How Yoga Makes You Pretty

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By Melanie Klein

This post is an excerpt from Melanie Klein’s chapter, “How Yoga Makes You Pretty: The Beauty Myth, Yoga and Me”  in the forthcoming anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice, available May 1, 2012 (pre-order here). An earlier version of this post was originally published at Elephant Journal in two parts.

We’ve been told that “pretty” is the magical elixir for everything that ails us. If we’re pretty, we’re bound to be happier than people who aren’t pretty. If we’re pretty, we’ll never be lonely; we’ll have more Facebook friend requests; we’ll go on more dates; we’ll find true love (or just get laid more often); we’ll be popular. If we’re pretty, we’ll be successful; we’ll get a better job; we’ll get rewarded with countless promotions; our paychecks will be bigger. Cultural and personal rewards for being pretty are a form of cultural currency, as Naomi Wolf elucidates in the feminist classic, The Beauty Myth.  In short, “pretty” will buy us love, power and influence. It will solve all our problems. “Pretty” will ultimately make us feel good.

And who doesn’t want to feel good?

While this emphasis on physical perfection is a goal presented to us from a variety of sources, the pursuit of pretty is most often given precedence via the mainstream media. The media juggernaut that actively shapes our 21st century cultural environment sells us this promise and perpetuates this myth beginning in early childhood. Even the toys I played with as a girl have become sexified, slimmer and more heavily made up. The princess brigade continues to spotlight beauty and the pursuit of Prince Charming. And, let’s face it, you nab your prince with your spellbinding beauty. I mean, really, have you ever seen an ugly princess, especially one that lands the guy? I didn’t think so. And think about poor Snow White. Beauty took such a priority that the Queen hired a hit man to take the fairest in the land out.

The continuous assault continues as we move through adolescence and adulthood. It meets our gaze at every turn through fashion, television, film, music, and advertising. These images and messages are practically inescapable, even in yoga publications these days. They peddle products that actively sculpt our desire and entice us using sleek, sculpted models and celebrities in computer retouched photos.  The advertising industry, the foundation of the mass media, is specifically designed to appeal to our emotions and shape our expectations, thereby constructing cultural values. Advertising constructs enviable identities and lifestyles in order to sell a gamut of products and services from beer, luxury cars and designer shoes to yoga mats, DVDs and diet pills. And there are billions of dollars in profit when we succumb. Ultimately, we’re spoon-fed repetitive streams of unrealistic images in a virtual onslaught that tells girls and women, and increasingly boys and men, that the most valuable thing we can aspire to be is, well, pretty.

And the tantalizing promises of a better, prettier, you are absolutely everywhere. The idea that we can simply “turn off” or “ignore” these messages is narrow in scope and short sighted. Unless you’re living under a rock – wait, make that in a hermetically sealed bubble – you are affected in one way or another. And so are those around you.

Like many girls and women, I had waged a war on my body most of my life. In 1997, I had  the great fortune of landing in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest. Not only did Bryan become my yoga teacher, he also became my one of my first body image teachers. His teaching fused physical postures, breath and meditation with a focus on media literacy and body image awareness. Whether he knew it or used those exact terms didn’t matter. His rough edges held pearls of wisdom for me—wisdom that helped me heal my self-hatred and body abuse. He asked us to consider the health of our toes and spine, things that are not given any attention in the mainstream beauty aesthetic or fitness industry. Things I had never considered before.

According to Kest, “Everybody wants to be pretty because that’s what they’ve been told will make them feel good, even though there’s no proof that people who are prettier are healthier and happier. So why don’t we just cut to the chase and go straight to what makes us feel good?” Bryan urged us to stop comparing and competing with one another . . .  and ourselves. He commanded us to be with the reality of that moment and detach from the artificial images in our minds. And in doing so, he challenges us to confront the demands of our egos.

And that is the practice of yoga-the state of mind you cultivate as you move through your life’s experience. It is a practice devoted to uniting mind, body and spirit—creating unity, balance and peace. As Georg Feuerstein points out, yoga was classified as a “spiritual endeavor” utilized to cease the fluctuations of the mind and senses as early as the second millennium BC. This stands in stark contrast to our Greco-Roman tradition, which values the power of the intellect over the inherent wisdom of the body – thereby creating a duality referred to as the mind-body split.

Yoga is a pathway to cultivate self-love, allowing us to shift our sense of validation inward, as opposed to the standard practice of measuring one’s worth based on external definitions. We’re able to begin defining ourselves from the inside out, rather than the outside in. In fact, the cultural validation we’re encouraged to seek often fans the flames of further discontent since we can never be thin enough, muscular enough, wealthy enough or pretty enough by mainstream standards. Even if we are a waify size-zero, a bulked up mass of muscles, a millionaire or a picture-perfect model, happiness isn’t a guarantee. There are plenty of depressed, disgruntled, unsatisfied “pretty people” with low self-esteem.

