toesoxnudegate: the feminists & kathryn budig speak up

The great nude yoga advertising conversation continues, and it’s evolved in some interesting directions…

The Feminist Analysis Direction

The Ms. Magazine blog provided an interesting and informed synopsis of last month’s conversation. I really appreciated seeing an “outsider” (meaning non-yoga blogger/writer) perspective on things, as well as the detail of analysis. Somebody was paying attention! Since I spend so much time in the trenches of the online yoga community and repeatedly hear many of the same voices over and over (even though I love these voices), I can forget how things appear to people who are not yoga bloggers, writers or practitioners.

Not only did the Ms. blogger analyze the yoga blogger posts and responses, but she read the comments: “The resulting cycle will be a predictable one for most feminists: Women raise concerns about exploitation, defenders accuse those women of being prudish or jealous and conclude that the whole topic is a non-issue. Only this time, there’s a nasty twist: Some blog posts and comments asserted that criticizing advertising is in itself unyogic. Now practitioners with a bone to pick aren’t just bitter and sexphobic—they’re also bad yogis.”

The title of the blog post, Yoga’s Feminist Awakening, has provoked some interesting discussion on Facebook. Does this conversation reflect a “feminist awakening” in the yoga community? As Carol Horton pointed out, “So what does feminism have to do with it anymore? The divide [in the online yoga community] seems more like between those who have a socially critical perspective, and connect their practice to that, and those who don’t.” Interesting… my feeling is that there is an awakening and refreshing dialogue happening within the community. Whether or not it’s feminist is hard to say, but it’s political, it’s cultural, it’s critical. And it’s exciting to watch and be a part of.

The Vague New Age Defensive Direction

One of the most challenging things about last month’s conversation was watching the focus shift from the use of nudity in yoga advertising to the Toesox ad and Kathryn Budig. It was frustrating to watch, and I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Kathryn (even though, from what I saw, many of the comments were supportive of her and the “beauty” of the ad). She had refrained from commenting during the heat of the debate, but has started to make little peeps.

Last week, in a post on Yoga Journal’s new Nectar blog, she alluded to her decision to do the ad: “Eka Hasta Bhujasana… was the very first pose I shot in my campaign for ToeSox wearing only the designer’s socks and my birthday suit. As you might imagine, my initial reaction to the idea of posing in the buff put a temporary lift into my eyebrow and a worry that I was going to feel a breeze in all the wrong places. Then the owner of ToeSox and the photographer explained their concept behind the ad, which is: the body is our temple.”

She goes on to say, “To me, the photo is a lovely example of what happens when you blend strength and surrender, because this particular shoot required extra doses of both. I summoned up my strength, shed my fear (along with my clothes), trusted in the vision of a talented photographer and company, and channeled the depths of my asana practice, my sacred feminine, and my soul. Then there was the surrender–I had to embrace my authentic self in it’s raw form, to allow my image to be seen in magazines, and to offer my heart and intention to each and every pose.”

In a piece on the Huffington Post, Why Are We So Freakin’ Angry?, she goes into more detail about how the conversation affected her. “The heated public debate and personal attack was a good, old-fashioned example of people using a scapegoat to release their undirected pain and frustration. I may have felt like the beast at the top of the castle battlement surrounded by angry, pitchfork-bearing villagers, but they weren’t directly angry at me. No, they had misdirected frustrations about a deep-seeded issue in themselves.”

This accusation was buried in a long ramble about anger and not taking things personally. However, it was the question in the title of the article that I found most problematic. What are people angry? Because they’re human. The questions that Kathryn should be addressing are: What kind of choices have I made? Am I willing to take responsibility for my actions? Calling herself a “scapegoat” and claiming that people’s perceived anger is the result of “misdirected frustrations about a deep-seeded issue in themselves” is irresponsible and dismissive.

It’s easier to feel like a victim, place blame on others and resort to fuzzy new age moralizing than to stand behind one’s actions. As Brenda from Grounding Thru the Sitbones commented on Facebook: “Just once, I would like to see one of these spokesmodels give us some insight into why they make these choices, instead of whining about people being mean.” Yes, that’s what I’d like to see also.

  1. As Abbie Hoffman said back in the day — and you youngins can google him — politics is how we live our lives, not who we support. to this old feminist, the political is still personal.

