(WOMENSENEWS)–An article chronicling a white woman’s discomfort and revelations after “a young, fairly heavy black woman” came to her yoga class and “put her mat down directly behind mine” has sparked outrage on various blogs and websites, particularly among women of color.
Published earlier this week in XO Jane, with a headline that could have been pulled from The Onion, starting with “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes…,” Jen Caron details how this black woman appeared to never have set foot in a yoga studio before and the woman’s difficulty with the poses. She describes how it impacted her own practice:
“I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me–or so I imagined.”
Caron then shares her realization about how few black students attend her yoga class, speculating on what it must feel like:
“I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible–I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same.”
Besides ridicule, Caron’s revelations have prompted a strong negative response, with almost 2,500 comments on her article at last check, which range from calling the essay offensive and patronizing to black women to recommendations for body-positive yoga classes. She has even been said to have changed her real name on the article, following the backlash.
‘Black Folks Practice Yoga’
On the website Clutch, Britni Danielle says the essay screams white privilege by assuming that the “skinny white girl body” is being coveted by a heavyset black woman. She goes on to point out:
“In the midst of her navel glazing, Caron failed to realize or even acknowledge that Black women–like many other types of women–practice yoga as well. While they may not be sweating it out in her studio, which she admits is overrun with male hipsters, many of us are yogis and yoga devotees, even if we happen to be ‘fairly heavy.’ Just because Caron’s never taken a moment to notice–or even speak to–a Black student in her class doesn’t negate the fact that many Black folks practice yoga.”
Around 20 million people practice yoga in the U.S., 82 percent of which are women, mostly for its health and stress relieving benefits, according to the 2012 Yoga in America study. The study didn’t include figures on race, but a 2008 study concludes that “yoga users are more likely to be white, female, young and college educated.”
In her essay, Caron does wonder what she or the instructor could have done to help the black woman and raises questions about how yoga spaces in general can be made more accessible to all people and body types.
But Pia Glenn, in a response piece on XO Jane, describes how Caron “may not even be aware of the level to which you dehumanized the Unnamed Black Woman behind you.”
“If you really believe that yoga is for everyone, why would you describe the woman on the mat behind you in such alien terms? And your little soupçon of self-awareness does not mitigate your dehumanization. Without full understanding of your privilege, you can never be a true ally.
Black women are continually treated like animals in a zoo, our bodies on display for you to marvel at or pity, but ultimately walk away from, none the wiser and having affected no positive change for all of your tears and hand-wringing.”
Exclusion of Larger Women
Sesali Bowen, on Feministing, adds that you can’t forget that “this entire situation was prompted by the fact that the new girl in class was a fat woman.” She says:
“There are plenty of my fellow fat girls who shudder when they recall going to the gym or a yoga class only to find that our titties pose a suffocation risk in downward dog, and that our oversized t-shirts seem to be a welcome invitation for other people at the gym to vocalize their support of our (assumed) new lifestyle. Being fat in spaces that are creating to bring attention to the body can seem like breeding grounds for microaggressions and hurt feelings.”
Erika Nicole Kendall, a practicing yogi who says she was about 300 pounds when she first started, agrees. In a piece for A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss she says she knows what it’s like to be on the other end of this story and provides a 10-point breakdown of why she finds Caron’s essay to be offensive.
These concerns aren’t anything new unfortunately. In a 2012 article on the site Decolonizing Yoga, Rochelle Robinson touched on many these issues of exclusion:
“When I talk to other black women or women of color, I hear pretty much the same: they don’t think that yoga is accessible to them because white folk who usually own and operate these studios don’t consider our needs…The majority, if not all of the studios around ‘the town’ also lack sensitivity to the well endowed female bodies. Neither does the images you see reflect women who are larger than a size 2. So, this group of women is usually excluded because yoga has become a mainstream practice for the super thin and super fit, two qualities usually not attributed to the fuller-figured sistas.”