“Pretty” doesn’t necessarily signal a healthy body, mentally or physically. In fact, in my own work as a body image activist, many of the most “beautiful” women I’ve met have had some of the most dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships with their bodies. Too often, this has been marked by eating disorders, disordered eating and dangerous beauty rituals to maintain the outward facade. In the end, there isn’t a direct correlation between being pretty and being happy or healthy. The prizes “pretty” entices us with can’t be enjoyed without a deeper connection, a feeling of wellness, wholeness and/or self-love. Pretty hasn’t delivered and what has been defined as pretty isn’t real or sustainable.

Remember, Naomi Wolf called it the “beauty myth” for a reason.

What’s your intention? To look pretty or feel beautiful?

Related Posts:

Feminism, Body Image and Yoga

Nude Yoga for Body Acceptance

“I’m Not a Size Zero. Can I Practice Yoga?” Anne Guest-Jelley Says “Yes!”

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Comments

  1. Mitchelle Bareng says:

    YES! I completely agree that “‘Pretty’ doesn’t necessarily signal a healthy body, mentally or physically.” My best friend is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. There are certain times where she agrees but majority of the time she feels that she is never good enough. She constantly compares herself to women in the media but in my opinion she is must prettier than they are. What saddens me though, is the fact that she spends more time trying to maintain her beauty (which she does not need to do) than actually just loving it. It may be cliche but I do believe that beauty (pretty) comes from within and if you are able to love yourself completely because of the person you are, that radiates on the outside and makes you look so beautiful. If we didn’t care so much about looking like the women from the media and getting approval from men, than self-love would be attainable.

  2. I do not like how doing yoga associates with loosing weight and then that connections with being “pretty”. Yoga is intended for one to get in touch spiritually and meditate as people in in the Eastern hemisphere. And the word pretty is used in a hurt full way to women who are not “pretty” to societal norms. I agree with what Ms. Klien wrote at the end how she explained that “pretty” does not necessarily signal a healthy body, mentally or physically. I have always thought too that the “prettiest” women I know are in fact the least attractive based on societal norms. This ideology of the term “pretty” should be changed in the way people use the term. Also when the word yoga comes about around the majority of young men they think of sex and how women do it to be more flexible in bed which is what our patriarchal society has ingrained the idea of sex in a young mens mind which also is unacceptable.

  3. Anna Kleyman says:

    Pretty has been an over-rated topic in society for as long as I have been able to see and read. Women are always being pushed to sign up for the latest pilates class, or get the latest hydrating facials…..Growing up as a girl, I’ve always felt the pressures to be beautiful. As many girls, I’ve had my ups and downs, but at the end of the day, luckily I had a very supportive family who always told me that beauty is inside and it will shine through the outside. I had many friends who came from quite opposite backgrounds. Their mothers would force them to do crazy diet and attend the gym like it was church on a Sunday morning! We are all beautiful, and you need to do things that will make you feel that way. I think something like yoga is perfect for the body, mind and soul. I have taken a few yoga classes, and I must say I felt so alive after!! There is something about being in touch with your body and the breathing that allows you to block out and wash away all negative energy and use that moment for yourself. Yoga is much underrated, and gyms are overrated. I like things more like classes, such as yoga and acupuncture treatments to relax you than vigorous workouts that lead to more anxiety!

  4. Pauline T says:

    I enjoyed reading this article because it is true when people say everything revolves around being “pretty”. I used to think, and still think at times, that everyone should try their best to look pretty. Over the past few years, I realized that if one does not truly like themselves for who they are, they will never think of themselves as “pretty”. It is essential for people to love who they are and what they look like. I myself do yoga once in a while; I wish I did it more because I love the way I feel after each session. It is true when you said yoga promotes self- love. This is important to love who you are considering all of the garbage the media shoves down our throats. We need to ignore what we are fed, and learn to become one with our body, and yoga is something that can help us with that.

  5. jasmine M says:

    Pretty does not mean that you are happy, is something that jumped out to me while I was reading this excerpt. The concept of being pretty is used so interchangeably that society has molded us into believing that to be pretty was to be happy. I know a couple of people who have struggled with eating disorder and they were beautiful people. Society tells us that beautiful people should be happy and yet beautify people engage in self- destructive behaviors everyday. I have tried yoga a couple of time and I never really got the concept of it. I mainly looked at it as a form of exercise that emphasized flexibility. I had trouble doing some of the poses so I stopped trying the exercises. However, after reading this excerpt, I feel like I respect the craft much more. I never fully understood that yoga was about purifying the body inside out and learning how to be beautiful from within. I have long ago rejected societies standards of beauty, and I think yoga will really reinforce this state of mind. I definitely will give yoga another try!