  2. I don’t see any references to mean people – just angry ones. I don’t think any “spokesmodels” owe anyone any explanations. They don’t seem angry either. I appreciate Kathryns work very much. She does not seem angry. Choosing to take things personally is a choice. Could lead to anger.

  3. Let’s be honest: she probably did the ad because they offered to pay her a lot. If I were young and beautiful and needed money, I might consider doing that kind of work too. I don’t know how much she needed the money or whether she had other modeling options at the time, but doing that ad probably was good for her career, and certainly for her notoriety. There’s no such thing as bad publicity!

    The way in which other people “use” the ad is not her responsibility. If it’s porn to some men, that’s their problem, and it’s not her fault.

  4. My comment was intended for a (semi) private audience, one that is not so literal. Tone is always lost on the internet.

    But, if we are being literal, I never said that any one owed me anything. I said I’d LIKE to hear from the various persons at the center of these debates because they, alone, can discuss their choices/their motivations/ why they are being misread better than anyone else. I have heard very little in the way of convincing arguments as to why this kind of advertising is best, and I thought this was a missed opportunity to shed some light.

    I am very weary of the Knights-Shining-Armor vs. Radical Feminist dichotomy and would love to hear a logical, reasoned explanation for why I may have misunderstood what is going on…

    • hey brenda – sorry about taking your comment out of context. i quoted it here simply because i completely agree with it (perhaps i should have just paraphrased you and taken the credit for it).

      and i also agree that it’s a missed opportunity, which is why i’m disappointed in the responses from KB. models and teachers are public faces of the yoga, and they have a responsbility to articulate the other aspects of the practice (especially a teacher-model who also considers herself a writer). if you’re going to put yourself and your body in the public sphere, be prepared to speak out.

      the sappy justification and the “i’m a scapegoat, it’s so hard bearing the brunt of other people’s anger”… these fall short for me. i would find it so much more interesting and mind-opening to hear some actual direct discussion about their choices and actions, rather than blame and flakey pseudo lessons.

      (ps: facebook is still the internet 😉

  5. Emotions did at times run high in this discussion, but overall I felt that people did a good job of trying to be reasonable and respectful of each other on both sides.

    The accusation that everyone who made critical comments about the commercialization of yoga in the debate that the Toesox ad unfortunately become so strongly associated with (an unanticipated development that, I might add, was NOT simply the work of the critics) is angry, envious, defensive, and generally full of unwarranted negativity is simply wrong. There’s a legitimate issue to be discussed here – and while it’s difficult, reasonable people can have different views. Ms. Budig seems too hurt and defensive to be able to recognize that.

  6. Just a note – the Ms Magazine URL has been updated to remove the apostrophe in “yoga’s” (right now your link is broken).

    People are angry because they perceive things to be out of whack. Yes, it’s a shame that K. Budig copped it like she did. And you know, I didn’t have anywhere near as much of an issue with Toe Sox-Gate as I do with Tara Stiles’ blatant “it’s okay for yoga to be considered a weight loss technique” messages.

    And people are ALLOWED to be angry. Anger isn’t un-yogic. Sticking your fingers in your ears and only listening to “positive” messages might be un-yogic, but then it also might be considered delusional as well.

  7. …and we’ve reached rock bottom. Next up Playboyoga.

  8. My reaction to this advertisement was wonderment. Who is this advertisement aimed at? How is it supposed to effect its target audience?

    When scantily clad or naked women are used in advertisements aimed at men (particularly younger men in the lower socio-economic classes), I can understand the advertising strategy. It’s manipulative of the viewer and exploitive of the models, but I can understand how the strategy works.

    However, the market for this product is people who do yoga, and that’s a primarily female audience. In my experience most of the few (10 to 15%) male yoga students that I see in classes I take are like me- middle aged, well educated, and upper middle class. We aren’t terribly likely to be influenced into buying toe sox by a picture of a naked woman. In any case, we’re too a small a fraction of the market to be worth bothering with. For comparison, look at the available yoga clothing aimed specifically at man- there’s precious little of it on the market compared with all of the stuff being marketed to women.

    Is the goal of the advertisement simply to shock the viewer and grab their attention? Is the message that “our toe sox can help you to become a beautiful person like this?” I just don’t get it.

