Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Selling Yoga; The Trends that Define our Culture

Body Image issues. It's an old story really. Lately there's been a lot of talk about how women are used by the media to sell yoga (svasti's awesome post and Roseanne's discussion). A post over at "Eat the damn cake" reminded me that this is so much more than warping a spiritual practice into something marketable. It's an example of a media and social epidemic that yoga is definitely not immune.

As Kate reminded me over at "Eat the damn cake", brides are hyper targeted when it comes to the beauty industry. Most images of brides online are perfectly shaped, proportioned and flawlessly beautiful. There's unending talk of "being a princess on your special day", makeup choices, hair choices, facials and such bullsh*t. I have been feeling the pressure. Usually I never agonize about makeup, but lately I've been considering paying for a trial makeup run. You know, for my perfect day. gag.

This discussion around Tara Stiles and the Toesox ad really is indicative of a very important and relevant societal norm that has been chipping away at 50% of the North American population since the advent of popular advertising. Instead of focusing on the narrow category of Yoga, we should be looking at why the use of women as objects in the media is effective.

The advertising industry is a billion dollar industry for a reason; it works. By showing us images of a unrealistic beauty ideal, the media helps support a population of women and young girls who are not happy with how they look. This ideal has changed over the past 100 years, from the flat chested flappers in the 30's, to the voluptuous size 15 Marilyn Monroe to shift from Twiggy thin to Barbie boob-waste ratio. The point is that there really isn't all that much research out there supporting the current beauty "ideal" as some genetic driving force. (most evolutionary psychology studies are shaky at best when it comes to supporting the big boobs-small waste= cave man natural selection theory).

 Although I don't shop at Body Shop (ew chemicals) I love this ad.

The majority, if not all, of female oriented activities and hobbies are inundated with media manipulation and beauty ideal messages. This includes currently perceived physical activities such as ballet and gymnastics. You don't see a lot of thin, waif-like female hockey player messages... because hockey still fits in the acceptable "male" sport.

The fact that yoga is now being co-opted by large advertising corporations and used in such a disgusting manner is just another piece of the media and body image culture of malcontent that all women in North America experience. Because Yoga is, for the most part, a female dominated activity here in Canada and the US, and the advertising industry knows it.

You don't think you're influenced by ads, you say? Well, lets just assume that a billion dollar industry really has invested poorly. We see on average hundreds of ads in our day, with a large proportion having messages on beauty. My generation has grown up on television ads and have had clear messages on what girls and women should and shouldn't look like from an extremely young age.

According to the National Eating Disorders Information Centre (NEDIC), 37% of grade 9 and 40% of grade 10 girls considered themselves too fat, this during a time when most girls are going through puberty with their bodies changing naturally and in a healthy manner (Boyce, King, Roy 2008). More than 50% of girls and 33% of boys engaged in unhealthy weight control behaviour (binge eating, laxatives, skipping meals, vomiting etc) as found in a national study of 5000 teens (Project EAT).

This ad not only comments on trying to stave off aging... a natural beautiful part of life, but shows a thin, obviously young to start with model. Which we can't see her head. But wait, is it really a human being??? or..... a mannequin. Not even human at all. So besides the unrealistic ideal, cutting off the head, we have a plastic, fake ideal to live up to. Awesome.

10 women to every man is diagnosed with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality (10%) of all psychiatric disorders. Body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight management have been found to predict later physical and mental health difficulties including both weight gain and/or eating disorders (La Grange & Loeb 2007). (please check out NEDIC for more information).
American Apparel ad... not only using body parts to sell clothing (that we can barely see I might add), but these girls look young. Most American Apparel models are sexualized and extremely young looking.
What Tara Stiles ad for "Slim Calm Sexy Yoga" follows is a basic trend in the media to propagate a feeling of unease and unhealth towards our bodies and our eating habits. Have you noticed an increase in "yoga enhancing vitamins" lately? Like a synthetic boost for our physical practice is really the point of yoga. Tara's book, like other damaging media advertising, has a basic message:

- Everyone can be thin if you just try hard enough (which is genetically false)
- Only thin female bodies are beautiful and attractive (so not true)
- If you're thin you'll be happy, confident, successful and healthy (I know a lot of thin and unhealthy, unhappy women and a lot of confident, voluptuous healthy happy women... how about you? Are only the thin women you know happy and healthy?).
- You can't and *shouldn't* be happy with yourself until you physically externally meet the ideal.

Instead of an assault towards Yoga itself, we can use it as a wake up call to say "enough!".

How can we support a more healthy and positive approach to how women are used in the media?
  • Instead of commenting on how great someone looks now that they've lost weight, comment on something permanent about their appearance. Like their beautiful eyes, hair, etc.
  • Don't ignore negative comments with regards to body shape or size. It's just not cool.
  • Support companies that promote healthy body image ideals... and let other companies know that you're not supporting their product due to their marketing. Write a letter. This includes writing a letter to Lululemon asking why they don't use models of "regular" women.
  • Write Women's Health denouncing their support of an obviously unhealthy product.

