Not Collapsing into Sameness, Part Two

July 29, 2015

The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is committed to building conscious community and highlighting the work that inspiring yogis are doing in their local communities and beyond. We’re pleased to share with you a three part piece written by Yoga and Body Image Coalition’s active partner, Beth Berila. 

Part 2 of 3

To say that a single story is dangerous is not to invalidate the value of those stories that we do hear.  Just because someone fits the standard of beauty or lands a magazine cover does not mean that their story doesn’t count. The point here is not to replace one system of exclusion with another, but rather to reshape the system entirely.

Photo credit: cuellar / Foter / CC BY-NC
Photo credit: cuellar / Foter / CC BY-NC

At the same time, to say that this single picture harms everyone is NOT to say that it harms everyone in the same way or to the same degree. People who inhabit identities that are marginalized in society are deeply hurt in other ways. Let me be clear that we are not just talking about beauty here. We are talking about our very sense of who is deemed worthy in society. We are talking about how different bodies are marked and treated unequally in society.  It goes well beyond beauty to culturally constructed standards about who counts. That hierarchy both reflects and perpetuates power dynamics throughout society.

What happens when we don’t see ourselves represented at all, or when we see ourselves represented in harmful ways?  If people like us are absent in the media, then it becomes hard to imagine ourselves as leaders, changemakers, and yes, even yogis.  Many women of color have talked about the deeply insidious harm this absence does to the sense of self for young girls of color. Lupita N’yongo tells this all-too-common story.  She describes her own experience as a child who grew up perceiving darkness to be incompatable with beauty and worth because she did not see it represented anywhere in the media.  Eventually the growing presence of beautiful, dark-skinned models in the media began to chip away at her deeply held internalized oppression. N’yongo’s presence in substantive roles in Hollywood has also helped to change this erasure in the media, but there is still a long way to go.

Photo credit: marketing deluxe / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: marketing deluxe / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Yoga media is not immune from this pattern. Until recently, few yogis of color have graced their pages. This absence is particularly revealing given yoga’s roots in India.  The erasure of Indians or South Asian Americans in the mainstream Western yoga world raises critical questions about cultural appropriation, authenticity, and visibility.  The organization South Asian Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) is addressing the impact of this absence. What strikes me, as I watch the videos on SAPPYA’s website (and others), is not just the insightful analysis they offer but also the deep pain of the erasure that is clear in their voices. Pain like this has been expressed, over and over again, by many marginalized groups throughout history.

 

Perhaps worse than total absence is that when people who do not fit this narrow picture are present, they are often represented in deeply harmful ways.  So, women of color who are included in the media are often light skinned and fairly close to the white standard of beauty I described above, which can intensify the color line in communities of color. Or, if they are dark skinned, they are likely to be hyper-exotified, which reinforces racialized sterotypes.

gabourey-sidibe-photoshop-450-thumb-450x300-764251
Gabourey Sidibe Elle Magazine, Sept. 2010

And here’s the real rub of these images.  It is NEVER just about beauty.  It is NEVER just about pictures. In a media saturated culture, these images both reflect and perpetuate our ideas about one another. And so these representations perpetuate harmful messages about marginalized communities. Make no mistake. The bodies that are either absent or stereotyped in our media are also marginalized in society. They are the black men who are racially profiled, often in deadly ways. They are body shamed and body policed because they are not a size 4.  They are gender policed and often targeted with violence because they do not conform to traditional gender normative standards.  They are infantilized because people make assumptions about their disability. While media does not single handedly produce this violence, it certainly perpetuates the single story that informs and enables this oppression.

And it degrades our humanity. Yoga is about connection, union, liberation, and justice.  That is not possible when we dehumanize one another. One way we can work against this dehumanization is to notice our own social location. Begin to examine how we are privileged and how we are not. Begin to question who is represented in the media and who is absent. Whose stories are included and whose are erased? What is the effect of that single picture on people in our communities?

As a white, middle class, cisgendered, Queer, Western woman, there are many ways in which I am not targeted in this society.  While I still do not feel represented by that single picture or single story told in the media, there are, nevertheless, many ways in which I receive privileges from it.  I do not want these privileges, but they are nevertheless granted to me and denied to others people in my community. For instance, I am not a Black woman who needs to worry about whether her Black son will survive the day or whether her Black daughter will see herself reflected in powerful and nuanced ways in media. I am not an Asian American woman who watched her peers use skin lightener cream or consider getting surgery on their eyelids because they have been taught to devalue their culture and their features.  I am not a woman of Indian descent who knows yoga came from Hindu culture but sees few Indian people represented in mainstream U.S. yoga culture and often sees Hindu symbols and concepts misunderstood by the White Western yoga teachers who use them.  I am not a transgender or genderqueer person who gets up the courage to go to a mainstream yoga class only to get gender policed when trying to change in the studio bathroom. These—and many other similar examples—are common, lived experiences of people who are typically not represented in our mainstream yoga media. The absences of their stories is one reason many feel unwelcome in yoga spaces.

So part of creating more welcoming spaces is to broaden stories we include.

When we broaden our lens to include multiple, different stories, our understanding of one another changes.  If we are authentically listening to stories that are different from our own, whatever those stories may be, we change. Our relationships to one another changes. And ultimately, our society changes for the better.

 

Please read part one of this post: The Danger of a Single Picture and look for part three: Seeing Multiple Pictures and Perspectives

 

Bio: Beth Berila is the Director of the Women’s Studies Program and a Professor in the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University.  She is also a member of the leadership team of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Her book, Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education, is forthcoming from Routledge in Fall, 2015. Learn more about her work at http://www.bethberila.com

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