Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Subverting the Beauty Paradigm: Questioning the Relationship Between Body Image and Self Image, in Yoga & Beyond

A few weeks ago at my oldest son’s 8th grade graduation, I watched one 14-year-old girl after another walk awkwardly but determinedly across the school auditorium stage in skin-tight strapless mini-dresses and high stiletto heels. This was the first time that I’d seen these young teenage girls, many of whom I’d known for years, all dressed up. Sadly, I found it more disturbing than anything else. It really made wonder what the hell is going on with young American women today.

I don’t consider myself prudish, conservative, or old-fashioned. But I was taken aback to see that 99% of the girls had crammed their young bodies into super-tight and revealing outfits along with what a friend of mine used to call “fuck me pumps.” Most of them exuded an odd combination of pride in their grown-up, sexy outfits and discomfort with what it revealed and signified. Most were also struggling with the simple physical difficulty of walking around in stilettos and a short tight dress.

The few who looked totally poised and runway-confident struck me as having perfected the art of projecting a false persona. They seemed fake. Like child actresses who had learned their parts well enough to perform them by rote, but not well enough to seem truly natural. Their movements and expressions felt scripted, rather than spontaneous. Yet they also projected a self-confident sense of feeling on top and in charge.

Meanwhile, the boys were all solidly suited up. In marked contrast to the girls, they seemed pretty relaxed in their graduation outfits. This is not to suggest that boys today aren't struggling with their own issues – they are. But the contrast in clothing and demeanor between boys and girls in this particular context – one that is intended to showcase them stepping out as young adults – was striking, to say the least.

Corporatized Sexuality

When I had taken my son on a rare trip to a mall to shop for his graduation clothes, he told me that I had to check out the clothing company, Hollister. “It’s the worst, Mom,” he said. “You’ll see what I mean when you go in there.”

Walking through Hollister was an interesting prequel to the graduation ceremony itself. The store was structured to be a lavish, dim-light tunnel. It felt weirdly like a tubular shopping bordello. The brightest spots in the store were provided by huge, lit-up fashion photos of super-sexy young models in minimal clothing, which loomed down on shoppers like gods and goddesses from some strange new cult of adolescent body worship from the walls.

The girls’ section full of bikinis, short shorts, tube tops, and other super-skimpy summer wear, along with a few hoodies for that obligatory “street” vibe. Combined with the hyper-sexualized imagery and low lighting, it sent a clear message: Get sexy. And how? By buying these products and internalizing this imagery, of course.

To me, the store signaled that the marketing of pre-packaged, generic, corporatized sexuality to America’s youth has hit yet another new high (or more accurately, low). My son said that the clothing line is super-popular. He knew that I would hate it, and completely understood why. The difference between us was that while I was surprised by it, he understood that this is the new normal.

Bodily Fallout

I’m not a mother of girls, and don’t claim insight into how they understand today’s culture of early sexualization and bodily display. At 14, I was a post-hippie chick who favored ripped Levis and funky, loose-fitting shirts from the thrift store. It would never have crossed my mind for a split second to wear the sort of outfit that virtually all of the girls were wearing at this graduation. Like the one girl in a more modest dress who came from a recently immigrated Asian family, it wasn't part of the culture I grew up with.

Neither were rampant eating disorders. Not long after attending the graduation ceremony, I went to another school-related function and fell into a conversation with a super-stressed mom who disclosed that her 12-year-old daughter was struggling with anorexia. She was doing her best to help her daughter as she juggled a job that required lots of travel and a husband whose work frequently took him overseas. But she admitted to feeling totally freaked, shocked, and distraught over her daughter's disease. 

My stereotype of a mother whose 12-year-old daughter has anorexia is someone who’s obsessed with her weight and appearance, who’s constantly sending  unconscious signals that a girl’s identity and self-worth rests on her dress size and beauty. But this woman didn’t strike me that way at all. Her body was at a comfortable, healthy weight, and she dressed in comfortable, casual clothes. Of course, I knew that I had no insight into the family dynamics behind the scenes. But there were certainly nothing on the surface that would suggest why this girl was afflicted with an eating disorder.

The woman said that she had been hearing about more and more young girls in the community who were cutting, anxious, anorexic, depressed. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t understand why so many kids have these problems.” We talked about how life is much more stressful for kids today than it was when we were growing up. But there was also a reluctant recognition that a lot of kids seem to be caught up in currents of youth culture that we observe, but don’t really understand.