Finally, take a step back and critically look at how women are used to sell objects in the media. What message does a female headless torso send to young girls about their growing body as an object? Celebrate your beauty and your yoga practice. Without competition and with self-love.

I'm taking a cue from Eat the damn cake and finishing with an "unroast":

I love how practicing yoga makes me feel calm and grounded. Regardless of what I'm wearing or how "well" I practiced.

What's your Yoga unroast?

article copyright of EcoYogini at ecoyogini.blogspot.com


  1. Wonderfully put and definitely a post to get us all thinking again. Even knowing a lot of this stuff, it's still nice to have a refresher and I found myself wondering how frequently I let ads influence me....do I work out for me and how it makes me feel or to attempt to fit some "image"? Probably mostly the first and slightly the later. If only, advertising didn't exist and even then if only we would have realistic expectations of ourselves. I wish more of the overall focus would be on HEALTH and less on image---maybe one day society will get there.....

  2. GREAT post. its funny, i was thinking the other day about how my favorite yoga teacher is a gorgeous full figured diva named wren - she has the most welcoming voice, is great at doing adjustments to get you into the right posture, and just in being who she is makes us all so much less conscious of our bodies so we can just be comfortable and focus on our breath.

    body image follows us. when i was married, the first year i'd found an email that my then-husband had written to someone in frustration of me, saying 'i hate my fat wife' about my size 10 self. that was 10 years ago and it still makes me nauseous at the memory.

  3. Great post! Yup, you're right indeed, it's not only about yoga, it's also the use of women in adds, which we have been fed for ages now. And this is oh so wrong!
    My yoga uproar is in my last post, also inspired by this yoga fail...

  4. I am thin. Naturally thin. I don't really have to think too much about it anymore. People may be envious but here's the thing.

    For reasons I'm not going into I used to be super thin. Dangerously thin. In hospital having a blood transfusion thin. And I wasn't even this coveted size double 0 that this Stiles woman is so obsessed with.

    Believe me people thin does not equate to healthy or beautiful. I look back on photos of me from 5 years ago and think "who is this skeletal freak".... because you see I've not been photoshopped.

    The thing that makes me so angry about all of this is it is so unbelievably triggering to disordered eating issues. Any blog, book or magazine that constantly advocates weight loss is triggering to more people than it is helpful to. They need to do damn studies into this.

    And yet... and yet... we have an obesity problem. We need to seriously define those who have to lose weight or their health will suffer and those who are just fine as they are.

    Now before my brain explodes in frustration I will leav eyou with this...

    "I love yoga because it makes me laugh when I need to, it makes me cry when I want cartharsis and it makes me breath when I'm stressing out... Oh and I can do it in my pyjamas if I want!"

    I also love yoga because it made me well again and made me put on weight. HA!!!

  5. @Simply Authentic: Thank you! I hope that with the more women (and men) start critically analysing and saying "no" to this type of advertising, we will create change :)

    @EcoGrrl: how wonderful that your yoga teacher isn't the current popular "image of yoga"

    also, how horrible that your then-husband wrote that!!! we are so vulnerable to that. :(

    @Emma: thank you! yes, so many people are talking about this- which is fantastic really. it spreads the message.

    @Rachel: the power of an eating disorder is that those who suffer have a disordered perception of what is acceptably "thin" and what is "healthy".

    If you check out NEDIC actually, there is research that shows that dieting and disordered eating will lead to both obesity or eating disorders and that individuals who diet are at extreme high risk of gaining weight.

  6. An excellent post and I could write a whole blog post myself on it (if I had a blog).

    First, dear yogini, to you regarding the whole bride thing. Think about your future husband and how he has fallen in love with you. Did he fall in love with someone wearing perfect makeup? I know it's entirely possible the answer is "yes" but I'll wager it was not, and that he's known you and loved you for some time in all of your various stages of made-up and not, dress and undress, cheerful and sad, etc. So, you don't need to do that for him. And clearly, from what I've seen on your blog, you don't need to do it for you, because you take much more meaning from non-superficial things. Now all those wedding guests: do you really need perfect makeup for them? They are your friends and family and all they want to see is your happiness and celebration. They will NOT be peering at your face thinking "wow, she could have used a bit of bronzing powder". At least, those who are as non-superficial as you. So I offer as a challenge, and it should not be so much of one, for you to be at your wedding as you are in "real life". You will be just as beautiful. (I admit I may be a little odd but I got married in my jeans and t-shirt right after we went hiking on one of our favorite trails. I gave no thought to makeup or anything else - I was just happy about the whole day and getting married.)

