How Jessamyn Stanley Resists a Culture That Thrives on Body Negativity

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In Person of Interest we talk to the people catching our eye right now about what they’re doing, eating, reading, and loving. Next up is Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher, advocate, podcaster, and the author of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, which was published on June 22.

“I realized, once I actually started practicing yoga, that the most intricate and all-consuming yoga doesn’t happen on the mat. It happens in every other part of your life,” Jessamyn Stanley says. It’s raining in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Stanley is lying on the RV’s floor, her partner, as she drives around the country. Between sips of water, the author and yoga teacher is explaining why she wrote her new essay collection, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance. “So the book is really for anyone who has ever struggled with themselves,” she continues, “or felt like they don’t deserve to exist exactly as they are.”

I’ve been following Stanley for a while on social media, where her playful swimsuit videos, helpful and hilarious instructions on how to roll a joint, and thoughtful musings on racism, body acceptance, and relationships feel like little bolts of real talk in a storm of filters and facades. Yoke is every bit as vulnerable and relatable, walking readers through a series of deeply personal and make-you-cry funny essays about applying lessons learned in the yoga room to the harder work of being alive. Stanley raises awareness of the whiteness that has become the hallmark of yoga in West. She also shares her imposter syndrome and encourages people to live like they’re not being watched. If her first book, Every Body Yoga (2017), is the practice, then this one is the theory. Don’t expect simple platitudes or easy resolutions: Yoke is more of an experience in witnessing Stanley grow and question herself on the page than it is straightforward self-help.

When I read Stanley’s book earlier this summer, lying by a pool while feeling bloated and self-conscious in my neon swimsuit, I had the uncomfortable realization that I’d fallen prey to diet culture in the very ways she was describing in the book. But that’s exactly how Stanley teaches; she leads us toward our feelings and shows us how to, well, feel them–and then accept them too. “There’s space for all of it because that’s what being human is about,” she writes in a chapter titled “It’s a Full-Time Job Loving Yourself.”

When we chat over the phone, Stanley is just as chill and candid as she is on the page. She spoke about her struggles with body image and what hard truths she has to face about herself.

I’ve always struggled with body image… and the way that I see myself. While in college, my obsession was with weight loss and trying to be different. Around that time, I followed a lot of fat-positive and fat-acceptance writers, like Lesley Kinzel and Marianne Kirby, and they definitely planted a seed in me of wanting to explore another way of understanding myself and the world. [Soon after], Yoga opened up new ways for me to understand my mental, physical, and emotional bodies.

Taking photographs of my body… was a big portal for me. Because I was afraid to look at my own body, there were years in my life when I didn’t have any photos. I began taking photos of myself as part of my yoga practice. I was able to see the negative things I think and say about myself and took responsibility. It has allowed me to have a better relationship with myself by accepting the way I see myself.

Diet culture is at its best when… you think that you’re deficient in some way. Body acceptance is saying that you are okay with your body.

Body acceptance and liberation is tackling the big issue that… we, as a society, have cosigned on the idea that our bodies are not our own–that they are the property of anyone who has an opinion about them. Our entire existence is based on whether someone else will like us. Capitalism encourages us to look at other people to validate our existence, to keep us within the eyes and perspectives of others. Body liberation means that you are in control of your body and that you don’t need to look for it.

By writing this book I learned that… all I needed to do was reflect on my own experiences. I knew that I wanted to discuss cultural appropriation, racial identity. It was my first thought when I started it. I thought, Okay, now I have a way of talking to all the white yoga people who were like, “What’s Black Lives Matter got do with me?” Then, [I realized] I realized that I had to talk to the white supremacist within me first if I wanted to talk about cultural appropriation and racial identity. This way of looking at things led to all the essays in the book.

We need to start accepting… our internalized racism, the complexities of capitalism, the aftereffects of colonialism, our cultural appropriation, sexism, and slut-shaming as parts of our society. While I can see the argument for holding people accountable, there must also be a call out [of others], from ourselves. Calling out and calling back. People want to be on the hunt for witches, but they don’t want themselves to be hunted. It’s easier to accept ourselves as part in the same system of injustice and to seek solutions.

My way of dealing with a difficult feeling… is to just let it be there, let it breathe, give it space to stretch its legs. This will make me grumpy and uncomfortable to be around. However, I will try to find some form of grounding. This could be through yoga postures, breathing work, meditation, writing in my journal, or even practicing yoga postures. Once I feel a sense of peace, I can move on.

Just listening to the right song… can change my mood. When I feel overwhelmed, I turn to “Sing About It” from the Wood Brothers. It makes a huge difference in my mood. The lyrics to “The Church of What’s Happening Now”, by Sia, are my favorite: “Throw away yesterday/ Today is an entirely new day.” I can start over right now.

I’m incredibly grateful to be able to eat… whatever I would like to eat, not just whatever is available, when it’s available. I was not raised in a household that could afford to eat out often. Now, it’s one of my greatest joys to enjoy a meal with people I love. I try to be independent from people or things that make me feel bad about the food I eat and to appreciate the sacrifices made to make it possible.

These days I’ve been working on cooking the perfect… soft scramble. Grits are a dish I grew up with and one that I am obsessed with. I have been learning how to prepare them with herbs, as well as thinking about the viscosity levels. I love pasta so much. This is both a blessing (or a curse) because my emotional body loves pasta but my physical body doesn’t. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t eat carbonara. I love eggs, obviously., BonAppetit
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