Fat, Black, and Flexible: Yoga Star Jessamyn Stanley Says ‘Confidence Is a Fickle Bitch’

Big Yoga's love affair with lithe, white bodies made some see Jessamyn Stanley as an unlikely guru. She says she's an unintentional one.

As a champion of the fact that all bodies will not be the same or contort the same, Jessamyn Stanley has become an Instagram sensation, a example of full-bodied fitness, and an author. Christine Hewitt / Every Body Yoga

Sometimes, a footnote is more than an explanation. It is a declaration.

Such is the case with the second footnote of Jessamyn Stanley’s memoir and yoga guide Every Body Yoga, released last spring. In this brief note, she makes clear that the book is not a mundane manual of body-bending movies and balletic bodies. Instead, Stanley—a plus-size North Carolinian whose photos and videos of asanas have attracted more than 350,000 Instagram followers—extols the “restorative power of a Cook Out milkshake,” referring to a popular fast-food drive-thru in her home state.

It may not seem like an act of courage to mention a milkshake. But it’s a particular type of fame, this yoga game: part instruction on the right way to breathe and be present, part encouragement that there is no right way. And it’s a conversation made more complicated by others’ narrow ideas about ability and identity.

Stanley can reel off more personal experiences of public and private fat-shaming than she probably wants to remember. And it’s a shocking list of random people who deputize themselves to police her consumption and her curves. Fatphobia has emboldened fellow grocery shoppers who wouldn’t know her from Adam to remove “inappropriate” items from Stanley’s cart. Others have stared in frank disapproval when she loads her plate at the local Whole Foods buffet bar. When she’s donned short shorts, passersby have clucked and clutched nonexistent pearls. She shows her appetite without shame and shows flesh with the kind of dimples—those cellulite indentations—that are rarely considered cute even in a country of supersized food servings and people.

At a coffee shop in Durham, North Carolina, Stanley discussed the overt monitoring of her body: “How is it that I can’t wear that and this bitch is out here wearing that? My thighs need to breathe. You never know if [your body] is offending.”

Stanley is an overweight Black woman daring to do—and teach—yoga in rooms full of lithe dancer types. She claims space for people like her, who entered her first yoga class with a bath towel as a mat and left saturated with sweat and shame about her struggle to move amid seemingly elastic, perfect (and mostly white) bodies in tank tops and clingy pants.

That’s made her relatable to hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers; companies that want her endorsements; readers who turned out in crowds during her 25-city book tour from Durham to Dubai in 2017; and yoga groupies who snap up tickets to her increasingly rare classes. And the easy tone of her book is also responsible; it adroitly balances her Blackness, fatness, and one-time alcohol problem without alienating people who share none of those identities or issues. Specific though it may be, insecurity is universal.

As a champion of the fact that all bodies will not be the same or contort the same, Stanley has become an unintentional guru. Appropriately for one who contemplates their place in the universe, she’s philosophical about the strangeness of her own celebrity and the universal need for recognition.

“People feel like, ‘This book is for me.’ People who come to my event or read the book, see their own struggle. They understand not being able to come to terms with themselves …. If I teach a class with three people, two of those people want to talk. A lot of people are hungry to have an interaction with other people. Many people are not emotionally fulfilled in their life,” she said.

Stanley’s rapport with yoga enthusiasts was on display during an event last year at Duke University. Audience members trickled in with yoga mats toted under their arms and with a sense of quiet expectation.

For her part, Stanley projected ease, even with plenty of reasons to be uncomfortable: those very expectations, the vulnerability of public speaking, being clothed in a form-fitting black unitard, or being seated on a low platform so she had to look up to answer questions. There was little sign that, as Stanley said in a later interview, it’s “emotionally taxing to be genuine.”

And the crowd, of about 20, wanted her tips for how to do a handstand—and her benediction. A young woman asked how she deals with injury, citing her own strained back. Another person complained of how, while being fat is stigmatized among the yoga faithful, being too thin can also draw rumors of eating disorders. Everyone had a story of familial body shaming or how their appearance or their yoga practice is not enough.

