There’s been a backlash lately against the images of perfectly toned bodies that are used to represent yoga in the media. This is important– yoga is for everybody and people of all ages, sizes, ethnicities and sexual identities should see themselves reflected in yoga imagery. But are we at risk of replacing the idolization of one body type (young, skinny, white) with the objectification of all yoga bodies?
While more and more yogis are becoming aware of the need for greater diversity, the conversation is still caught up in the mainstream beauty paradigm. We might be celebrating a wider definition of beauty, but the conversation is still about beauty.
Beauty has long been commodified in mainstream culture and a multi billion dollar industry is dedicated to creating and satisfying demand for products that help us conform to beauty conventions. Aspirational beauty infiltrates our media, consumer choices and consciousness. But growing media literacy has seen a backlash against narrow and limiting beauty ‘norms’, forcing marketing departments to come up with a new strategy. And it’s pure genius.
Rather than trying to make all women conform to a single beauty ideal, the beauty industry is now celebrating a wider range of female bodies. Nowadays you don’t have to live up to out-dated beauty standards. All you need to do is be your ‘best self’ and shine within the body-type category that you identify with. Hooray!
You don’t have to be rail thin any more. You just have to be the sexiest plus-size girl in the room. You don’t have to look 20 years younger. You just have to look hot for your age. The skincare brand Dove nailed this new approach in their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. By portraying a diverse range of female bodies in the campaign, Dove not only drowned out critics who might accuse it of creating impossible standards of beauty, it also increased it’s potential market. All the while, keeping beauty at the top of every woman’s agenda. Genius.
Is the yoga industry doing the same thing? Are we rejecting the idealized image of the thin/young/white yogi and embracing the beauty of different body types without changing the conversation about beauty itself?
I’m stoked that so many yogis are rejecting the notion that the ideal yogi looks a certain way. I’m delighted that we are calling on students to consider their internal landscapes as well as their external appearance. But ‘beauty’ still seems to be front and centre in the language and imagery of modern yoga.
Whether it’s a thin young woman or a larger older woman, we’re still holding up the female body as a thing to be looked at. And this is how women have always been portrayed – an object to be looked at rather than a complex human with thoughts and feelings that demand to be engaged with.
Extending the definition of beauty doesn’t change the objectification at the heart of these images. Thanks to those Dove adverts, you now get to stare at a bunch of differently bodied women in their underwear, not just the skinny ones. Is that a step forward? Or would it be more helpful to tell women it's OK to keep their kit on and be noticed for something OTHER than their bodies?
If beauty is a worthy attribute for yogis, why isn’t this language applied to men too? I haven't noticed too many images on Instagram of large bodied/older men in complicated asanas, pointing out how beautiful they are despite defying mainstream conventions. Nobody posts photos of men doing lotus pose in their undies with text explaining that they are beautiful on the inside.
The yoga industry is generating countless images of women’s bodies for public consumption without questioning why the body is still considered to be the most important thing about a woman. Beauty is a powerful, and controlling, concept in the lives of many women. Like reading, writing and arithmetic, beauty is a subject that little girls study carefully in order to get on in life. Even if we diversify our notion of beauty, we still saddle women with the idea that they should aspire to be being beautiful. It’s time to change the conversation. Beauty does not have to be our highest aspiration. It doesn’t even have to be on the wish-list. Let it go.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.