This week, I was inspired to write about identity, privilege, allyship and inclusion. These are very weighty topics with no short answer and no quick fix, which is probably part of the reason why it came out three days later than planned ...
Here's what inspired me to want to start this conversation: twice last week I was asked something to the effect of "I consider myself body positive and I want to support a body positive practice; however, I feel unsure of how to communicate that message to people because I have thin privilege and don't want to offend those who feel marginalized by their size." This got me thinking about thin privilege and identity and issues of inclusion, entangling myself further and further into this web. Then, at this past weekend's Yoga Teacher Training module about creating community, we more thoroughly explored these ideas of privilege and inclusivity from just about every angle we could imagine. This only sent me further down the rabbit hole. Now, it's Thursday night and I am still all wrapped up in these concepts. I've spent every night since Monday adding and editing in an effort to sort out my thoughts, but they just keep spinning. I have resisted putting this to paper and publishing it all week long because I know that this is incomplete. I don't have the answer and I wish that I did. I could type for a year and I still wouldn't be there; however, you're reading this now because the crux of the issue doesn't lie in the solution, but in the discussion. Consequently, I chose to publish this to start a dialogue. I KNOW that the solutions we seek in response to life's biggest problems never dwell in the realms of ignorance or complacency, so I'm looking to shine a light on some of our shadows.
Let's start breaking this down: what the heck is privilege? At its simplest definition, privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Types of identity that can afford you privilege might include: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, country of origin, language, and/or ability. If you want to understand more about privilege and see how privileged you are, spend a few minutes watching this video and taking this eye-opening quiz. Recognizing your privilege does not mean that you are immune to hardships, but it does mean that you recognize that you have, in some ways, an unearned advantage in society by nature of your identity - a sort of head start over other people who don't share that identity.
I think that people ask me so often about privilege because it's really really complex and we don't want to trigger people or hurt people's feelings when we're trying to understand an experience that's not our own. This is the shortcoming of "safe spaces". Well-meaning people call for safe spaces so that people can engage with one another with sensitivity, honesty, and respect. This is incredibly important, but where is there room to ask questions and gain a new understanding from less privileged perspectives without, possibly, offending or risking being unkind to another person? These complex issues cut deep to the core of our paradigms and morals and so often move from polite to provocative, which can create feelings of unease. As a result, when faced with challenge in a safe space people may discount, deflect, or retreat in an effort to preserve the aforementioned safety of the space. But, isn't comfort the problem? If we all remained comfortable, how would we really create change? Disruption is a requirement for change and why would we break apart what we don't consider to be broken in the first place?
The first step in undermining systems of oppression is to refuse to live with unchecked privilege. Simply by reflecting and challenging our privileges, and working to change the system of discrimination through direct discussion, we can help shift the status quo. Being open to acknowledging, critiquing, and accepting my own privilege hasn’t been comfortable. It didn't happen all at once and it's not a process that you complete. Thinking about privilege is an ongoing exercise. It’s something that has become part of my daily consciousness and one of the lenses with which I see the world. I am constantly learning to challenge my position in the world and understand the power imbalances that I am a part of. As an example, to write this blog post, I recognize the many ways that I am privileged (white, highly educated, employed, heterosexual ...) and the ways that I am oppressed (a fat woman, from divorced parents, with an invisible disability, who took out a student loan for University, who has lived below the poverty line ...). My privilege is the platform with which I stand to write this blog. In doing so, I uplift the voice of the oppressed as a privileged person, while, at the same time, it is my oppression that contributes to my sense of empathy.
When someone is brave enough to share their experiences of oppression with you, there is really only one appropriate reaction: LISTEN! Instead of responding defensively or with anger, the best thing you can do from your place of privilege, is open your ears and your heart. Your activism and alliance is incomplete if it leaves even one single person out. You don't get to tell someone they aren't oppressed. Their feeling of subjugation is enough to warrant the oppression. You can't understand privilege for some identities and discount the experiences of other oppressed people. And you can't just claim yourself to be an ally. To be an ally is a lifelong, active process. Participating bravely in these discussions means you know you are never going to be perfect and the only tool we really have, as individuals, is our ability and willingness to listen when someone is generous enough to educate you about their lived experience, Listen with trust, accountability, and consistency.
