xoJane’s Embarrassing Yoga Essay and the Problem With “Honest” Writing


Yesterday, xoJane published one of their “It Happened to Me” pieces by one Jen Caron. It detailed Caron’s experience in a yoga class she’d attended recently, one also attended by a “young, fairly heavy black woman.” Merely having this “other” woman in the room was apparently a kind of direct affront to Caron. Even sampling just one paragraph from the essay should give you an idea of how quickly everything goes to hell:

I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.

The fires of Hades rise higher and higher around both writer and reader the longer it goes on. By the end, Ms. Caron is in a flaming moral crisis, upset that yoga is so very white and so very exclusive. And then, in a moment of profound but apparently unintentional irony, she closes on the following question:

How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to every body?

I’ll tell you one way we could do that: we could all quit writing and publishing pieces like this under the guise of “being honest.”

It’s not, to be clear, that I don’t believe this writer is telling the truth about her experience in a yoga class. Her dissolution into a crying fit strikes me as an out-of-the-ordinary reaction, and it does make her seem like a narcissist who is mostly upset by inequality in yoga because of the way it shakes her out of her own self-satisfaction. But as she started in about her judgment of the other woman’s body — one can’t help but wonder what precisely constitutes “fairly heavy” in the imagination of someone like this — my brain did categorize it as honest.

I am often told by yoga folk of all sizes that no one’s judging at these classes. I can believe, possibly, that that is the intended best-case scenario. But at every yoga class I’ve ever attended — and I go to few these days — I have noticed a few Jen Carons eyeing the circumference of others’ thighs like it’s their job. Women are trained from birth to judge and scrutinize each others’ bodies in a particular way; there is no reason to believe that gets left at the door because of light-Buddhist blather about suffering and impermanence and a few “no judgment” posters on the wall.

There’s no reason to believe a lifetime of subtle training to characterize black people as “others” full of “hostility” will be left at the door, either, no matter how many meditation classes one takes. Racism just has a better foothold in the culture than the sort of light New-Agey-qua-Buddhist philosophy that is unevenly applied in yoga classes.

There is perhaps a good conversation to be had about that. But what is the real function of being “honest” about this in the unprocessed way that Caron’s essay was?

There is certainly some value in having bigots be openly bigoted, in the sense that then the rest of us know just where they are. That will make it easier to point and laugh them out of existence. When Gawker found this piece yesterday and made pretty good fun of it, there was a certain catharsis in seeing everyone turn on the piece so swiftly. Smackdowns have their uses.

But the catharsis will prove deceptive here, I think. I bet there will still be people attending yoga classes in Brooklyn today, tomorrow, and next week, who have read the piece and who simply dissociated themselves from Caron’s perspective, made a GIF joke, and never thought about this again. The problem with these pieces being sort of inherently ridiculous is that the discussions they provoke are equally shallow. It’s like batting away flies. And as we get better at identifying essays published primarily to provoke rage, the flies are the lethargic sort there’s hardly any actual commitment involved in waving off.

I should say that I do not believe that xoJane, or Thought Catalog, or any of the numerous places that publish this sort of thing are really all that cynical, rage-bait-wise. My sense is that on their best days they believe that even the messiest emotions have a right to get an airing. They do these young writers no favors with this belief, but then editing is in some ways a provocateur’s job. The aim of getting people talking can overshadow the task of helping the writers become better writers.

What worries me sometimes, and this is a condescending sort of worry, I admit, is that the people writing these unprocessed personal essays don’t exactly know that. They see themselves get published, and think: woohoo, look at how my “honest” prose has been splashed across the internet! Some of the more talented ones even rationalize the rough edges of their work as being “honest” about the fact that not every experience resolves itself into a universal moral truth. Which writing shouldn’t have to do, but it’s possible to go too far in the other direction. If you really want to have a conversation about race and body-policing in yoga class, it probably behooves you to write an essay that’s less about your personal reaction to said problem than about the problem itself. And that too, after all, would be “honest.”