in review, the personal is still political

original upload by BAM’s Blog

Unless you’ve been in yoga nidra for a week, then you know that Judith Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal about how she felt about nudity in yoga advertising set the yoga blogosphere on fire. In case you missed her letter, here it is:

“Yoga Journal was born in my living room in Berkeley in 1975, where I was one of five yoga practitioner-teachers who gathered to create the magazine. I have loved the magazine ever since. But I’m concerned about ads that have stimulated both confusion and sadness in me about where the magazine is now and where it is headed.

I am confused because I do not understand how photos of naked or half-naked women are connected with the sale of practice products for asana, an important part of yoga. These pictures do not teach the viewer about yoga practice or themselves. They aren’t even about the celebration of the beauty of the human body or the beauty of the poses, which I support. These ads are just about selling a product. This approach is something I though belonged (unfortunately) to the larger culture, but not in Yoga Journal.

Finally, I feel sad because it seems that Yoga Journal has become just another voice for the status quo and not for elevating us to the higher values of yoga: spiritual integration, compassion and selfless service. My request is that Yoga Journal doesn’t run ads with photos that exploit the sexuality of young women in order to sell products or more magazines. Thank you for your attention and willingness to hear another point of view.

Judith Hanson Lasater
San Francisco, CA”

The comments both pro and con about Lasater’s letter flew fast and furious in Roseanne’s blog (cited above) and in elephant journal. There was overwhelming support for Lasater on her Facebook page where she said that it was not her intention to harm Yoga Journal: “It is my intention to open the dialogue and be clear about what my values are.”

Indeed she did.

Both Brooks Hall and Carol Horton wrote eloquently about the maelstrom. But Nikki Chau said on her Facebook page that Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal “was *not* about the Toesox ads with Kathryn Budig.”

Whew. And now it’s my turn.

Brooks said that how we react to seeing nudity is personal. Of course it is, and to that I say, the personal is political. I am not a feminist scholar but I am a feminist, a word that many women nowadays shy away from.

“The personal is political” was a mantra of the ’70s feminist movement. The saying comes directly from an essay written by radical feminist Carol Hanisch in 1969, and was a way to convey to women who were suffering in silence that their individual experiences were, in fact, instances of cultural sexism.

The sentence indicates that many of our personal problems, and specifically women’s personal problems throughout history, have been political — sometimes created by, definitely supported by, and ultimately addressed by politics. In this case, the politics of advertising.

“Sex, Lies, and Advertising,” was an article written by Gloria Steinem for Ms. Magazine in 1990. She discussed the aspects of feminism and how advertising venues such as magazines use women to sell products. Advertisers have been using women to sell products since the late 1800’s, but according to Steinem, using women became the natural way to advertise and sell products, but is it right to do so?

Advertisers use women to sell anything and everything. Madison Avenue knows that beautiful women are the tools that draw in consumers to buy the products that they supposedly need and ultimately want to buy. That’s Advertising 101. Using a naked woman in yoga product advertising is no different from a using a naked woman to sell a car. Just because it’s yoga, that makes the ad more “artistic”? A naked body is a naked body whether it’s used to sell a yoga mat or tires. Why are some in denial that in the advertising game a naked body = sex or at least sexiness? Advertising is about selling fantasy. At least the ads for porn are honest, they know what they are selling.

So whether or not Lasater was writing about the ToeSox ad in particular doesn’t matter. What would the reaction be if a naked male yogi was only wearing socks? The fact is that a naked man would never be used to sell those socks. Ever.

That’s the whole point.

I have no idea who Kathryn Budig is and I am sure no one forced her to take off her clothes. She probably was paid good money to pose naked and ToeSox probably sold a lot of socks. She has the right to take off her clothes for commercial purposes and ToeSox has the right to make a profit.

But I can tell you that every time I saw her ad in Yoga Journal I rolled my eyes and said “again?” The ad does not make me want to run out to buy something I don’t need and it does not make me aspire to be her as some commenters at elephant journal have suggested.

So when I read Lasater’s letter I yelled “right on” just like I did when I marched for women’s rights back in the day. Then I started reading the comments directed toward Lasater’s supporters and that’s when the personal once again became political for me.

