Jessamyn’s Journey: Life Lessons from a Body-Positive Yogi
Ever since she first tried yoga at age 16, Jessamyn Stanley — yoga teacher, writer, and body positivity advocate — has been on a journey. At the 2017 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL), during an event sponsored by RealHer and SELF magazine, she spoke with Leta Shy, executive editor of SELF, about some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.
On Body Positivity
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done” on the body-positive movement, says Stanley, especially when it comes to inclusivity. In the quest to be more inclusive, the movement ends up reinforcing a physical norm — a standard “beautiful” body type, established largely by media representations. People who fall within that norm often point out body types that don’t look like theirs — even with the intent to celebrate them — and end up alienating those people.
Stanley, a self-proclaimed “fat femme,” points out the hypocrisy evident in bodies like hers being singled out and othered in the name of body positivity, even when it’s to say, “you’re beautiful, too.” She says, “I am the norm! I am so much more representative of the norm than whatever … y’all are saying.” But she doesn’t want to be invited into conversations that should have always included voices like hers. “I don’t want a seat at your table,” she says. “I need you to understand I’ve always been sitting here.”
She notices that many people won’t try yoga for fear of doing it “wrong” or not being the “right” body type for an exercise that, despite its Southeast Asian origin, has become heavily associated with the lifestyles of chic, slim, young, white women. Instead of worrying about fitting in, she advises potential practitioners to “show up as you are.” Stop worrying about being the “right” body for yoga, she says. “Why do you think there’s anything you should be other than a creature who can breathe?”
Stanley acknowledges the role that fear can play in stopping people from pursuing new things and as a motivating force. After a long hiatus she rediscovered yoga in graduate school, when she really needed it. Stanley was “miserable” in grad school, and yoga helped her find the confidence to leave her unhappy situation.
What did she learn from that experience? “The things you’re afraid of are going to happen,” but what’s really important is what you do when those things come to pass. For her that meant accepting that it’s natural to be fearful and that fear is a part of life. She even found a way to use it: Fear is an “amazing motivator that can take you so many places,” she says. All you have to do is “let this life happen.” Her flourishing career and popular social media presence are proof of that philosophy in practice.
On Finding Your Way
Stanley has blazed a trail for many people to follow, but she’s not done yet. In her eyes there’s no stopping point in personal growth. “You’re always changing, always growing”; whenever you think you’ve reached an ending point, she says, there will always be more beyond it. Stanley has also found over the years that who you live your life with matters. “The most important thing is the company you keep,” she says.
The audience members walked away with both great advice and goodies — event sponsor RealHer handed out lipsticks, and attendees had the opportunity to purchase Stanley’s book, Every Body Yoga, for signing by the author. Stanley’s event closed out a conference weekend filled with words from inspiring women, including the 2017 Women of Distinction and thought leader Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph.D.
This post was written by AAUW Editorial Assistant Femi Sobowale.
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