Photo: Anna Guest-Jelley. Art Direction: The Magazine of Yoga.
Negative Body Image, Our Lives, and The Mat
Perceptive, valiant and captivating, the founder of Curvy Yoga pauses to talk feminism, fat and being the change
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Website Curvy Yoga
Curvy Yoga is for people who want to live the lives they imagine and who don’t want to wait.
Who don’t want to wait until they’re flexible, skinny, have enough money, etc. to start treating themselves well.
To start recognizing and achieving their goals–not the goals they think they should have, but the goals that they’re almost afraid to admit to anyone else because they are so out there.
A knowing, graceful combination of skill and moxie enables Curvy Yoga founder Anna Guest-Jelley to address one of the most treacherous territories of prejudice: contempt for fat, and the social anxiety and self-righteousness that mingle with and often masquerade as concern for health.
With a precision and compassion that assails misinformation, ignorance, fear and shame, Anna shines her warm and friendly light into zones of fear and shaming, inviting all of us to release defensiveness and examine the habits that lie on both sides of the line between health and obsession.
Susan Maier-Moul You have a wonderful new web site for Curvy Yoga! Tell us about the changes and what we can look forward to in 2011.
Anna Guest-Jelley As Curvy Yoga has developed, a community has really grown up around it. I couldn’t be more excited about and thankful for that. I wanted the new website so that process could be facilitated more easily.
I also recently added two new community features to my site. The first is a listing of teachers on the Resources page; people often write to me asking if I know of anyone who teaches curvy students in their area. I do my best to connect them, but it’s often challenging.
One of the major philosophical tenets of Curvy Yoga is accessibility, so I decided I wanted to make that information as available as I can.
The practice of community and Curvy Yoga
Susan The resource additions reflect your usual thoughtfulness! Given the success of Curvy Yoga, you’ve been doing some fairly intense soul searching as well, though, haven’t you?
Anna I don’t want Curvy Yoga to just be about Curvy Yoga, if that makes sense. In other words, in my wildest dreams, yoga for curvy people will be blossoming across the country, and people will be connecting with each other and not feeling isolated.
I hope Curvy Yoga can be a catalyst and touch point for that, but I also hope people take it up in their own ways, which is why I created a Google Group for curvy students and teachers to connect and share ideas. People are already utilizing it independent of my contribution (although I certainly participate!), which just couldn’t make me any happier.
Susan You’ve been developing your on-line presence as a form of seva, service to the community. I wonder if you’d say more about how you think of that community, because I know you think beyond the mat.
Anna I think the primary service Curvy Yoga can be of in the world is three-fold:
- for people who are new or returning to yoga and never thought it was for them,
- for people who are already connected but want to find new resources and curvy partners-in-crime, and
- for teachers.
One thing that I love about the work I’m doing is that it bridges a variety of communities, not all of which are in the yoga world. An example of that are my speaking engagements about body positivity and how yoga contributed to my journey toward it, which I offer in many environments.
The other thing is workshops, especially for yoga teachers.
I believe Curvy Yoga can fill a gap in not only teachers’ understanding of how to teach asana for curvy students, but also how we shape our language around body image on the mat.
Feminism: loving the “F” word
Susan Some words are lightning rods – certainly the word “spiritual” pushes some people’s buttons. Another one is “feminist.” It’s a descriptor and concept you embrace, and I’d love to hear more about your experience with feminism.
Anna My parents raised me to be a smart, independent woman who could do whatever she wanted. When I was in high school, I somehow stumbled upon Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and I immediately found a name for what I’d been doing all along—feminism.
In retrospect, it’s somewhat bizarre that this was my first foray into feminism; it’s not like I could really relate to 1950s housewives’ experiences, but because I knew it was a cornerstone of a larger movement, I found it inspiring.
Susan Yes! I totally remember reading that book in high school! And Fear of Flying made the rounds with my friends, as well as Our Bodies Ourselves.
Anna Hilariously, when I told my parents I wanted to join the National Organization for Women, they were against it. I think they were cool with me doing my thing, but not being an “official” feminist.
Of course, nothing makes a daughter into a feminist faster than knowing her parents disapprove.
