What Does a “Normal” Yoga Body Look Like?

Last night I attended a hot yoga class with two coworkers and the wonderful yogis of Capitol Hill.
For the class, I didn’t wear a shirt.
A functional, but incredibly emotional decision.
I had an alternate option: the undershirt I had worn to work that day (hot yoga was an impromptu decision). The undershirt option meant I would have to commute home in a soaked, salty tank top, which was obviously not appealing. But the real reason I wanted to go à la sports bra was on principle.
You see, I have not been feeling very confident about my body as of late. The change of season brings along with it the added comforts of unshaven legs, clothes with pockets, and cozy sweaters to hide my body. Crop top hell hath past. Hiking, swimming, climbing, spontaneous frisbee, and free yoga in the park are replaced by long nights curling up with a mug of hot chocolate (or a bottle of wine) and cookies (or cheese, if you went the wine route like me).
What I mean to say is that “summer body” and “winter body” are a thing for me. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing isn’t the point – it’s a thing, it exists. It’s also significant to note that the night before this yoga class, my mother commented on my appearance, telling me to “watch your weight.”
But when faced with covering my “winter body” in a hot yoga class or not, I chose to not. A silent rejection of the idea that only certain bodies which meet a very high standard set by society deserve to appear in public. The decision was my own personal protest.
Let’s be honest: the only reason exposing my midriff was an emotional experience is because society has drilled into my head (and everybody else’s) that women should hide their rolls, their chub, their cellulite, their curves – their lovely lady lumps.
Photoshop 1.0 was released in 1990. One year before I was born. There has been no point in my life where magazines, commercials, TV shows, films, or even textbooks didn’t use digitally altered images. Photoshopping became a widespread practice in the late 90’s for not just magazine covers, but all professionally produced media, and a new aesthetic norm became established: a societal norm where laugh lines, stray hairs, C-section scars, and a perfectly normal distribution of fat on women’s bodies became unacceptable.
That’s what it means, right? When something is photoshopped away, it’s because somebody has decided it does not contribute to the beauty of the image. It detracts. It is unwanted. It’s ugly. It’s an eyesore.
As “impossibly beautiful” became the new normal, women attempted to follow suit to varying degrees of success. The Agency for Healthcare Research notes that there was a 119% rise in hospitalizations for eating disorders among children during the years when photoshopping became widespread (1999 – 2006). Around the same time, cosmetic surgery procedures skyrocketed by 446%!! When I graduated high school in 2009, two girls in my class received breast augmentations as graduation presents from their families.
I’m going to make a simple observation – and this is not a judgment against my fellow hot yoga classmates – but it seemed like the only other women in my class who were sans shirts had incredibly sculpted, enviable physiques. While I’m not a mind-reader, I imagined that leaving their midsections uncovered was probably not causing them much anxiety. Meanwhile I was wholly uncomfortable for the duration of class. Every bend and twist highlighted handfuls of flesh I wished weren’t there. Warrior Two directed my gaze directly into the mirror, where instead of experiencing zen, I winced from being forced to look at myself from the side.
My point is that there was no rational reason why exposing my midriff should make me uncomfortable – in fact, considering it was a hot yoga class, going shirtless logically should have made me more comfortable. I was uncomfortable because society tells us it’s unacceptable, shameful, or at the very least not optimal for a woman to dare to display her body when it does not fit our mold of the “ideal.” So the “normals” hide. Which is what I perversely wished to do as well.

It is a fortunate coincidence that I have the unique joy of working with Jessamyn Stanley – yoga instructor, body-positive advocate, and self-professed “fat femme” – through CodyApp. Jessamyn knows that representation matters, and believes it is so important for others to see a larger-bodied person completing postures and moving freely with confidence. But not only does Jessamyn show that people with bodies society has deemed “less-than” are fully capable of practicing yoga, she doesn’t hide her body in any of her videos. Watching her perform yoga shirtless and so full of confidence gave me confidence in return. Not because of a nasty “well at least someone fatter than me is going shirtless” attitude. But because the confidence Jessamyn had for her body made me think that one day, I could feel that confident going shirtless, too. Even if it was just for a moment, in that moment Jessamyn helped remind me that our bodies are perfectly normal.
For those of you who are looking at my author bio picture and scoffing at my ballyhooing about lacking body confidence because I’m a small woman, Jessamyn reminds us that “body discomfort and body negativity knows no size. Everybody has problems with themselves.”
There’s another woman that exemplifies this refusal to hide: Amy Pence-Brown, a mother who stripped to her undies in a busy marketplace to promote self-acceptance. A social experiment with many implications, she stood blindfolded holding a small blackboard which read “I’m standing for anyone who has struggled with a self-esteem issue like me, because all bodies are valuable. To support self-acceptance, draw a on my body.”

When I saw this video, I saw Amy Pence-Brown refusing to hide, and instead choosing to re-normalize what we perceive as “normal.” Why exactly do we need this re-normalization to happen?
Twenty years ago, the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today, she weighs 23% less. The average model is thinner than 98% of American women, and only 5% of women on the entire planet naturally sport model-like proportions.
William Leith over at the The Telegraph writes:
“The Big Bang Theory features four normal-looking blokes and a stunningly beautiful woman. New Girl is about two normal blokes, a guy who’s quite good looking, and two women who are… yes, strikingly beautiful. When I watch the news, on whatever channel, it’s presented by the classic partnership of an ordinary-looking guy and a gorgeous woman. After the news, I watch the weather. Male weather presenters look like standard males. Female weather presenters look like models…If you’re a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you’re normal looking, you feel ugly. And if you’re merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.” *Source
We as a whole have forgotten what “normal” women’s bodies look like. When the only images we are exposed to have been digitally altered to perfection, it is easy to lose sight of reality. Looking at a “normal” body in an un-retouched photo after years of image manipulation can be as jarring and strange as exiting a movie theatre during the daytime. It’s been so long, our eyes have adjusted to something different.
We have forgotten that perfectly healthy bodies have chub. We have forgotten how to be accepting of our own bodies. We have forgotten that we’re perfectly normal. Perfectly beautiful. Perfectly great. And goddamnit, if I have to be a one-woman crusade in showing people that it’s ok for your belly to pooch over your waistband, then I’ll do it. Because all over the country there are completely healthy girls so ashamed of their bodies they are hiding under baggy clothing, crying in dressing rooms, surreptitiously examining their stomachs in every reflective surface they pass, and experiencing anxiety over fucking swimsuits.

A photo posted by aerie (@aerie) on

And that – to me – is what is truly unacceptable here. Which is why I made myself uncomfortable for an hour of yoga. In hopes that I’ve added a little drop into a growing ocean of awareness and acceptance of all bodies. Because women are slowly reclaiming their bodies and someday “Mom Bod” will be not just a “thing” but a good thing, a representation of the fortitude of motherhood. Cellulite will not be derided as “cottage cheese thighs,” but something you have in common with Nicki Minaj.

When normal bodies become the new normal again, an immense pressure will be lifted off our chests, and all of us will Ujjayi Pranayama a little easier.


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Sophia Herbst

Sophia Herbst is a Seattle-based freelance writer, blogger, and proud feminist. When she's not writing for Cody, a health & fitness startup, she's practicing yoga and CrossFit.


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