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March 31, 2014

Big-Breasted Yogi—Short Stories From the Front Line.

jolene song dolly parton mumford marling cover

I was inspired to engage in this topic because, well, I have large breasts.

Large breasted women are subject to the strangest set of social conditions and human interactions. For instance:

  1. Contradictions. Big breasts are apparently the ideal—but just try finding a good sports bra, or a shirt that fits!
  2. Longing & Envy. The belief within our hetero-normative society that men prefer big breasts is so pervasive that celebrities and adult entertainers often see a huge rack as a resume-builder. And yet, women can be downright cruel and evil to other women whose breasts they covet.
  3. Ridicule. This is a form of shaming women with naturally large breasts, as happened to me growing up.

Ridicule is also a form of shaming women whose breasts are fake and/or too big. These women become confused about the contradictions revolving around breast size, and as they augment them, they pass “attractive” and head right on to “cartoonish.”

For instance, who thought Dolly Parton’s breasts actually looked good? Answer: Dolly Parton. See—I just ridiculed her! It’s so very easy, and a low blow.

The items listed above are a bizarre and confusing combination of social inputs to come to mature terms with, and to endure through adulthood. They engender a welter of confusing interactions with other women, and challenging emotions as well.

And yet, despite this tangle of conflicting social pressures, possessing big breasts seems to be something to aspire to. Unless you’re a clothing model—then you need to be rail thin. But if you’re a lingerie model, then you need to have extra-big boobs (See item #1: Contradictions).

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Having big breasts can be difficult: 

  • Try going for a run. Or, doing a bridge or shoulder stand (without choking). I have family and friends who have had breast reductions because their breast size was compromising their bodies’ structural health and overall happiness.
  • Try finding a correctly-sized bra.  Whatever you do, don’t listen to those gals at Victoria’s Secret; breast and bra sizes are much more varied than they would lead you to believe.
  • Shoot, just having breasts—not even big ones—can be a liability! More friends than I care to mention have had breast cancer.

At the same time, women who have large breasts are subject to an absurd and unattainable double standard. In addition to having big breasts, women are also expected to be thin. And, unless you are a genetic anomaly, or have fake boobs, those fatty deposits will probably shrink when you lose weight. More contradictions.

I myself have a figure that is rare—a small waist, narrow rib cage, broad shoulders, big hips, big butt, and yes. Large breasts. To observe the people our popular culture idolizes these days—Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez—one would think that clothing would be made to fit such a figure. Alas, no. Ladies clothing is made to fit a different anomaly: A rail-thin, adolescent boy-girl.

It’s all so confusing. Frustrating. Aggravating! Disempowering.

This is the environment that “society” writ large offers girls and women to make sense of.

Now let’s zoom into the yoga society.

I believe that people involved in the yoga world experience these strange double standards just as much, if not more. Like any “exercise” space, yoga brings in people with complex sets of body image challenges already activated. But because of the extreme emphasis on the body’s beauty and performative capabilities, as well as the clothing that goes along with it, yoga has a unique way of exacerbating body image compulsions.

Let’s unpack the clothing conundrums and contradictions a bit.

Yoga should teach you to love what is, and that you are alright just the way you are.  But many of the clothing norms contradict that idea. They suggest, “You’re O.K., unless you’re bigger than a size eight.”

For instance, tonight I noticed that the shop where I teach had a size large on the rack. In my four years of teaching there, it was the first large I had seen. I’m not singling out my place of employment—all yoga shops seem to work the same way, only carrying up to a size eight at the most, more often stopping at a six. By that measure, Lululemon’s 12 seems generous. That said, I did try on a size eight Lulu top, and my breasts were squeezed to the point of obscenity. A size eight is not small, by any means, and I was perplexed. The tacit signals in the yoga-clothing world all suggest that yoga women are not supposed to have breasts, or at least not big ones. Juxtapose this with the broader cultural context of the big-breast obsession, and a person could be left feeling less-than-awesome, and abundantly confused.

As a yoga instructor, my body is constantly on display, and I need to wear clothing that allows my students to easily see the details that I’m talking about and demo-ing for them. Yoga clothing is not skin tight just for the sake of ease of motion, but also to allow the body to be seen.  Alignment is better viewed with form-fitting clothes, not with baggy pants and shirts.