Not to get into my life story, but I’m no prude. I’m not an anti-pornography feminist like Andrea Dworkin was and I’ve sat naked in the communal hot tubs of Esalen. But what was more offensive to me than seeing a naked woman used to sell a yoga product YET AGAIN, were the comments that if we disagree with ads using nudity, then we must:

1. hate nudity;
2. hate the female form;
3. hate sex
4. have a problem with our own sexuality;
5. be repressed;
6. be close minded
7. etc., etc. etc.

From elephant journal, posting its Facebook comments:

“In my opinion “it takes one to know one” and if anyone sees anything perverse about a girl with no clothes on, then the perversion is in their head in the first place….I would hazard a guess that the Ladies…probably wish deep down that they could be in that pic as well!”

[this guy doesn't even know how sexist that statement is -- so much for sensitive yoga guys.]

“Those offended may need to seriously consider gaining a deeper relationship with that oNe in the mirror there.”

we all need to get a little more comfortable with sex and the nude body (our own or otherwise)”

“It’s sad when our culture looks at beautiful photos like these and automatically switches into auto pilot and think – SEX. Are we really that much out of tune with our bodies and self.”

One female commenter told me that my “tone is full of rage not compassion. Relax. It’s an ad. 30 seconds from now another will take its place and it will be forgotten.”

Yes, and that’s the problem.

As for the armchair diagnosis of “rage”….what?  Say again? I’m getting a flashback of being told that we were a bunch of angry bitches.  I’m waiting for the “and you all need to get laid” comment.

My oh my….the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still. Even after almost 40 years.

To those comments I say: BULLSHIT.

I’m not as eloquent a writer as Judith Lasater, but I cut to the chase.

Those are the same types of comments I heard as a young feminist back in the early ’70s…that just because one is offended by a naked woman selling cars, perfume, clothes, or yoga crap that we don’t need, there must be something “wrong” with our outlook, there is something “wrong” with us. We were patted on the head with the comment “lighten up, honey, it’s no big deal.”

Yes, it IS a big deal in the larger context.

The larger context is not that nudity is used to sell a yoga product (and a half-naked woman is used in the latest issue to sell a Yoga Journal conference) — the problem is that naked women are STILL used to sell everything. As Cyndi Lee said at Roseanne’s blog: “It is NEVER okay to use women’s bodies to sell ANYTHING EVER. Not in Yoga Journal or any other medium. If you don’t get this, then learn about the awful things that are being done to women all over the world right now because people view them as objects.”

Lasater’s letter started a powerful discussion on the commodification and values implicit in yoga ads. What is interesting to me is how so many of the commenters on elephant journal and Facebook got caught up in the nudity issue and thereby missed the essential point: that Lasater’s letter was a question on “where the magazine is now and where it is headed.” If she attacked anything, it was the status quo. To those people who can’t see that, I say take off your blinders.

We’ve become blind to the use of women’s bodies in advertising, whether it is “artistic” or not, and our blindness is avidya, i.e., “not seeing.” Yoga is supposed to be the means by which our blinders are removed so that we can awaken from our avidya.

As Gloria Steinem asked in 1990, can’t we do better than this?

Anne Cushman asked the same question in 2003 with her article in the Shambhala Sun, “Yoga Chic and the First Noble Truth.” Anne says that yoga and meditation are ultimately about turning our eyes away from the airbrushed images of the outside world and looking deep within our own hearts.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these yoga pin ups, in and of themselves…The problem comes when we start to compare ourselves with these glossy images and imagine how utterly happy and fulfilled we would be if we looked like that….

 

So lately, I’m looking for a different kind of image to inspire my practice. The book I’m shopping for would show pictures of all sorts of people doing yoga and meditating. There would be old people, fat people, scarred people, profusely hairy people, people with bad skin and big noses, people with thighs riddled with cellulite, people with droopy breasts and flabby thighs and faces etched with lines from hard living. There would be people with cerebral palsy, people gone bald from chemotherapy, people paralyzed by drive-by shootings, people who’d lost limbs in wars. Some people would do the poses perfectly. Others would do them clumsily, propped up on sandbags and bolsters, unable even to touch their fingertips to the floor.

 

All of us would be reflected in this book’s pages.”

Why are we satisfied with the status quo?

For me, yoga is a vehicle for transformation and that value is lost when we settle for the old, stale paradigms repackaged as “progressive” or “enlightened.”

In an effort to market their cigarettes to women in the late 1960s Virginia Slims used the ad slogan “you’ve come a long way, baby.”

Have we?

About these ads

16 thoughts on “in review, the personal is still political

  1. This has become facinating on so many different levels and I don't think it really can be quantified and isolated into just one categorical discussion because of that complextity.

