by Kimberly Dark
She was checking me out. No, really, you can feel that sort of thing, right? Her gaze lingered as I walked into the yoga studio – just that split second longer than usual acknowledgement. She caught my eye as I rolled out my mat. She looked me up and down – quickly, not in a creepy way – and smiled broadly. Then, as I was picking up a blanket and a block, I could feel her eyes follow me.
So, was there some kind of come-on coming? A budding yoga studio romance to ensue? I can tell you from experience that this glance likely has a different origin than erotic tapas – and if she hadn’t been looking at me, I’d have likely been looking at her, for the same reasons.
We’re fat women in a fitness setting. I know the look – have experienced it for more than twenty years now at yoga studios, gyms and aerobics classes. I’m accustomed to being looked at because I’m surprising – shocking even. I’m a large woman, and dare I say it – relatively fit, despite being more than one hundred pounds overweight by insurance chart standards. The woman who stared and smiled? She’s fit and fat too. And if she hadn’t been so openly interested in looking at my body, I’d have been sneaking peeks at hers – catching glimpses of how her thighs appear in those stretch pants, how her belly or arm fat protrudes from her spandex tank top. The looking is better than the not looking, let me just add. We were both at peace – happy to see each other. Sometimes a fat woman will avert her gaze from my flagrant display of largesse. I can’t guess what my admirer was thinking, but based on her smile, I will consider her kindred. Perhaps we were having the same thought: “How wonderful! She’s living her life and using her body as she chooses, despite what others might think.”
Part of why we find solidarity with one another is because we’re scarce – at least at swank studios like that one. When I first started practicing yoga, twenty years ago, there was a range of bodies moving – sometimes struggling – through the postures. Yoga moves seemed a little eccentric and only the bold among us took them into daily life. Back then, I’d catch stares when practicing at the airport in hopes of finding some back-ease mid-flight. You know, those kind of “don’t look now, but there’s a fat woman doing freaky stuff just over your left shoulder” stares. Sometimes I’m so out-of-the-norm it’s hard to tell which aspect of me is being gawked at. On the other hand, I receive some glances so frequently, I could make a study.
Nowadays it’s easy to recognize the yoga-faithful in public places: the eagle arms in the park at noon on a Tuesday, a deliberate uttanasana at Gate 23, the Virabadrasana I on the beach. Yoga has expanded its reach, but in the process, it’s left some of us behind. The great adjustments, clear instructions and careful attention to detail of the better yoga studios come with a daunting environment of fitness fanaticism. It’s no mystery why these studios market to the fitness faithful. They pay. And the rest of us just don’t fit in.
Yes, yes, we’re practicing YOGA, so we should all just go within and release our self-judgments. Whoa now. We’re working on that, but some have a steeper climb. Or do we? Perhaps it’s just easier to look comfortable when one’s ego attachment is to the perfect titibasana and the $100 recycled yak fur yoga mat. It’s inevitable in a consumer culture that the people who can afford to pay a yoga teacher what she’s worth will be interested in status. And “hot body” definitely equates status. Sometimes the noble fat person can sneak through – the beginner who’s assumed to be fighting the good fight against her or his own flab. That person can be jovially accommodated and feel a little bit of love. But what of the average plodder who does a regular practice and never looks fit? Well, sometimes it’s just not comfortable, so the group support and individual instruction offered by beautiful studios are forfeit. Even if the fat yogi persists through the initial discomfort and becomes a regular, the feeling of being an outsider can persist. If you do athletic stuff – and still remain fat – there’s another layer of failure to feel in the glances of fitness-faithful onlookers. Even as a regular participant in a fitness setting, it’s hard to find community. As a stranger recently said to me in a class I was attending while traveling, “Just keep coming. You’ll lose the weight.” Thankfully, most people keep those “helpful” comments to themselves, but I’ve heard similar things often enough. She was articulating the two big assumptions many people have about fat folks in a fitness setting: we’re beginners at fitness, and we’re there to lose weight.
