20 Apr Accept Yourself
Yoga instructor, author, and fierce advocate Jessamyn Stanley is a reluctant role model for the “body liberation” movement
By Jackie Krentzman
In 2018, Jessamyn Stanley and a cofounder launched the subscription-based streaming yoga instruction and wellness app, The Under-
belly. Stanley, a yoga teacher, advocate for what she calls the body liberation movement, and Instagram influencer, wanted to create a forum and yoga instruction site to welcome women of all shapes, sizes, and colors who feel “overlooked and underserved by the wellness industry” and to help them be comfortable in their bodies.
“My cofounder, Mary Carr, and I wanted to celebrate the pieces of ourselves that are hidden away,” says Stanley from her home in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina. “The underbelly is the soft skin you don’t want to show any- body out of fear of being vulnerable. But yoga is all about reckoning with the hard stuff, so the name seemed to fit.” Stanley’s life has been all about reckoning with the hard stuff. She grew up in a small town in rural North Carolina. Her father, a UPS driver, was an amateur body builder and was passionate about Pilates. Her mother was into some forms of wellness, such as using echinacea “way before it was trendy” and making grain smoothies. She introduced Jessamyn to Yoga Journal and to yoga teachers such as Dianne Bondi who, says Jessamyn, “are fat-bodied teachers who have done so much work to amplify marginalized voices.”
Stanley sees parallels with her own work and her maternal grandmother’s gregarious personality. “I recognize more and more each day the impact my grandmother had on me,” says Stanley, who is 33. “She was the kind of person who had deep, intimate conversations with strangers—and now that is what my life is all about.”
Her path to stardom on Instagram (she has more than 550,000 followers) and within the body liberation (also called “body positive”) movement was circuitous. In 2010, after graduating from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, she began graduate school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, studying perform- ing arts management. Like many people in their early 20s, she was filled with doubt and asking herself questions such as, “What am I doing? Is this what I want to be doing the rest of my life?”
One day, a classmate suggested she try a yoga class. Initially, Stanley scoffed at the idea. She had tried yoga in high school and hated it, in part because as a large, queer, Black woman, she was self- conscious about failing to fit into the idealized mold underlying yoga— skinny, straight, white women—and felt marginalized. But she gave it a try. The experience was life altering.
“Going into it, I didn’t realize how many boundaries I had created for myself, starting as a child,” she says. “I would think, for example, ‘I’m not good at this, why should I even try?’” “So, at first, even though I was sticking with it, it was tough. I was the only fat person and the only Black person in the room, and that was alienating. The class was in Bikram Yoga, in which you are always facing a mirror. That in itself was a disarming experience—as a fat person, I spent years avoiding mirrors.”
Still, she decided it was time to take a good hard look at herself and keep trying. “Maybe I would fail and feel humiliated, but maybe not. That decision awakened me [to the concept of trying].” Stanley says she had been interested in the fat acceptance and fat positivity movement before the yoga class. But the class spurred her to action, and she began practicing yoga at home as well as in the class. She also started taking photos of her yoga practice and, in the process, came face-to-face with the debilitating shame she carried about her body.
“When I started practicing at home and started taking photos of my practice, I saw the rampant body shaming within myself,” she says. “I was forced to wrestle with this dynamic, so I began to utilize my practice as a means of accepting myself— not trying to fix myself, which is what the media and Internet push.”
Stanley readily admits she is still a body shamer. “I accept that as a piece of who I am,” she says. That class not only launched Stanley on a course of self-reflection—but also launched hundreds of thousands of Instagram posts and followers. Turns out, there is a huge audience for women who struggled with accepting their bodies and who wanted to practice yoga, but previously had been scared to try. Stanley posted her photos with her unvarnished reflections, and her social media presence grew, and teaching yoga soon became her livelihood.
Stanley has been popular in the mainstream media as well. She has been featured in the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Allure, BuzzFeed, Shape, Out magazine, New York magazine, the Guardian, and Forbes, and on Good Morning America. She broke boundaries for plus-size bodies with her February 2019 Yoga Journal cover. She was also one of several women featured in the Adidas 2020 Reimagine Sport campaign, which challenged old stereotypes of what it means to be athletic and celebrated movement of all kinds.
Stanley calls herself a “reluctant role model.” She didn’t get into yoga to become a leader of a movement, but as part of a wellness lifestyle. Her goal, she says, was to reclaim her freedom and ownership of herself.
“Initially, I started posting my yoga practice and held classes on social media to be connected to a larger community,” she says. “I began getting feedback like ‘I didn’t know fat people can do yoga.’” Yet, her honesty and embrace of her own body have turned her into a role model for women whose bodies are all sizes and shapes and don’t conform to the model established by the main- stream fitness and beauty industry.
