were constantly called up to look at the teacher doing the pose. In the teacher training program, we were taught to model the pose and call the students to look. We were also taught to use our eyes to make corrections for our students. True, there was also talk of the inner experience. But my ego was triggered to try to imitate, to achieve harder and deeper poses, to look good for my teachers and my students. I spent those years looking at my body, watching it change, feeling proud. It wasn’t a negative experience of my body, but it was a shallow one. In the end, I injured myself badly and had to give up yoga for 10 years.
Today, I practice Nia, a dance system that encourages each dancer to listen to her body and follow its clues to healing. The teacher says she is showing the moves but they are only a guideline. After years of Nia, I am able to return to yoga. But I avoid yoga classes because I fear injury. I want to be with my experience completely, so I can know my limits from the inside and respect them.
My understanding, and it’s possible I was mis-informed by skewed data, is that a notable percentage of people who go deeply into yoga become injured. I would suggest you do some research on this possibility, and address it in your documentary if it is true, because this possible trend may be connected to your hypothesis that we experience our bodies in this culture from the outside. Being competitive about one’s practice stems from seeing oneself as others see us and in relation to how we see others.
see matthew remski’s fantastic (and provocative) work on this in his WAWADIA project.
re imagery: for myself, i feel that traditional yoga imagery (yogis doing asana practice) doesn’t convey my interior experiences of my practice at all, even if they’re exactly the same pose (and in fact i am thin, bendy and white). this disparity means that i know that as soon as i get some £ to do so, i have to pay someone with te relevant skills to re-jig my website…in our culture, and in yoga culture in general, the female body is a site for projection of fantasy, desire, repugnance etc. i have had longterm female practitioners comment on the images on my site that i “look so….” [fill in the blank], and i have noticed that not once have i received these opinions as compliments, but as a sign that my intentions and my marketing aren’t in alignment. this feels icky; as though despite what i teach, i’m actually part of the problem in modern yoga culture, not a solution.
Yes, I have followed Matthew’s WAWADIA posts and eagerly await his forthcoming book!
I had wanted to spend some time delving into the mind/body spit itself (which I have written about in several previous posts such as Numbskull: The Brain/Body Paradigm ) and how it may be particularly relevant to body dysmorphia – but decided to save this for a future post.
My best friends have always been women and we have had many conversations about just this topic. The fact that I’m a guy gives me an insight that may be different. We all get input from our friends and family and it matters greatly to most, what they say and think. I believe we tend to see ourselves as we think others see us. The happiest folks I have met seem to surround themselves with people of all shapes and sizes. People with positive attitudes and open minds.
Buddha said ” Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”
I like your approach to this interesting question and I’m sure your words will be helpful to those who read them.
Michael, enjoyed your comments and this one you said is bumper sticker worthy:
“The happiest folks I have met seem to surround themselves with people of all shapes and sizes.”
I totally agree!
I can’t help but think of the koshas – the sheaths of the body as outlined in the Upanishads – when I think of body dysmorphia – and interospection. Dysmorphia seems to be the inability not only to perceive our our physical body, but also our subtle body, the body beyond the physical body. Perhaps the confusion or “blindness” arises somewhat naturally, since the physical body is the most manifest in terms of form – that is, it’s what’s most “real” to most of us. Still, it’s exacerbated by our cultural emphasis on body as object, as well as our addiction to violence in media, reality TV, sensationalism, consumption, noise, etc. All which draw us “out” of our selves. For most, our daily habitual practice is inhabiting only the most external sheath – the physical body – and avoiding moving inwards to these more subtle realms, the other four sheaths of the “body” that are vitally important to our mental wellbeing, as they affirm our true nature.
