“How can I lovingly refer to larger-bodied people in my yoga classes?”
This question was posed by a thin, white, woman-identified yoga teacher in a weekend immersion focused primarily on physical accessibility and adaptive teaching. The lead trainer happened to be a fat-identified woman. Aside from her, I was the only fat person in the room. The question was very much directed at the two of us. We both knew it. We both stammered over our words trying to answer her question.
As a fat yoga teacher, I’m asked this question all the time, almost exclusively by thin, white, able-bodied, woman-identified teachers. They hear me talk about my body using particular words or phrases, they watch me adapt postures or use my hands to move my belly out of the way in a twist or a fold, and then they approach me with their well-intentioned posits: “How do I instruct this without making it about body size?”, “How do I advise a student to manually adjust their belly to make more room without making them uncomfortable?”, or, as ambiguous a question as the one posed at the weekend immersion, “How do I talk about fat without offending anyone?”
In the particular instance at the weekend immersion, I had the good fortune of being able to connect with the trainer, a teacher and friend of mine, over dinner after the training. It was a nice and necessary experience to be able to process our feelings about being the only fat people in that particular space. We started talking about this woman’s question and the difficulty we had in answering it.
As we struggled to find words that equally honored our truths and our feelings, gave practical advice, and avoided alienating her or putting her on the defensive (a really tall order), I grew exasperated.
“Maybe you could just try loving them,” I said. My friend sighed and emphatically agreed.
My exasperated statement is at the crux of why these questions are so hard to answer. They’re hard to answer, because they shouldn’t need to be asked in the first place. If we lived in a world where all bodies were assigned equal value regardless of factors like size or perceived health, if all yoga teachers and practitioners were actually embodying the universal love towards all beings that they like to preach, if “inclusion,” “accessibility,” and “body-positivity” were more than marketing buzzwords to the mainstream wellness businesses that co-opt and capitalize on them, if fat wasn’t demonized in our industry and our society to the point that stigma and aversion are present in every single conversation we have about that one particular type of body tissue, then speaking “lovingly” about someone’s body, no matter their size, would not be something we struggled so deeply with. If we loved fat people as a norm, the way we love thin people, then we would always be speaking to and about them from that wellspring of love.
I struggle to want to extend credit to thin people who ask me how to treat fat people lovingly and supportively. On one hand, I appreciate that there are teachers asking these questions when so many more simply won’t. On the other hand, it feels a little bit like when father’s say they’re “babysitting” their kids–no sir, that’s just called parenting. Treating fat people well shouldn’t be considered extraordinary–it’s your responsibility.
I could spend this post giving you some suggested language or best practices. I could talk to you about the history of fat phobia or the fat liberation, civil rights, and accessibility movements that laid the groundwork for modern-day body positive activism. I could talk about the reclamation of the word “fat,” tell you how finally embracing that word as my own has freed me in ways I never knew were possible. But I won’t, at least not today. I hope you’ll seek out resources (including the blog posts yet to come in this series) that can provide all of those things, but in this moment, they feel beyond the point: you can’t speak lovingly to someone without loving them first.
So, to all of the yoga practitioners and teachers out there who are asking these sorts of questions, I have a question for you: What is it going to take for you to start actively loving fat people and their bodies?
Is it a matter of re-educating yourself about the relationship between weight and health? Of seeing diverse body sizes represented in a positive light in the media? Seeing more fat-identified people in leadership roles, heading studios and teaching prime-time yoga classes? Does it potentially mean confronting some harsh realities about the ways you’ve perpetuated harm towards fat people in the past? Or the ways you’ve talked about and treated your own glorious body?
Are you doing that internal work? How about the external work? Are you clearing the way for fat leadership? Are you calling upon your media sources to diversify representation? Are you supporting fat yoga teachers and making sure yoga spaces are actually accessible? These are examples of active love.
As practitioners of yoga, we’re called to engage in active love, active service, and unwavering ahimsa, non-violence, as a practice, not just a thought experiment. We’re also asked practice discernment as part of our greater engagement with satya, truth-telling. We’re called to act mindfully, and to remain ever open to self-study and reflection. If we’re honestly living these values, then we’re living in love and service to all people. Fat people are not excluded.
If you want to speak lovingly about fat people, practice actively loving us. Build genuine relationships with us and listen when we open up about the impact of fat phobia on our lives. Question the messaging that continues to reinforce thin supremacy the way you would question messages that sought to marginalize other people you love. Do the work. I promise, the loving words will come to you.
By Melanie Williams
Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.