One thing that seems clear is that many girls and young women today are obsessed with their bodies in ways that are psychologically and spiritually unhealthy, and that this fixation is encouraged by advertising and mass media. To me, this seems incontrovertibly clear. It also seems like a social fact that’s extremely relevant to yoga.

Authenticity vs. Commodification

Now that yoga’s become so popular and mainstream, it occupies an important, but also vexed relationship to the body in North American culture. On the one hand, yoga offers an accessible means of learning how to connect to your own body as part of your authentic being. When practiced in a way that synchs body, mind, and breath while cultivating the intent of connecting to the deeper self, yoga can be a powerfully healing practice indeed.

Conversely, yoga can be practiced as a means of not only trying to sculpt the perfect body, but trying to construct the perfect persona. So, not only do you want to have zero percent body fat – you also want to be strong, flexible, and able to perform kickass asana – and to be serene and happy, if not spiritually blissed out, pretty much all of the time.

This is fake. It reminds me of the 8th grade girls at graduation. Both share a well-intentioned, but misguided drive to mimic an external image that symbolizes reaching some wonderful state of internal self-actualization: Now you’re grown-up. Now you’re a yoga goddess. Now you’ve temporarily fooled yourself into believing that you’ve left all of the authentic messiness of who you really are behind.

It can't and won't work. Yet because we’re constantly being sold promises that it will – whether via Hollister or Lululemon – it’s hard not to internalize the hope that it might. Unfortunately, relating to our bodies as objects to be disciplined and displayed – whether as wannabe sexy teenagers or yoga goddesses – just feeds our cultural pathologies and further alienates us from ourselves.

What's the Message?

The funny thing about yoga in this regard is that consistent practice will in fact naturally cultivate what our society considers to be a beautiful body. Of course, it won’t make everyone automatically “beautiful.” But given that lots of attractive young women are in the prime yoga demographic, it will move many in that direction. Which is wonderful. The conundrum, however, is that it opens the door to turning that beauty into a commodity.

In the yoga community as everywhere else. the body can be commodified to sell almost anything – classes, workshops, clothing, jewelry, books, DVDs . . . and your self. Even more insidiously, we may relate to our bodies as "things" that must be made to look a certain way in order to give ourselves what seems like a solid anchor of meaning and self-worth. All-too-many girls and women measure their sense of personal value by their dress size, numbers on a scale, or approximation of some external ideal.

I think that it’s good for young women (and everyone else) to celebrate their beauty (and, when the time is ripe, sexuality) in authentic ways. But given the society we’re living in, I believe that this requires resisting some powerful cultural norms. For teen girls, it might mean rejecting the idea that you need to prove that you’re grown up by putting on an uncomfortable uniform of tight, short, low-cut dresses and high heels. For female yoga practitioners, it might mean countering the pre-packaged image of being serene, smiling, beautiful, bendy, thin, well-accessorized, and perfectly flawless.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I really think that the yoga community has the responsibility to think seriously about how we are representing beauty, the body, and the practice in our culture. Are the images being put forth ones that will encourage students to chase after yet another air-brushed image of commercialized beauty? Or do they somehow manage to signal that no matter how beautiful the body may be, the more meaningful beauty is always within?

Subverting the Beauty Paradigm

Happily, there are more and more images being produced that offer alternative visions of what yoga in this society might look and feel like. While I don't want to hold anything up as the next ideal (which would undermine the project of encouraging new alternatives), I think it's valuable to share and celebrate what we personally find interesting or inspiring.

So, here's a few of my faves:

Photo courtesy of Sarit Photography

Photo courtesy of Sarit Photography

The above photos of Keri-Anne Telford, who teaches yoga at Exhale Venice and the Trapeze School of NY in L.A., were recently shot by Sarit Rogers of Sarit Photography (also in L.A.). I'm particularly psyched about Sarit's new work as it's going to be featured on the cover of a book on 21st Century Yoga that I'm co-editing with Roseanne Harvey.

