January 11, 2012

Why The Sexy Equinox Yoga Video Pissed Me Off.

You really shouldn’t get involved in Facebook comment fights. It’s a bad idea: your well-thought out opinions, thoughts, and insults are wielded with no stronger weapon than a thumbnail picture of your face on New Year’s Eve.

This time, I just couldn’t help myself. The Equinox Yoga Video has been making its rounds like a tumbleweed in the yoga community’s firestorm, and yeah, it’s got me pretty heated.

And indeed, this blog post means probably even more people will watch the video, thus giving Equinox more free advertising (which, sure, they probably knew what they were doing when they created it), but I think talking about media in a critical way is incredibly important, and much more valuable than pretending it’s not there. If I ever have a teenage daughter, I am going to sit down with her and go through every page of Cosmopolitan with her and discuss the shit out of what it means and what it makes her feel and how close or far its impressions are from reality until that magazine is so boring she will not ever want to read one again. Also I will show her this:

And the Equinox video, which made its way onto my Facebook stream with words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘gorgeous’ attached to it, gave me the same feeling those magazines do now. It’s what I like to call the ‘No’ feeling:  your gut twitches, and you know somethin’ ain’t right, even if you can’t quite articulate it yet. Perhaps it was partly the video’s description: “Equinox’s Briohny Smyth shows there’s no limit to what the artfully honed yoga body can do.”

Firstly, I admit, it is beautiful. It’s a beautifully photographed, definitely erotic video with a gorgeous, strong yogini and lovely music that’s very well done. I’m not denying that. But here’s what it made me feel.

Yoga advertising has been trying for a while now to make me feel bad about my body so that I get insecure enough to buy whatever they are selling. This is the number one MO of teen and adult women’s magazines (and men’s magazines for that matter): subtly hit the reader in an insecure place so that they buy more of this magazine and its products. Let’s try some real world translations of cosmopolitan.com‘s website headlines:

“The New Girl Quality Men Can’t Resist” or, “Why You Are Not Like This Girl and Don’t Deserve a Quality Man [unless you buy this STUFF!]”

“This Common Goof Will Tick Off Your Friends” or, “There’s something wrong with you. You don’t know what it is. We do. [You can help by buying this STUFF!]”

“Are you Lying–To Yourself?” or, “You are lying to yourself. You are actually fatter than you could ever imagine. [So you should buy this STUFF!]”

These magazines, mixed with the dangerous brew of early teenage life and all its pressures, created so much anxiety that I became anorexic. At 5’8, I weighed 102 pounds. All my friends thought I was soooo pretty, my mom was desperately trying to get me to eat a piece of toast, and I still thought I was fat.

Then yoga came along. It taught me that I could be strong and beautiful with muscles instead of just bones. It taught me that it didn’t matter what I looked like, as long as I felt good. It taught me that I could be a fighter jet made of biceps, and that was awesome.

I teach yoga because it helped (and continues to help) me overcome my anxiety and depression and empowers me in more ways than I can name, and that‘s what I want to share with people. I tell my students over and over again to close their eyes. Stop looking around–it doesn’t matter what you look like, and it doesn’t matter what the person beside you looks like. It matters how you feel.

And for all we tell our students to turn inwards and not worry about what other people think, we yoga teachers sure do worry about it. We try not to, but in this incredibly competitive community, we feel like we should be the ones with the strongest core, the most amazing practice, the most advanced postures. We feel like we should know everything and be able to do everything so we can pass it onto our students. We need to constantly be reminded that we are still students–on a path of learning, and the only one putting pressure on us to do crazy poses or have a perfect butt is us.

Well, us and this Equinox yoga video.

I think if I wasn’t a yogi or a woman or some combination of things that make me who I am, I’d see just the beauty of the video and move along. But the woman in the video is not only sexy, she is sexualized. This video exemplifies the male gaze: the sense that a woman is being watched, looked on as an object, (in pieces, at that: hip, thigh, butt, feet) from the heterosexual male perspective. Some feminists argue that even when women subject themselves to and desire this gaze, they are towing the line of the norms of a gender-unequal society (this is a big topic: see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“). This video pretends intimacy and innocence (just rolled out of bed for a 3.29 minute morning practice? Really?) but is carefully crafted: the lace underwear, the unmade bed, the closeups of hair coming loose and quick breathing, not to mention the butt shots in updog: it all says, subtly but very clearly, SEX. Heterosexual sex that puts the male gaze in a position of priority, and minimizes the female gaze (which some say can’t or doesn’t exist yet). And I’m not even going to touch on the money/class/yoga is only for rich people/peace is only for the superrich reading of this penthouse apartment. There is a difference between an erotic, sexy female body and a sexualized female body, especially when it’s being used to sell something.

