Episode 40: What does Yoga Have to Do With Body Image? A Lot More Than You Think with Melanie Klein

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Melanie Klein is an empowerment coach, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Moorpark Collect in Venura County, California, speaker, writer and thought leader in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment and visibility.  In addition to many other books she’s also the editor of the recently released, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body.  She is passionate about the topic of contemporary body image politics and is making waves in creating a healthier, more positive perception of our body image.  She's been featured several times on Yoga International to talk about this topic and co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014.  YBI strives to provide accessible, body-positive yoga and reflects the full range of human diversity.

What an absolute thrill to talk to Melanie!!  This conversation expanded my understanding of how I relate to myself and I even had a breakthrough Aha moment (you'll definitely recognize when this is as you listen...I was ecstatic :) ).  I used to think of body image as a social issue and never considered its relation to yoga.  If I practice yoga, mindfulness and acceptance then surely I have a healthy body image right? No need to extricate this one specific thing from the big picture of accepting the whole self....right?  Turns out I was wrong.  Our body image is not only an outcome of our internal relationship with self but is also a product of the society, politics and history that shapes us.  It's so powerful that it dictates our self-worth.  It can even hold us back from reaching our full potential.  Yoga can be one of the most powerful tools to help us disentangle our distorted body image from our identities.  In this episode, Melanie and dig further in-depth into the topic of contemporary body image politics - what it is, how it affects all of us and what we can do about it, including how an authentic yoga practice can free us from the war we wage against our bodies.  Buckle in.  This one's a good one. 

Key Nuggets:

