Is it okay to be fat?
Americans have disturbingly schizophrenic views on the issue of body weight.
In today’s politically correct culture, it’s considered deeply offensive to stigmatize people because of how they “look”, especially based on their weight alone.
But tens of millions of women are so obsessed with weight loss that they’ll spend a third or more of their paychecks on the latest trendy diet or fitness program.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident perhaps than in the nationwide yoga craze.
Some 30 million people, mostly women, are thought to practice yoga on a fairly regular basis. In theory, yoga’s benefits include relief from stress and greater acceptance of and comfort with one’s body.
But secretly, and even publicly, the yoga industry has tried to hype yoga as a ticket to real weight loss.
One of the earliest yoga celebrities, Tara Stiles, titled her first best-selling book on yoga, Slim, Calm Sexy. Her growing success and prominence in New York yoga circles led other rising yoga starlets to double-down on the weight loss argument.
Sadie Nardini, a self-described yoga “bad girl,” began offering special week-long boot camps in which she promised participants they would shed the pounds and become “bikini-ready.”
Another super-star, Kathryn Budig, who famously posed in the nude while practicing yoga to promote the company Toe Sox, wrote a book in 2014 in which she extolled yoga’s weight-loss benefits.
The problem? None of these yoga weight-loss arguments bear serious scrutiny.
In Budig’s book, the one-time model and actress is at pains to support her argument. In the one case study she actually cites, participants lost 15 pounds from an amped-up yoga practice – far less than the amount of weight-loss promised by most leading diets.
Budig also tries to make a separate argument, that yoga’s stress reduction potential can reduce “stress-eating,” often a major contributing factor to weight gain, studies show.
That might be a plausible argument but the link between yoga and reduced stress eating remains unproven.
Even worse, the kind of yoga that might actually reduce someone’s tress isn’t the amped-up cardio yoga that Budig says will help shed the pounds. It will actually slow the practitioner’s metabolic rate, which means that unless they eat less, or at least more nutritiously, they will actually gain weight not lose it, thanks to “mindful” yoga alone.
The problem is actually compounded when yoga practitioners decide to give up their cardio practice thinking that their yoga alone will be enough to induce weight loss. If so, students may well feel better about their bodies – but they’ll very likely continue to put on the pounds.
In the end, then, yoga’s stress reduction and cardio benefits – if they exist at all – work almost completely at cross purposes when it comes to promoting weight loss.
There’s an interesting counter-movement afoot within yoga circles that seem to be pushing the industry to live up to its original body-accepting ethos.
Led by Anna Guest-Jelley, the proud owner of “Curvy Yoga” in Nashville, TN and a more recent upstart, Anna Ipox, founder of “Fat Yoga” in Portland, OR, the movement is pushing official yoga to embrace “plus-sized” women and to dispense with its not-so-subtle endorsement of the traditional “beauty myth” associated with slender ex-models like Stiles and Budg.
Demand for “Fat Yoga” classes from those who feel shut out of the mainstream yoga world is growing rapidly, it turns out. Jelley eventually incorporated her niche practice as a business and now oversees a nationwide teacher-training program. She’s also become a well-recognized blogger on alternative web sites like Elephant Journal.
Ipox says that she welcomes women of all shapes and into her classes, but she wants women who can’t wear a size 8 dress – let alone a size 4 – to have a safe haven to practice and celebrate their bodies.
When some women insist on preening in front of other students or discussing weight-loss regimens, she quietly asks them to leave.
While some in yoga have embraced the counter-movement, there’s been opposition, too. Some women believe that political correctness has gone too far — celebrating being overweight is no boon to women or men who really do need to shed pounds or run the risk of developing more severe health problems — everything from diabetes to a possible heart attack or stroke.
And some yoga women with sleek svelte bodies also resent being “reverse-shamed” for being “weight proportionate,” and are not about to apologize for working hard to maintain their “skinny” form.
Another sign of resistance is the way the yoga industry’s trade magazine, Yoga Journal, has handled demands for a wide range of body types to grace its covers. While the magazine has raised the issue of “body positivity,” and has allowed Guest-Jelly to publish an article on the topic, the models actually portrayed doing yoga invariably conform to the traditional “skinny” stereotype.
“That’s what our readers want,” the editors invariably say.
The very fact that this debate is raging is a testament to the enduring self-obsessions of American culture. Weight is a real health issue – but it’s also a powerful status symbol. Thanks to celebrities like Madonna, Serena Williams, and the Kardashians, fuller curvier bodies are becoming more popular.
But for the most part, even in the land of Nirvana, “thin is still in”