• Yogi-Bitionism: How Patriarchy Steals our Female Elders

    Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance.

    A Christmas Eve yoga practice! Just what I need to relax and stay calm before the Christmas holiday. So many gifts to still wrap. Gotta drive a long, long distance to get to my aunt house tomorrow (although I do greatly love this aunt and uncle and find them well worth the drive). Looking forward to seeing my siblings, too! So right, better get my butt in gear so I can get to class on-time. Only, I’m on this aspartame cleanse using bentonite clay? And the shits be like…anyway. I just gotta hurry this up so I can get to class. OK so what time is it? (pun! zing!) I only have 15 minutes to get to class and it will take me at least 18. $#@! Late again. I pull up only two minutes late (no traffic!) and race to check in. I imagine that I enter class a mere 5 minutes late, which feels utterly respectable. I park my mat on the far side of the room, near the window, and join the class in a little cat-cow. I look up during cow position to see that another lady has come in after me, parked her mat diagonal to my left. Ha! I thought, I wasn’t even the latest $#@! in here.

    We press up into downward-facing dog. I keep my knees bent, articulating my spine, which always feels stiff around the thoracic. I’m undulating, loosening the muscles and tissues surrounding the vertebrae. The instructor calls out “Uttanasana.” I’m feeling pretty open across the shoulders, since I did a practice the day before. I decide to jump forward. Now, before my first jump, I sometimes lift my tailbone and kind of bounce my booty a little bit. It gives me momentum going into the jump. I rock my booty a taste and jump forward, landing softly. Then I hear a cackle, “HA! Ahahaaha!” It’s coming from the late white lady (LWL). She was really getting a hearty laugh out of something. Now, save the music playing in the background and the teacher’s instructions, the room is entirely quiet. No one is cracking a joke. The only things in her line of vision were my swaying bottom, and the wall. True, I wasn’t sure why LWL was laughing. Was she laughing at a thought that just arose in her mind? Was it something the lady next to her—who she clearly didn’t know—said or did? Or could it be, since she was in clear view of my ass, that she found my butt rocking utterly hysterical?

    Thing is, I am usually the lone black person in a yoga room. Sometimes, I am the only person of color amid a sea of white. I can tell you that there have been many times white people have looked at me sideways. Frowning, anxious, fearful, and of course amused. (I can tell you endless stories of white folks getting a kick out of seeing me in a yoga room.) It’s like a bear sighting. I wasn’t entirely sure she found me funny. But, I had a pretty strong feeling that was what got her going. I knew it was going to be a long yoga class. It’s no mean feat to block out a smug, self-satisfied, yoga practitioner when they are in your midst. This is especially true when the yogi is really flexing. Giving the fullest, most challenging expression of every pose, for no particular reason. These “yogi-bitionists” as I’ve taken to calling them want you looking. They’re expecting your eyes, praying/preying on your gaze. You watching them is one of the things that brings them to class. And yes, they’re trolling the $#@! out of you.

    This woman was the most obvious type of yogi-bitionist. We were in a Vinyasa 1 class, the purportedly lowest level of asana instruction. The type of class that gives the practitioners, new and returning, the chance to focus more on alignment and breath work than contortionism. Yet, she was attempting handstands and arm balances at just about every transition. Don’t get me wrong: when you know your body, you will do the expression that you are most comfortable with. I was in one “advanced” class wherein before the class even started the woman to the left of me jumped into a handstand, while the woman on the right dropped back into wheel. I was like, “Oh, it’s this kind of class? I’m here for it.” In terms of mastering the asanas, these two women (who also appeared to be in their 50s) were impressive. Confident and self-possessed. Not there to make friends, but nevertheless kind to the other folks in the class.

    In this particular class though, because we hadn’t warmed up for some of the more advanced postures LWL was attempting, she kept falling out of them. This was seemingly her body’s way of telling her it was not ready for them. In the rare cases when she managed to effectively land an inversion, she’d only be in the pose for a millisecond before the entire rest of the class transitioned to something else, because it was a Vinyasa 1 class. With short holds. At the end of the class, our instructor turned and walked over to this woman. Introduced the lady as her own teacher. It was the first time LWL turned around so we could see her face. She was in her mid-50s. Wearing a crop top and several cute little ponytails. Then, I knew what the whole show was about: wanting to intimidate, instead of being intimidated, in a space full of younger women. It was sad, not mostly because of how she was put together.