This morning, I stumbled across a Tumblr of phenomenal yoga shots featuring Black women by Sabriya Simon Photography. I think that the one below is one of the best yoga photographs I've ever seen:

Photo courtesy of Sabriya Simon Photography

I also find this image exceptionally powerful:

Photo courtesy of Sabriya Simon Photography

The following shot by the San Francisco-based photographer, Faern was part of the So Hum: Self Expression Through Yoga project that she did with Erica Rodefer. It's remained one of my favorite contemporary yoga images ever since I first saw it:

Photo courtesy of FaernWorks Photography

Why strive to be a Barbie when being you is so much more creative, interesting, and authentically beautiful?


  1. Thank you for this. Well said. ♥

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

  2. This line struck me in particular: "Now you’re a yoga goddess. Now you’ve temporarily fooled yourself into believing that you’ve left all of the authentic messiness of who you really are behind." Hits on one thing I struggle with in my practice as well.

    1. I think it's a common one . . . you are not alone :)

  3. What a wonderful piece, Carol. Thanks for this!

  4. On a recent shopping trip for my quickly-growing 13 yo daughter, we went to Macy's (in NYC) thinking that it would have a little bit of everything for all tastes. Not so. Every item that would fit a young woman of my daughter's size was appalling in just how you described. As we walked through yet another aisle of skimpy short shorts and mini dresses, my daughter said, "I feel like I am Amish or something." We were like visitors from another planet simply because she wanted clothes that were pretty and comfortable and fun, not sexy and vulgar.

    So depressing. Fortunately she still has a strong sense of her own self and spends time with people who do not dress that way so I hope it will continue. You don't mention it, but the bizarre social structure of schooling is part of the problem too. Putting people of the same age together in large groups is NOT a healthy dynamic.

    Yoga can be such a force for good in this regard. Until it isn't.

    1. Yes, I have heard other reports on that same shopping problem. I have two boys and have been very sheltered from it - it's just been jeans, sweats, t-shirts, and athletic shoes from birth to the present.

      I honestly don't understand how and why this stuff has taken over the mass market so completely for girls. Why isn't there more resistance? Why does it get so widely accepted as cool? Clearly I have a lot of learning to do, because I have no idea whatsoever.

  5. Hi Carol..

    As always - I really enjoyed your post. As you know, I have two girls (9 & 11) and watching them (and esp their friends..) well, I could go on and on. Thankfully, I won't.

    But in answer to your question: "Why strive to be a Barbie when being you is so much more creative, interesting, and authentically beautiful?"

    The answer, sadly, is... "That it isn't rewarded by cultural norms, media, and peers" -

    when that is exactly what these young women-in-transition are desperately seeking...EXACTLY at this moment in their pubescent / adolescent lives. The norm for this age group is to strive to be exactly like those they admire/like and to be liked by same in turn. "TO FIT IN" is the overarching objective for large bell curve of the tween/teen population. All the carving out of one's own identity and originality usually happens later in the late teens and early adulthood (hopefully) as they take into account their experience and tested values..

    To Fit In. I remember going with my friends to the mall at ages 11-14 yrs.. picking out the matching horoscope posters, the same t-shirts, calling each other to see what the other was wearing to school... Seemed innocent then. But now? With the kind of media and social aps these kids are exposed to? I recently bemoaned to a fellow yoga student (guy) that I was shocked to hear it when my 14 yr niece told me "Dexter" is her favorite show.. He replied.. "My 9 yr old daughter loves it too!!" When I stared..he mumbled.. I don't believe in censoring.. " These poor girls. Not sure what can be done. Given the breadth of stuff available and pushed on them.

    Just touching back on this week alone... In our children's orthodontist's office was a Cosmo Girl, so I read up on how to "pleasure your guy" with "tonguework" and "pleasure zones". Target audience for Cosmo Girl? 9-16 yrs. Yesterday, took in "Rock of Ages" rated PG-13 (so I said my girls could join us after their film, "Brave" ended) The movie had rough sex scenes (slamming woman against, open tongue S&M type scenes, simulated oral, and a few musical numbers done on stripper poles (by beautiful role models in stilettos and not much else).. PG-13? C'MON! I am continually shocked and amazed by what we (as a culture) "feed" our children..

    (oops! seems I've gone on and on anyway....sorry!)

    1. Hi KD - Don't apologize! I am glad to hear you go on - because this concerns yet greatly, yet as the mother of two boys (one of whom revels in nonconformity), I am relatively sheltered from these issues.

      In fact, I have no idea what "Dexter" is. We don't have TV . . . but I bet my kids know anyway. I will check and report back.

