“My breasts aren’t big enough. My butt is too big. I don’t like my stomach. Do I look fat in this outfit?”
How many women have criticized ourselves like this at some point in our lives? Probably many of us, particularly if we live in Western societies. Here, cultural messages about women’s bodies and thinness saturate our media and “fat” is seen as a reflection of moral worth.
Rather than seeing beauty in a range of body sizes and types—as yoga would have us do—women learn that only a narrow image counts.
Of course, it’s no surprise that women’s bodies are objectified in our popular culture. The most damaging part happens when we learn to objectify ourselves. Feminists such as Susan Bordo and Sandra Bartky have written about how women learn to police and regulate ourselves.We internalize media messages so deeply that we place ourselves under surveillance and often find ourselves lacking. We learn, from a very young age, that we are valued more for our looks than anything else—a message that damages women’s self-esteem from a young age.
How often to we check our appearance when we walk by a mirror? Do we see ourselves as a holistic being, with talents and dreams? Or do we focus on body parts and scrutinize with a sharply critical eye? Fragmenting and judging ourselves works to keep women down. It is sexism at work.
Women become disembodied—judging our bodies as if from the inside out. We learn to see our bodies as something to hone, tone, berate, but not as a part of ourselves that needs to be listened to, befriended, and honored.
That’s where yoga comes in. In yoga, we can learn to reclaim our bodies. We cultivate the connection between our movement and our breath. We bring our attention to our present experience and learn to accept to without judgment.
We come home to our bodies.
On our mats, we learn how to integrate our heart, mind, spirit, and body. We learn to work with our physical limitations—which we can eventually see not as limitations but as the unique gifts of who we are.
In yoga, we learn to value our bodies for what they do for us and what they have to teach us. When those old voices of self-critique arise, we can more easily notice them, put them into perspective, and refuse to feed them.
Instead, we can learn to surround ourselves with love, compassion, and acceptance. We greet ourselves, in the words of the great poet Rumi, like a valued guest.
We become re-embodied.
Beth’s day is made when she can do some Anusara yoga and work with her Women’s Studies students. She directs the Women’s Studies Program at St. Cloud State University and Chairs the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University. She teaches classes in gender and popular culture, gender and the body, and yoga. She is inspired by the connections between feminism and yoga, which she explores at Feminist Yogini.