(btw, a good article on the koshas, can be found here: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-koshas-5-layers-of-being )
Most Western forms of yoga avoid or distill out the spiritual, the subtle realms, focusing instead highly on asana, so that the subtle body is avoided or ignored – sometimes purposefully. In ignoring the subtle, we avoid the sometimes challenging shadow side that needs to be addressed in order to pass through and heal, so that we might grow strong enough emotionally to discover deeper states of consciousness and awareness of our true immortal Self, beyond the body. All forms decay – but not the unmanifest true being that we really are!
As we have seen, this avoidance of the spiritual, the subtle, in yogic practices in the West has created a shallow emphasis on the physical, hence the proliferation of the “yoga selfie” – body as object.
Exploration and focus on yogic practices beyond asana – i.e. pranayama, meditation, mantra and bhakti, which are all designed to not only aid the physical body (the anamayakosha) but all the other sheaths, may be a good focus for your documentary? We are not just our bodies. These practices remind us of that.
Unfortunately, getting back to your conundrum: how does one share the emotional or spiritual benefits of a long term meditation practice or bhakti practice on the non physical? Perhaps a clue is to be found here, in an interesting comparison of faces of meditators after only a month of practice: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-3391/Before-and-After-Photos-A-Month-of-Meditation.html
Love this! Have not thought of this approach (re: linking kleshas & subtle body & interoception) at all…yes well worth exploring. And I do remember the study of faces of meditators you refer to – yes, there is something here too…
Happy to help! The thing is, we all of us (even the most neurotic/violent/disfunctional) sense intuitively that something is not “right” with our modern way of living, that we have lost the essence of connection with each other and our world, and as a result, we suffer – and often inflict suffering, consciously or unconsciously, on each other and on our planet and other species. All needlessly. We sense there must be a better way – and there is. The practices outlined by Patanjali are one way towards freedom, when applied in a nonreligious, inclusive and egalitarian manner, that is.
I didn’t mention this, but let’s not forget those first two very vital limbs, the yama and niyama, too. Besides doing the practices I mentioned above, making an effort to adhere to even the first yama, ahimsa/compassion, and even just three of the niyamas: samtosha/cultivating contentment for what is, saucha/cultivating purity and cleanliness of what we ingest (be it food or media), and svadhyaya/introspection/self-study, would go a long way to creating a greater acceptance of, and connection with, ourselves and our planet.
But, you and your readers know this, so I’ll stop being pedantic.
Good luck with the documentary. 🙂
Love this piece!!! Thank you, truly. I no longer support yoga studios that have mirrors, because it is simply not helpful to me. I had not heard of the term interoception before, but I understand this concept very deeply because of my own journey with my body and yoga. I stress to my students that their body is already perfect, and explain how that perfection is dynamic and changing with each passing day and each practice. When they say disparaging things about their bodies, I am quick to pint out in a loving way how amazing that part of the body is, and how well it serves them each day and deserves nothing but love and appreciation. I think it does make a difference, the language that we use in class. Anyway, I feel solidarity with you in this push to empower women, and all beings. 🙂 Thank you again.
Reblogged this on The Radical Yogi and commented:
Restorative Yoga is great for improving your Interoception. So get yourself to a restorative class and become more embodied!
Thank you for this article.
In the last months, I had some thoughts about exactly this topic, but not as elaborate and research grounded.
My Yoga-journey is still in its early beginnings, I think.
I learned some Ashtanga in a gymnastics hall with a big mirror wall at the University where I work for one semester, the next semester (around summer) the same course moved into a park, with of course no mirror and now I am going to a class at the gymnastics hall again, this time doing Power Yoga.