    When I first read J. Lasater's letter to the editor, I saw it as a commentary on the whole of advertising in the magazine, not a bashing of the ToeSox adds and agree completely with paragraph:

    The larger context is not that nudity is used to sell a yoga product (and a half-naked woman is used in the latest issue to sell a Yoga Journal conference); the problem is that naked women are STILL used to sell everything.

    However, noting that the rest of the paragraph goes on to say:
    As Cyndi Lee said at Roseanne's blog: “It is NEVER okay to use women’s bodies to sell ANYTHING EVER. Not in Yoga Journal or any other medium. If you don’t get this, then learn about the awful things that are being done to women all over the world right now because people view them as objects.”

    My observation becomes – so it's okay to use men/children/elders in advertising? Just not women because they are being objectified? Or do we forbid the use of any human image to be displayed?

    I've watched some horrifying independent films on PBS about the treatment of women in Russia/ Africa/Afghanistan. I see how the model/diet/Hollywood industry is adversely affecting young tweens/teens and body image.

    But I struggle with the idea if we remove these nekkid women and partially nekkid women from a yoga magazine and replace them with…what? Buff young men? Old saggy yogis? That this discussion wouldn't then warp into sexism and the exclusion of women from equality in advertising and a right to do what they want with their bodies.

    Which then leads into an awareness of ones actions…

    Which then leads into a discussion of equality…

    Which then leads into an arguement about art vs exploitation…

    Oy. It becomes complex and confusing.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts!

  2. I think “what is the intention?” is always a question to ask.

    of course we can't “forbid the use of any human image to be displayed.”

    for one thing, that would put a lot of people out of work! but more importantly, it's not the “Middle Path.”

    going from one extreme to the other is never any good.

    thanks for reading!

  3. Phew..all the drama…all I can say is that:
    1.Everybody has a body, and
    2. Yoga journal is a magazine which advertises like any other magazine.
    Maybe I like to see things simply, but I like to think of it as Equanimity. And yes, it is 'my' view, just as each person will have their own view, and that OKAY. But people just remember it's a 'magazine'.
    KB

  4. Am so glad you posted about this Linda. As I read it, what came to mind was a rather sad memory from teaching some years ago.

    I used to teach yoga in a locked institution – gentle yoga to women. Over the years I taught there, they got a lot out of it (as did I). When I first started teaching there, the social worker asked me if I could find any nice photographs of “ordinary women” doing yoga poses for a display board. The display board was to encourage the women to take part in the yoga class.

    I hunted and hunted for some images …. and all I could find was pictures of skinny beautiful women doing pretzel poses … Eventually I came across a book by Christina Sell called Yoga Inside Out which had some basic black and white images of large joyful women doing yoga. I photocopied the images and together with the very few images of “regular” sized people I came across in YJ (and they were a handful) we managed to put a board display together.

    I remember the women looking at the display and how I really had to encourage them to try the yoga – that it was for them and that you didn't have to be skinny and super flexible or fold yourself into a pretzel to do yoga. That gentle yoga and relaxation was powerful and healing too. And, through our classes together they became aware of this and I learnt a lot from them too .. about strength, resilience and the capacity to endure.

    The whole poster board experience made me aware of how much the YJ (and other corporations) images of yoga have corrupted yoga – that regular people think it's not “for them.” That you can only do yoga if you are already skinny and flexible and boy you better wear that hot little yoga top too! – just to draw attention to how hot and skinny and flexible you are!

    More recently I was teaching a group of seniors (over 60) in a completely different setting. One of the women commented to me how much my comments about everyone being okay as they are had impacted on her. She was a large lady and she talked about how hollywood and women's magazines are always going on about body image negatively and the impact that my comments about self acceptance had made on her … she said we needed a lot more of the self acceptance comments in the wider world.

    On one level I was very touched that my comments had impacted her that way. On another level I was desperately sad … here is a woman in her sixties who has been impacted by the societal message that “we are not enough” for a good chunk of her life …

    I think what really gets me about the YJ (and other corporate yoga ads) is that they fly so much in the face of yoga philosophy.

    Yoga (to me) is about self acceptance, about us as individuals being enough as we are – being whole as we are – being beautiful and okay as we are … and the whole practice is predicated on building a stronger connection with our own wholeness.