Yoga teaches us to hold space for discomfort. To create change, it's important that we don't just think about privilege or read about it. We need to intentionally set-aside time to uncover our privilege through the voices of those who feel marginalized and then work to align our values with our actions. In the example that led me down this winding road, - the one of a yoga teacher striving to create an environment of body positivity - you could educate yourself on ways that you can make your marketing, language, choice of asana, and communities with which you practice accessible to and a celebration of all body types. You don't have to identify as someone living in a marginalized body in order to be an ally to those who do; however, as a thin person, your solidarity is incomplete without the recognition of your privilege. By recognizing this inherent head start in the world, you can hold space for people to share with you how their historical experiences in a yoga studio (and the world) made them feel as though this wasn't a space for them. Without this perspective, your class may take for granted that all bodies walk into the room with a certain amount of flexibility, stamina, strength, and a particular relationship to their body that aligns with your perspectives and experiences of the world. As a result, people in bodies that aren't like yours, who don't share your experiences, get left behind. While it is vital that we seek out and acknowledge the lived experiences of those who feel marginalized, we then need to take this new knowledge and actually DO better. Align your actions with your values.
Challenge yourself everyday to get uncomfortable. Read, watch, and interact with people and experiences that threaten to shake up what you think is true about the world. Only by seeing and hearing as many things as possible can you really have any understanding at all about what's going on in the world. Just like our yoga practice, aim for imperfection because with each new level of understanding comes a new and challenging perspective. It's never comfortable and this is the intention.
This is the practice.
Size acceptance. Fat activism. Positive body image. Self-esteem. Self-love. Self-acceptance. Body positivity. I live here now. It's taken me a long time, but I have citizenship now in the Nation of Bopo and I catch myself taking it for granted that not everyone lives here. For some, they're just visiting. For others, they're shipwrecked, but maybe they can see our welcoming shores. Some people are at war with this Nation, but we're a feisty bunch and we hold as steadfast to our beliefs as we do to one another. Some people don't have a clue that Bopo even exists. Today, let me name myself Ambassador and take you on a brief tour of this diverse and magical place ...
Here's an example of what I mean when I say that I take my body positivity for granted: a friend came over today and was trying on some clothes of mine to borrow before leaving for vacation tomorrow. Running from room to room in my house, becoming increasingly frustrated, she finally asked, "Don't you have any effective mirrors in this house!?". Funny, eh? I really don't. There's a little vanity mirror in the bathroom, one on the medicine cabinet, and then this sliver of a full-length mirror on this sliver of a wall in my bedroom. The sliver mirror is especially useless though. It's a wavy design and, because of the door and the slant in the roof, you really can't see yourself well in it at all. Why haven't I noticed this mirror deficit? She wanted to know. "I guess I just go with how I feel instead of how I look", I answered honestly. We blinked at each other in the silence then. She in her boat, one foot tentatively on my island. Me standing proudly in Bopo Nation, but without any judgement or superiority. Then, we just went about sorting through clothes and chatting about life; she from her boat and me from my island. In moments like these I am grateful for my practice because what was once hard work through avoidance, comparison, assumptions, acceptance, and back again, has become so comfortable. That's what it feels like in the Nation of Bopo: comfort. Comfort to just be. Comfort to allow others to be as well, even if their being looks, sounds, or feels much different than yours.
Here's why this blog is entitled "Let's start at the very beginning ...": your self-image is the lens with which you define yourself and see the world around you. Deeper than "body positivity" - a term, unfortunately, being coopted by the very powers that be that this movement was created to rebel AGAINST! - a positive self-image isn't necessarily about being positive about your body all the time. It's about weeding out external imagery and rhetoric defining what a "good body" is (and, by default, what a "bad body" is) to discover what you believe about yourself. You don't have to always feel positive about your body to be body positive. Body positivity began as an inclusive movement to promote the right to exist and participate regardless of the body you're in. That includes the right to have a full spectrum of feelings about your body. In fact, I might argue, that this exploration is necessary to start to unpack what you REALLY believe. Positive or negative, how have you come to integrate these feelings about yourself with the messages you're getting from others in your life and from the wider world around you? What do you like about your body? Can you start to notice those thing more? Can you waive the white flag when it comes to you vs. your body? Your body is made up of tissues that respond to stimulus ... it's not out to get you. What lies at the heart of your body issues? (Psssst ... the answer is not your body)! Can you root out the emotion that is at the heart of this symptom? Who can you rely on for support down the rabbit hole? Can you define for yourself what beauty is? Can you start to see beauty in all its forms - in nature, in art, in architecture? Can you recognize the diversity of all of the things that you define as "beautiful? Can you start to practice gratitude to your body for what it can do and what you do have?