    As for the selling of yoga: I have gotten so fed up with it that in the past 6 months I have dropped my subscription to Yoga Journal, and stopped going to any yoga classes. I have found that I get much more out of practicing at home. When my local, small storefront yoga studio joined up with Lululemon and the classes started being overrun with Lulu employees wearing their Lulu togs, and then the studio started having "trunk shows" of yoga fasions and paraphernalia, I couldn't enjoy being there any more. If you get a chance, watch a movie called "Yoga Inc". (It's on Neflix online and maybe also on Hulu). It won't tell you a lot you don't know, but for me, it made me realize it's much worse than I thought. I've never been a fan of Lululemon anyway, because they charge so much for clothing that should cost half as much, particularly the stuff that's made in China (another whole issue...) and seem to be promoting "yoga for Vogue".

    Finally, kids dieting. This is a sore spot with me because I see these girls all the time. I definitely think the toxic fashion industry plays a large role, but parents do their share, staring with our own First Lady Obama (Yes, I'm in the States). When she made a comment about her girls being overweight I almost choked. She risked setting them up for life of image obsession and body insecurity - not to mention embarassing them in front of not only the country but the world. Horrible thing to do to pre-teen and teenage girls. Your suggestions to combat this are good and I'd go further. Stop reading and subsrcibing to "women's magazines". Don't watch TV stations that feature infomercials and shows about dieting such as "the Biggest Loser" and "Fat Camp". BUY WHOLE MILK AND YOGURT!

  7. Love this post, of course! My unroast is accepting what I can do on the mat, and never criticizing myself for not doing more. I have been obsessed with yin yoga with Felicia Tomasko on Yogaglo. Sometimes I do more vigorous practices, but I just cannot always do everything the instructors do - heck, even in the yin practices. I can't always move my knee the way I'm supposed to or my arms may not be feeling strong on certain days... I've been determined to never acknowledge a judgment that passes through my mind while I'm practicing. Just thoughts. I do what I can, end of story.

    I can't remember the name of the company of one of the ads you showed (the human pyramid one) but I was so offended by that! That is just WAY inappropriate! If I bought from them, I'd totally be boycotting them! That makes me crazy mad!

  8. Amen amen amen. To add to the discussion -- my personal pet peeve/mini-vendetta is targeted at ads for yoga wear that showcases thin, pretty girls doing poses in horrifically unsafe ways. As in, hurtful alignment to the point it pains my yoga teacher eyes & I want to rush in, pet them gently & guide them to safety.
    My unroast: to show up exactly as I am on my mat & turn off any voice that says I should be other than I am.

  9. I wanted to send one of those Nedic Tiny T-Shirts to Rodale Press, but it seems they removed the size 00 blurb from the back cover of the book ...
    I still would want to. Because the ad made me feel THAT large (ironic how "large" is used in that context)

  10. Great post - thank you. I was just in a group of women this last weekend talking about anatomy development... and how eating disorders in young girls can affect bone density, vitamin absorption, and other things that they can never regain/recover from even after getting back to "healthy" eating. What are we doing to women, esp young women physically, emotionally, spiritually... and under the lamb's coat of YOGA? It's criminal and so so sad. I'm thankful to have a studio and community of very *real* people and women who support one another in the practice rather than in the fashion.

    Thankfully your wedding can be genuine and magazine-ad-free... it sounds like it will be thoughtful and special because of what you're going through to get there.

    All the best...

  11. Bless you, Lisa. This is the much wider view counter-part to all of these recent objections to the objectification of yoga.

    Agreed - brides are subject to a ridiculous amount of pressure, both from the marketing world and then culturally. It's ridiculous that people feel like they need to spend $20K or more on a WEDDING. The whole "special day/be a princess" thing is bred into women at such a young age, it's hard to escape entirely. Personally I think you're doing very well on that front!

    "Unease" is the perfect word to describe the intention of marketing campaigns. But I think it does go deeper than that, too.

    Somehow, all of these marketing and advertising people have tapped into our very DNA. Our fight or flight mechanism. The instinct for survival.

    This is the root of our need to differentiate, compare and assess. And whether we were initially trying to work out the best hunter-gatherer male to father our offspring or making sure we had enough food for winter... it's all about life or death.

    That's my take on it anyway. And the fear that comes with the desire for survival (i.e. not dying) is the same one that's used to create a sense of unease... that we don't have enough, or that we're not perfect enough to get the guy we want. And so on.

    We're influenced by ads and more intimate images (like our Barbie dolls and their ridiculous proportions). Objects that have been in our lives for a very long time. And every time we watched our mother primp in front of the mirror for attention, we noticed how men around her responded. It's both DNA-deep and culturally embedded on a scale that's difficult to comprehend.

    And then, we don't really do enough with educating young minds to see these things clearly, do we? So both young girls, and now (increasingly) young boys too, have such incredible issues with being okay with how they look. It's heartbreaking. I know it was for me when I was growing up, and the effects have not entirely gone away. Yet.

    Anyway... my yoga unroast is this:
    Pranayama is the very intimate and informed connection between the mind and body. Breathe well, and the heart will open. Love will be infused into every fibre of your being. So stay close to your breath at all times. :)

  12. Wonderful post... Very informational and educational as usual!

    Acai Berry Optimum


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