For instructors, and for students, the high degree of body display can exacerbate already present body image issues. Instructors feel pressure to “look the part” and students often evaluate a teacher’s practice and teachings based on the shape of his or her body. Couple this with the yoga marketing that would have everyone believing that all yoga students are lithe, white, bikini-clad twenty-something females doing handstands on the beach, and no wonder the uninitiated feelings of insecurity about trying out the whole yoga thing.

Here’s a story to illustrate this:

I was in the hallway at a yoga studio where I teach, and one of the staff, a tall. shapely black woman, approached me. 

Her: “I love your pants. Where did you get them?”

I do not recall the specifics of the pants, or what I said, but do remember the rest of her half of the conversation.

Me: “Blah, blah, blah!”

Her:  “Yeah, I can’t find anything that fits me, and is affordable. I’d love to start doing yoga, but I need to have the right clothing first!”

My heart sank. Is this the message the yoga community is sending? Before you start yoga, you have to have the correct clothing?

***

To feed the clothing contradictions further, when a clothing manufacturer does make a bra to fit a larger woman, it takes the opportunity to talk about it as if it should win them some award, as if they are saying “See! We’re so inclusive!”

As if women with big breasts were an anomaly.

Here’s a story to illustrate this observation:

I have a photo shoot. I’d like to find something that will be flattering, yet discreet. A top with a built-in shelf bra that doesn’t squeeze too tight. I look through catalogues, and see an Athleta top. It’s advertised:  “For the Well-Endowed Warrior, We Support You.”

I think I just puked in my mouth a little. Well, it’s not as bad as Lululemon’s “Ta-ta Tamer.” This kind of language offends me. I know it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not—it’s degrading. It falls under the category of Ridicule.

Cut back to our protagonist: Hopeful, I go to the store to try out the “Well-Endowed Warrior” top. Good coverage.  As promised it is supportive, but why so unflattering and lumpy? No, this shirt will not work (Note: Athleta’s designers have changed recently and I’m a little obsessed with their clothes now!).

I leave the store, discouraged. Again.

***

As a big-breasted teenager, I was often teased by the boys, and ridiculed by the girls. I thought that my breasts were a source of shame, and longed to have little, inconspicuous breasts. I blamed my weight for saddling me with a rack and so obsessively sought to lose as much as possible. As I see it now, issues of body image, weight, breast size, and femininity are inextricably bound up in one another, and difficult or impossible to disentangle.

Here’s a story:

A student confides in me.

“You know, I went to Elizabeth’s class, but, what really drew me to you—besides that you’re a great teacher, of course—is that, well, she’s just so thin, and you, you look like a real woman.” I could feel her Envy.

It’s true—Elizabeth is thin. That’s the way she is. She doesn’t work to be thin—in fact, she tries to figure out how to gain weight! Despite her naturally slender build, she’s still a real woman. Thin women are real women too. Does this really need to be said?

I get what the student was trying to say, though she couldn’t really: “Everything I see tells me that yoga people have to be thin. I’m not. You’re not. And that makes me feel better about myself and just maybe about yoga too.”

This exchange broke my heart in three directions.

First, I felt for my teacher friend, this naturally thin woman who is somehow viewed by another woman as “less than real.” What a crazy plight to handle, and even more so, because those women are relegated to silence, and therefore to isolation, because, let’s be real: Who wants to hear the sorrows of a slim lady? No one.

It’s almost as ironically uninteresting as the sorrows of the lady with the big boobs.

Second, I felt bad that this adult woman’s sense of self was so very frail. She is casualty of our society—grown women seeking shelter from the storm, a place to feel good about themselves, and finding it nowhere. Apparently, not even at yoga. How is it that we come to be adults and still the foundation of our being—our sense of self—is cracked at its very core?

And third, she was calling me fat.  Or “a real woman” depending on how you look at it…

***

Let me bring this home to the discussion of breasts, where we began. Over the course of my life, I’ve been ridiculed for having big breasts. Also envied. And admired.

What I’ve learned is that my big breasts are usually a lightning rod for other people’s longings and insecurities.

For example:

A yoga friend and I walk by the front desk at the yoga studio, and the gal behind the desk is wearing a simple, elegant sundress. I comment on it—I just love sundresses.

