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With summer upon us, I am bracing myself for the slew of “bikini body” posts, fad diets, and general toxic diet culture and fat-shaming messages that have become prevalent in health and wellness. Typically these feature white, thin, cis-gendered, able-bodied people, held up as an unattainable ideal that the rest of us should all strive toward. When diversity is included it’s often a thin, able-bodied, BIPOC women—which can feel tokenistic, instead of intersectional or inclusive.
There’s a reason for this, of course. This narrative sells. Yoga, like anything else, has passed through the lens of the dominant culture, says Melanie Klein MA, a professor of gender studies, empowerment coach, thought leader, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. As a result, yoga has become a cultural commodity. “Yoga bodies” are used to sell everything from mats and apparel to cars, tampons, and holiday destinations. Bodies that are lithe and flexible have become symbols of perceived or assumed health, vitality, and youth, says Klein.
That’s a problem, because women who don’t fit this rigidly narrow Western beauty ideal often feel shame about themselves and their bodies. Many go on restrictive and unhealthy diets. Some believe that if they don’t match the ideal seen on social media—an ideal that is rooted in racism and the patriarchy—that yoga isn’t for them.
“Diet culture within the yoga industry does a huge disservice to what yoga is” says Aisha Nash, a yoga teacher and anti-diet culture activist. “When yoga is turned into a 60-minute fitness class, it strips away any spirituality and instead makes this multifaceted and complex philosophy about ways to conform to a western body ideal,” says Nash.
But there’s an alternative: We can push back against fat shaming and diet culture in yoga, decolonize our practice, accept ourselves and our bodies as they are, and create spaces that are more equitable for all people, no matter their size or shape.
Fat shaming in yoga spaces
Dianne Bondy is a yoga teacher and body-positive social justice activist who has been teaching for the past three decades. She was one of the pioneers of the body positivity movement in yoga, creating Yoga for All as a platform for change and diversity in 2011. And she experienced fat shaming, toxic dieting, and inaccessible beauty standards firsthand.
In 2007, Bondy moved her home yoga practice to studio spaces. She was immediately bombarded with images of hyperflexible, thin, non-disabled, white women in acrobatic poses. “Mainstream yoga looked like a function of fashion, capitalism, and beauty instead of a spiritual practice of community and self-awareness,” says Bondy, a Black woman in a bigger body. The message was clear, says Bondy: Thin, able-bodied people were good—and all other bodies needed to change.
Bondy says she saw teachers and studio owners pushing fad diets and master cleanses. Some used ahimsa (non-violence) to shame people for their dietary choices. “[I heard things like] ‘If you are not a vegan or not water fasting at least once a week, then you are not truly doing yoga,” says Bondy, who expanded Yoga for All into Yoga For Everyone, which is both a bestselling book and a digital platform where people of diverse abilities, sizes, and cultures share accessible and equitable asana practices.
How to resist toxic diet culture
In modern mainstream yoga, there’s so much focus on the physical postures, says Klein. “Our bodies are scrutinized for which poses they can attain. They’re fetishized for how they look in tight yoga leggings and crop tops,” she says.
The first step in changing this message is to get media literate and curious. When you see ads or posts featuring idealized bodies, dig below the surface and ask questions, says Klein. Who created this message? Why? Who profits? Who is represented and who is left out? Asking these questions can be enough to remind you that you’re being presented with an unattainable ideal. Limit your exposure to this type of media.
Next, practice accepting where you and your body are at in this moment, says Klein. Deeply listen to what your and your body need right now, as opposed to what you think is expected of it. Western culture encourages us to push through pain, work harder and longer no matter what your body may actually need.
Lastly, resist and challenge fat shaming, body snarking, and toxic diet culture when you encounter them. Tune out any messages telling you what your body should look like, how it should perform, what it should weigh, and what it should or shouldn’t eat.
Embracing your body and your practice
If you’re practicing yoga in a body that is larger or that has physical challenges or disabilities, there are easy ways to make your practice more accessible, says Bondy.
- Find a style of yoga or movement class that you enjoy and a teacher that can adapt the modality to fit your skill level. Your yoga can be a mindful walk, dancing in your kitchen, or just intentionally moving with your breath
- When you’re practicing in a studio with others, don’t make comparisons. Start slow. Challenge yourself when you are ready and step back when you’re not. Rest and take breaks when you need to.
- Practice self-care. Set boundaries in your life so that you can feel good, rested, and connected instead of burnt out or resentful.
- Listen to your body. Notice if you are out of breath, or feel pain when you exit a pose. Don’t push if something feels painful or not accessible in your body. Adjust the posture. Playing with props and variations can bring fun and creativity to your practice.
- Challenge yourself for the right reasons. Intentional movement keeps your body strong and healthy. Doing difficult things—like lifting weights, running up a hill to maintain cardiovascular health, or having tough conversations—reminds you that you can do hard things. “You’re challenging your body, your mind, or your spirit to get stronger, and that’s OK,” says Bondy.
About the Author
Anusha Wijeyakumar is a Wellness Consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention. Sign up for our 4-week workshop, Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita. Outside+ members get 50% off this on-demand course. They also get access to our complete archive, from exclusive sequences and meditations to full-length profiles of yoga luminaries. Not a member? There’s never been a better time to sign up.