Yoga Boss Jessamyn Stanley: “You can’t look for your love in the feedback of strangers”

Sometimes, in order to create change, you have to lead by example, and Jessamyn Stanley is doing that through yoga. The self-described “fat femme” encourages people who might not fit the stereotype to try yoga for themselves.

The 29-year-old recently wrote the book, Every Body Yoga, which talks about her journey with yoga, her childhood experiences, and how everyone, regardless of how they look, should do yoga too.

Stanley has almost 300,000 Instagram followers, but she doesn’t let her social media fame sway her opinions of herself or doing what she loves. Stanley spoke with theGrio about her love for yoga, how she works towards self-acceptance, and how yoga practice can inspire others to lead better lives too.

TG: Can you describe the moment you realized that you were supposed to help others through teaching yoga?

JS: Instagram really is popular now, and there are tons of people on there. But back in the day, there weren’t a lot of people on there. And the yoga people who were there were very serious practitioners giving each other tips and feedback. And I wanted to be a part of that.

And I realized that when I would post my photos, the response I was getting was not really what I was hoping like, “Oh so, put your foot out here” or whatever. It wasn’t alignment comments; it was predominantly more people like, “We need more fat people to do yoga.” And all I could think was, “I am so far from the first fat person to do yoga. I’m not even the first fat black person to take pictures of themselves and post them on the internet doing yoga.”

So that encouraged me to continue posting photos and to continue to log my progress. But I still was not trying… and even to this day, I wouldn’t say that I try to inspire people. That’s not one of my goals. I’m just like trying to live my life in a honest fashion and trying to be authentic in my day to day life.

TG: How did certain childhood experiences play a role in how you viewed your body? Do you think there are universal experiences black girls have which can be detrimental to the way we see ourselves?

JS: In the book, I talk about the fact I grew up in a predominately white suburb. I feel like one of the problems …it’s not really a problem, but it’s an unintended byproduct of integration in schools in particular is that it gives a false impression of an equal playing ground.

But it’s not until real adulthood when you realize, “We were not having the same experience the whole time.” And while we’re all laughing together and going out to the movies together, when they see Kirsten Dunst, they see a reflection of themselves. When I see Kirsten Dunst, that’s someone I’m never going to look like and I’ll never try to look like.

I don’t know if this is a shared experience, but this is what it seems like: Because there’s not equal representation, we start to not like certain parts of ourselves, particularly when it comes to black women. We start not to like huge parts of who we are.

And this can be anything from like hair, to body shape, to anything about your ethnicity is such a critical part of the survival of your people and it’s seen as bad or indifferent and something that you absolutely need to change.

I still see this, and I think that there’s way more of an emphasis on natural beauty and loving your blackness and being ok in that space now. But even that — I still feel like there’s not enough conversations on a larger scale, and it creates this space for trauma, damage, and emotional instability that frequently doesn’t get addressed until you’re much older. And for me, that’s been probably one of the most important journeys within my own identity.

I don’t think it’s surprising for me to say I work in an extremely white industry. And there are a lot of conversations that are almost impossible to have because there’s so little knowledge about intersectionality and understanding why it’s important. And for me, understanding my blackness is understanding who I really am so I can do the work that needs to be done. So that’s probably one of the biggest journeys of my path for sure.

TG: In your book, Every Body Yoga, you ask the following, “At what point would you finally say, ‘I’ve had enough of hating my body?’” Have you learned to fully accept and love yourself? And if so, can you recall the moment in your life when you were able to do this?

JS: I think that people who say that they’ve come to this final resting point with their bodies are… I don’t understand these people. And maybe I’ll feel that way one day and I’ll know about it. But I feel like it’s constantly a journey. So I’m never going to act one hundred percent like, ‘Oh man. I’ve figured this out. I had this moment one day and I’ll look back thinking that every day is so great and I love my body.’ It’s very much that every single day that I have to remind myself that I do not need the opinions of other people.

TG: How do you handle the fame and attention from social media?  Did you ever think that so many people would be drawn to your work?

JS:  I never had any intention of bringing any attention to myself. It took me a really long time to comprehend how many people were paying attention. And then as soon as I did, I started to feel really weird about it. Especially because I think that yoga is really the process of trying to remove ourselves from things like narcissism and needing the approval of other people.

I think that social media can be the antithesis of that in a lot of ways. For a while, I considered getting rid of my social media account. And on top of that, I feel like the yoga poses, they get the impression that everything is about the pose. And so, I have a lot of conflict about what is the best way to actually utilize this resource.

I wanted to be able to show my life as it is, confusion and all, everything that people don’t typically associate with yoga so people can understand that you don’t have to try to subscribe to this stereotypical superficial lifestyle. The point is not to have perfect pictures but to live in your truth.

TG: You are considered to be a body-positive activist. How do you advocate for others?

JS:  If you can be honest about your own journey and make space for other people to feel like they can share their journeys with you, to me, that’s advocating.  I wouldn’t call myself an activist. Like, I don’t feel that I’m out actively recruiting or anything. I’m mainly just living and trying to get by by myself. And I think that if we look for ways to create ripple effects as opposed to thinking about this final effect and how that final effect can be beneficial to us, then you will almost constantly be advocating, because that’s your default.

TG: How do you continue to stay positive despite the negative comments that you receive?

JS: I think it’s very helpful that I was subject to bullying at a very young age. Because I feel like I learned back then that people only say mean things about you if they say mean things about themselves.

I see so much sh*t on the internet that I don’t like, but you don’t see me in the comment section like saying everything about it, because I don’t have time. I don’t care. I’m over here living my life. I’m not sad.

There’s no way I can be an effective partner, sister, friend, daughter if I was reading all these comments and responding to all the comments. For me it’s like, if someone thinks that they’re really going to affect me in this way, then they’re in a warped version of reality. So I don’t get upset with sh*t like that. You’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and you can’t look for your love in the feedback of complete strangers.