The yogi and Instagram sensation talks about why 'body positivity' is such a confused concept, how the 'fat yoga' label is limiting, and her process of 'reclaiming' her body
We've been huge fans of yoga instructor and body pos activist Jessamyn Stanley ever since she first drew headlines early last year. Since then, she's taken the Instagram and yoga world by storm—and now has a loyal fan base of 168,000 followers and counting. And as we recently learned on set with her (in between her stints traveling the world teaching yoga!), it's about so much more than cool poses on Instagram. (Although yes, her handstands are seriously impressive.) Beyond likes and followers, her approach to yoga, as well as her take on topics like body positivity, 'fat yoga,' and traditional stereotypes around the 'yoga body' and lifestyle are totally refreshing and mind-opening. Get to know this self-proclaimed 'fat femme' and 'yoga enthusiast,' and prepare to fall in love with her even more. (Be sure to check out Jessamyn and other badass empowering women in our #LoveMyShape gallery.)
Shape: The word 'fat' is one you use to identify yourself on all of your online platforms. What's your relationship with that word?
Jessamyn Stanley [JS]: I use the word fat because frankly, there is way too much negativity built around that word. It's something that's been turned into an equivalent for stupid, unhealthy, or like calling someone a dirty beast. And because of that no one wants to hear it. If you call someone fat, it's like the ultimate insult. And to me that's bizarre because it's just an adjective. It literally just means 'large'. If I looked up the word fat in the dictionary it would be completely logical to see my photo next to it. So, what's wrong with using that word?
Still, I'm very careful to not call other people fat because so many people would rather be called 'curvy' or 'voluptuous' or 'plus-size' or whatever. That's their prerogative, but ultimately, words only have negative power if you give them negative power.
Shape: As someone who embraces labels, what do you think of the 'fat yoga' category and trend? Is this a good thing for the body positive movement?
JS: I say 'fat yoga' and to me it's like, being fat and practicing yoga. For some people 'fat yoga' means only fat people can practice this style of yoga. I'm not a separatist, but some people think it's important for us to have our own thing. My problem with labeling fat yoga is that it turns into the idea that there are only certain kinds of yoga that fat people can do. And that if you're not doing fat yoga that you're not allowed to do yoga.
Within the body positive community and the body positive yoga community, there are a lot of people who tend to think that if you're larger bodied there are only certain kinds of poses you can do. I came up in classes where every body type was there, not just fat people. And I succeeded in those classes and I see other fat bodied people succeeding in those classes all the time all over the world. There should never be a yoga class that a fat person walks into where they feel like they don't belong. You should be able to do everything from forrest yoga to aerial yoga to jivamukti to vinyasa, whatever it is. You need to be cool enough with yourself and not feel like well, there's not you know, ten fat people in here so I can't do it or, the teacher's not fat so I can't do it. That kind of mentality happens when you label. You limit yourself and you limit other people.
Shape: You've talked about how being a larger-bodied person is actually a valuable tool in yoga. Can you elaborate?
JS: A big thing is that people don't recognize that our bodies—all of these little pieces—are connected to one another and you need to see yourself as a united being. Before I started photographing my practice, I would hate on different parts of my body, particularly my belly because it's always been very large. My arms flap around, my thighs are very large. So you think, 'My life would be so much better if my stomach were smaller' or 'I could be doing this pose so much better if I had smaller thighs'. You think like that for so long and then you realize, especially as you start photographing yourself, that Wait, my belly might be big, but it's a huge part of what's happening here. It's very present. And I need to respect that. I can't just sit here and be like, 'I just wish my body was different.' Everything could be different, would be different. When you accept that you can accept the strength your body parts are actually giving you.
I have really thick thighs, which means I have a lot of cushion around my muscles when I'm in long-standing poses. So ultimately if I think 'Oh my god it's burning it's burning it's burning,' then I think, 'Ok, well I guess it's burning the fat that's sitting on top of the muscles and you're fine. You've got some insulation there, it's fine!' It's stuff like that. If you are a larger bodied person, a lot of poses can be hell. For example, if you have a lot of belly and a lot of breasts, and you come into child's pose, there can be a lot of impact on the ground, and it just feels like a nightmare to be there. But if you put a bolster underneath yourself, you just make a little bit more space for yourself. It's about being OK with that and not saying, 'God, if I wasn't so fat, I could enjoy this more.' That's not really a thing. There are a lot smaller bodied people who don't enjoy it as well. Find a way to enjoy it today.
