On Yoga, Resistance and Letting Go

Content Note: Eating disorders, racism, harassment, objectification 

I don’t want to write this post. I have been turning the words over in my mind for two months, I have been holding these message deep in my body. I Sharing my struggles with anorexia, sharing my anger and frustration at social oppressions and whatever else I feel a pull to write about has helped me explore my own thoughts and reduce the self-imposed isolation that my eating disorder brings. I am writing a workshop on yoga and decolonial healing for a conference by and for women of colour, I’m also facilitating this workshop in a week at another event, so I should probably finish it, but before I can do that, I need to need to write these words.

 

I started casually practicing yoga midway through my undergrad, mostly through home practice and the occasional free class. As someone living with chronic pain, yoga was the go-to suggestion of health practitioners, and as annoying as that is, it has been a great coping mechanism for me. Yoga hasn’t taken away my chronic pain, but offers arguably more significant healing.

 

I was trying to remember a time where my body felt like it was consistently mine. Sure, I have had moments: making the decision to move out east, and 1,421km away from toxic relationships, the first time I went more than a month without purging or restricting, breaking up with a long-term love. My body has been exoticfied, objectified, controlled, shamed for being, but when has it been mine? My experiences are unique to me, but in no way unusual. Countless women will tell you how their first experience of a man objectifying and harassing them was when they were around 11 or 12. Thousands of people, of all genders, struggle with eating disorders, and pretty much every person of colour has felt othered and often exotified.

 

I recently realized how tired I am of explaining the colonial histories and diasporas that allow for my existence. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me in those moments. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me when men stand too close on the bus or a professional meeting ends when a hand on my lower back. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me because we live in a world that has consistently confirms this.

 

Since I was 13 years old, I have attempted to take control of my body back by destroying it, by trying to become invisible enough to fend off unwanted words and touch, to erase myself into whiteness. My eating disorder became a safe haven. My mother wanted me to eat pasta during the same time I was being told my anger was unwarranted (and unattractive), refusing dinner became my resistance. I destroyed myself as a form of misguided resistance. Women refusing to eat dates back centuries and is often connected religious sacrifice – the woman who is free from needs and wants is the most holy. My resistance was just what our patriarchal and white supremacist society demands of women. I detach from my body as a mode of survival. I stopped having desires because my desires to be heard were too much ™ I am still figuring out how to accept that being too much ™ is exactly what I should be.

 

Almost a decade after my eating disorder began, I started doing yoga. However, it wasn’t until my roommate invited me to try hot yoga with her that I truly began to connect with yoga, my inner self and finally my body. I lay on my mat after my first class feeling sweaty and giddy. I survived an hour long class in a hot room surrounded by strangers while wearing half the amount of clothes I normally do. I was thrilled, I was proud. I felt a little high. I joined the studio the next day and began a journey towards my body.

 

Eventually, as my body got stronger, I could move through asanas with ease and have fun trying (and falling out of) new poses. I lie on my mat before class and wait as the anxieties of my day slip away. I take a few cleansing breaths and take back my body and mind. I am not thinking of the dissatisfaction with my body (ok,sometimes I still am, but that’s why I’m doing all of this), I’m not thinking of body as the exoctic other, or as on inconvience,I am not thinking of my career or debt or anything but keeping my breath and settling into my body – as a whole, as mine.

 

Some of my teachers read a quote or tell a story at the end of the class, as their words float through the now quiet room, I lay on my mat and let them wash over me. I chose to come to my mat, I made choices in my body that felt right, I let myself breathe, and began to connect my body and mind. I have found the concept of decolonization confusing; I understand it on a political level, but when I would hear activists talk about decolonizing the self, I felt lost. It wasn’t until I surrendered myself to my practice that I began to understand. As I write this workshop, I realize that my work to decolonize my self will be ongoing, because the act of colonization is ongoing.
We speak of colonization, racism, and even sexism as things of the past. We’re colourblind now. The Canadian government pretends that their colonization of Indigenous peoples has ended. Women have jobs or something so we don’t need feminism. We speak of our body and mind in similarly disconnected terms. We were asked to write a letter to our body as part of my treatment program, I was viscerally uncomfortable for many reasons, but when I moved from “You” (my body) and “I” (my mind) to “We” (body/mind/soul), I felt as if I could breathe again, the lump in my throat grew smaller and I began to write. This is what we do when we practice yoga, this is what happens when we listen to the wisdom of our ancestors. This is where the healing begins.