Susan This is really taking me back. One of my junior high teachers got pretty hostile with me when I began to wear my NOW button on my jacket – I was 13 or 14 years old – remember that pink fist?
Anna I totally remember and love that pink fist! It’s still around! When I lived in Gainesville, FL, I worked with a group called Gainesville Women’s Liberation (GWL), which is this fabulous intergenerational group of feminists. GWL was the first Women’s Liberation group in the South, and many of its founding members are still active today, which is just so inspiring.
Fighting Power-Based Personal Violence
Susan Tell us more about your women’s rights work. What has been your personally most meaningful project?
Anna I’ve worked on several issues, including reproductive rights, social wage issues (universal health care, universal child care, shorter work week, and paid parental leave), power-based personal violence (sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, and harassment), and body image.
I got unique fulfillment out of working on each of these issues, but the two that I’m most focused on now are PBPV and body image.
Susan Power-based personal violence may be a new term for people outside the field. It’s significant because it removes the sense of “nobody’s business” that the term “domestic” carries for some people, and it brings together a wider pattern of violence.
Anna Yes, PBPV is such a useful term. What I appreciate about it is that it puts the emphasis on the connection between intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment; that connection is power.
PBPV can feel like such an overwhelming issue that none of us can do anything about. But current and emerging research continues to show just how untrue that is. There are many ways that individuals can intervene well before an incident even occurs, in addition to in the moment, that can make a tremendous difference.
Susan It’s really important for people to feel empowered to help by knowing what are the practical – and safe – steps they can take. Otherwise we shut down. Is there a resource you recommend for people who want to know more about this?
Anna Yes, there are many ways for people to learn more. Here are some sites I recommend; they offer helpful information and also connect people with local resources:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Stalking Resource Center
Live the Green Dot (for PBPV prevention)
There’s something about the possibility of a good portion of us banding together and taking small but concrete actions that can add up to a different world that I find tremendously inspiring.
It doesn’t have to be about protesting, or writing to your Senator, or devoting your life to PBPV prevention (although all of those things are fabulous!). It can just be regular folks channeling their awareness with the people with whom they come in contact.
Becoming the person you have wanted to believe in
Susan It seems to me you’re underscoring the power of being the change we want to see, and the need for that embodiment of our values.
Anna Yes, definitely. And honestly it took me awhile to come around to this viewpoint –
Susan It takes a lot of courage. I mean internally, just daring to create and hold the point of view, and let it be the place from where you act -
Anna I wanted systemic change to come from somewhere else—the tide of social movements, the government, etc. I still would love to see that kind of change, but I also now see how those things are made up by individuals and their daily lives. In many ways, negative body image can also feel like an issue that’s impossible to change.
Susan Yet you found some way to believe in the possibility of being free.
Anna I actually had very little interest in working on this issue for quite a long time because it seemed to me that most of the conversations were around negative media depictions of women’s bodies. The media is, of course, problematic, and it’s important for people to give feedback about their concerns.
However, it wasn’t until I really started getting deeper into my yoga practice that I realized we could take a similar approach to body image as we do to PBPV prevention. As my practice deepened, I found it possible to bring these frameworks together.
Yoga, consciousness raising and critical clarity
Susan Yoga became a consciousness raising tool, not just a transcendent practice. Would you say a little about that pragmatically, describe it in how-it-looks when you do it terms?
Anna Oh, I love the analogy of consciousness raising (CR) because I’m totally a CR kind of gal.
The beauty of CR as it started in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Feminist movement is that it brought women together to share their experiences. When they did, they realized that many things that they experienced as individual problems were actually larger, political problems.
I see something similar at work in the yoga community.
Susan I had such an intense personal experience of the innate CR nature of yoga. Asana practice delves accurately and unerringly into my body’s belief system.
Anna I’ve really been bowled over by the number of people who relate to Curvy Yoga, regardless of their size. The most eye-opening experiences I’ve had are when people who I don’t perceive as fat tell me how much they relate to my story or other stories that that are shared on my blog.
These common threads around negative body image, our lives, and the mat really made me start thinking about these issues more critically. I think admitting that sometimes you hate your body or sometimes you’re eyeing the person next to you to see who’s fatter isn’t something we want to admit in yoga. We’re all supposed to be above that somehow—or at least be polite enough not to talk about it!
