Is It Okay To Want A Better Butt?

Reflections on Yoga and Body Image

Does this girl have an eating disorder? Should I talk to her after class?

I pondered these questions as I studied one of my students in downward facing dog. Her arms looked painfully thin and her waist was so narrow that, if she weren’t wearing a skin tight T-shirt, I might suspect she wore a corset — that’s how prominent her hip bones were.

However, her hair didn’t look undernourished, her teeth weren’t stained from purging, and I’ve met plenty of perfectly healthy stick figures. Maybe that was just her natural body shape…

Besides, I thought, feeling my own stomach absently, It’s not like you have much room to talk. Even if she does have an eating disorder, she’s only taking to extremes thoughts that you’ve had. I felt my face glow with the rising tide of hypocrisy.

Let me be clear: I do not have an eating disorder. I do, however, struggle with body image issues and more than a dollop of vanity. Friends and family reading the first part of that sentence might scoff (though they will probably admit the second). As a genetically blessed twenty four year old man who works out in some form (yoga, biking, or swimming) just about every day, I’m in good physical shape.

If I were to describe myself as a character in one of my novels I might say, “He was a tall, lean-muscled young man whose body attested to his easy life. His hands bore no calluses, his white skin only lightly touched by sun, and his was stomach slightly padded from rich food and leisure.”

My girlfriend and I call the slight padding around our midriffs “fluff” or “cookies” — as in, it’s where we keep the cookies we aren’t using. When we feel fat, which is often, we might say, “I feel fluffy,” or, “Do I look like I have a lot of cookies?”

I struggle with how to deal with these feelings. Sometimes I feel like I should simply accept my body. After all, my body is wonderful. It does nearly anything I ask it to, it looks great, works hard without complaining too much, and lets me experience the world. Shouldn’t I forgive it’s slight imperfections? Or, better yet, shouldn’t I try to shift my perspective so that I realize it’s already perfect?

This argument is fed by some of my readings about yoga.

In his book, Meditations from the Mat, Rolf Gates says, “Do not use [yoga practice] as a means to control your weight, or your appearance, or the effects of aging. Let your practice be a means to discover your fullness. Be vulnerable, be sad, be mad, be happy, but be there.”

When I think this way I work out less frequently and take easier yoga classes — sometimes replacing practicing yoga with meditation (another mindfulness practice). As a result, I tend to gain a little weight.

This weight gain inevitably leads me to gaze distastefully at the mirror, turning from left to right and sucking in my cookies. At these times I think, why should I pretend I don’t care about how I look? My body is so close to how I want it. I should just work a little harder, eat a little healthier, and I’ll be there.

This line of thinking is supported, if indirectly, by something that Sam Chase, one of my favorite senior teachers during yoga teacher training, said. Quoting loosely, he said, “People come to yoga for different reasons. Some people come for spiritual enlightenment, and that’s great. Some people so their butt will look better in their jeans, and that’s great too. As teachers, we should welcome students to the mat for whatever reason.”

This open philosophy resonates with me deeply — particularly because the judgments implicit in Gates’s quotation remind me of why I stopped practicing Judaism (the hierarchy created when one type of practice, and therefore one person, is set above another). When it holds sway I do work out every day, I stop putting sugar in my tea, switch from cream to milk in my coffee, and generally try to cut back on unhealthy snacking.

Because I’m young and healthy the changes in my body are gratifyingly rapid. If I’m good for two or three days I notice a difference. If I can sustain this lifestyle for two or three weeks I strut around like an Adonis.

However, questions always resurface. I’ll start to feel guilty about practicing to control my weight. I’ll think, why should I push myself this hard? I still look good without going to these extremes. I should resist this toxic celebrity culture and its impossible standards (this last thought drifting in from somewhere out of my liberal arts education).

On the mat we learn to accept our bodies. We learn to listen to their creaks, complaints, and gripes. We learn to respect our limits, but not always believe them (a topic for a whole post at another time).

Yet, I see many yogis, and yoga teachers, struggling with the issues of body image in the same ways I have. One of my good yoga teacher friends, who I won’t embarrass by naming, once asked my opinion on a shirt she was trying on. “What do you think of the back?” She asked. “Does it do weird things with my back fat?”

The shirt pushed the skin just below her arms up, giving the illusion that she was a little heavier than she actually was. “Umm,” I hedged.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “you’re right. It does make me look fat.”

“It’s not that bad,” I protested, because it was true. The shirt looked good and I probably wouldn’t have noticed the press of skin under her armpits if she hadn’t pointed it out.

“I know,” she admitted. “It’s just my own personal issues. If one of my girls had said that shirt made her look fat I would’ve told her not to be ridiculous.”

I hear stories like this all the time.

It seems we know we shouldn’t judge our bodies, but it’s another thing entirely to put that knowledge into practice. The challenge is compounded, in my own case at least, by the fact that I feel guilty about still wanting to lose “just those last three to five pounds.”

I worry sometimes about how much those words sound like someone with a weight disorder. Rationalizing, I’ll think, I don’t really want to lose weight, just replace a few pounds of fat with a few pounds of muscle. 

Gates talks about a similar phenomena in Meditations from the Mat. “Throughout my own spiritual journey, the behavior that has caused me the most suffering is not my anger, but my anger at having become angry in the first place…If I were being spiritual, I scold myself, then I wouldn’t get angry.”

This sounds a lot like what I do. Feeling guilty about wanting my body to be perfect has caused at least as much suffering in my life as my attachment to the idea of what I want my body to look like.

The solution, according to Gates, is not to, “succumb to the tyranny of our own self-judgement. We can observe our reactions with awareness, and let them go.”

This can be extremely challenging and, honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready to let go of my own impossible standards.

However, I can keep trying and I think I am ready to let go of feeling guilty about those standards. If I can manage that, I will have let go of half my suffering. Who knows? Maybe without my guilt contributing to its half of the cycle I may find myself ready to let go of my image attachment as well.

Like everything else, it’s a process.

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