The Danger of a Single Picture, Part One

July 27, 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 1 of 3

We have heard the cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  My title refers to the powerful Ted talk by the brilliant feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she describes growing up inundated with a single portrayal of whiteness and blackness. This narrow portrayal infused literature and society with a deeply incomplete and biased picture of people. The result was that people misjudged her and she misjudged others, often along racialized lines. This single story prevented truly connecting with and understanding one another. It also both reflected and perpetuated the marginalization of people of color in the world.

This single story has shaped much U.S. popular culture, including yoga magazines. Many recent conversations have addressed this narrow image of a yogi. I am delighted to see these discussions progressing. What I want to discuss here is the media portrayal.

For years I have looked at magazines on newsstands and seen one basic picture of women: thin, white, flawless, athletic but not “too” muscled, sexy, happy, presumably heterosexual, and, given the advertisements surrounding these pictures, presumably wealthy. Many of the images I have seen in mainstream yoga media are no different, except that they frame these portrayals in language of wellness and wholeness.

Open most popular yoga magazines over the past 5 years and you will find similarly narrow portrayals. Yoga media often sends the messages that to be a yogi, one needs to be this same type of body, maybe even the same type of person. And like many magazines, they will sell you the products that promise to get you there.

magazine
Photo credit: Janitors / Foter / CC BY

If we fit that stereotypical image of a “beautiful” yogi, then we will likely be rewarded by the system. We may grace the covers of those magazines, land coveted ads or corporate sponsors, be invited to be keynote speakers at conferences, or snag other prominent and profitable stints. These are ways for yoga teachers to make a living. They are also ways that people who fit that standard are privileged by it.

But likely even those who are rewarded for fitting those beauty standards often feel like they are not good enough. That’s the insidious nature of the single, distorted picture. No one fits it, because it is both artificial and unattainable. This image is photoshopped and airbrushed, so we will all inevitably fail. Even those people who are close to it often internalize deeply harmful messages about themselves that rear their ugly head in eating disorders, low self-esteem, and other harmful ways.  The fact is that this harmful, single picture harms EVERYONE, which means we ALL have an incentive to change it.

Watch for part two of this post: Not Collapsing into Sameness and part three: Seeing Multiple Pictures and Perspectives

“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.”

 

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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