  9. I think – and Linda, correct me if I’m wrong! – that any discussion involving the public view of the female body and its use in advertising is by nature a feminist discussion. (Side note, I just realised, in that more anthropological use of the word feminist, there is no male equivalent… i.e. a word for a discussion about the use of the male form in advertising – cause those shiny buff boys on the pages of our magazines are also worth discussing vis-a-vis body image stereotypes… anyway…)

    I actually think that Budig’s Nectar blog post is a very honest description of her feelings about doing the ad… I personally don’t believe that she owes anyone more of an explanation. Maybe that’s because as a graphic designer / strategic communications person, I would expect the persons who conceived/approved the ad to take responsibility for its content and messaging, not the model.

    Of course, as you say, there may be personal consequences to deciding to pose for such an ad as well, which we saw in the earlier discussions. But funnily, the name of the person who created the concept, the name of the person who approved the idea as a way of marketing socks, barely got a mention (if at all…). We, the potential consumer, identify with the model and therefore she bore the brunt of the debate. Nobody is asking for any justification from the people who actually woke up one morning and said “hey, let’s get a naked woman to sell our sox”. Funny, that.

    I’m not saying I agree with her analysis that people who are critical are just angry. Obviously there are deeper social and political issues at stake here. But I am glad that she decided not to take the discussion personally, because as you say, it was never initially about Budig but about the larger social issue of using the naked female body to advertise products related to yoga. In fact, I hate to say it, but I think this post is further contributing to that “focus shift” as well.

    Of course, this is all totally related to the post you put up yesterday about the PETA ad and society’s view/expectation of a yoga teacher.

    Now, isn’t it interesting that Katheryn’s decision to pose nude for a product advertisement is viewed so differently from the Jivamukti teacher’s decision to pose nude for an ‘ethical’ advertisement? Yoga teacher – check. Naked female body – check. Reaction – totally different.

    People are just fascinating!

    As always great posting and cutting edge stuff GirlWarrior!! Keep it up and keep our brains in shape!

    • thanks for your thoughtful response, lagitane! lots going on in here, and i just want to respond to a few of your points…

      “… I think this post is further contributing to that “focus shift” as well.” ~ yes, i agree, and i debated with myself whether it was even worth responding to. in the midst of the conversation, many people were asking for a response from KB, and i personally wasn’t interested in one. as you note, models don’t have much input into the design and concept of ads (btw, toesox did issue a public response to the debate: ).

      however, now that KB has chosen to speak out, and in doing so, has refuted any responsibility for her choices or actions by claiming to be “scapegoated” and sugar-coating her response in some flakey new age “lesson,” i couldn’t resist commenting. basically, i just want to say: if you’re going to speak up, step up to bat, own it, be honest, reflect deeply.

      “isn’t it interesting that Katheryn’s decision to pose nude for a product advertisement is viewed so differently from the Jivamukti teacher’s decision to pose nude for an ‘ethical’ advertisement?” ~ too true! it’s clearly not a black and white issue, and there’s no blanket answer.

      thanks for the feedback!

  10. I don’t think she is acting like a victim- any advanced yogi would know that it would be foolish to act the martyr. She even says, “they weren’t angry at me”. She knows this. And she is not wrong about the “deep-seated issue in themselves”. She speaks here of the Shadow. Whatever you decry, you are afraid of within yourself. I don’t think it’s irresponsible to say what’s right. I don’t think she’s whining so much as pointing it out. But I’m only reading what you’re giving me.

  11. Spokesmodels don’t owe anyone anything, but they owe themselves the truth, and taking responsibility for their choices.

    Then again, every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes. This whole yoga and feminism has sparked a great and interesting discussion, I like that you used the word “awakening”. I agree that it goes beyond yoga, it is a political and cultural issue. Let’s see how it unfolds…

  12. I’m interested in the comments that KB doesn’t “owe us anything.” We all owe each other everything. We owe each other kindness, honesty, respect, forthrightness. We owe it to each other to make responsible choices, to send positive messages, to explain and clarify our statements. As yogis we owe it to our community to “use our powers for good,” if you will. Who wants to live in a world where people believe otherwise? The yamas and niyamas are meant to be practiced both toward oneself and others.

