As plus-size women who have dedicated our voices to combating negativity and stereotypes that surround people who dare to take up a little bit of space, we were beyond excited by the prospect of interviewing Instagram sensation, yoga guru, body positivity advocate and Every Body Yoga author, Jessamyn Stanley, for Books for Better Living. When you’ve followed someone on social from the beginning, and been in awe of pretty much everything that person has done, the idea of actually speaking to that individual can leave you feeling anxious and a bit intimidated.
So when the moment arose to have a two-on-one with Jessamyn, we had to put our fangirling emotions in check. Oddly enough, Jessamyn, who claims she is “openly awkward,” didn’t want to disappoint our swooning hearts either, so we agreed to embrace our shared nervousness, center ourselves, and get down to business.
We discussed the importance of Jessamyn’s book and how relatable it is (no matter where you are on your yoga journey), our shared experiences with mostly thin-oriented yoga studios and how having a bigger body can sometimes make us feel scrutinized and judged as we make our way through the world. Here’s some of what Jessamyn had to say on all points.
Kathy and Eva (BBL): Explain it to us. We just don’t understand how you do what you do. We can’t even get past the feeling of being watched in a yoga class.
Jessamyn Stanley: I don’t even really spend that much time thinking about the physicality of practicing yoga. I believe that the practice itself is about so much more than that, and the actual physical aspect of it is really just a step to do something else. This body hierarchy where some bodies are allowed to be present while other bodies are not is a product of the fitness industry. It’s really unfortunate how that kind of attitude comes into a yoga space. The whole purpose of practicing yoga is to be able to look beyond the body. And for a lot of us, that’s a fucking foreign concept: The idea of looking beyond your body. We live in a world that wants us to believe that the only thing that matters is our physical body. And I think that once you can truly see, you will realize that the majority of us are fat, slender, disabled, old, etc.—every body is different.
BBL: Understood. Just to be clear, we don’t know that people are actually staring at us and judging us. Our egos tell us that they probably are!
Stanley: There is a genuine possibility that people are staring at you, even the perception of another person’s belief can shape a yoga experience. I find it to be one of the most complicated parts of my yoga practice—understanding that the perspectives of other human beings are not necessary for me to have a fulfilled life.
BBL: You talk about how you practice yoga in a fat body, and that you use the word fat a lot in your book. We’re curious if the publisher/editor had a problem with that and tried to get you to use another word?
Stanley: I had to fight for some of the “fucks,” but I didn’t have to fight for using the word fat. (Everyone laughs.) I own the word fat because . . . well because it is frankly seen as another form of profanity. I have people who are afraid to even say it to me. They’ll ask beforehand, “Is it OK for us to just, you know…,” Jessamyn uses Fat Femme, “Can we say that?” And I’m just like, the fact that you’re asking that question is exactly the reason to use it. For a lot of people, it’s borderline revolutionary to have someone use and own the word fat in a way that doesn’t immediately call to mind the idea of being unattractive, less than, or unworthy. You can be fat and beautiful. You can be fat and sexy, and you can be fat and athletic, and strong, and smart—all of these things. It’s just about reshaping what you believe humans are allowed to be and do.
BBL: Well, how about being fat and HOT! Let’s be real. You’re a sex symbol! We feel like people catch feelings when they see your pictures. They are so sensual and beautiful. Do you think that your younger self would be amazed at the fact that you can even take a picture with very little clothing?
Stanley: I think my younger self would be deeply confused and surprised. I struggled with the idea of even looking at myself for a very long time. It was extremely difficult for me. I spent my whole life avoiding mirrors. Then the thoughts came: Are you afraid to see yourself as you actually are? What does that mean? That opened up even more big and confusing questions. My instinct was to avoid it, to just stay where I was, and where I don’t have to see myself. But if you say to yourself, “No, I’m going to do the dirty work, I’m going to do the sad work, and I’m going to accept the baggage that I’ve been carrying around for decades,” and truly embrace that process, it will resonate not just in how you see yourself, but how you see the world.
BBL: We’re glad you broached the subject of facing the truth and confronting your feelings about who you are. We recently wrote a piece that touched on that subject. The broader conversation taking place in the body positivity movement on this topic relates to whether an individual can be body positive and still want to change their body and lose weight. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Stanley: It’s such a touchy topic because everyone is scarred by diet culture and fat shaming. It’s very unfortunate because frankly, we only get one body—for this life anyway. I think it’s about having a better relationship with your body and maintaining your body’s overall ability to move—that might just mean breathing. And if you do the work of really trying to release the hatred of a body shaming society, then you will inevitably want to take very good care of your body—not because you want to be slim or look a certain way—but because you want to feel good and be happy in your body. You don’t need to be any specific size, it’s just a feeling, so ultimately, I think, that the answer is to release the diet culture.
BBL: Now that you’re in the mainstream consciousness, we’re sure that many brands want you to be their spokesperson. Do you find yourself having the tough conversation with them in regards to authentically representing body positivity?
Stanley: I have a vetting process where I spend at least 21-days going through each brand that is interested in working with me. I ask myself, “Do I like these products? Is this something that I can really utilize?” The emotions this process evokes teaches me a lot about myself as well as the brand’s marketing team and the products. If at the end of it, I can say that it is a mission I can carry, then I’m onboard. You can never really know how a brand is going to allow itself to be affected by what you bring to the table. All I can do is help them understand where I’m coming from, even if it’s something totally foreign to them, which most of the time it is. As a queer, fat-bodied, Black person, my perspective is one that companies rarely hear, so being in the room with them is important and makes partnering with their brands worthwhile as a necessity for change.
Actor/influencers Kathy Deitch and Eva Tingley spearheaded PlusThis!, the multimedia brand which features pop-culture, fashion, debates regarding food and health and the societal negativity and stereotypes that surround women who dare to take up a little bit of space. The duo broadcasts live every Thursday at 6 pm PT from Universal Broadcasting Network and simultaneously across several platforms including Facebook Live and YouTube Live.
Photo Credit: Christine-Hewitt