In these roughly 14 Months, I also stumbled upon the “mirror problem”, but only in the last part. While practicing outside, there was no chance to look at a mirror and use it for alignment or as a distraction or to objectify my body, but before there was the same mirror that I see in class now. Since I am back in a mirrored room, I constantly find myself using the mirror to “correct” my pose, even after I have been taught, that the guide to getting the asanas right is not how they look, because every body is different, but how they feel and I also find myself looking at the others and how they do the poses. I was a little puzzled by this distraction, because the mirror had been there in the first semester and did not matter at all. One conclusion of my thoughts was: drishti. In the Ashtanga classes, even at the very beginning, there was a drishti assigned to every asana and it is certainly not at the mirror or at other yoga practicioners to compare yourself with them. The Power Yoga teacher in the last weeks did not talk about drishti at all and I slowly stopped to focus on it even in the asanas, that I already knew, instead my gaze started to wander. I am not sure if the drishti is not that important in this Yoga style as it is in Ashtanga or if the teacher wants to leave out the sometimes complicated more meditative parts of the practice to introduce them in the advanced classes (I will have to ask), but from this experience I would think, that for the individual practitioner, using the traditional drishtis to direct the gaze might be a good way to practice, especially in a room with mirrors.
Absolutely, Knut, very true! The drishti is vital to practice, not only from the standpoint of focusing attention, as you point out, but also, we tend direct our energy and attention in the place we tend to gaze. Gazing outward from the body, to rest on a mirror image of ourselves, or perhaps to another practitioner, or the teacher, or whatever is in the space, literally pulls energy from you and depletes you, ultimately. Also causes a lot of thoughts – vrtti – to arise, so it’s really distracting to look around.
Most of the Ashtanga Primary series drishti are somewhere on the body – the majority are on the nose in Primary, with only one or two postures noted as “urdva” or “up” drishti. The rest of the drishti are the hand, the foot, the navel. Note these are on the body. This keeps our prana inside us where we need it most; drishti retains it and sustains energy, vs. releasing the prana through the eyes – two of the 9 (10 for women) “holes” in the body, including the nostrils, ears, mouth, etc. These energetic holes (and I won’t explain the rest of them, we can all visualize!) are sealed by the drishti at the eyes, closing the mouth and only breathing through the nose, listening to the breath (vs. music, which draws us outwards, too) , and the bandhas at the base of the torso. All work together to retain the prana – the life force – so that we do not deplete it!
Thank you for your explanation of the drishti in the broader context. I guess I have been very lucky, that, when I first looked for a yoga class for beginners, that I can afford and that is near my work, I found the Ashtanga teacher, who introduced drishti, ujjayi and the bandhas early in the course. Some others seem to view these parts of the practice as topics only for advanced practitioners. Even with my relatively short yoga-experience, I tend to disagree with the latter.
Oh gosh it’s a tricky issue isn’t it.
I hear what you’re trying to say.
All I can offer is words from my own experience. I’m a yogi. And I post pictures online. And, I LOVE that this helps to motivate and inspire people to get on the yoga mat – for the physical practice is a gateway to the deeper experience. Any yoga (asana) is better than no yoga (asana). I myself am inspired by other photos I see. I am not seeing the persons body type or shape, nor their height, age, or skin colour. If I’m inspired by a yoga photo, it’s because I’m appreciative of their agility and grace, or their creativity, or clear dedication to their practice. Of course, it’s blatantly obvious when people are just flirting with the camera for publicity. But does it always have to be the case?
The yogis of India have always wore a loincloth… and thats all. In fact, some yogis are naked.
And the great leaders of yoga brining yoga to the west, have been photographed regularly wearing not very much.
Sure, for some women, seeing images of other women with a ‘yoga body’ (which can we define that by the way??), might make them insecure. But perhaps we can all take accountability for our own selves and our own feelings. If I feel judgemental about my own body, that says more about me than anyone else. Why put blame on someone or some thing else?
Personally, I no longer buy magazines, I don’t have a TV in my home, and I hardly ‘follow’ anyone online. Because, I don’t need or want exposure to all this stuff. We all have the choice to minimise our exposure. Sure, we cannot control it all, but if I know that the picture on the cover of a magazine is photoshopped (by example), then why should I be upset at the model/magazine? I KNOW it’s photoshopped. So, who cares?