Existence as Resistance: A Three Part Series on Race and Eating Disorders

CW: discussion of eating disorders, ed-related thoughts, mild mention of behaviours.

I am writing this series of posts on race and eating disorders for a few of reasons:

  1. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada) just put on Eating Disorder Awareness week and the National Eating Disorder Association’s (USA) ED awareness week is at the end of the month; this year’s theme is “It’s Time to Talk About It”.
  2. I’m the only person of colour in my treatment program (to my knowledge) and have been noticing that the medical system is lacking in critical analysis of eating disorders.
  3. I hope women of colour who are reading this and may be struggling feel less alone.

 

Part I: Compare and despair

I watched all the thin, white women lined up in rows, partially covered in spandex, sweating, breathing – with each other, with me. I long to be like them. I am at the point where I know I can never starve myself to be 5’9”, blonde and an entirely different race. I know this, but it doesn’t stop the compulsive jealousy. I study them, I envy them. I stop breathing. What does my envy and my hunger accomplish? I shrink, literally, but more importantly, I shrink on the inside. My ex-boyfriend used to tell me he was watching my soul fade away. I often think of a summer day in 2012, I was just waking up from a nap and he told me I’d become bones and nothing else. I took it as a compliment in my fucked up state of mind. I had never seen anyone look so sad as he did at that moment. He told me I was fading in a way that he knew he couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to. I remember losing myself that year, in search of something that I will never be. I am still searching, but I am finding direction. I move toward something nourish me, something that will create a live worth living.

 

For the majority of my life, I have attempted to shrink, to tone myself down, to fit into the image of femininity that is deeply rooted in misogyny. I aimed to be quiet, docile, weak, small, chill. The perfect woman is free from want. Therefore, I stopped wanting. I turned off my desire. I gave everything in myself, and whenI ran empty, I scooped out every bit of myself and offered it to anyone and anything that I thought may fill the void.

 

Part II: Not so black and white

The world is not made for us. When I say world, I do not mean the natural world, I don’t mean our human bodies. Those do belong to us, we are the stars and earth and water. We are also fire. Birth and death and rebirth. The world that doesn’t belong to us has been created with our destruction in mind. My ancestral roots and deep and vast; the span the globe and exist in ancient texts and slave trade routes, in agrarian societies and plantations, The society we live in – from its economic structures, to academia and institutions, has been created to serve certain groups at the detriment to the rest. These systems are also detrimental to the majority of those they are supposed to serve. Toxic masculinity, capitalism, and white supremacy also hurt those that they appear to benefit.

 

There is radical sense of relief that comes from realizing, accepting and possibly embracing this truth. Yes, the world is not made for me, but here I am. I exist in spite of it. I may even be able to thrive in spite of it.

 

Indulge my slightly bitter nostalgia for a moment: I was 15 and with a new group of classmates. The topic of mixed race people came up but I had not not mentioned that I was mixed. A girl in my class stated that she found interracial relationships “disgusting” because you “never know what you’re going to get” and “black (men) are gross.” Obviously, this girl was a budding young racist and I felt terrified to speak up. One of the other white kids in the class made some comment about how people can do what they want and the conversation moved on. This was one of the instances that lead to years of me wanting to change my last name, dye my hair, bleach my skin and deny my heritage. Up until recently, this memory along with countless others of white folks either condemning PoC or exoticfying us  would cause my stomach to drop and my chest to tighten. However, I have recently turned a corner. It could be slowly entering recovery again after a relapse into anorexia, it could be that I have dated one too many white dudes who found my horror at the rise in racism and xenophobia inconvenient, or maybe it’s part of growing older and learning. Whatever it is, I am quietly learning to celebrate myself and my browness. I will never be a white girl. I will never fall neatly into any racial category. A mixed race pal in high school used to say, “We’ll never be white enough and we’ll never be brown enough”, she had insight that I am only just learning. She was amazing and mature for 16 and refused to “pick a side”. She would call out our dance teacher for her eurocentric (and frankly, racist) style of teaching, she refused to identify as one race and she proudly embrace her multi-ethnic identity. These are the women I hold in my heart long after we lose touch. These are the women I carry with me every time someone asks “what are you?” These are the women I allow to lift me up when I want to starve myself into whiteness. I am thousands of years of women – strong and vulnerable, hard and soft. I cannot erase or shrink that unless I am willing to dishonour them.

Labels and the discomfort of white liberals

I feel as if every so often I’m picked up by the wings like a insect to be examined. I’m pinned to a white board, magnified, studied, not identified. They can’t place me, so I’m pushed to the back, with all the other pinned creatures waiting for neat labels and museum displays.