“Jessamyn’s impact stretches beyond empowering those who traditionally have not been cast for the mainstream spotlight to informing and holding accountable those who have,” says Stanley’s colleague, Tracy G, a wellness artist and podcaster. “Jessamyn doesn’t wait to be called to a stage to claim her worth. She understands that every inch of ground she stands on is the stage and that the loudest applause always comes from within. And this isn’t energy or wisdom she hoards. She passes it like it were a blunt with her people-—through her lived experiences, especially with yoga and wellness.”
Apparently, some people thought Black people couldn’t do yoga either. Stanley says she began noticing the racism inherent in the yoga world soon after beginning her practice. Despite yoga’s seeming inclusiveness and sometimes spiritual vibe, she says, it is no different than any other institution or practice. “The racism in yoga has always been clear to me, just like it is in every facet of our world,” Stanley says. “When I first began going to yoga studios, I was the only Black person, and I was very conscious of that.”
Tracy G calls Stanley a game changer for Black women, helping them accept not only their bodies but their right to take up space and be their authentic selves. “When it feels like the world is going out of its way to hide, rob, or splinter joy from Black women, Jessamyn says f*** that,” says Tracy G. “And she translates it in all forms of communication, such as written reflections, raw podcast episodes, nourishing movement [through yoga], and resonating imagery. Jessamyn’s a modern- day cartographer, always handing out maps on how to continuously spot, amplify, share, and own all the joy this life has to offer.”
Stanley’s yoga, wellness, and com- munity app, The Underbelly, draws in people of all races, including white women. She isn’t sure if they are there to absolve white guilt or to genuinely engage and address racism through this millennia-old practice. She says that, in her classes, she is careful to call out racism if she sees it—not to shame some- one, but to use it as a springboard for conversation around race and growth. “There are so many different yoga studios with teachers who say, ‘We want it to be more diverse, where everyone feels included. How do we do that?’ I say, ‘Let’s start by talking about how you don’t have anyone of color in your classes now.’ If you can talk about it—approach these hard postures with a beginner’s mind— we can all deal and grow.”
On her Instagram feed, the doubters more often tend to be people who take exception to her message that you can be fat and beautiful and healthy. The vast majority of comments, however, are positive and grateful— “I love you, I love you, I love you! You’ve helped me feel comfortable in my body when I haven’t in a long ass time.” When Stanley was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK, she received her share of hate mail, or, in this case, Twitter posts, for daring to be a large Black woman unashamedly showing her body in a leotard (or less). She and the magazine were excoriated for promoting obesity as healthy.
Stanley tends to be accepting, or at least resigned, to the vitriol. “Reaction to my Cosmo UK digital cover showed me that that fat shaming is alive and well in the wellness industry. That is a natural reaction many of us have to things different from our chosen perspective in life. It’s like coughing up phlegm, clearing the way so new ideas can exist. Not everyone needs to agree to me. I know I have to live my truth and only get one life to do so.”
She puts the fat shaming under a broader, intersectional lens. “I think the fat shaming is directly connected to the white supremacy of yoga,” she says. “The ideal yoga body is considered thin, white, able-bodied, cis[gender] feminine—that idea is a manifestation of traditional marketing culture, which assumes white women are the ones buying things and so we should market to them. That ideal is presented as what healthy is. And today, in the United States, most people consider yoga a fitness practice, when in truth it is as much a spiritual practice.”
Despite the challenges, Stanley says she has seen great progress in the yoga industry since she began around 10 years ago. “From 2014 to now is like two different yoga worlds. Some of it is performative, and keeping up with times, in that now it is a trendy thing to talk about fat phobia and the inter- section of body acceptance and racism. But I do also see companies and individuals becoming less fat phobic.”
In her quest to live her authentic life to the fullest, Stanley has a dizzying number of projects in process. In addition to regularly teaching yoga on The Underbelly, she is finishing her second book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self- Acceptance, out in June (her first book, Every Body Yoga, came out in 2017 and has sold 59,000 copies to date). She is a cofounder of We Go High NC, a cannabis justice organization working to increase cannabis access in prohibition states like North Carolina. That’s not all: her Dear Jessamyn podcast was included in a list of the top sex podcasts in 2020 by Harper’s Bazaar.
The connective tissue between all these projects? They are all built upon her underlying message of self-acceptance. “I think it important for everyone to take up space no matter how you look or identify,” Stanley says. “We are here to shine bright and take up space. Mainstream fitness is all about making yourself small to fit in a predetermined box. I fundamentally disagree with that. The universe has asked me to ex- perience life fully through being Black, fat, queer, and Bahá’í. What I noticed through connecting with people on social media is that I may sound unique—but I am not unusual at all. I am representative of the mainstream in many ways, the only difference being I am comfortable embracing who I am.” DW