    Advertising philosophy is completely counter to this .. advertising teaches us that we are incomplete without this “thing” … whether it's a product like toesocks (my eyes roll here!) or a yogurt called asana or the latest Rodney Yee dvd or that hot little yoga top …. whatever it is, advertising teaches that we are not complete in ourselves, we are lacking and we need to buy something to make up for that lack. Which is SO counter to what yoga is.

    Thanks for listening.
    Angela

  5. Really loved your comment Angela…
    “Yoga (to me) is about self acceptance, about us as individuals being enough as we are – being whole as we are – being beautiful and okay as we are … and the whole practice is predicated on building a stronger connection with our own wholeness.”
    Beautiful,
    KB

  6. i love this post, linda, and thanks for putting this whole crazy affair into a bigger context.

    i also love angela's story, and i think it exemplifies the danger with this kind of imagery of yoga. it's a disservice to yoga, it's a disservice to potential practitioners.

  7. Linda this is probably one of the best blog posts I've read in a while, not just about sox-gate but in general.

    I've avoided getting involved in it all to be honest. I know what I think and then you write almost exactly my feelings on the matter far more eloquently than I could.

    Thank you. I am forwarding this to mum who has been quite vocal on the whole thing. She'll enjoy it :)

  8. Great post, Linda. Thank you for putting this conversation into a historical context. There are so many things to respond to. First, I’m sad that those of us who have expressed discomfort with selling yoga with nude or semi-nude young women have often been cast as anti-nudity, prudish and repressed. Name-calling conveniently dismisses our point of view as invalid, and it stops the conversation. For the record, when I was a student in Bloomington, Indiana, I spent most of three summers at the limestone quarries where everyone shed their clothing and hung out (no pun intended).

    You so eloquently explain the feminist side of this issue that I have nothing to add except, “Thank you!”

    My main concern with the popular images of yoga is that they misrepresent yoga. Yoga is not about “perfect” bodies doing “perfect” poses. Yoga (not just asana, but all eight limbs) is about so much more than the body. The body is a miraculous vehicle, and asana helps us hone the body to create a more easeful environment for the mind to come to rest. Strength, flexibility and tone might be by-products of practice, but they are not the point. The point, according to the sutras, is the settling of the mind into silence.

    Accomplishing advanced asanas with perfect form does not a yogi make. In fact, relatively few who embark on an asana practice are born with structures that are amenable to performing many of the “advanced” poses. I was born with such a body (my dad was a gymnast and I inherited his structure). I enjoyed practicing “advanced” postures 25 years ago. It was fun. But performing advanced poses certainly did not make me a more wise or compassionate person. It was mindfulness practice that has helped me sometimes see through illusion.

    Mastery of asana, according to the yoga sutras has nothing to do with perfect or advanced poses. Sutra 2.47 explains mastery (Alistair Shearer’s translation): “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” What this means to me is that anyone—large or small, young or old, able-bodied or not—can master asana because it is not dependent on what your body can or can’t do. It’s not about pushing harder and further. It’s about relaxing effort. It’s about being.

  9. This is such a massive post, no wonder you're feeling exhausted.

    In some ways I think it's just a damn shame that we have to be writing posts about things like this at all.

    But then only today, I read a news article about a woman in Iran who is going to be stoned to death because she has been accused of adultery. So I guess this world still has a long way to go.

    In the west, sexism towards women is much subtler, and often confused with “girl power” (women taking back their own rights to do what the hell they want with their bodies).

    Advertising is never art. And while I am not personally offended by the nude Toe Sox ad, I simply don't get the connection between a naked yogi and socks. Seriously.

    (Like several others, of course, I can't even FATHOM doing yoga any other way than bare foot)

    Anyhooo, hopefully all that needs to be said about this topic has been said and done. I doubt very much that this kerfuffle has done much to change the minds of those who create such sensationalist ads with only one purpose – to sell their product – but hey, it's always good to clarify our own thoughts on such things.

    Well done Linda, on writing such a comprehensive post!

  10. Well said. Judging by the images used to sell yoga, tranquilly doesn't come with wrinkles, frizzy hair, blemishes or a pot belly. The outside doesn't always reflect what's going on in the inside. Not sure if the status quo will ever change, but at least we can educate ourselves to know better.

  11. Pingback: enough’s enough | linda's yoga journey

  12. Thank you so much for this article! IT was finally the articulated response I feel in my gut when I open Yoga Journal for peace and have to literally tear out those ads in fits of rage! You are wonderful.

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