jessamyn-stanleyShare on Pinterest
Photo by Zoe Litaker; Design by Dana Davenport

Finding freedom in the small things now, more than ever, between those extended hours of silence and lessened social interaction, may be how we get through our day. And when it comes to liberation from the rigid realm of fitness expectations, we had to talk to yogi, influencer, and author Jessamyn Stanley.

Touted as one of the modern voices of the body positive movement, Stanley’s account attracted attention when she started frequently posting photos of her yoga practice. But Jessamyn, self-described as fat, Black, and queer, doesn’t exist just to be contrary to the white and thin women in mainstream fitness ads. And her yoga photos are more expansive than being inspo for #BodyPositivity.

Stanley is after body acceptance as a means for body liberation, which is where we all, should, ultimately want to be. “We are bigger than the mold that materialism and consumerism revolve around,” says Stanley. “And that if we accept ourselves fully, then we can live fully.”

Fitness isn’t about proving yourself to other people, she reminds us. It’s about learning your own strength and resilience while feeling your body move, shake, spin, sweat, and work so hard you’re panting joyfully. For Stanley, photos were the catalyst for doing the daily work to overcome shame and accept her body.

And especially during these trying times of uncertainty, rejecting society’s definition of what a body looks like, or is able to do, may be the grounding force to make your body feel like home. A home you can move in.

Our conversation with Stanley illuminates some deeper truths of this: Our bodies can use fitness as fuel for self-acceptance and a way to embrace the wildness of our bodies.

Whatever philosophy works for you — body positivity, body neutrality, acceptance — exercise is part of the journey to liberating yourself. It’s a tool we can take back and use to build our bodies into a home for experiences, creating, and living fully.

What does fitness mean to you?

To me, fitness is just taking care of yourself. There are so many different ways to be fit, and so many different parts of our physical bodies, our mental bodies, our emotional bodies, our spiritual bodies, that need to be kept at peak condition.

If you have a belonging that matters to you that you want to take care of, you have to tune it up, you have to check in with it, you have to take care of it. It assumes a certain amount of perfection in the human form.

You mentioned you’re moving away from body positivity — at least in the way the media has digested the meaning. Can you expand on that?

Ultimately body neutrality and body positivity, it’s all getting to the same idea that you’re okay today exactly as you are.

I’ve always found that body positivity really, truly, is a much bigger concept than just positivity. The idea is that you’re okay today. Everything about you is perfect. Everything about the physical body is exactly where it needs to be. And now that you can stand in that place, where can you go from there?

Instead of fixating on your physical body, you can just pursue and enjoy and create and do and be and really stand in what it means to be a human being, as opposed to seeing yourself as a machine for capitalism.

It doesn’t mean being happy all the time. It doesn’t mean that all of the sudden, by accepting this one movement, that you can X out multiple decades of body shaming and self-body shaming.

What body/fitness philosophy do you practice to feel your best self?

If we accept ourselves fully, then we can live fully.

For me — if I’m going to stand in a movement — I’m more in the camp of body acceptance; body acceptance as a route to body liberation. The idea is to free yourself from the idea that anyone else owns you, [and] acceptance is the first step toward liberation.

[And] I do find body neutrality frequently coming from a function of supremacy, wherein some people are allowed to feel like they are [getting a body deemed culturally attractive], or something and you want to get to a place where you’re always feeling like you’re the one.

But the reality is, there is no “one” [body]. Everybody has all of the shame and the confusion and the self-doubt, all of that is important.

[In] trying to accept every single part of myself, there can’t be any neutrality. Like my fatness, my blackness, my queerness all these different things are imperative.

All of the shame I have around my hair, being 4C and never seeing anyone on a magazine cover having 4C hair, [accepting] that is important. Not seeing people with belly fat, with a large belly, and a large butt — accepting those things specifically are really important.

How has yoga and fitness helped you move toward body liberation?

Yoga basically opened the door for me to see how body negative I was. When I started photographing my practice, I’d be in the posture, in the moment, thinking, “Oh my god, yoga is amazing, the sun is shining out of everything.”

And then I’d go back and look at the photos, and I would just immediately start talking shit about myself. I’d be like “oh my god my stomach, my arms…” These thoughts still come up in my head.

But it takes really hearing the language you use to talk about [yourself], and then trying to do the work to counteract that language. It’s basically like going into therapy with yourself, asking “Who told you that? Is that something that you really feel? Or are you comparing yourself to someone?”

It takes actually doing that work, but for me, that work couldn’t be facilitated without that accidental self-love practice of taking photos of myself.

Are the spiritual, emotional, and mental aspects of yoga as pertinent as the physical?

A huge chunk of people get into yoga because of the physical benefits of it, but it really doesn’t even matter why you show up. You’re going to get spiritual benefits. Come for whatever reason, it’s gonna get you, regardless.

Let’s say you’re practicing Half Moon Pose or you’re practicing a backbend. You start working on the posture and all of these other feelings start coming up. It could be across the entire spectrum of human emotion. But generally, at least in the beginning, it’s something along the lines of, “I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. Why did I even think I could do this?” And that’s what the practice is actually trying to bring out.

It’s trying to put you into these situations where you can’t walk away from that feeling.

It really doesn’t matter what it’s going to do for your body because your body is always changing. Yoga helps your body stay in tune, stay fit, that’s true. But your body is just carrying around so much more.

What lessons from fitness do you apply in your day-to-day life?

Just keep going. Any kind of physical activity reminds you that you can endure. You can sustain. You have the stamina. You can make it.

What else do you love about working out?

What it feels like to fire at all cylinders. To really let my whole self breathe and be.

So much of fitness culture and exercise becomes about a performance for other people and trying to show that you’re worthwhile because you can do certain things with your body. And the body is just meant to be wild. We’re meant to be moving in lots of different ways and experiencing lots of different sensations.

It feels good to just be able to cycle, just because. Just to feel my quads, to feel my glutes, just to feel alive and to feel what it feels like to really be giving all that I have. Even just a walk around the neighborhood just to feel the body moving, it feels good. And it doesn’t have to be about anyone else or anything other than just feeling good.

You were just part of an Adidas plus-size line launch. How does that relate to inclusivity in fitness?

Visibility is everything. It is everything.

It is powerful whenever you can see someone who looks like you doing something that you thought that you weren’t able to do.

How does having the right exercise clothes for people of all sizes matter?

Clothing options are such a huge part of [living a fit lifestyle], especially if you’re plus size. If you are not able to find clothing that makes you feel good, it’s way less likely that you’re going to be devoted to whatever type of fitness activity you’re doing.

And I feel like it’s crucial to be able to have natural standards and basics too. You need to be able to dress in a look that goes from day to night. Because a huge part of how people get into a fit lifestyle is by being able to have your outfits match that lifestyle — not just have the right clothes for the gym.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start practicing yoga or working out, that doesn’t feel like they fit into the typical group marketed to?

My advice is: Just do it.

You are perfectly capable of doing it. Everything is exactly where it needs to be. Just start from where you are today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Get Jessamyn’s workouts @ theunderbelly.com

Do yoga literally sitting on your couch, at your desk, wherever, right now. It could be YouTube. You can get something for free, right now. Just start where you are.

Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks all the wrong things. She chooses her next destination by pointing at a map with her eyes closed.