Shape: You've talked about how the "typical yoga body" is damaging. How does what you do work to turn those traditional stereotypes on their head?
JS: It's more than just the body, it's the whole lifestyle that goes along with it—it's this idea of the Lululemon-shopping, going to studios all the time, going on retreats, having a Yoga Journal subscription woman. It creates this idea of what your life could be as opposed to what it is. It's just aspirational. There are so many people like that on Instagram right now. They're fabricating an idea that doesn't exist. It's like, My life is so beautiful and yours could be too if you do x, y, z, things. I'm in this place of, I want to live my life and be OK on a day-to-day basis, and that means accepting that not everything about my life is perfect, or pretty. There are some very real rough edges to my life. I'm a private person, but as much as I can show those things to other people, I want to. Because you need to see that the yoga lifestyle is every lifestyle. (Here, more on why the 'yoga body' stereotype is BS.)
Shape: Do you still deal with body shaming on a regular basis?
JS: Absolutely. 100 percent. All of the time. It happens to me even in my classes at home. When I'm at home, I teach a Tuesday noon class, and there are a lot of recurring students that come back, and then people who come because they know me from the Internet. But then there are some people who come just to practice yoga and don't know anything about me. And I see it on their faces when they walk in and see me. They're like, whaaaaat? And then they're like, 'Are you the teacher?' And when I tell them yeah, you see this look on their face. And you know they're thinking, how is this fat girl going to teach me? I thought I was going to yoga, I thought I was going to get healthy, but she's in here. You can see it. And it's always the same person who at the end of class is dropping sweat, and so blown away. But you can't be pissed, you just have to realize that by living your life that has an effect on people. So, it doesn't really bother me that people are still prejudiced against me.
I've noticed this with Valerie Sagin— biggalyoga on Instagram—who's also a plus-sized yoga teacher and a good friend of mine. She experiences a lot of body shaming from students, other teachers, and from studio owners. Valerie and me, we get by because we're on the Internet, so ultimately people can look and say, 'Oh, I saw her doing blank pose.' It's like you have a secret password. But that's not the case for everybody. I've heard so many students tell me stories about being shamed out of class. Or where the teacher comes in and says, 'It's going to be really difficult if you're fat' and 'If you're not healthy, this is going to be hard.' It's totally normalized in the yoga world. The people doing it don't question it because they think it's an issue of health, and they think they're doing you a favor.
But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you have three out of four of your limbs; it doesn't matter if you're fat, short, tall, male, female, or somewhere in between. None of that matters. All that matters is that we're human and trying to breathe together.
Shape: In a recent Instagram post, you described yourself as a "fat human in the stages of body reclamation." What does it mean to 'reclaim' your body?
JS: Literally everything—the job you have, the clothes you wear, the person you date—relates to how you physically appear to other people. So I can't say, 'I don't care about that anymore. It doesn't matter to me how my body looks to other people. It's not a thing.' That requires rewriting the book from the beginning. So to me—that quote you were talking about is when I in Dubai eating by the pool—it means eating in public in front of other people. That's something a lot of women are very uncomfortable doing. It's about wearing a bikini in front of people. It's about not caring about the clothes that I wear and how they'll affect other people. It's a very long process and there are curves, and there are bad days and good days, and it's intense, but yoga helps with that. It helps you realize it's all going to be fine at the end of the day.
Shape: While there's obviously a ton of work to be done still, can you speak to the progress around the body positive movement? Have the stereotypes improved even a little bit?
JS: I think it's improved, but body positivity is a very confused concept. (See: Is The Body Positive Movement All Talk?) I still see a lot of people who think that they are body positive, but they're not really. And I'm talking about people that I love and respect as teachers. They say, 'Everybody should be comfortable with themselves,' but ultimately they're just saying the same bullshit over and over gain. In that regard, we still have a long way to go. But the fact that this is even being addressed by an outlet like Shape is massive. It's one thing to be shouting into the ether of the Internet, 'Everybody love yourself!', it's another thing for an outlet that reaches quite a large number of people to say, 'This is something we need to be concerned about.' That, to me, is the mark of change. Yeah, things could be a lot better, and I think a year from now even, we'll look back and realize, wow, it was such a different time back then. There have been so many little steps, but it's going so far and we're reaching so many people literally across the whole planet.