Susan And it’s not always about size or tone. There is a destructive tension about competency.
Anna What I’m seeing, and what many others are seeing, is that these aren’t only individual experiences. They’re also collective experiences, and it would serve us well to address them as such.
Susan Yes – this is where the action of CR becomes most obvious – and really, most significant: when we’re able to recognize that it’s not just “oh I should stop being so negative” but really to grok the negativity we are being dealt within a system of values – and how we have that as a common engagement with others. It’s not self improvement, it’s co-creating new culture based in awakened recognition of a more positive human project.
Anna We can start with ourselves, in our small sphere of influence, and really be a force for good in both our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we are in relation. My first article here in The Magazine was about how I quit fat-talking (meaning not belittling myself, not that I’m afraid to use the word fat as a descriptor).
The other “F” word: Fat
Susan We were very passionate about that column here! Why don’t you talk about that a bit.
Anna It’s a very interesting balance for me—embracing saying that I’m fat as an adjective and not a prejudice. When I say I stopped fat-talking, I mean in the way that so many of us put ourselves down—our thighs are too big, our shirt is too tight, we shouldn’t have eaten x food so now we have to go exercise for three hours until we almost pass out, etc.
I found that the easy part was stopping talking this way out loud, in public.
The much, much harder part was letting it go in my own head, in my self-talk. I wish there was a magic solution I could offer people, but I don’t know of anything except for this: practice.
Over time, I noticed the self-hatred decreasing. I can’t point to a particular day that I got it all together because no such day exists. But as time goes by and I continue to work with my awareness, I find myself tending toward acceptance more naturally.
Gamed by the system: the shocking cost of buying- in
Susan So it isn’t a matter of something being finished, in the sense of “that’s behind me, I don’t feel that way anymore,” but shifting toward authentic recognition. You know what’s real and you understand you’ll have strong feelings to deal with.
Anna Once I started letting go of this, a number of other things started to gradually shift for me. Sometimes I get so angry at all the time, energy, and money I wasted dieting!
I once calculated that I’d spent a minimum (minimum!!) of $21,000 on various dieting regimens. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I think it’s important for people to know. I finally realized that if $21k, 65+ diets, and twenty years of my life can’t get me a thinner body, maybe (just maybe!) there’s something wrong with the entire premise in the first place.
In my more level-headed moments, I see that this has all been part of my process of valuing my own experience, desires, goals, ambition, etc. I’m now much clearer about how I want to spend my time, what I want to achieve, etc., and I very much see not wasting my time hating things like my belly as extremely important.
How to teach curvy-inclusive, curvy-positive classes
Susan If you were to name the single most effective improvement yoga teachers can make for teaching classes that are fat inclusive, what would it be?
Anna This might sound a little corny, but I truly believe the most important thing yoga teachers can do (at least to start) is talk about fat acceptance and name their own experience.
The reality is that teachers are already teaching people who are fat or who perceive themselves to be fat. And, perhaps more importantly, that many teachers struggle with these issues themselves.
Fat and eating disorders are separate (but sometimes related) issues, but taking time for meaningful conversations among ourselves (especially among people who are teaching at the same studio) about making sure that everyone feels welcome in our classes is important.
Susan Do you think teachers “feel sorry” for fat people rather than becoming effective teachers for them? Doesn’t the constant barrage of health messages in fact encourage them feel that it’s somehow their job not to accept fat?
Anna Ah, that’s a really salient point. Yes, I think many people feel obligated to “help” fat people in some way. Dr. Linda Bacon, the author of Health at Every Size, has this great quote to this point. She says that
Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat. Every time you make fat the problem, these are side effects, however unintended they may be.
I find this quote really incisive about some of the fears that may come up for yoga teachers around talking about these issues. Of course, there are fears around hurting someone’s feelings, being badmouthed locally, getting sued, etc.
But I believe there’s also a larger, deeper fear at play here: the fear of facing our own deeply-seated issues around fat and our bodies. As Dr. Bacon so aptly points out, actual size is a bit of a moot point in much of this.
Now, fat people do actually have different experiences, especially of their physical bodies, in yoga class. We really do have extra flesh that can inhibit our movement if not addressed properly, so I don’t want to lose that point.