And, finally… I would assume that my body type is the stereotype of a yoga body… should I apologise? Would people accept me more if I didn’t have a yoga body? Should I blame my parents and their genes? Should I blame the healthy diet I have? Should I be ashamed, and go and hide, because I have the body I have (which comes with it’s own package of insecurities, without any help from anyone)?? I’m sick of people criticising the ‘white, young, slim, female’. Isn’t that behaviour adding to the issue at hand?
Anyhow… I know this rant does not directly relate to your specific enquiry, but I hope it opens up the questioning wider.
I think that rather than criticising others actions, maybe we could focus on taking responsibility for ourselves with regards to being accountable for how we feel, and the deeper messages and reasons behind our feelings. If someone is judgmental about my half naked/naked/bikini clad/new yoga clothed body in my photo… then unfollow… and maybe look into the reason WHY you feel that way…
And then stop posting pictures of yourself! Because every critique I’ve seen has ‘promotional’ pictures of themselves out there anyway.
YES it is tricky isn’t it! So thank you for contributing your thoughts. All good and valid points. So much to think on…
Agreed, we should probably take more responsibility about our actions online! (Ever read comments – ugh!) And, yes, maybe we should stop posting pictures of ourselves in asana.
And yet, on of the few times (may one of 100+ posts) I have put a picture of myself in an asana on my Instagram (headstand from the back – and you could not see my face) I got more notice (i.e. likes) than with any of my other photos (kids, pets, nature.) Why?
The thing is, if we like yoga, we generally like to see people doing asana. Asana as performance/movement art is not necessarily bad. It’s the intent of the one who posts that must be considered. Is the person doing it for attention/affirmation, and if so, how do they feel when it doesn’t get them the attention they seek? Or, are they doing it because they feel empowered, strong, beautiful and skilled? The same question can be asked of oneself when we post a written status on fb or tweet. What’s the intent: To share information, to inspire, to edify? Or is it an addiction to the attention that is gained when we are “liked”.
In any event, both are means of seeking connection – although one is more beneficial in the long run!
One of the most important posts (I think!) written on yoga in the past few years…http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/06/if-you-are-a-yoga-teacher-admit-it-you-are-co-dependent-needy-hala-khouri/
“Because I need a new direction, one that doesn’t focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class.” I love this article for so many reasons, but particularly because you have highlighted the power of interception to bring us back to ourselves – which is my primary area of inquiry and teaching! Our point of (potential) disagreement, though, is not on getting women (or men) to yoga class; for me, it is about deconstructing yoga, with more emphasis on the spirit of the practice, and re-visioning the hierarchical pedagogy of teaching that can inhibit individual learning – especially sensing. When there is so much attention to form, following the teacher’s rhythm of activity/rest, and general follow-the-leader, without ways into individual exploration, elaboration, and general permission to follow the flow of movement, students can still be trapped in “images” of movement, instead of sensing movement. This of course is a much larger conversation, but i wanted at least to initiate reflection on what we are doing as teachers to facilitate more person-centered, creative learning ~
Brilliant and thought provoking. Will be ruminating on this for a while… “When there is so much attention to form, following the teacher’s rhythm of activity/rest, and general follow-the-leader, without ways into individual exploration, elaboration, and general permission to follow the flow of movement, students can still be trapped in “images” of movement, instead of sensing movement.”
Love the fact that you’re working on this. I have no doubt that as you press on, you will find innovative ways of working through the very important issues you raise here. Here’s some reflections on your concluding statement (don’t “focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class”) that may hopefully be helpful:
– I have found a HUGE range in how effectively different yoga teachers and methods help me develop the sense of interoception you describe, which I agree is vitally important. And, even when that’s done, HOW it’s done always varies tremendously.
For example, I am currently attending a really excellent Iyengar class that does an amazing job at attuning me to what’s happening in my body. But it is a completely different sort of attunement than I’ve experienced through years of practicing and teaching Forrest Yoga – a method which, I believe, offers a truly exceptional set of tools for developing interoceptive awareness of a very different sort.