As an internal practice, body positivity is a reclamation of our right to define ourselves.
Slowly, gradually, on the long and winding personal journey towards body positivity, we start to see ourselves differently and, as a result, start to see the world differently. In Bopo Nation, we can all eat, watch, wear, date, say, and do whatever we'd like bravely and unapologetically. Here, we understand that all bodies are worthy of love, of expression, and of taking up space. There are no "after" bodies. All bodies are valued, just as they are, as people. As a result, we all get to live life to its fullest. We each have equal potential and the possibilities are endless.
Like I said, it's a pretty magical place.
Now what do we self-loving, body accepting humans do with all this possibility? You've made it to Bopo Nation and you want to see the sights! Here's the map: you START within, at the very beginning, with your personal work towards body neutrality and, eventually, maybe, most days, body positivity. Give yourself permission to shift your mindset gradually with dedication, patience, and persistent practice. Then, like most practices, expect to cycle back to the same old shit over and over again each time your lens becomes clearer. From this place of body positivity, we find ourselves making room in our hearts for the individual experiences of those around us. Start to blur the lines between inner self-love and just love.
Now, you'll see what the locals know: Bopo Nation isn't really about body acceptance or body love at all. Well, it is, but that's only half of the journey. Fuck the idea that "all bodies are good bodies" and embrace the PEOPLE - the individual right of every single human being to exist and participate in the world and be seen as equal to every other other human being. THAT'S BODY POSITIVITY!!! Not my fat body as valuable as your skinny body. Body positivity isn't measured by my waistline, but my whole body (physical form, mind, heart, and actions) as valuable as your whole body. The body positivity movement has laid the foundation for pushing back against the oppression by rebelling against the claims that certain bodies have more value than others and look at how far we've come. Now, we can use those same pathways and push back against racism, ablism, discrimination, societal gendering, sexism, and all the other oppressive hierarchies designed to benefit few on the backs of many.
That's the magic of body positivity. That's radical change. That's our birthright and that will be our legacy.
It’s time. I’ve thought about it a dozen times before ... maybe even started composing notes and jotting some potential outlines ... but, 2018 is it: this is the year that I’m creating (and committing to) a blog.
Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a “New Year’s Resolution” - though it is a new year and I am resolving to this project - but, I’m not a “New Year’s Resolution” kind of gal (shocking, I know). I simply want to make space in my life to create this very casual written account of things I think and teach.
So, why now?
I’ve always been a writer. I love to express through words. Writing helps me sort my thoughts, which has this funny way of creating space in my head for more thoughts and connections. Also, my baby girl is a year old now and in daycare several days a week, my business is well-employed and running on processes and policies more-or-less whether I am there or not, and I have more and more solo time to focus on work and creative pursuits. Now feels like a good time to take on this project because I feel like I have a lot to say that is of value to people. Living my lifestyle, I think I’ve been taking that for granted. I’ve been teaching yoga full-time for eight years and I’ve owned a yoga studio for seven; however, it wasn’t until I assisted with a Yoga Teacher Training last year that I felt affirmed and fulfilled as a seasoned teacher and business owner. Bolstered by these experiences, I have been sharing more and more and I find that it is always so warmly and heartily received by this community. It is such an honour to share this work and have my interpretations and understandings resonate for someone else.
Want to know what scares me about this endeavour?
It scares me that I’ll have to forgo my perfectionist tendencies and share pieces that will, inevitably, be riddled with spelling errors, run-on-sentences, misused semi-colons, and much much more. I don’t have an editor - it’s not in the budget and I won’t be able to publish weekly and do all the other things I need to do (like shower) if I am combing through each entry over and over again. So, let’s manage some expectations: if you’re going to read these nuggets of wisdom, you’ll likely need to ignore some of my spelling and grammar faux pas. It also scares the sh*t out of me that these thoughts will sit here. Frozen thoughts stuck to a page getting more and more stale and outdated with each new peer reviewed study published. Plastered here in plain sight of anyone who wants to review and critique every single sentence. If is started this eight years ago, I’m sure I’d be looking back on the first entries and cringing, but hey, that’s life. When we know better, we do better. While I could look at it from the perspective of how little I knew then, instead I’ll consider this blog like a time capsule. Of course my thoughts will change as my training, practice, experiences, and understandings evolve. That’s life!
So, here goes. If you’re interested in receiving my occasional blogs to your email you’re welcome to subscribe to have them delivered here. Otherwise, I’ll be posting them right here on my website for you to read at your leisure.
Let’s do this thing.