Some of those of us made uncomfortable by this video are being accused of a puritanical hate for innocent naked bodies due to our overly sexually repressed culture. I disagree. Not all white Americans hate breasts (anyway, I’m Canadian). I think yoga is sexy. It literally does make your sex life better, and eroticism in our culture is something we could use more of in a respectful way. But here are two problems with sex in yoga culture when presented this way:

1. You don’t need this kind of ‘yoga body’ to be sexy.

And 2. when people see you as an object, they treat you like one, which is why you get sexually assaulted by your boss at the yoga studio and you are told you can never ever tell anyone about it, so you don’t, until 7 women speak up all at once (and I wish it had been me that broke the silence). And yeah, that wasn’t fun.

See, for example, Toesox: I much prefer these ads (not that they don’t have their share of controversy, too). I think they are beautifully photographed, I see a human doing a strong, amazing thing rather than a sexual object doing as she’s told. The ads are unapologetically sexy, if not erotic, they are clear about their intent, and they are kind of funny (Toesox: all you need to wear! get it?). Kathryn Budig is certainly naked, but she’s not being put in an obviously sexual position or in a sexualized gaze, you see her whole face and body, not just a cut of meat, she’s just naked, doin’ her thing. These ads didn’t get my ‘No’ spikes up. (Should they have? Comment me back).


Another example is this video by my friend Meghan Currie.

She is undoubtedly a sexy woman, and the video is erotic in its own way, but the bright coloured boy-cut undies, the cat sleeping and licking itself in the corner, all the stuff on the walls, the intelligent, creative (and symmetrical) sequence all humanize her rather than sexualize her. She may have actually rolled out of bed and filmed herself doing this. She is an awesome yogi and interesting human, not an object to be sold in the marketplace in exchange for insecurity and fear. And even though I wish I could do some of that stuff, her video didn’t make a part of my soul want to die.

The Equinox video turns its gaze on this woman as an object, and defines her as a “perfectly honed yoga body” that can, robot-like,  do anything. As a yoga teacher and a woman, I feel that gaze turning its head, Exorcist-like, on me–This Yoga Body is valued for its butt cheeks and MOST incredible yoga poses (dance, monkey dance!). She is not valued here for her teaching, her passions, or anything about her mind at all. I don’t want my students looking at this and thinking of me. In any way.

I struggled for 6 years in academia to be taken seriously as a woman. My friends assumed professors wanted to work with me was because of what I looked like. I was harshly critiqued in my essays and presentations, assumed stupid until proven otherwise. I decided on a gender-neutral academic name (JC) so as to avoid assumptions when I was submitting papers. (And people still assume–I still get an email now and then about my published papers titled Dear Mr. Peters)

Now I am a spoken word poet, which is a competitive ‘sport’ where you are judged on your performance as well as your words, and it’s even worse when people can see me while I’m speaking. I’ve learned to cover up a lot and wear the most boring thing in my closet when I perform so people can hear the words rather than look at my body. I’ve heard (female) poets criticizing me for ‘using’ my sexuality to get scores at the slam, and several (male and female) people thinking they were complimenting me for saying, “Of course you won, you were probably the best looking person there.” These are all ways in which I have felt that my first and most important value in this world is how sexy I am, and that it’s not a given that I also have a brain. Actually, I (of course) wrote a poem about that:

I think it’s awesome and impressive that some “liberated women” have zero problem with this sexualization, and miraculously don’t have histories of being objectified as women. And maybe it’s just me and my own personal triggers that saw a little past the beauty of this video and into some serious ugliness. I can’t get away from the fact that this is happening, and that people that are going to call me sexually repressed for my negative reactions. But I am more than a body: I have words, and words are my best weapon.

In my opinion, it’s still, and always, worth fighting for the right to be seen as a human, and not an object.



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