By Rose de Paulsen
‘She’s All that and a Pair of Leggings’
Yoga pants must be one of the most contentious garment pieces we have seen recently in the West. Going to a high school that required students to wear a uniform, yoga pants were practically demonized for existing; often seen as an inherently sexual garment. Though I never understood the comparison of yoga pants and lingerie, some have analyzed the similarities and inspiration between undergarments and women’s performance wear. But to think of someone in yoga pants, we usually prescribe it photos we have seen before, usually a woman in a yoga pose with an aspirational quote attached. Where we might have once thought of this as inspirational, now due to saturation or maybe corporatization, it seems overly cliché. How did yoga wear, and yoga pants become something loved by some and scorned by others?
In an article Dr. Mark Joseph O’Connell sent to me earlier last week, The invisible corset: Discipline, control and surveillance in contemporary yoga wear (2021), Juliana Luna Mora details the fascinating juxtaposing opinions on the garment and culture around westernized yoga. The contrasts between empowerment and oppression, self and social, patriarchal and feminist, position yoga wear as truly paradoxical garments.
The yoga pant and clothing today are not a natural progression of the garments from their originating area of South Asia, most likely they were an expansion on the style of 80’s active wear and underwear. Yoga pants as we know them today were developed in the 1990’s. Form fitting, compressing, moisture wicking, odour reducing, stretch and rip resistant, are a few of the promises made by most yoga clothing brands. Something that could be attested to corsets and yoga clothing, is that they both enabled women’s movement in sport. Many corsets supported women through strenuous movement, just as many yoga garments help women improve their form and technique by closely fitting to the wearer’s body. There is also empowerment with the cut and form of the yoga garment. Following lines similar to undergarment, yoga clothing and pants have implications of sexual liberation, especially for women. With yoga clothing; performance, sport, and sexuality became intertwined into an aesthetic look. Yoga clothing became another tool of expression for women’s bodily autonomy, both physically, mentally and spiritually. Though, consumerism in late capitalism manages to exploit what can be consumable.
With the advent of diet culture on the rise since the mid-century, the ideals for the aesthetic body have changed only marginally. Yoga clothes are often associated with the woman who does yoga, usually a wealthier, white, young, able-bodied, woman who manages to balance everything in her life. She is the current “That-girl”, the girl that thrives under capitalism and has self-discipline over her mind and body. Yoga wear then became the uniform for neoliberal elite, as only those that are profiting enough to afford classes every week, and new sets of clothes every month could participate in this culture. In the age of social media and celebrity/influencer obsession, yoga clothing is also heavily marketed as the essential closet staple for its ability to shape the wearer. Life would be a lot easier if one could just buy yoga garments and their body would magically fit the mould that they are buying. Capitalism and consumerism can easily shape the oppressive idea of the perfect woman more so now than ever. This social media panopticon exacerbates these “ideals” and creates pressure to compete with bodies as if they are aesthetic property and directly attached to our self-worth. This self-monitoring and discipline can be oppressive when society pits women against each other in competition for validation. Though it should be reiterated, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to improve oneself physiologically, only when it is imposed, with near impossible standards to be achieved, does it become an issue.
Capitalism can easily benefit from the self-improvement industry, having consumers focus on manufactured problems with themself and not with the problems within institutions. The glamour of a perfect and achievable lifestyle mystifies the deception being sold. Many communities around yoga and New Age beliefs have gotten into trouble for anti-science rhetoric. The idea of Conspirituality (a portmanteau of conspiracy and spirituality) has arisen during the pandemic when most people felt the urge to connect with others, especially on a health journey in uncertain times. Conspirituality then became a form of comfort and empowerment for people disenfranchised by a neglectful government. Some conspiracies revolved around the government and COVID-19, appealing to mothers concerned about the future for their children. Meanwhile, the Multi-Level-Marketing industry was coming to a head, and trying to profit off yoga-like leggings. Multi-Level-Marketing, some likening it to a pyramid scheme, preyed predominantly on women, specifically mothers, who wanted a job where they were in control of their hours and a possibility of moving up in the company. The company LulaRoe sold leggings in the MLM format, and eventually got into legal trouble as many of its sellers found themselves in debt. Many of these sellers were women. It seems that capitalism had taken this symbol of empowerment for women, and commodified it to such an extent, it then can be used to extort the target consumers.
Fitness marketing is largely a practice that perpetuates a cisgendered and heterosexual ideal. Queer erasure is extremely common, defining and displaying women’s bodies is one way, men as another, with deviations being punished with ostracism and ridicule. Yoga wear is attributed to women and subsequently femininity, similar to skirts, we attribute the perceived attribute onto the wear regardless of their self-identification.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Many newer brands are embracing diversity in their marketing. There are plenty of companies showing yoga wear on plus size models, showing that not everyone attending the yoga class is a size 8. Entrepreneurs like Jessamyn Stanley, who is a queer plus-sized Black yoga practitioner, is influencing a more accepting exercise space as well as expressing herself through empowering yoga. Still, more representation from other communities like the disability community is needed, we can see progress is being made. Yoga wear has been valiantly defended as an article of clothing that can be worn outside of the gym, despite much criticism from those who see it as a highly sexual garment. It is clear that yoga wear speaks to women’s freedom of expression and bodily autonomy.
Yoga wear has a sordid perception, but its ability to empower bodies can help those marginalized understand the manufactured insecurities and progress to a more flexible understanding of the perfect pose.
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Luna Mora Juliana, Berry Jess. (2021) The invisible corset: Discipline, control and surveillance in contemporary yogawear. Film, Fashion & Consumption, 10 (2), 401 https://doi.org/10.1386/ffc_00032_1