  • In taking a women’s study course in university, Melanie came to understand that the relationship with her body (a negative, distorted one marked by a lot of punishment and guilt) was not a defect of herself but rather something that she’d been taught all her life.  Not only was she influenced by the role models in her life, she’d been influenced by what was considered normative based on media. 
    • Media messages to be the right height, weight and shape encouraged her to buy happiness by purchasing products to "fix" those flaws.
  • When we compare ourselves to digitally photo-shopped bodies, we end up thinking that the difference between us and what we see in magazines are flaws.
    • So again, our relationship with our body image isn’t just us and our bodies.  It’s been influenced by a variety of factors:
      • The female role models that we grew up with.  How they related to their bodies may influence how we’ve developed a relationship with ours and even shape our perceptions of what the expectations are, even if they never explicitly shared their outlook with us.  As young people, we absorbed what we observed.
      •  Media – the portrayal of beauty in media is intoxicating and ubiquitous.  It becomes difficult to imagine anything different when that’s what we ever see.  This is especially true for young people who are just developing their identities.
        • This effect is even more prevalent in today's digitally connected world.  For Melanie, growing up in the 80s and 90s, there was an “off” time when you closed the magazine or turned off the tv.  Today, media is even more saturated with the growth of social media.  Facebook was only created in 2006 so when you think about it, a 16 year old today only knows of this world of 24/7 social media.  Makes it even harder to shift perceptions.
  • Melanie found her yoga practice to be a reprieve from the world of media.  Soon it became a sacred place for her where she could apply her knowledge of media, body image and socialization and actually shape a new reality when she practiced on the mat.  Instead of just thinking about what it’s like to be present, she’d practice it.  Instead of just thinking about body acceptance, she could just practice it on the mat.
  • One of the biggest shifts in Melanie’s perception that changed the way she related to her body was the realization that “I can be comfortable in my body”
    • Up until that point, she was always so uncomfortable in her body.  She kept thinking that she had to change or fix something.  There were insecurities and disappointments.   And then she realized that she didn’t have to be constantly at war with her body.  That it’s okay to be at peace; and the practice of yoga helped reinforce this new place.
  • This conversation spurred a major Aha Moment for me!  I realized that up until this point, I wasn't even able to disentangle my body image from my identity!  All my life, it seemed okay to constantly feel like I needed to change something about how I looked.  It was okay because it’s not like I hate my body, I just wanted to make it "better".  I didn’t even realize that, that's considered being uncomfortable in your body.    
  • So many women and girls don’t realize that they don’t need to be caught in the cycle of body dissatisfaction and that we can come to a place of satisfaction even when we carry a bit of extra weight, wrinkles, scars….
      •  We don’t need to “change” or “fix” anything.  We don’t need to buy the miracle product.  We just need to make the choice to stop waging war on ourselves and come to peace . Right. Now.
        • In turn this will change the perception that our self worth is determined by the number on the scale.  Change the value system.  Accept the truth of the moment.
      • When we say “perfect” or “want more” we’re usually measuring it against a conventional level of standard that doesn’t honor the diversity among human bodies.  It’s based on a certain body type, age, physical ability and race.  We are taught that we should strive for it and it’s normal.
        • By accepting rather than judging what we still need to work on, then we can open up ourselves to insights and move more deeply into our authentic power.
  • If we’re committed to a growth based life, we can expect that there’s always some area that we’re working on.  And if we can expect that, then we can meet it with joy and enthusiasm rather than see it as a failure.
  • Where the practice of yoga came in for Melanie is that it gave her the embodied component.  To her, yoga plus her intellectual understanding of body image politics went hand in hand.  
    • Loving your body isn’t just something you think about, you need to practice.  Yoga helps with this practice.  Linking breath and movement, giving you a new sense of your body.  Allowing you to experience your body in a different way.  Tunes into how it communicates to us; we learn our own natural rhhythms.
    • Then we come in to a relationship of mutual respect and trust with our bodies.  Yoga is one effective tool to help create positive body image and body peace.
  •  What’s important for us to know about the topic of contemporary body image politics is that our bodies are not separate from the world that we live in.  The way that our society operates and its politics impacts us physically. The social, political and historical realm that we exist in.  Our body image is a result of the role models around us as well as the larger systems.  It's stamped with the expectations of our society.
  • The false representation in media of the “perfect” body makes us feel small and insignificant.  It lowers our self esteem and self value.  That transfers to our entire being because then we end up keeping ourselves small, silent and we don’t show up the way we would if we would if we felt radiant, confident and at peace.
    • An important question to consider is: What are the costs when we have a negative self image of ourselves?
  • If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, aren't we taking time to cultivate our gifts and sharing it out to the world.  If we’re feeling self-conscious and lamenting over all the parts of us that need to be “fixed” and that becomes what we put our main focus on.  We become invisible and unwilling to show up for ourselves and the world.  We don't reach our full potential!
  • For people who really want to reach their full potential and become self actualized, it’s difficult if they're at war with their bodies.  If we become at peace with our bodies then we can work on all those other things.
  • We’ve been told that our primary worth is how we look (especially girls).  Being exposed to this from a young age, we’ve internalized it. But there's a way out!  Reject those standards and values.
    • Consider that we live in a world of social constructs and that we can deconstruct and reconstruct.  We’re not doomed to live in the way that we’ve grown up with – hating our bodies, feeling low self confidence…
    • The change in conversation about body image has already brought change.  For example, retailers are offering larger sizes and shifting their standards
  • We get to choose our own value system and choose our own beauty paradigm
    • One way to do this is pay attention to the media that you’re taking in.  When Melanie started to bring awareness on what media she was consuming, her definition of beauty broadened - for herself and how she saw others’ beauty.
  • Yoga can also be a powerful tool in developing a positive body image.  The  yoga that you choose to practice (meditation, vinyasa...) will be personal; but the key is coming to present moment and accept it for what it is. That’s where the peace begins.
  • Also important to understand the difference between yoga practice, yoga culture and yoga business.  We need to understand these differences to access the true gifts of what yoga has to offer.
    • Yoga practice is the authentic practice. The practice of mindfulness, present moment, breath...it's accessible to everyone and does not exclude body size, age, or physical ability.
    • Yoga culture includes everything around the practice – the products, memes, clothes, representation.
    • Yoga business is how corporations, advertisers and product developers have monetized from the practice.  Ex. Practicing in exclusive spaces, representation of the yoga body.
    • Yoga culture and business makes us seem like we can buy our identity as a yogi.  It takes us further from the authentic practice of awareness.
  • The most important thing we can do in shifting the body image is to be an open and receptive listener. Allow yourself to be moved by others’ stories and find points of connection with the rest of humanity.

One of Your Biggest Lessons So Far:

Allow yourself to receive the beauty of your lived experience.  The beauty includes the good, the bad and the ugly - see it all as a gift that you are alive and here now and make the most of every moment.

One nugget of wisdom that you would share with fellow seekers who are on this journey of growth and transformation:

The continued effort, work, challenges and obstacles are all worth it. Once you reach the other side, it opens you up to a realm of new possibilities.  There will always be something to work on and each step you take will open you up to more joy and possibility.

Interview Links:

If you have any questions for Melanie or want to learn more, connect with her through:

Website: ybicoalition.com 



Instagram: @melmelklein