Jessamyn Stanley

The Feministing Five: Jessamyn Stanley

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with the ever badass Jessamyn Stanley.  

Jessamyn Stanley Self-described “yoga enthusiast and fat femme,” Jessamyn’s Instagram and blog shares her progress with advanced yoga with the world. Along with showcasing her incredible poses and feats of strength, her blog is witty, insightful, and challenges pervasive (bullshit) patriarchal narratives of women’s athleticism. Even for those who haven’t tried yoga, Jessamyn encourages folks to relish challenging processes and to celebrate your achievements — even when they are difficult and you get kinda sweaty. In her words, “The beauty is in the valley. Who has ever learned something when it is easy and pretty?”

And now, the Feministing Five with Jessamyn Stanley!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. To get us started, could you please describe your yoga practice? 

Jessamyn Stanley: I would describe it as the way that I reset myself. It’s how I come back to normal, whatever normal is. When I began practicing, it was like, “I just have to do this so I don’t go crazy.” I was in graduate school, I was fundamentally unhappy, I was going through the end of a relationship, and it was a very stressful time. My yoga practice helped me to not think about things that were related to the shitty part of my life. It’s become the way that I remember the way that I actually am. On a day to day basis, I get very consumed in the boxes of our lives. My practice is the only time that I have to really remember and assert myself to myself.

My yoga practice is such a necessary part of my life. It’s such a cliche and I hate saying it, but I cannot imagine my life without it and I can’t remember my life before it. It is a monumental and transformational part of my life.

SB: When did you decide to share your practice with the wider world via social media and your writing? How did you decide to make this deeply personal practice public? 

JS: When I first began my practice, I began practicing in studios. When I moved to Durham, it was too expensive for me to practice in a studio so I started at home. When you practice at home, it can be hard to note your progress and so I started taking pictures of myself so I could work on my alignment and hone my practice. I noticed that there were other people posting photographs on Instagram and it was a cool way to create a kind of community. That was the initial purpose of me sharing — to check my alignment and to get advice from other people.

I noticed that there were other people who were also curvaceous who were also practicing and posting photos of it, but I largely noticed that they were not practicing advanced asana. That means back bends, inversions, etc. I thought that was kind of weird because I was working on poses like that, and I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t be working on that. Especially in the beginning, I was so surprised to have people be like, “Wow! I have never seen a curvy person do blank kind of pose,” because I was thinking, “Dude, I am so far from being the first person to do these things, and the fact that you don’t know that is a problem.” And so then I felt that it was so important to show what the community looks like. When I practice at home, I practice at very little to no clothing and I take photos of me wearing that because that’s how I actually am. That added significance has definitely fueled my feed, but at the end of the day, it’s still about checking my alignment.

SB: As a feminist, I feel very complicated when I make health and exercise a priority because I feel like it’s very easy to slip into messed up internalized standards of patriarchal beauty. I’ve actually been guided by one of your insights, which is to focus on “How do you feel” rather than “How do you look.” Could you explain more behind that idea? 

JS: It’s so funny because the difference between how you feel and how you look is the difference between self-realization and just trying to be beautiful in the eyes of men. For me, just to say, “How do I feel?” is a fucking revolutionary question. If you say, “What kind of clothes am I going to wear to the gym?” it’s totally based on “How do I look?” If you ask someone what would feel the best to work out in, you’re probably going to pick not that many clothes and the clothes that you are going to pick are going to be skin-tight. But if you get a larger-bodied woman in a room exercising, you’re going to see her fully covered. Just to get her to wear skin-tight clothing is a major thing.

The way I got to think about “How do I feel?” rather than “How do I look?” was because by the time I was in my practice, I was trying not to loose my mind. “How do I feel?” is the most important question when you are doing advanced asana. If it doesn’t feel good, then don’t do it. However, there is a difference between having something be uncomfortable and not feeling good, which is an important distinction.

When you recognize that you can feel good and it has nothing to do with how you look, that can start a revolution. Because no one in Western society is going to encourage you to think about how you feel. They all want to tell you how you feel based upon how you look. We’re just so confused. I can’t. It really bothers me with women my age and women who are older than me, but it especially bothers me with young folks. I was so impressionable in high school, and I grew up with an MTV idea of what beauty is and it’s so hard to find yourself in that image. I actually don’t think that folks like advertisers are trying to make you feel bad — they just want to make money, and they are trying to find the best way to do that.

SB: What’s a challenge in your work that is currently really exciting you? 

JS: One of my big things when I first started practice at home was that I saw people inverting themselves and I really wanted to do that. It’s been a focus for me for the past two years. There is so much strength and conditioning that has to happen before you even start trying to go upside down. I have learned what strength is. It’s about strengthening your core but also letting go of thoughts like, “My ass is so big, how is it going to get over my shoulders?” Burning away that idea is so hard and it takes months.

When you work on things like plank pose, you remember who you actually are. You are coming back to this genuine origin, that childlike wonder. When you are a kid, you think you can do anything. Right now, I’m also working on arm balancing and I have a lot wrist issues. Less than the actual injury, I have a mental block against my wrists. Even in basic poses, I’m panicked about it.

Again, this goes back to this idea of perfection. Folks think that people who post photos of themselves are at this place of perfection. But we are still working on how to get past the blockages that we have created. For me, it’s trying to get past those little damning ideas that totally inhibit growth. It’s the hardest part of the practice but it’s the most satisfying. It’s what you carry with you off the mat.

SB: You’re stranded on a desert island. You can take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. 

JS: For drink, I’m assuming that there is water so I’ll bring a really excellent Arnold Palmer, with un-sweetened iced tea and perfect lemonade. For food, I’ll bring my mom’s mac and cheese because it’s amazing. For a feminist, I’d bring Beth Ditto, the lead singer of Gossip as well as a prominent fat activist, and Jincey Lumpkin, a queer pornographer producer. I think both of their work is so important for body celebrations!

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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