 Her: “Oh, yes!  I love how I can just slip it on and go!”

Me: “There’s never any ‘just slip it on’ for me…”

Her: “Why?”

Me: “Well, a strapless bra necessarily is involved…”

Yoga Friend: “People pay good money to have tits like yours, Erica…” (said with a tone of scorn.)

Whoa. Was that really necessary to say?

Later I find out the same friend has been talking about me behind my back, saying my breasts were…not appropriately covered. Too much cleavage. Spilling out all over. I was deeply hurt to hear this. And yet, after much personal rumination, I realized that it was her shit, not mine. She’s Envious.

And, in fact, what my “yoga friend” did to me is the kind of cruel thing that girls started to do to me in middle-school—abating their own envy of my cleavage by ridiculing me and thereby attempting to make themselves feel better.

Sadly, women continue with this childish behavior long after they leave grade-school.  And they do so because they haven’t been given the tools to learn to feel good about themselves—the tools that I am so grateful to have learned at yoga.

***

I’ve done a lot of work on myself, to step out of the constant boomerang of expectations from society. I’ve spent time ruminating on how exactly I’ve accomplished finding some modicum of peace, especially in light of the many painful and confusing exchanges I’ve been subjected to since my way-too-early adolescence.

It pressing now because I’ve realized that now my hard-won confidence attracts people to me, not just my big boobs.

Here’s a story about this:

A mentee sits in front of me. She’s already let me know that part of her selection process involved the fact that I have big breasts and my apparent confidence. I feel her Longing and Envy. I feel her angst.

As I’ve been taught, great teaching involves getting super-real with your students. Allow them to see your authentic self, mind, body, and emotions. The mentee before me needs to allow herself to be seen in class when she’s teaching. But, like me, her whole life, she’s received the message that she’s too much—too tall, to talkative, too big.  She’s learned to hide out, to shrink in her own skin.

I’m listening to her, and trying to figure out how to distill fifteen years of my own life experience into one swift sound-byte.

How does one allow their spirit to be seen, when the body, and the breasts specifically, are at once coveted (big breasts are attractive!) and reviled (but not too big—we don’t make clothing for you), and envied (your boobs were hanging out all over! But, I really secretly want them)?

And, I realized—it’s not possible to make that one “tweetable” statement, and have it be really true.

As I talk to her I feel disappointed that she did not learn the lessons about body acceptance that I did. I’m disappointed in our yoga culture that has developed such a double standard, when it should be a welcoming, inclusive place.

I also feel bewildered about how is it exactly that I learned what I did at yoga, and she has not? A friend I recently spoke with suggested it’s because we started yoga “way back” when it was a fad among hippies, and not so mainstream. I wondered if it’s because I do Forrest Yoga, and Ana deals directly with trauma of all kinds. Maybe it’s a little bit of both?

I thought that yoga was supposed to teach us about the enduring quality of our spirit, the temporality and insignificance of the corporeal body, and to see that this world is an illusion created by our minds, desires, and suffering.

And instead, “mainstream” yoga culture seems to be aligning itself more and more with popular culture, as a mutation of what’s trendy with even more ugly yoga-specific perversions and compulsions for sweating excessively, “cleansing,” and expensive fashion.

This big-breasted yogi learned how to accept the body for what it is, using the tools that she learned at yoga.

The peace I found was found on the mat. I want that experience for everyone—because no one is exempt from body image issues, whether a woman focused on their breasts, or height, or weight, or age, or lack of hair, or too much hair, or a man focused on the size of his chest, and biceps, and amount of hair on his head.

I’ve noticed that calls for inclusion do little—the magazines keep publishing the same stuff, and for the most part, the clothing manufactures keep making the same stuff, and we keep dialogues about body image, breasts, contradictions, envy, etc. all hushed.

It seems that the answer is as it always is—to look deep inside and to do the work ourselves, and to become a beacon for others around us. To talk about it. Which is why I’m doing this here.

Brené Brown says the path away from shame is first to acknowledge that you are not alone, then to demystify, then to share what you’ve learned.

Sisters, you are not alone. Let’s talk.

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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons

Photo: elephant archives

 

Bonus:

Erica Mather

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