But I think that the reason so few of us as teachers see curvy students in our classes is because we haven’t done an effective job of reaching out to fat people and offering them enjoyable experiences. And until we can get our own ideas around fat, the body, and body image more together, I’m not sure how soon that will happen.
Susan How can we as teachers and students craft a meaningful experience together?
Anna It really all comes down to a conversation about approach.
For example, I could share a variety of ideas for creating a more fat inclusive studio. Unless the owner and teachers really dig into a difficult conversation (hopefully had more than once) about whether or not they’re actually fat accepting, though, those tips don’t matter.
It’s easy to give lip service to the idea that you want fat people in your classes. It sounds great—very PC: yoga for every body! How many times do we see that on a yoga studio’s advertising material? Many!
However, it’s another story when you really get into your teachers’ (and your own) beliefs about fat—whether or not you think people can be healthy at any size, being thin is just about “willpower” or “tapas” or whatever you want to call it, that once people accept themselves that their weight will just drop away, etc.
Susan Ah yes, the yoga fantasy. It sells a lot of books and dvds! But it’s really not innocent, is it?
Anna I totally get how hard it is for people to accept the idea of something like Health at Every Size–which, I’d like to clarify, means that people can work toward health at any size, not that people are necessarily healthy at any size.
Unhealthy people run the spectrum of sizes, as do healthy people. This goes back to my earlier point about size not being the determining factor we need to be considering. It’s easy to understand why it is, though.
After all, the messages we receive from friends, family, and partners, let alone the media, are all overwhelmingly in support of weight loss. I think that dieting has become more of a faux pas recently, though; it’s all about “lifestyle change” at this point.
Unfortunately, “lifestyle change” is usually just a code word for diet. If a “lifestyle change” encourages you to rely on external sources to decide what/when to eat/exercise, overriding your internal cues, that’s a problem.
How can we listen to our internal cues on other issues when we can’t trust them to tell us the most primal of information—when and how we need to eat?
Obesity, media and misinformation
Susan Speaking of catch phrases, where does the media – both the community press and the mainstream media – come into all this?
Anna America loves a crisis, and the “obesity crisis” is certainly reaching an all new fever-pitch. I really just find it exhausting.
It so reminds me of the “war on drugs” in the 1980s. I went through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program as a kid almost twenty years ago, and kids are still doing it today.
However, DARE has been scientifically proven (many times) to be ineffective, but we keep putting good money after bad because of some deluded hope that it will work. Similarly, what do we have to show for all the money and drama and guilt and shame we’ve put into the “obesity crisis,” even just in the past decade?
We’re all fatter than ever, so just amping up the rhetoric isn’t going to work. This just seems like common sense to me.
I always feel so patronized to by weight-loss companies. It’s like they think I’ve never thought of losing weight before. They’re all “eat less and exercise more.” Oh, really?! That’s it?! OMG; I hadn’t thought of that!
Susan The idea that there’s not a very personal experience of the body is invariably condescending. But that condescension occurs in many directions: for example, in general people have a hard time getting that being slender isn’t a ticket to happiness. We all really buy into that, regardless of our circumstances and I think that’s your message. It confines all of us.
There’s always an individual having the experience. And maybe that’s where yoga teachers can start.
Anna While I do believe this is a complex and in-depth process, I don’t want to scare people away from it. In my own life and teaching, I’m always finding new ways to create space for people in the practice.
Just because I know what modifications work for my fat body doesn’t mean they’ll work for someone else. Teachers don’t have to be fat themselves or know everything there is to know about being fat (not that that’s even possible) in order to create an inviting space for fat students to practice.
For instance, I used to practice at a studio where the teachers, while not waifs, were still considerably smaller than me. However, their ability to ask questions if I looked like I needed help and to honor the beautiful things about my practice made me feel welcome there.
I knew that they’d be willing to talk through something with me after class without judgment if need be, and that’s really what I most wanted.
Tomorrow in part two of our Conversation, Anna talks about how the the rise of Curvy Yoga is unfolding for her personally, and shares how curvy yogis can “take back their autonomy over their practice,” and re-prioritize the benefits of yoga including health and well-being over a focus on losing weight. Plus, see Anna on TV!
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.