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It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Jessamyn Stanley has built an entire platform off of self-acceptance, becoming a person that others look to in order to learn to appreciate their bodies and to rebel against the many standards that society has placed on them. But the author of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance explains that it was her experience of being a marginalized figure that allowed her to become the influential voice that she is in the wellness space today.
"I've often felt that being ignored and being discarded has been one of the greatest virtues of my life, one of the greatest places of learning, and I've learned so much for being bullied and being excluded because it means that I've had to find my power within myself," Stanley tells Yahoo Life. "I can't look to anyone else to give me power. And that's something that I have felt from a very young age."
A North Carolina native, Stanley says that she grew up in a predominately white area where she always looked different from the people she was surrounded by, as well as from those who were celebrated for their beauty in mainstream media.
"There was a period of my life where I was like, 'I'm worthless. I don't deserve to live,'" she recalls, as a result of the lack of representation. "I went through a long phase in my adolescence where I was self-mutilating. I felt very awful that I even existed as a human being. I thought that I had to apologize for existing."
At that dark point in her life, Stanley was left only with the option to find the light. And while she wasn't able to find it from outside herself, she was forced to turn inward.
"It is only when you are at your lowest, that you can actually understand the power that already resides inside of you," she reveals. "Because from that place, it was kind of like I could either die or I could just try to keep going. And like, I can't look to anyone else to lean on. I have to just look within myself."
Ironically enough, as she began to carve out a space for herself where she chose to rid herself of society's standards and judgments, rather than of her own self worth; she simultaneously built a community of people who felt their experiences were validated within her own. This was heavily illustrated by her discovery and practice of yoga — a discipline that is largely whitewashed and seemingly reserved for thin people.
"When I started sharing my yoga practice on social media, I had been sharing my life for a long time so sharing my yoga practice didn't feel like a big deal to me," she explains. "I noticed that much of the response that I got from people was like, 'I didn't know that fat people could do yoga.' I was just like, 'Why do you think fat people can't do yoga? Fat people do all kinds stuff all the time. We obviously just have a huge visibility problem.' And so I kept sharing my practice because I wanted to show that I'm not the only and that the world is bigger than what has been painted by the mainstream media."
Taking a look at her social media now, where Stanley has over 471,000 followers on Instagram alone, it seems that she's been successful in providing representation to those who didn't have it for so long. In her experience, however, she's learned that external representation isn't the only route to acceptance.
"If you don't see yourself, you'll think you should be erased. Or you'll just try your damnedest to mimic what is being shown," she says. "The most revolutionary thing for me as an adult has been understanding that I don't have to look to the media for representation. I don't have to look to the media for reflection or for visibility. I just have to look in the mirror."
It was only after these revelations that Stanley truly discovered the root of the "self hatred" and "self doubt" that she felt as a young girl. And while most people might label her work within the body positive movement, she characterizes her efforts as anything that dismantles body negativity.
"We as a society train toward body negative. Capitalism really up to this point has relied upon body negativity as a way to sell things. Because if you fundamentally believe that there's a problem with your body, you will always be a consumer," she explains. "So I think that whether you're calling it body neutrality or body acceptance, whatever language feels good, as long as we're starting to trend away from body negativity and towards something where it's OK for people to just accept themselves."
And a major part of that acceptance, Stanley says, is resisting the outside noise.
"My yoga of self-acceptance is that, ultimately, I am problematic, I am complicated, I am sitting right at the crux of so many different things and that is messy and it does not look pretty. And it doesn't mean always having the right answer and often it means hurting other people. And that's just gotta be OK too. I have to accept that also," she says. "It just is really like saying that all of this is happening on purpose and that it's OK as a result. That kind of acceptance is radical, it is political. It is very much the reason for living."