On the Body Ideal & Black Yogis

For the most part, I really like my body. It took me a long while to get to this point, but that journey started when I was about 27 or so. I’d owned countless fitness DVDs (mainly of the Pilates and yoga variety) and had attended a Pilates studio infrequently when I decided to bite the bullet and join a gym. There I took a combination yoga and Pilates class called yogalates as well as made use of the elliptical machines and treadmills. I even attended two cycle classes, which were a debacle, but that’s a story for another day.

My body transformed. I’d had the membership for about a year when people started asking me if I’d lost weight. I couldn’t answer in the affirmative because I didn’t (and still don’t) own a scale. I just knew that changes were happening because I gradually went from wearing a full size 12 in jeans to a full size 8 in jeans (which is to say that while my waist, butt, and thighs were getting worked out, they were shrinking at different rates. Initially, I had to keep buying 12s, for example, even though they were loose around my waist because my bum and thighs still filled them out). My goal had been to wear a size 8 and nothing smaller because I still loved my thighs and loved that my glutes were stronger and even rounder. It was then that I did finally step on the scale at the gym. I was content with the number I saw.

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Let me take this moment also to address the first part of this post’s opening sentence: “For the most part.” I do wish that my abs were well-defined. I’m not talking about Hulk levels of definition, but a little cut here and there would be nice. I stopped attending the gym when my work schedule changed during the Fall of 2008, and over the span of two and half years I went back up to a 12. I joined a new gym two and half years ago, and I’m back to my goal size of 8. I continue to work on my abs by trying (and trying and trying) to reduce my dependency on sugar (it’d be fair to say it’s like an addiction), but I’m in a size 8 pant and skirt!

This is all to address an xoJane piece that’s sparked a lot of debate (and rightly so). xoJane published Jen Polachek’s piece, “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.” I wish I could say that this is satire by The Onion but alas, it isn’t. The tl;dr gist is that a white woman projects all of her white woman skinniness issues on a “heavyset black woman” who attends her yoga class. All of this white woman’s navel gazing has less to do with being asked to do Downward-facing Dog and more to do with her belief that a black woman who isn’t as skinny as she is somehow upset at the white woman’s skinniness in her bike shorts and sports bra combo.

Jen starts on this train of thought because minutes into the class, the black woman ditches Downward-facing Dog and goes into Child’s Pose where she stayed, according to Jen, for the remainder of the practice. A number of responses (including the Twitter hashtag, #BlackYogis) have taken Jen to task, including Pia Glenn’s on the same xoJane site with “It Happened to Me: I Read an Essay About a White Woman’s Yoga Class/Black Woman Crisis and I Cannot.”

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I want to talk about Jen’s absolute certainty that this woman resented her for her “skinny white girl body.” Firstly, given Jen’s smooth ability to project, I question her description of this woman being heavy set. Is being larger than a size 2 “heavy set”? And if this woman was in the double digits–let’s say a size 12 or a size 14–how certain can Jen be that this woman wasn’t already content in her skin and did not resent Jen for her “skinny white girl body”? Maybe this woman decided to try yoga to improve her flexibility (it’s certainly why I started doing yoga). Perhaps the woman heard that yoga is a great practice for working through stress and becoming more relaxed (again, a reason why I continue to practice yoga). It’s presumptuous to think that standards of beauty for one set of women (the thin, Euro model image of beauty) apply to another set of women (whether that set is African, Asian, Caribbean, or South American).

Earlier I spoke about size 8 being my goal size when I first started going to the gym and it being my goal once more after I’d gone back to a size 12. It was never my dream or wish to be a size 2 or 4. Why? Because I come from a culture that values curves as a beauty ideal. Not having an ass is not desirable. Hips are fancied. Applying Jen’s brand of navel gazing, I can only guess that she’d see my size 8 self in stretchy workout capris and a sports tank over my DD breasts and assume that my break in Child’s Pose is because I simultaneously covet and am contemptuous of her “skinny white girl body.”

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Jen, and other women like her, would do well to think beyond their own perceptions of beauty and the ideal body. It would have saved her a lot of anguish and tears (yes, she says that she went home and cried after witnessing such distress in class) over being in the presence of a “heavyset black woman” who she was sure was resentful of her “skinny white girl body.” Not every woman wishes to have a roundless ass or hips that are lacking in hour-glassedness (and yeah, that’s made up…much like Jen’s perceptions of a woman she never once conversed with).

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