When I practice Iyengar yoga, the method feels like a symphony of one-pointed awareness. Anyone who’s studied that method knows how it goes – very detailed alignment instructions that take *a lot* of focus to follow, let alone execute well. It leaves me feeling very deeply peaceful. But, because my mind is so focused on the bodily alignment, I don’t find that this method provides me with anything near the level of emotional processing and intuitive insight that I’ve accessed through Forrest Yoga.
In that method, we are trained to “breathe into” different parts of the body, and hold poses long enough to feel things shifting, and notice what comes up on a very open, multi-dimensional level. We also tune into different parts of our bodies and listen to what feelings and thoughts come up. This is basically an open-focused awareness method, more akin to Vipassana meditation.
I’ve also recently taken to trying a variety of online classes. Some are great, but many are incredibly exercise-like – that is, they don’t work to tune me into that sense of intereoceptive awareness at all. They are much more like Pilates than the sort of yoga that I know and love. But, I think that they are also very common, almost certainly increasingly so.
So, all of this is a long way of saying that: 1) just getting someone to a yoga class isn’t necessarily enough, 2) different yoga methods develop different sorts of intereoceptive awareness, and 3) we would do well to think into what these different methods are more carefully, as well as their intended and most common effects. I think that the literature and discussions on meditation and mindfulness are probably going to be more useful in this regard than anything that currently exists in yoga per se. (Somatic psychology is also a good resource on this.) Because ultimately it is about working with the mind in particular ways as we practice asana, and what that does to our awareness.
Finally, a totally separate point is that I think that changing the popular image of the “yoga body” in terms of how it *looks* can (and ideally, should) be done as a first step toward valuing how it *feels*. And, given the state of our culture and people’s psyches today, it is an important first step. The point isn’t just to add a collection of “beautiful yoga bodies” that are curvy, non-white, or whatever to the stock conception of what the “yoga body” is already. Rather, it’s to deconstruct that cultural symbol by first opening it up to the reality of life – that is, there are, in fact, so many different bodies out there already practicing yoga. Once it’s opened up, it’s easier to question the deeper assumptions that make it problematic, such as the implicit view that what we are doing in yoga is honing some better version of a strictly physically defined sense of self.
Thank-you so much for this feedback! It is helping me organize my thinking tremendously!
I do want to reassure you, my goal is not abandon the project of representation – but to take it one step further. My previous goal, to give the “yoga body” a more inclusive and diverse “make-over”, was always meant to be grounded in a critical deconstruction of the “yoga body” and everything it represents. Otherwise the reason why it needs to be rehauled in the first place is lost!
I agree completely that “changing the popular image of the “yoga body” in terms of how it *looks* can (and ideally, should) be done as a first step toward valuing how it *feels*.” And I’m with you that a big step in deconstructing this cultural symbol is to show that “there is, there are, in fact, so many different bodies out there already practicing yoga.”
So while my end point goal has changed i.e. to get young women practicing yoga, the critique of the “yoga body” will and must remain. Its iconic rise in popular culture is the perfect lens by which we can view the whole confounding issue of body image and body dysmorphia in general.
I say confounding for a reason. Because I’ve spent much time ruminating over why so many women who are intellectually aware of all the good reasons they should “love their bodies” – still struggle with body shame. And from my own personal experience I can say that knowing something and apprehending it through the mind -is often not enough when it comes to judging what I see in the mirror.
So when I consider the many studies demonstrating that women who regularly practice yoga suffer less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes, I doubt this result is achieved through media literacy. As researchers at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute at the University of California suggest, that through yoga “women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and ‘beautiful’ body will lead to happiness and success.”
