The Politics of Yoga Pants


“A Montana legislative panel moved to kill an indecent exposure bill Wednesday after the lawmaker who introduced it said he thinks yoga pants should be illegal,” the Associated Press reported recently. One reader responded by stating that the legislator, Rep. David Moore, needs therapy. Well, that’s certainly something to consider, but yoga clothes, and their effect on the psyche, have been blog-fodder for a while now. And the subject has been popping up in symposiums and articles across the nation too, spawning accusations of lowering not just inhibitions but also self-esteem. Is it true?

Yoga clothes, and their effect on the psyche, have been blog-fodder for a while now.

“When something becomes as big business as yoga has become, it's all about the cute ass aka the bottomline,” quipped Sandip Roy in his 2012 article “Om my God, Who Wrecked Our Yoga? The Dirty Picture of a 5 Billion Dollar Industry." (Which is now over $6 billion and climbing). For yoga clothing manufacturers specifically, it’s about cradling that cute ass in spandex. And it's not just legislators who are up in arms. Consumers are arguing right, left, and everywhere in between about our cultural love of exhibiting the back bump. 

Take, for instance, Veronica Partridge's early 2015 post, Why I Chose to No Longer Wear Leggings and BuzzFeed News' response, A Christian Blogger Stopped Wearing Yoga Pants for Her Husband So She Wouldn’t “Entice” Men. Then there's the perpetual "simulated nudity" (Moore's words) of Tumblrs like "Yoga Pants Appreciation," which remains ever poised to provoke a response of the, er, opposite nature. Either way, that "bottom line" is getting showcased, all right. But what many analysts and healthy-body image advocates such as  Melanie Klein, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College, are asking is, at what price?

“We’ve seen yoga imagery reflect the dominant trends we’ve grown accustomed to in the larger cultural space," states Klein, who has also authored and co-authored numerous books about yoga, politics, and body image, and is co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. "And those images, whether they be in advertisements or other mediums, tend to objectify and sexualize women’s bodies. And that is reflected in the way yoga clothing is advertised and sold—usually with near-nude women in seductive poses that don’t look a lot like asana."

This trend has been occurring for some time. Back in 2001, we didn’t even blink an eye at how little Christy Turlington was wearing on the cover of Time magazine. But take a look at the picture. She appears serene and capable. Her beauty is secondary to what she’s doing and in no way does sexuality exude from her demeanor. She simply has very little on. Without intention, the cover eloquently highlights the disparity between the largely accepted mores of the U.S. and modern India, and also begs the question, “How much is too little?”  

In her February 2015 New York Times article, "Chip Wilson, Lululemon Guru, Is Moving On," reporter Amy Wallace wrote, "The reason the pants sell in such volume mostly comes down to this: They provide a remarkable rear view. This simple truth has made Chip Wilson a mogul." Which means every move that the fitness clothes giant has made in the last several years (and every blunder) has gotten a lot of press. I recently had the opportunity to ask Erin Hochstein, Lululemon's International Communications Manager, a few questions, beginning with: “How do your fashions facilitate yoga practice?” 

“We believe that function is fashion," she answered. "When what you are wearing hits on all cylinders—quality, fit, function, and beauty—you don’t want to take it off. When you do not have to worry about the functionality of the product, you automatically feel confident in what you're wearing. The fit and function of our product coupled with how our guests feel when they wear it is what connects function with fashion.”

Yet for some longtime practitioners there are greater concerns than the four cylinders of fashion. In her blog for Seattle Yoga News, “Yoga in India vs. Yoga in America,” Arundhati Baitmangalkar makes a variety of salient observations about this ancient spiritual practice’s journey from East to West. Among them, “Observation #4: the combination of yoga and fashion in the U.S. is not present in India.” She writes:

“I did not know of special yoga clothing until I moved here. For me dressing for class meant a comfortable track pant and a breathable T-shirt. While I have been excited to have access to the variety offered here, it is astonishing that there are multi-million dollar businesses using yoga as a vehicle to sell products to people. In India, people show up in very casual, comfortable, everyday clothes for a class. They do not spend a lot of money accessorizing themselves to look good in class. After all, yoga is about detaching from the body and senses. You will often spot women doing yoga in their traditional outfits like sarees and lifting themselves up in a graceful headstand. Yoga is a part of everyday life for those who practice it.”

A yogini lifting herself up with grace and strength in a traditional sari? How can anyone do difficult arm balances like bakasana (crow pose) or visvamitrasana (Visvamitra's pose) in loose clothing? Believe it or not, it happens. Because, you know, there are plenty of people in India who are pretty heavy hitters when it comes to asana and, as Baitmangalkar points out, they more often than not are wearing mildly loose clothes. So why has the Western yoga community gravitated toward tight, synthetic garb?

“When I buy a cute exercise outfit from a yoga catalog, I am buying into a fantasy about yoga rather than practicing yoga,” wrote Sandy Blaine in her YI article, “Yoga for Sale,” in which she discusses, among other things, the ethics of an industry that advocates winnowing down the ego to increase the heft of select wallets. When Time covered the upsurge of yoga over a decade ago with the cover line: “Millions of Americans are discovering this ancient exercise. Here’s the skinny on why it makes you feel so good,” the publication had its proverbial finger on the pulse of something—our obsession with body image, i.e. skinny + cute = female. It’s a simple equation, but not always one that adds up.