  13. “Whatever you decry, you are afraid of within yourself.”

    like what? using nudity to sell yoga in America? ageist advertising? sexist advertising? what? and BTW, I am very familiar with Jung’s Shadow Theory, but like anything else, I don’t believe it’s valid 100% of the time. so by extension, people who decry human rights violations are afraid of committing them themselves? that’s a stretch IMO.

    and I have a confession to make….I also was a nude model back in the day. For art classes in college. SHOCKER!! so for anyone who thinks that people who object to nude ads for yoga are “prudes” — as was written in another “yoga inspired” online mag which shall remain nameless — I have one word for you: blech.

  14. “The yamas and niyamas are meant to be practiced both toward oneself and others.” ~ MadTownYogini

    Yes, good idea, why don’t we frame the debate in the ethical terms defined by yoga. As I understand it, the niyamas are personal ethical guidelines or restraints. They’re all about working on yourself. So, I’ll leave that to the individuals concerned to think about their actions in those terms.

    The yamas are about the ethics of our social responsibilities when interacting with others. So, this is one way of looking at the debate. How does advertising, the sexualisation of yoga, the objectification of the female body … I’m not exactly sure what the question is … fit within the ethical framework provided by the yamas?

    Deborah Adele in her book ‘The Yamas and the Niyamas’ defines the yamas as “nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, nonexcess and nonpossessiveness.” My initial reaction is that maybe some of the advertising robs people of a sense of self-worth and detracts from a deeper understanding of what yoga is about. There again, in the reactions of many, I see too much attachment and possessiveness to their idea of what they think yoga should or shouldn’t be …

  15. Kathryn Budig should ask herself whether she would have been recruited for this photo shoot if she were not young, skinny and athletic. Nobody thinks that to be the case (though Toesox could defuse some of the suspicion leveled at them by featuring a model who varies from the conventional skinny-young-chick aesthetic). So, if Kathryn or anybody else thinks it is about Kathryn as a person, they are ignoring the essential nature of this spectacle.

    This ad reduced Kathryn to a naked, young, athletic body. It captured nothing of her personality or her skill. It placed her in the classic posture of submission to the camera’s gaze.

    The real question, as pointed out by a few prior commenters, is why so many women respond to ads like this while so many women feel creeped out by it. I think that these images tap into a destructive current of longing/self-loathing. This is a dynamic which many people in the yoga world wish to escape. I’m sure the controversy was an intended side effect for Toesox, since they get a huge amount of publicity for a relatively small investment.

    But I still don’t understand the compromise Kathryn made. She raised an eyebrow, as the rest of us did. The photographer told her a story about a vision that did not come through in the eventual product. And she expects all of her audience to somehow see past the clumsy exploitation of her body?

    Kathryn is not simply her young, athletic body, but that is all that was portrayed in this shallow ad campaign.

  16. Roseanne,

    Thank you for your complimentary coverage of my blog post! And thank you also for your blog’s intelligent continuation of this much-needed discussion. KB’s HuffPo piece came out after my own recap article, but I share your sentiments and picked up on the exact lines you did. The article ultimately struck me as reductive and a dishonest representation of much of what was said online. Perhaps I overlooked or didn’t come across personal attacks on Budig, but the comments and blog posts I saw often critiqued the ad’s concept *while* reaffirming her beauty. There were also many comments about Budig’s skill in asana, her kindness, her teaching skill, etc.

    I love Rhiannon’s comment above about how the image reduces Budig to her image; it erases her personality in service of drawing attention exclusively to her form. I don’t know that this in and of itself is bad. I regularly find the human body in asana incredibly beautiful and moving, even when, or especially when, that body is not one which satisfies mainstream athletic ideals. But I did think it rather strange that people (I think Waylon Lewis was one?) wrote comments saying Budig is a great cook and loves to eat and so on. How was that relevant to the conversation? The advertisers wanted viewers to see a body rather than a complex and complete human being, and I think they largely succeeded. Nothing about the ad tells me anything about Budig as a person. It only tells me about her as a body.

    It doesn’t make me feel angry to look at Budig naked. She’s beautiful, she’s strong, and I’m suspect that if I ever have the opportunity to take a workshop or class with her, I’ll take it and benefit from her knowledge. But it does make me angry and sad to see the American yoga community bending over backwards (haha) to find ways to excuse and even promote irresponsible or just plain inane marketing. While I don’t doubt that ToeSox explained their ads as celebrating “the body as a temple,” I don’t see why the temple needs to wear socks and be otherwise nude.

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