But 

My wings are still fluttering. 

About a year ago, I moved to a new city. I had visited before and had a couple of friends here but hadn’t spent enough time here to get to know it. There have been many wonderful things about my time here so far: jobs, new friends, new loves, learning, unlearning, growing and settling.

As it happens when we leave our familiar places and people, we are challenged. Since being here, I have had four or five instances of my identity being questioned. That feels like a weird way to say it but I don’t know how else to. Racism and sexism are thing a I have experienced my whole life but these were different. Saying my identity feels so cold and impersonal, maybe I can edit this when I think of something that sounds more fitting.

The first time,  I was in cafe working on a summer and feeling very accomplished since I had my first post-grad job. I had also just got my first post-grad paycheque and of course spent it promptly. One of the things I had bought was a new packet of bindis. I wore one that day and felt a little more at home, in myself and in this new city. Like my ancestors were watching over me. I was also feeling cute as fuck. As I drank an iced americano and poured over some journal articles, I felt like I was in the place I was meant to be. It was short lived. I noticed a white-presenting young women with blonde dreads staring over at me. I didn’t give it too much thought, assuming she thought I looked familiar or had zoned out in my general direction. Then I heard it – the now familiar tone of the young white liberal calling out. “You know you really shouldn’t wear that. Bindis are really important to Indian people, it’s cultural appropriation.” Becky also said something about how I thought I looked cool.

I couldn’t respond. I looked at her, my mouth open to speak but no words came out. Her ripped jeans and flowy shirt, her blonde hair in tattered dreads. I couldn’t handle the misplaced judgement or the irony. I mumbled something about being Indian but she had already turned away.

It isn’t enough that y’all take our cultures, you now don’t even want us to have them. Unless we look like a fucking National geographical article.

There have been a couple of other instances, like white folks telling me I can’t be upset about police brutality because I’m light-skinned, or worse assuming I am white because I’m well-educated (becky 2.0 actually said this).

I am lucky to have found support in white and poc pals and I feel a lot more at home and comfortable in my own skin. Yet, the feeling of unease hasn’t left me. I still feel as if the ground beneath my feet could shift at any time, not enough to knock me over just enough to shake me, change me.

My experiences are quiet and hard to explain. I don’t like to compare oppressions, however I have an acute understanding that I can walk in my neighbourhood without the police stopping me, I am not seen as a threat, people don’t cross the street when they see me.

I have privileges which I recognize and (try) to use to speak up for those who’s voices get drowned out. Like I said, what I have experienced is hard to place. It’s the recent tinder match, despite being POC, would not stop questing my race/ethnicity – “what’s that thing on your forehead?”, “I’m confused, what are you?”

It’s friends who say “don’t worry you look white” and “You’re English is even better than mine!” When I have said a thousand times I was born in Canada and embarrassingly can only speak English.

It’s that nagging feeling that someone I was dating and cared deeply about maybe stopped seeing me because I brought up the pain racism in our city was causing me. Because I told him to stop using word coloured and he said “you’re looking at me like I’m a racist” and I paused because I’m never sure. I hope he just stopped enjoying my company, but I can’t shake the feeling that if I had just stayed quiet, not challenged him, we may have continued to see each other. His whiteness lay heavy on him, covering him in guilt and defensiveness. I have see this in many white people I care about. For years, I would try to make them feel better. I won’t do that anymore. Not just for myself, but for other mixed people who feel shunned in poc spaces and just as alienated in white spaces. I will not stay quiet because I should not have to pick a side, I am a multitude of histories, cultures and traditions. I am the amalgam of my ancestors and my own convictions. I can exist outside raciam binaries and your discomfort will not stop me from celebrating my culture. My identity will never be listed in a census box and that is okay.

You Don’t Look Like A…

“You don’t look like a feminist”

“You don’t look like an activist”

These are phrases I have heard quite often, more so in the last year when I began working more seriously in women’s rights and social justice.

In my first year of university, a few friends and I were sitting in our Meal Hall and chatting about our beliefs relating to religion and Atheism. I mentioned that I believe in a higher power, but don’t consider myself religious (despite attending church at the time). The conversation shifted from philosophy to sciences and back to religion. I made some comment to which a male student at our table responded, “You wouldn’t understand cause you believe in God and are really girly, like you wear a lot of flower patterns.” I don’t remember what I said in response, but it wasn’t much because I was so shocked. What did my personal faith have to do with my ability to understand? Even worse, when did floral clothing become an indicator for lack of intelligence?