Speaking in a quiet and firm voice in Durham, Stanley blamed both commercialized yoga and body positivity for relying too much on presentation and aspirational bodies.

“The message is: You should be aiming for this yoga body. It’s in how people market studios, write books, and how classes are taught. So what I’m doing seems subversive,” she said.

“Even in body-positive circles, it’s still about having that Marilyn Monroe, perfect-tapered waistline. Are we drinking the coconut oil now? Are you going to heaven to get your eyebrows done? So much about what we like about ourselves is what’s in fashion,” she said.

But, she noted, “confidence is a fickle bitch. There’s so many types of normal. It might be normal for someone to have their ribs showing; it might be normal for you to have a belly out to there.”

“One of the things that always strikes me about body positivity is how much it depends on the visual—showing pictures of one’s self and allegedly not giving a fuck—and the performance of not giving a fuck. How do you reconcile the emphasis on the visual that’s still such a part of the movement?”

The emphasis on the visual means that fat bodies and Black bodies aren’t “mainstream.”  And it’s a particular struggle for Stanley, who had just finished her book tour when she talked to Rewire. Her newfound celebrity has meant interviews with predominantly white journalists and audiences who marvel at her flexibility, her strength, and her Zen. Still, part of that amazement is surprise that she can hold a pose and is dedicated to her health despite being fat, that she can have an ass and do asanas.

Too many admirers “take the book and point and say, ‘How do you do this?'”—the painful-looking split or the effortlessly arched back bend. And Stanley knows that the emphasis is on the “you”: a Black Southerner who sports a close-cropped natural, is queer, and has thighs that she lovingly likens to strong tree trunks.

“People want to fetishize it and think it’s a minstrel show,” she added.

For every eager and sincere yoga practitioner’s question, there are questions like that of a prominent journalist who asked why Stanley felt shame about her size. According to the host, being overweight is not as stigmatized in Black communities. It’s the type of assumption that’s grounded in a partial truth that’s easily distorted. I grew up hearing the Southern Black beauty-standard adage “No dog wants a bone,” and people would call a plump person “healthy.” Being “healthy” was little obstacle to being beautiful or finding a partner.

But in the same community that proclaims to love “thickness”—a sumptuous female fleshiness—comedians have long made careers off “loud, fat Black woman” drag. When author Alice Randall, in a 2012 New York Times editorial, offered the opinion that many Black women want to be fat precisely due to different beauty standards, it set a firestorm of response. And last year, Twitter was aflame with both disbelief and fat-supportive comments when a woman who accused R&B musician Usher of giving her herpes was revealed to be plus-size; with low-key but obvious nastiness, the singer said that she wasn’t “his type.”

Stanley couldn’t unpack all that baggage in the space of a Q&A: the complex attitudes of Black people to their bodies, the moderator’s simplistic understanding, or the inevitable “but you’re not healthy” extrapolated to pathologize an entire community that does indeed have the highest rate of obesity nationwide and resulting high rates of related illnesses.

Navigating those questions and public events, it’s yoga that keeps her centered, even if the welcome demands of a successful yoga book tired her.

“After all these long days, there’s this long line of people who want to tell me their life story. It’s intimate. If I wasn’t practicing yoga, I wouldn’t have gotten through that.”

Stanley has made her peace with the word “fat.” It appears, with initially shocking regularity, in her book, and as a self-descriptor. Sitting outside the Durham cafe, she said it repeatedly and without a visible twitch of discomfort.

“I have always had a such horrible relationship with that word. I’ve always been large-bodied, I was always the fat kid, and that was a derogatory word. I found myself having [a negative] reaction before I started writing it down and saying to myself: ‘Maybe fat is a good thing.’ If you strip it down to its original defintition, it’s just ‘large.’ People try to make it mean stupid, ugly, and not deserving. Maybe fat is sexy. Maybe fat is athletic. Maybe fat is strong,” she said.

“I’m trying to use it as a way to define myself and say ‘I’m fat and femme.’ But many people have said, ‘You’re calling yourself fat. When you call yourself fat, it makes me feel bad about myself,'” she concluded. “If you’re having that reaction, maybe that’s something you need to evaluate for yourself.”