“When I buy a cute exercise outfit from a yoga catalog, I am buying into a fantasy about yoga rather than practicing yoga,” wrote Sandy Blaine.

"The media is the most ubiquitous agent of socialization today,” says Klein, “precisely because we are such a heavily mediated culture and most people spend a lot of time 'plugged in.' The media actively constructs culture by shaping our desires, expectations, and values due to its cumulative impact—that is, through the consistent repetition of themes, imagery, and ideas. And because we're immersed in this media culture, we don't consciously notice these patterns. As a result, they become normative and taken for granted.

The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is actively working on expanding the current image of who a yogi is, what a yoga body is, and what yoga is," she continues. "We're familiar with the saying, 'You can't be what you can't see.' A lot of people are turned off from the practice because they don't see themselves or their communities reflected in the mainstream image of a 'yogi.'"

When I asked Hochstein, “How sensitive is Lululemon to issues of body image? And how do you reach out to members of your audience who are not entirely comfortable showcasing their bodies?” Hochstein answered, “Everything we create in the community is open to the whole community. Some examples include our complimentary in-store yoga classes, run groups, and many other activities our stores host in their respective markets. We are a company that focuses on personal responsibility, choice, and creating a legacy—all of these create aspiration for us and are the domain of every shape and size.” 

“In my experience as a curvy yogi, and what I hear from others,” says Anna Guest-Jelley, studio owner of Curvy Yoga and, along with Klein, co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body, “clothes definitely make you feel more or less at home on the mat. For bigger-bodied yogis, the primary issue is finding clothes that fit well—much less that you actually like!”

Lululemon sizes end at an American size 12, when the average woman in America wears a size 14. The Huffington Post has afforded a great deal of attention to this disparity, making it difficult for the corporate active-wear giant to rest easy in its millions, nay, almost two billion. In “Shunning Plus-Size Shoppers Is Key to Lululemon’s Strategy, Insiders Say, senior business reporter Kim Bhasin wrote: 

“Back when she still worked at a Lululemon Athletica store in downtown Philadelphia, Elizabeth Licorish was struck by the contrasting ways the company showcased different sizes of its wildly popular yoga pants. Most of the merchandise was presented out on the floor, hung on the walls, or folded neatly in cabinets for all the world to see. But the largest sizes—the 10s and the 12s—were relegated to a separate area at the back of the store, left clumped and unfolded under a table.”

In response to public outcry, Lululemon has dutifully begun displaying all sizes on the floor, but in a video clip now accompanying his article, Bhasin moves deeper into the issue, stating: 

“The core of Lululemon’s strategy is to attract a certain type of consumer. That type of consumer is young, affluent (because Lululemon yoga pants cost $92, $98).... So they’re looking for this type of consumer who thinks a lot about their body, thinks a lot about how they look, and just that sort of ‘skinny consumer.’ And, you know, people who are a size 10 and 12 just don’t visit Lululemon all that much.… They don’t market to plus-sized people. They just sort of pretend that they’re not there.” 

Consumer advocates charge the company with size discrimination, and as Bhasin concludes, “Lululemon is sort of fetishizing skinniness as the epitome of health. And by making one body type considered healthy, it ignores all other body types that can also be healthy.” 

“When it’s hard to find something to wear, it’s just another obstacle to people feeling like they don’t belong in the practice," explains Guest-Jelley. "This is such an unnecessary obstacle. I’m grateful to see more current clothing lines adding sizes, as well as plus-sized retailers popping up.” 

But perhaps Lululemon shouldn’t take the heat for the entire yoga clothes industry. Keep in mind that the myth of Narcissus predates American culture, which proves that the conundrum of our self-amazement has been around since antiquity, probably before. Yet, what can be argued is that the fashion designs sold by the yoga clothes companies are playing on human vanities and insecurities. And, as Klein contends, these repetitive presentations of "health" and "beauty" are capable of warping our sense of realistic expectations about who we should be. 

But perhaps Lululemon shouldn’t take the heat for the entire yoga clothes industry.

In a study titled “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide,” York University professor and researcher Gordon Flett and his team investigated the human response to societal mores and normative values in producing perfectionism and subsequent distresses, and have found significant evidence that “being exposed to relentless demands to be perfect, a concept [referred] to as socially-prescribed perfectionism, is linked with hopelessness and suicide.” So, while demonizing Lululemon may not address the entire issue—and other yoga clothes manufacturers will quietly learn from the giant’s public pummeling while avoiding the heat—you know, millions of women ain’t complaining about nothin’.

And the saga continues, because the "simulated nudity" known as yoga wear has begun to permeate the fashion generally handed down from on high. When writing about  Kanye West’s well-received runway extravaganza for his new Adidas Originals line, the  reported, “When the lights came up, what was revealed looked like a hybrid of yoga, ballet, and street and active-wear.” In fact, one could say that many of the models looked like funky, unclothed Barbie dolls trapped in a kind of street-sad, urban existentialist meleé. So, somebody had better hide the video of reporter Deni Kirkova’s bold stroll down London’s High Street in nude Kanye-wear from Representative Moore, because it just might cause him to keel over. 

About the Teacher

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Susan Stringfellow
Susan Stringfellow is an editor at Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2010. She taught... Read more