Despite my apparent stupidity and love of floral dresses, I continued my education (You can pause reading to congratulate me on my perseverance). Over the next few years, I heard much of the same: I was too pretty to be a feminist, I was too into fashion to care about social justice issues, and I was too girly to be smart.

If you’re still with me and haven’t zoned out due to my gender or reported appearance, please listen to why all of those claims are complete bullshit.

“You’re too pretty to be a feminist.”

 

This statement has absolutely no merit. First of all, there is not required level of unattractiveness to be a feminist. Secondly, the assumption that attractiveness is limited to certain features is archaic and rooted in patriarchal, hetero-normative values – something that feminism aims to deconstruct.

As misogynist/TV personality/all-around asshole Pat Robinson said in 1992,

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Well, Pat, I give you credit for zeroing in on our agenda, but you misspoke on a couple of things: Feminists will only leave their husbands if they are assholes like you. And no one “becomes a lesbian.” Being a lesbian is not like becoming a member of Costco.

I’m sure if pressed Pat, and his modern-day counterparts like Men’s Rights Activist and advocator of all things terrible, Paul Elam and rape advocate and “Pick-up artist” Roosh V, would all tell you how ugly and gross feminist are. It must be very disconcerting when women who are considered conventionally attractive by millions of people, like Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Nikki Minaj and Taylor Swift all call themselves feminist.

You see, dear readers, feminism is not based upon how you look, because it’s a human rights movement, not a fucking modeling agency.

I have been a feminist my whole life. I was raised by a feminist (my mother, who by the way has never tried to kill any children and is not a lesbian or a witch – not that there’s anything wrong with either), and at least by some people, I’m considered attractive. My looks and being a feminist are not related at all. I could not shower for three months or I could spend 2 hours on my hair every morning; I could never wear a bra or spend half my paycheck at Victoria’s Secret, and I would still be a feminist.

One of the many wonderful things about feminism is that you don’t have to look a certain way, hold a certain job, be a particular age or gender or race. Feminism is for everyone.

 

It seems like no matter how a woman dress, she will be criticized. Are you wearing a cute dress? You’re probably a bimbo. Baggy jeans? You’re a slob. Crop top? A slut. All covered up? You’re a prude.

So what do we do when it seems like no matter what we can’t please anyone? Wear whatever the fuck you want. Your clothing choices can express part of who you are, but they don’t accurately reflect beliefs, intelligence, or personality.

At various times in my life, people have not taken my seriously, whether due to my gender or race. This used to upset me a lot when I was younger. I tried to change my dress, the way I spoke and at one point even tried to bleach my skin or wear makeup to appear more “white”. As I got older and became more educated, I realized I would never please everyone and the only person who I have to please is myself. I know that I have worked hard to get where I am, I know I’m intelligent. I know I will always have to work harder than my white, cis-male counterparts, but that’s not going to stop me. If someone thinks I’m stupid because of how I dress or my gender, that’s their problem. I will not change how I look to please someone else, and neither should anyone else.

I was running some errands a few weeks ago and was wearing a crop top. An older woman look at my and made some kind of noise in disgust while looking at me. Even last year, this would have made me want to run home and change. Now I can laugh about it. If you are so upset by how another person is dressed, you are the one that needs to change, not them. My midriff caused this woman emotional distress, so I must be pretty fucking powerful if I can do that with two inches of stomach. Imagine if I was wearing a bikini, she probably would have had an anger-induced aneurysm right there.

My point with this whole post is that people suck and will judge. BUT there is a silver lining: when you stop giving a fuck what other people think of you, you can accomplish more and are generally a happier person. The more you speak out, the more judgment you will notice, but you will also notice that you feel more free and authentic. When you are an activist and a feminist, you are going to encounter opposition and judgment, but try to meet that hate with love. You certainly don’t have to love homophobic, sexist assholes, but love yourself, love your world, love what you do, and you will surpass all those fuckboys who ever made you feel insecure.

Keep Calm and Shut the Fuck Up

 

I am angry. These three little words make many people very uncomfortable. I have been thinking of writing this for a few weeks now but I couldn’t get up the courage to do so. It is true. I am angry. Not at one person in particular but at events, and the systems and frameworks that serve to oppress over half the worlds population.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard about the events in Baltimore, and before that in Ferguson. As much as we hear we now live in a “post-racial” society, we do not. The only people who try to claim this are the ones that do not have to deal with racism or other forms of ethnicity-based oppression. For purposes of clarity, I will give a definition of racism.

Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Now this is important: racism is systematic.

Let me say this again: racism is systematic. There is no racism against white people. This seems to be a point of contention among many white people, which still confuses me. I have never understood why so many people wish to experience racism. I understand that it isn’t that simple; it’s not racism these people wish to experience, but an alleviation of guilt/knowledge/responsibility of their participation in systematic racism.

In the last few weeks, I have heard or been told that I (or other people of colour) “make too big of a deal” about racism or are “too sensitive” about racist comments. I have heard countless excuses for the behaviour of police officers in the United States or the refusal to do anything about the thousands of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada. I saw countless, I mean that I stopped counting because I couldn’t keep track: the excuses for racism were too numerous and too upsetting to keep counting.

Often times, when the conversation turns to race, people get visibly uncomfortable. That makes sense, especially if they are not used to this kind of conversation or are suddenly aware of their own racism. Here’s the thing: It is ok to be uncomfortable. It is ok to realize that you have been wrong and to feel bad about that. What is not ok is continually excuse and reinforce racist attitudes and behaviours.

When I, or another person of colour, says that they are angry with white people, it is does not mean that we hate you. It means that we are pissed off, hurt, and tired because of the hundreds, thousands, of years of oppression that we have experienced at the hands of white people.

I remember reading years ago that during the Civil Rights movement in the US, white people were panicking at the thought of black people getting rights. Their fear was, of course, loss of domination. One thing that stuck out to me, was how many people stated that they fear black people/people of colour would turn the tables and begin to treat white people as they had treated them. Nowadays, this irrational fear is heard in arguments of gender equality, and still sadly, of race.

I want to make one thing clear to all my white readers: oppressed people do not want to recreate the system of oppression and racism that is in place now. We want to tear down this system and create one that is equitable and free of violence. Let me put that even more clearly (just in case). People of colour, women (included in the first as well) and LGBTQ+ communities demanding and taking rights does not mean the loss of rights for white people, men and heterosexuals.

I am obviously not the first person to say this, and certainly not the last. I do not understand why it is so difficult to accept. I wonder if it is because those living with the most privilege are so bound to their ideas, structures and norms that they can not imagine a world where one is not given power through the oppression of the other.

I am mixed race. I have respect for both of my cultures. I don’t feel more white or more brown, yet I have been told for most of my life that I should choose. It seems that the only thing people hate more than a different culture, is when two cultures unite.

The first time I remember someone telling me to choose was in high school. A “friend” told me I didn’t seem “black, because [I] didn’t listen to rap.” I was shocked. It never occurred to be that my love of punk music would completely discount my ethnicity! Thankfully, some white teenager told me or I would have lived in ignorant bliss my entire life! I mentioned this to a black friend of mine, and she suggested I “just choose a side” to make things easier. I wanted to tell her this was impossible. I am a whole, not two pieces I can separate. I had one mixed race friend in high school and luckily she understood what I was going through, as she was experiencing the same thing. When you are mixed race, it seems like there is not safe place to land.

I grew up in a rural community that was predominately white. Although I have experienced racism my whole life, I didn’t begin to notice it until I got older and more aware. When I was younger I assumed racism was racial slurs, not being served at a store or racial profiling by police. I did not realize there were more subtle forms.

Just recently, I was very upset about the violence against black men and women in the United States and was talking about this with a group of friends. I said something about being a woman of colour, and one of the people there responded with, “but you’re so light, it’s not like you can even really call yourself brown.” I was so angry and taken aback that I couldn’t respond. Yes, I have lighter skin. But that doesn’t mean I am white, or that half of my race ceases to exist because I’m looking a little pale. My race is something I am proud of. I come from a long line of farmers, travellers, and fighters. My mother’s side (Irish) were expelled from their land by English colonizers and had to begin a new life in a harsh environment. My father’s ancestors were conned into coming to the ‘new world’, where they were enslaved on sugar cane plantations. They survived. My grandparents brought my parents to Canada for a better life, and now I am trying to create a better world, not just for myself, but also for all people of colour.

I have been told many times that it is shameful to be mixed race, to be a woman of colour, but I refuse to believe this and I refuse to be quiet. My anger may make you uncomfortable, but I have the right to express it. I have the right to work for a better, more equitable, future. I do not need your permission to move, to speak or to be. I will not be limited by stereotypes of submissive Asian women or sassy black women (who aren’t taken seriously). I will express my anger, my joy, my sadness and my strength.

Yes, it’s easier for you to ignore racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, but do you wan to live in a world where your freedom relies on the oppression of others?