  6. Corrin M. says:

    I definitely see the benefit of yoga, and having your mind, body and soul balanced. I have never taken a class due to the slow pace of it. I usually go for cardio kickboxing. I thought this was releasing my built up anger/stress. I love have you ended the piece with “Do you want to look pretty, or feel beautiful”. There have been so many instances where i looked pretty but didn’t feel beautiful. I also agree with the statement the prettiest faces have unhealthy relationships. Not just with their bodies but with people. Most people would say I fit the standard of beauty, and have said it all my life. Nothing could convince me, i was never skinny enough, my skin was never even enough, and nothing was ever enough. I was skinny then, but now I have lost a lot of weight, and battle with being chastised for being so small now. This made me finally have to find it in myself. I am much more comfortable in my own skin now, I stand 5’11 128lbs and feel beautiful. I look forward to taking a yoga class!

  7. Berenice V says:

    Last semester I took a Yoga class and like you mentioned it was a “spiritual endeavor”, it truly helped me connect with both my mind and body. Normally I would consider myself an inpatient person, but yoga taught me the power of mediation. Yoga is more than a stress reliever, it help ease the mind and body. As I was taking the class I noticed that my body felt less fatigued and my moods were balanced and whenever I felt stress, practicing some yoga helped lift the tension. The whole being “pretty” ideology serves as a false aspiration to finding happiness. It does not make sense to undergo our bodies through unnecessary cosmetic plastic surgeries, dieting, because in the end that just creates an unhealthy lifestyle. True happiness starts with first accepting one’s present image and embracing it which create a self worth identity. Sadly our society is constantly scrutinizing and criticizing women to the point where women cannot even feel comfortable in their own skin and end up in the hospital or worse, dead from malnutrition. The media, magazines, bill ads, even or peers serve as negative reinforcers in regulating how one should look. As we have all seen in social media, the so called prettier people tend to get rewards as well as an easier life due to the fact that they are prettier, making them desirable and liked, but most of these people suffer and pay a higher price in order to keep these standards. There are so many factors that go into a person happiness and well-being other than what is on the outside.

  8. I completely agree with the main idea of this article – “pretty” does not equal happiness in either the physical or mental state of being. I myself have known a lot of very pretty girls who have really bad self-esteem issues and struggle with body image and personal value. The idea that physical perfection has always been prominent in the media and has ultimately been an issue when it came to body image and how women see themselves based on the images they see everyday. What they tend to cover up is the idea that even beauty doesn’t mean happiness. Many “beautiful” girls tend to have the most physical problems as well as mental issues in regards to their bodies. Yoga seems to be the catalyst to being able to achieve self-acceptance and self- value through knowing that your body is healthy and well maintained. It was very inspirational to see that the instructors support a positive mindset of how people should see themselves and ignore the negative connotations that are spewed at people on a daily basis. The idea that real beauty can be achieved through positive practice via exercise and attention to the small things that matter to be able to see ourselves in a more positive light.

  9. Ajalah T. says:

    The beauty myth is something that I think has plagued every girl at one point or another, especially those that felt they didn’t fit the part. The belief that those who are pretty live happier lives and have things come easier to them is something that couldn’t be more false. I agree with you when you say that those who are considered beautiful often times are the most unhappy out of everyone mainly because they feel this obligation or pressure to maintain their “perfect” image. In reality beauty is not everything and when those who only have beauty to rely on loose it often times they go through a major depression or even commit suicide. I personally have never practiced yoga although it has been something that I wanted to try for some time now, if I could just get my lazy butt of the couch and in a yoga class, I had no idea that yoga had such a spiritual and empowering quality to it. I believe that it is important for girls and women to find an activity such as this to help build self worth and self love, while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

  10. Holly A. says:

    I really do believe the whole world revolves around being pretty. My WHOLE life (up until I took my WS 10 class) has been devoted to being pretty. My mother and my aunts even urge me to always strive to be the prettiest or else I wont get ‘married’. I myself even tell myself “if only I was prettier and skinner, I would be SUCH a happy person”. There is really no way to escape such pressures of ‘pretty’. Prettyness is everywhere, from the toys toddlers play with to the media advertisements in the streets. Such pressure is inescapable. What I do agree with is that for one to truly feel pretty they must feel one with their body and learn to love their body. I have not gotten to that point where I love myself and my body, but I do believe that when one reaches that place, that is when they are truly happy. Yoga really does seem like an a very physically and spiritually healing work out. I will definitely try. It is time we all love ourselves.

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