The reason I feel so passionately about this film is the new generation of young women (experiencing record breaking rates of disordered eating and body image disorders) who are growing up saturated with thousands of images daily, on their phones, ipads, computer screens, music videos, magazines, tv’s etc. And its made me wonder if adding to the collection of “ beautiful yoga bodies” even if they are curvy, of different colours and abilities – just gets lost in the cacophony. YES is critically important that women see their own bodies reflected in media as normative – but I’m beginning to suspect the project is far bigger than that.
And it’s got me curious about the whole notion of ‘body image’ itself. Where did come from? Of course western cultures mind/body split undergirds our tendency to see the body as object. But the proliferation of mirrors in girl’s bedrooms in the 30’s and 40’s, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg points out in her book “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls”, led to an increasing pre-occupation with appearance – and this was long before images of idealized bodies became mass media fare. So does looking in mirrors encourage us to disassociate our internal sense of self from our bodies (i.e. interoception)? Is possible to have a ‘healthy’ body image? Maybe part of the challenge to bring this question into focus –who is the ‘real” you? The reflection you see in the mirror or the “you” doing the seeing?
It seems to me that the solution to solving this ‘body image’ crisis afflicting women is not to offer more images to look at (even if they reflect back realistic bodies) but to find ways (like yoga) to help them experience ‘being’ in their bodies. And as research in interoception suggests, this will make them less vulnerable to media messaging that seeks to keep them judging themselves from the outside in.
Yoga’s transformative power to transcend the disempowering advertising by which it is being sold – is the mystery I want to explore. Whether this is because it promotes interoception, mindfulness, greater somatic awareness or spiritual development, who knows – I don’t have the answers! But I do believe that yoga is a real and effective tool, one that actively improves women’s well-being and self esteem. So yes, getting women to yoga class – becomes a primary objective.
And I’m very grateful that your comments have opened up a whole new venue of thought i.e. what kinds of yoga do we direct young women into doing? Because you’re right – that’s a whole huge ball of wax! I agree that working with the mind through meditation and mindfulness, does open our awareness, but we also need to find new ways of working with the body( a la somatics) that can bypass the disembodying tendencies of the mind. Is this just semantics – are we saying the same thing? I’m not sure, but now I will go and ruminate further on your comments….thank-you. PS any more feedback on this is definitely welcome!
Hi Danielle: Just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting meditation or mindfulness instead of yoga. Rather, my point was that I believe that what we do with our minds as we practice is critical to how we experience yoga on a deeper level. And, at this point in time, I think that in terms of interesting analyses on how focusing the mind in various ways tends to have varying effects, what’s been written on meditation and/or mindfulness is often more helpful than what’s available on yoga per se. Ditto with the somatic psychology. It would also be interesting to interview people who work in these sorts of hybrid fields.
I think that the standard “vinyasa flow to pop music” class doesn’t enable that much of the deeper sort of internal awareness you’re interested in. But of course, that’s by far the most popular method today. So my suggestion is to really unpack questions of method in yoga with a view to what, if anything, is being taught about how to harness and work with attention (as well as intention) while practicing asana and why that’s important.
Re why so many smart and thoughtful women continue to have body image issues is an important question to address. Personally, I think that yoga can help as you describe, but that there also needs to be more help in terms of taking whatever is learning though asana and integrating it into the rest of your life – both in general and with this issue in particular.
Listening to other women’s stories about body image, I’ve noticed that those who really struggle with it had negative experiences around how their bodies were judged by others starting at a young age. So there are deep emotional wounds and insecurities that aren’t addressed by just cognitively knowing that this is a trap that you want to resist. Personally, I have never found body image to be a huge issue. But, I was tall, thin, and white, so never received that sort of judgment and shaming that so many other girls have. Of course, I have plenty of other problems! But body image have never been high on the list. So, in my view, there also needs to be some supportive sharing/therapeutic unpacking of the painful histories that women are often carrying around (and perhaps still dealing with) to complement the yoga.
Look forward to learning more about your project as you move forward. The idea of a film is exciting.