    2. They have heard of it but never seen it, don't know anything about it, and are not interested. So I Googled it . . . a critically acclaimed show about a blood spatter pattern analyst who moonlights as a serial killer, according to Wikipedia. Sounds unbelievably creepy. Nine-year-olds watching this? Terrible.

      The other stuff you reference sounds equally bad - again, I haven't seen it. Thanks for cluing me in - even though it's dismaying, forewarned is forearmed.

  6. Beautiful images.

    I was a teenaged anorexic.

    Training to teach yoga flared it up again, to the point of my period stopping again. Because I thought I had to be thin to be a yoga teacher. And my GOD, the commodification thing. It's so sad that our culture is increasingly telling young women that sexual allure is the only kind of power they have, and only if they look a certain way.

    Bollocks to that! I say, cut your hair if you want, get tattoos if you want, and for God's sake, keep your curves if you happened to be born with them.

  7. Hi Nadine - Thanks for reading and commenting. It's a very powerful statement that anorexia flared up again when you started teaching yoga because you felt that you had to be thin. Wow. Just shows how important these issues are. And how important it is for the yoga community to develop awareness and take a proactive stance. Don't feed the commodification machine! Thanks for sharing.

  8. We're a long way from Ricky and Lucy in separate beds dressed to the necks in nightwear. So what changed? Was innocence sacrificed because of the internet? It would be an interesting study; probably already been done many times, to trace the timeline of greater exposure and the reactions of our children.

    And they are also aware of the news that has crept into every hour of the day on television and into our homes. Perhaps the lousy news has created a culture of despair.

    As for yoga being both a solution to suffering and a vehicle for competition, vanity, insecurity and the destruction in that wake,you present an interesting dichotomy. It describes a culture that needs to grow out of the hormonal tidal wave of youth faster than it wants to. Yoga may be a way to grow up and it may be that the teacher has a bigger job than fitness director.

    1. Well said, as always. I couldn't agree more :)

  9. We struggle with this in our family. My stepdaughter is 14 and also just graduated from 8th grade. She's smart, talented, compassionate, studious, and beautiful - inside and out. These qualities are natural to her - but also emphasized by her parents. But we also offer her opportunity to make her own decisions - including picking out her own graduation dress. It was difficult to stomach - but she picked a short, tight, minidress that fell right in line with all of her friends. We did not allow heels, which she was ultimately OK with. She went from 14 to 28 in a moment.

    What is most difficult for us as parents, is witnessing what we have no control over, and never did. We can teach by example and try to educate (my husband made her read commentary on the Twilight series and was then allowed to make her own choice to read it or not -- and she did choose to wait another year), but ultimately, the best we can do is try to instill values and strength in character. The tide is strong.

    But that doesn't mean that we just let her get pulled downstream. We try to offer alternatives to broaden her perspective - and communicate to her. We try to offer "the other side" and then let her make her own choices - within reason. This choice to parent like this is rooted in our practice of yoga. We try to provide an edge as parents - so she can move into challenge, feel it, explore it, and decide for herself where she wants to linger. Obviously there are no guarantees... but teaching her to SWIM against (or with) the current is more empowering than letting her get swept in the tide. And it's not just about the young women learning to reject the beauty paradigm, the young men need to as well.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful work. I always enjoy reading it!

  10. ncl, thanks for your comment. As a parent, I completely identify with what you are saying. And I agree that it's better to let the kids make informed choices and to trust that their inner strength of character, supported with love by their parents, will carry them safely through the toxic undertows of our culture. They will make mistakes and so will we - but that's how you learn.

  11. The commodification of our children is hugely profitable, of course. There's a lot of commercial pressure disguised as cool. I agree with Hilary that yoga teachers can help wake us up to the exploitation, as long as the teachers themselves have broken with barbie. Great post. Thank you.

  12. Thanks so much for promoting this discussion. Issues we might have with the aesthetics of the body, body image, class and beauty are so often glossed over in an attempt to maintain the permasmile sometimes conflated with santosha/being a yogini. It´s hard to call out the commodification creeping in as yoga grows more popular in a gentle and constructive matter, but I think you´ve done a great job doing so in this post. Yoga can be a powerful tool for helping people find a way to be comfortable in their size and shape as they are, or to get to healthier place, but only if we let it. I wouldn´t trade my first yoga classes on a gray carpeted floor for the coolest stretchy pants in the world.