    Tomorrow, when I’m in my 50s, I might rock my styles just like that. (Er’ryday it’s a battle not to wear a catsuit because $#@! everybody.) It was discouraging because of what the combination of her hairstyle, attire, and posturing signaled as a unit. It was like she was overcompensating for being older. She seemed to keep her gaze down a lot, and it clearly wasn’t from modesty. Seemingly she was doing it because the face reveals the age. She didn’t want any of us noticing her wizened visage. Instead, she seemed to be goaling toward drawing attention to her performative “mastery” of the asanas, in an effort to appear superior to women two-three decades her junior. The reason is clear. Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance. Of pitting women against one another to determine who’s got the cutest face and the perkiest tits. Who’s most flexible. This latter point is an underestimated expectation of patriarchy. Not a new one by any means. But one of the reasons why the idea of yoga being performed by young (white) women, has been taken up with such relish in our capitalist, hetero-patriarchal culture.

    The experience was a reminder of what patriarchy has taken from us. It has taken our women elders. How many women over the age of 50 do you know who are competitive with much younger women? (And again, I’m not talking about sexy women of any age living their best lives. Each day I know that because of women like Adrienne Banfield-Jones, anything is possible.) Women’s sexual objectification is the root of the problem. And yet, white capitalist hetero-patriarchy doesn’t have to be the final word. Instead of using yoga for yogi-bitionist aims, yoga can help us move past our objectification. It can help us value ourselves, and genuinely appreciate the humanity of other (cis and trans) women. You can think of it as a form of Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) or alternatively not clinging. Aparigraha tells us that rather than clinging to youth, beauty, age and ability, we can let all that go. In so doing, we can become more generous, and less competitive with others. It suggests that for women who are long-time yoga practitioners, as we age we can view ourselves as worthy of teaching, guiding, leading, or at the bare minimum respecting, the next generation of women. Not remaining in the competition with them for the implied male gaze. Because even without the presence of cis-het men, the visual economy of preferences which they have conjured is still working on us.

    I was reminded of Chris Rock’s indictment of the old man in the club. 37, too old to be in the club. I was 37 when this incident took place, and I’m 40 now. The more I go to yoga studios in southern California, the younger the women seem to get. Perhaps the LWL, in a rebuke of father time, wanted to prove to these young women (in which group I personally did not include myself) that she still had it. It is the opposite of what yoga has been about, historically. But, it is a reflection of what happens when yoga is taken up commercially. I’d like to think of yoga as a space where I can bring my whole self. Where I have a right to practice even when I haven’t got on a new outfit (I’mma tell y’all about that time I was outfit-shamed later.) I’m not going to compensate for aging as a woman by becoming a yogi-bitionist. We all deserve better.

    By Sabrina Strings

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to coming to UCI, she was a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health and Department of Sociology. She has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Yoga International, and LA Yoga. Her writing can be found in diverse venues, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and Feminist Media Studies. She was the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the Race, Gender and Class section of the American Sociological Association. Her new book is titled Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). It has been featured on NPR, KPFA and WNYC, as well as three “must read” lists.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • The Fear of Fatness was Originally a Fear of Racial Integration

    When I was a teenager, my grandmother would always ask me, “Why are these white women dying to be thin?” I guess she thought that since I’d grown up in an integrated community, I had the info on what white people were up to.
    I did not.

    Usually when she started in on this question, I’d shrug my shoulders or roll my eyes. Sometimes I’d take on the deadened expression characteristic of a 16 year old. She’d eventually drop it and let me go back to watching Yo! MTV Raps. In hindsight, her confusion was understandable. My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow south. In 1940s Atlanta, poor black folk weren’t doing their utmost to lose weight. Eating regular meals was a triumph. She’d once told me that one year her parents had given her oranges for Christmas, and it was one of her happiest memories. You can imagine her befuddlement upon arriving in Pasadena, CA in 1960. For the first time, she was living near and working with tons of white women. A lot of them were trying to “reduce,” the fashionable way to describe dieting in the 1960s. What was this all about, really? I used to think she’d never found a satisfactory answer to the question in her lifetime. For my part, I was too busy in the mid-90s trying to master the choreography to Brandy’s I Wanna Be Down to engage her decades-long query.