..” unpack questions of method in yoga with a view to what, if anything, is being taught about how to harness and work with attention (as well as intention) while practicing asana and why that’s important.” Yes! Am busy thinking on this….and will be inviting others to contribute and share their thoughts on this in a future post.
And yes, “those who really struggle with it had negative experiences around how their bodies were judged by others starting at a young age. So there are deep emotional wounds and insecurities that aren’t addressed by just cognitively knowing that this is a trap that you want to resist.” I completely agree with your point, but that said, it’s also important to recognize (which I know you do) the connections between personal experience and larger social structures.
Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating affect the vast majority of western women in various degrees. So thinking on what you have said, it occurs to me that exploring the cultural forces behind “body image”, how it is shaped, who benefits, who it discludes, how it compromises women’s health and psychological well-being and even their full participation in society as empowered, equal citizens – is one way to illuminate how our culture itself is deeply and personally wounding to women. And this is why the sharing of “painful histories”, the personal stories, struggles (and victories!) – is such a necessary first step in unpacking the “body image” problem.
Thanks again, for taking the time to contribute your thoughts. It is helping immeasurably. And you will be hearing from me in the near future – because you, of course, are on my list of documentary ‘content experts’ to be interviewed!
I love the idea that healthy body esteem is distinct from positive body image. I think talking to practicing yogis about what bodily sensations they notice when practicing (in the moment and in general), and then commenting on why how we feel our bodies informs how we feel about our bodies, would be a great opening to a film.
Yes, I’ve been thinking along these lines too, analyzing my own changing bodily experiences (and perceptions) as I ‘journeyed’ through yoga. Would love to hear your personal thoughts/observations as well….
Danielle, Although the media and advertising have certainly contributed to the objectification of womens’ bodies, there are other factor involved that contribute to the epidemic of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and poor body image. Poor interoception is a also a result of our modern lifestyle which includes chair sitting and linear compartmentalized learning that dominates our educational systems. As toddlers, we move naturally and freely in our body with an open breathing apparatus, aligned posture and core centered movement patterning. ( If we have enlightened parents who did not stuff us in car seats and high chairs for most of the day ) At first grade, we are stuffed into the right angle of a chair and made to sit for hours on end and it is here that we become disconnected from our bodies and where we begin to lose our natural interoception, kinisthetic awareness and core centered movement and breathing .Our spinal column is compressed, hip flexors shorten and back muscles atrophy. So we spend years in this chair shape and as we get older, we begin to notice the disconnect in body and mind and we begin our search for answers with practices like yoga which offer hope that we can return to source. Mindful breathing and moving with awareness, meditation etc are certainly helpful but if you really look at the templates that our body has to assume in many yoga poses, you may see what I saw many years ago after a severe yoga injury. Like chair sitting, many yoga poses actually impose these same linear right angle shapes on our body; such as staff, plow, straight knee bending etc.. These positions go against our natural template flexing our neck, back, and ankles. In the quest to become more connected to our body, these poses can cause more disconnect and I feel many people are believing that all is good in yoga asana without questioning the biomechanics. Also the striving for the perfect pose becomes part of our body obsession to be perfect.
I have practiced yoga since 1972 and taught since 1996 but in the last 25 years, I shifted to a whole new practice based on posture rather than poses. I call it YogAlign and the whole practice is dedicated to returning to core centered breathing and naturally aligned posture. Also I have been studying yoga injuries and helping people to heal from them since 2007. See http://www.yoginjuries.com for more information.
The extreme flexibility that is prized in yoga can be a huge liability. It turns out that having lax joints can signal the nervous system that something is wrong creating a stress response. Reserach reveals that people who are highly flexible have more anxiety and stomach disorders.. So while we do need to focus on sharpening interoception and the need to feel ‘ at home and happy’ in our own skin, trying to get really flexible by doing traditional right angled shaped yoga poses with or without a mirror may or may not be the way to life of wholeness.