Jessamyn Stanley on the Work of Body Acceptance
Feeling good about your body every hour of every day is not realistic. The problem with “body positivity” is that it ends up being another item on our to-do lists: Brush your teeth, comb your hair, try to love your thighs today.
Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and author of Every Body Yoga and Yoke, says there’s no shortcut to befriending your body—and that the pressure to feel good about the way you look all the time isn’t helping. What Stanley proposes instead is body acceptance. Body acceptance means that yes, you might feel shitty when you look in the mirror this morning. But it also implores you to ask questions: Where’s this bad feeling coming from? How can you confront it? And can you get through it even if nothing about how you look changes? Which leads us to a tough truth: Body acceptance is work, and it’s lifelong.
Body acceptance is also born out of the reality that certain bodies have been marginalized and considered unacceptable in mainstream culture. No body acceptance movement means anything if it’s not intersectional: A movement that preaches positivity only to able-bodied cisgender white women and excludes BIPOC, people with disabilities, and people who are transgender, queer, or nonbinary is not body positivity at all. And it’s not useful to any of us.
A Q&A with Jessamyn Stanley
I would normally think about body positivity as opportunity and liberation and the understanding that you are okay today: Everything about you is exactly as it needs to be; everything about you is perfect. And if you can accept that about your physical body, what can’t you do? But since body positivity has become more mainstream, I have not recognized the movement that I found so much salvation in as a college student. The way the mainstream has digested that idea has turned it into: Cisgender heterosexual women should love their bodies all the time. That is very different from body acceptance.
And that hunt for positivity—looking for the light as if once you have it, the work is done—is just already too small of an idea for what needs to actually happen: acceptance. On top of that, it’s so easy to dilute.
At this point in the mainstream, body positivity has been diluted into something that is a faint glimmer of what the idea used to be. I can’t really say that I’ve felt that much of a connection to the mainstreaming of the movement, but I do still feel like there is a great necessity for all human beings to accept themselves as they are right now. So body positivity—maybe not by that name but definitely the idea at the center of it—I’m forever down for.
Body neutrality is about achieving a neutral relationship with our bodies. It’s an approach of accepting by not acknowledging or forming opinions. It implies there is no good or bad, and we shouldn’t feel good and bad about our bodies. Body neutrality aims for the same acceptance that lies at the heart of body positivity but that is, frankly, papered over by marketing. It’s one way of reclaiming that core idea.
We do need to get to a place of caring about our bodies in the way that we care about any other possession. You want to take care of your body and your health the same way you want to take care of your car or your house. It’s just part of the ownership manual. That’s the core idea.
That said, body neutrality minimizes a larger conversation we have to have. In the same way that body positivity oversimplifies body acceptance, body neutrality does, too. It skips over a really important step in what needs to be a much larger journey. We’re in a place where people are obsessed with holding their bodies to any standard other than their own. That’s a problem regardless of what movement is being championed. You don’t just decide you feel nothing about your body and arrive at body acceptance. Ultimately, body positivity and body neutrality can both be gateways to the same journey, but we have to let it rise above this search for the miracle cure for self-hatred. There’s no antidote here. It’s just all of us doing a lot of individual work. It’s work, and it takes time.
Achieving body acceptance comes down to having therapy with yourself all the time. And I mean forever. Every day for the rest of your time on this rock, it’s going to be spent actually encountering all of the negative shit that you say about yourself. And then you think, Wow, okay, so like once a day? No. Every moment, really be conscious of what you think. Because it’s never what you think it’s going to be. We want to point the finger at other things in our lives, like if I get rid of this boyfriend or this coworker or this particular environment that I find myself in, then everything will be perfect. But something else is just going to pop up and create some new trauma for you to try to figure out.
But if you come into the things that you’re saying to yourself and really start to notice: What am I feeding myself? Who am I to myself? This works through consistent self-care. It doesn’t matter if you had a good day the day before or there were only so many downs and this many ups: Start fresh every day and try to maintain the same self-care practices, which really do look different for everyone. For me, it’s yoga, meditation, tarot, essential oils.
“Achieving body acceptance comes down to having therapy with yourself all the time. And I mean forever.”
Once you’re maintaining those practices, they start to naturally fall into your everyday life. Maybe there’s a moment where I put on an outfit that’s a little adventurous. There’s always that moment right before you walk out the door when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re like: Am I batshit? Is this cool? But this is where I’ll actually have a conversation with myself: Do you feel good right now? Are you enjoying what you’re wearing? Okay, great, wear it. But if you’re not feeling good, is it because you think that someone else isn’t going to like it? Why are you concerned about what someone else thinks? Where’s this coming from? It’s legit having therapy with myself in front of the mirror before I walk out the door.
Those moments can be time-consuming, and I would not categorize them as fun. I don’t particularly enjoy having to confront my own self-hatred, but that’s the only way that I know of to actually do this work. Everything else is just a bandage on a wound.
Practicing doing difficult things is the way to practice managing difficult thoughts. For me, that’s my yoga practice. We always say that the way you are on the mat is the way you are off the mat as well. It requires me to push myself and my body outside my own boundaries, and then I see what happens.
Do I get down on myself, or do I coach and manage myself through? And when that something difficult happens off of the mat—like maybe I’m saying something really horrible to myself—I’m like, Oh, I’ve seen this before. I know I can survive this. I can coach myself through it, and when I’m on the other side I’ll be better off.
I also find it helpful to remind myself: It’s okay. This is why I’m alive; this is what it feels like to be human. That makes it a little bit easier to let the hard parts happen, knowing you’re not alone.
I’ve always thought that the reasons the true message behind body positivity hasn’t survived in the mainstream is because it just doesn’t sell very well. It’s not a very good marketing strategy. You can’t tell people to look within themselves when you need them to look at you. The real power of the movement isn’t in the way that a capitalist industry is able to co-opt it. It’s in the way that people are able to internalize it for themselves and reflect their journeys to other people.
From a young age, children are equipped with the tools to see themselves fully and to understand and accept themselves. It’s harder to do those things when you have decades upon decades of history of people reinforcing all the negative stuff you feel about yourself. We have to figure out how to teach self-love and self-acceptance as part of regular education. If we value taking care of ourselves fully—meaning physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and prioritize it as much as academia, the next generation will be much better off.
Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher and body liberation advocate. Her new book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, is a series of autobiographical essays that explores issues of race, capitalism, self-love, and sexuality through the lens of yoga practice. Her first book, Every Body Yoga, is part instructional yoga guide and part memoir, and her app, The Underbelly, is a digital yoga studio with streaming classes.
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