    My change of heart came in 2003.  I was working at an HIV medication adherence clinic in the Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco. It was my job to interview the patients about their drug use, their housing situation, and whether or not they were taking their meds. One day, I’d interviewed two different women, a light-skinned black woman and a white Latina. Both had refused to take their HIV meds because it might cause them to gain weight. My mind was blown. These women, whose HIV had advanced to AIDS, were willing to risk death, rather than gain weight.  I thought back to my grandmother’s question and noticed that she seemed to be on to something. Today, no community in the U.S. is unfamiliar with the thin ideal. But, scholars like Naomi Wolf and Kim Chernin had long shown it was white women who had, historically, been most invested in slimness. But why?

    This became the topic of my book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). In the book, I show that in the Western world, the widespread fear of fatness—and particularly fat women—developed in tandem with the growth of the transatlantic slave trade. At the height of slavery, race scientists claimed that Africans were commonly what we might today call “thicc” but they called “robust.” Black people’s purported sturdy frames made them ideal laborers, and also proved their wanton and “low” natures, as they would supposedly readily succumb to their animal appetites.This discourse proved particularly salient for women in the U.S. Self-described Anglo-Saxons wanting to prove their racial superiority elevated fat phobia and its mirror image, the thin ideal, to new heights. They openly proclaimed fatness evidence of blackness and racial inferiority. Anglo-Saxon women hoping to justify their place in a racial hierarchy were told routinely that they’d better keep their figures trim. Fatness was evidence of racial “un-assimilability.”  To put it plainly, there is clear evidence that the original drive to slenderness among white persons was motivated, partially, by anti-blackness, and fears of racial integration.  Practical Amalgamation by Edward Williams Clay, 1839. This image was one of many suggesting the absurdity of desegregation. Integration would make white men stoop to wooing black women, whose presumed “savagery” was evinced by their weight.

    Practical Amalgamation by Edward Williams Clay, 1839. This image was one of many suggesting the absurdity of desegregation. Integration would make white men stoop to wooing black women, whose presumed “savagery” was evinced by their weight.

    It seems my grandmother had been on to an important development in American history that had been under-theorized. She had seen it in 1960 as a black woman in her late 20s, traveling from Georgia to California as part of the Great Migration. With my grandfather and their two kids in tow, they were among the black families integrating their little slice of Los Angeles county. Meanwhile, she was meeting scores of white women who were (undoubtedly unconsciously) invested in a 200 year-old practice intended among other things, to reveal the farcical nature of black-white integration. My grandmother died in 2000. I never got to tell her that I’d took the time to research her question. That I’d gotten a few answers for her. I used to feel a way about that. But then I realized, she already knew.  My grandmother didn’t have more than an 8th grade education. She’d left school young, took up work picking cotton. But Alma Jean was nobody’s fool. I came to realize the question itself was the answer. The way she’d shake her head and suck her teeth. She’d grunt, “uhnt, uhnt, uhnt” every time she saw a character on one of her favorite soaps squeeze themselves down to unholy dimensions. She’d called on me not as a scientist, but as a witness. This right here was racial.

    How does this relate to yoga, you ask? The answer is simple. Yoga spaces are also frequently segregated. Several articles in the mass media have interrogated the whiteness of yoga studios. Larger bodied persons, too, often feel unwelcome or ostracized in yoga spaces. When practitioners happen to be people of color and larger bodied, their alienation is magnified, as I describe in my article “Black Women are Undeniable.”If we expect yoga to be a practice that can benefit everyone, we first have to face our culture’s inherent anti-black and fat phobic biases. But, isn’t fat stigma somehow normal or justified in the context of the “obesity epidemic” in the U.S.? As I explore in my book, the anti-blackness of fat phobia has existed long before the “obesity epidemic,” and fear of racial others was present even the medical disdain for “excess” weight.

    By Sabrina Strings

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to coming to UCI, she was a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health and Department of Sociology. She has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Yoga International, and LA Yoga. Her writing can be found in diverse venues, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and Feminist Media Studies. She was the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the Race, Gender and Class section of the American Sociological Association. Her new book is titled Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). It has been featured on NPR, KPFA and WNYC, as well as three “must read” lists.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.