And wow, there’s some sneaky circular reasoning at play there. Take a look at a gym full of hard bodies and it’s easy to assume those people got to look that way by doing that gym stuff. People less often wonder if they’ve congregated, in part, because they all share a really laudable body type. It’s especially comfortable to be around others who all share the same social privilege, after all. This phenomenon is more visible in the way people with race privilege or class privilege tend to congregate, as examples, but yes, body-type privilege is the same. Hard body slender types like to celebrate together, date and marry one other. They discuss their righteousness and their privileges in similar company – whether or not they actually exercise more than, well, someone like me.
And that’s part of why I became a yoga teacher. Let me not sound too noble here – I love teaching, I’ve taught a lot of things in a variety of ways for years. And teaching deepens my practice. In addition to these common motivations, I also have a desire to model difference – to encourage others to live fuller lives and love themselves with greater ease. I feel called to disrupt the idea that body-type-privilege is an earned trait. For heaven’s sake – someone has to do it! And sometimes this is personally challenging in ways that teaching a fitness class isn’t for someone who looks the part. That’s part of my practice of presence and humility and deservedness. I’ve also learned that regardless of how the outer body appears, we all struggle with our inner form at times. A lot of women (maybe men too, but I don’t hear about it as much) also work with feeling that they don’t deserve to be teaching the fitness class. The mind is a tough place to live, regardless – and I’ve noticed that I am often of assistance, just by showing up and living large. (Pun intended.) I’ve heard other yoga teachers discuss absurdly minute details about how they’d like to sculpt their thighs, for example. And I feel I’m doing a public service when I point out – living in the body I inhabit – that we’re all darned lucky to have thighs. Thighs of any shape sure make things easier – you know, things like walking and fucking and holding a baby on your lap. Indeed, personal doubts about credibility can assail anyone. I’m always ready to point out others’ worthiness to live in exactly the body they have because I’ve had to remind myself that I am worthy in a society that screams otherwise. And I really need to mean it, because I don’t have the usual cultural indicators to lean on as rationale.
I’ve had students at the more fitness-oriented establishments see me, look aghast, and walk right out of the class. I’ve also subbed for classes where students see me and ask if it’s going to be a “gentle” class today. As a new teacher, that stuff bothered me and I would jovially respond, “Oh no! We’re really gonna kick some ass!” Back then, I would make the effort to prove my fitness worthiness, but nowadays, I just make my own offering – flawed and brilliant as it can be. (And for pity sake, if you can’t focus on your own breath and asana through a 90 minute class that isn’t what you thought you wanted — keep practicing baby. Just keep practicing.)
We need more fat yoga teachers. And old yoga teachers, and disabled yoga teachers and anyone with a different body than you think you want. That’s what this mess is about right? Most students want to think of the teacher’s body as a goal, an attainable one because she got to look like that by doing this yoga thing. Well, it’s not that simple, despite our desire to just pay, participate and make it so. We want to hop on the yoga conveyor belt and plop off the end looking rested, flexing hot buns and deserving a martini (or a piece of chocolate cake – choose your poison). The bad news – and the good news – is that living a great life is more about acceptance than it is about attainment. Sure, change is possible, but it’s not always the change you were taught to believe you should want.
So, are you thinking about going to a yoga class, but afraid you won’t fit in? Well, maybe you won’t. And go anyway. You and everyone else in the room will be the better for it. And if you have a body that gets stares – and not always in a good way – and you want to teach, I encourage you. It really will deepen your experience to be the one demonstrating the beauty of a regular practice. Just remember – you may as well get up in front of the class to teach — they’re already checking you out anyway.
This essay was originally published in “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion” edited by Virgie Tovar, Seal Press 2012. Reposted with permission.
Kimberly Dark is a writer, storyteller and speaker who helps audiences discover that we are creating the world, even as it creates us. She’s the author of five award-winning performance scripts and a number of educational programs regarding the body in culture – how appearances and identities influence our experiences in the world related to gender, race, body type/size, beauty, ability, etc. She uses humor and intimacy to prompt audiences to discover their influences and reclaim their power as social creators.