About Jennifer Webb, PhD

Jennifer B. Webb is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Science and the Health Psychology Ph.D. Program at UNC Charlotte. She is a clinical health psychologist whose research program is informed by a non-dieting, weight-neutral philosophy on health promotion in culturally- and body-diverse groups. Her work emphasizes enhancing the integration, dissemination, and accessibility of evidence-based mind-body approaches (e.g., yoga, self-compassion, mindful and intuitive eating, mindful self-care, etc.). Through these initiatives, she helps strengthen embodied self-regulation, positive body image, and well-being among women during the developmental transitions of young adulthood, pregnancy, and postpartum.

For starters, please tell us about the Integrative Positive Psychology Research Lab in Mindfulness, Body Acceptance, Culture & Health (MIND-BATCH) at UNC Charlotte where you work.

First off, I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of having joined the GBYF tribe and am eager to jump in to see how I can best support continuing to actualize the vision and mission of the organization. So, thank you!

Our current MIND-BATCH lab is the evolution of over a decade of collective critical inquiry in the intersections of embodiment, diversity, and well-being. Notably, when I first started our lab here at UNC Charlotte back in 2007 and for roughly the first 5 years or so, we strongly identified as an “obesity” research team. That was also reflected in our original lab’s name. Although we were attuned to the wealth of “isms” that could adversely impact health for members of diverse groups we were blinded to the role that weightism played in influencing the health and well-being of individuals living in larger bodies. At that time weight bias and stigma were absent from models underlying health disparities among marginalized groups. I credit our efforts to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of weightism and intersectional oppression through engaging critical texts and dialogue along with adopting the evidence-based Health at Every Size (HAES) health promotion philosophy as instrumental in shifting our lab’s focus from one that was weight-focused to one that is well-being focused regardless of one’s body size.

Currently, MIND-BATCH is working using inclusive mixed methods research designs to support increasing access to evidence-based mind-body practices that improve positive embodiment and well-being for members of culturally-diverse groups. The main interventions we have targeted in these efforts include the practices of yoga, mindful and intuitive eating, and self-compassion. We are developing and piloting these interventions through guided self-help formats and look towards further increasing integration of peer support within this behavioral health intervention model among college women and women traversing the experiences of pregnancy and the postpartum.

What can yoga teachers and yoga therapists do to cultivate spaces of greater inclusion, accessibility, and positive embodiment for themselves and practitioners from marginalized groups?

Thank you for this consideration. There has been recent relevant work conducted by Dr. Catherine Cook-Cottone (Cook-Cottone & Douglass, 2017) and Dr. Christine Spadola (Spadola et al., 2017, 2019) and their colleagues that offers some very helpful insights and recommendations in this regard. These researchers have invited consideration of how to address this broader issue on a number of different levels which hopefully provides some specific guidance that yoga teachers and yoga therapists can explore in their own practices as ways of increasing access, inclusion, and positive embodiment for themselves and practitioners from marginalized groups in a way that is motivating and not overwhelming.

It is important to take stock of where one is and to start there. Considerations could involve, for example, self-inquiry surrounding: 1) how diverse is the representation of yoga teachers and yoga therapists in your practice or yoga space already, 2) how diverse are the images used in marketing your yoga space or yoga therapy practice whether in person and/or virtually for prospective students or clients, 3) are the ways in which you are trying to reach more diverse communities effective, 4) are there ways to provide free, lower cost, or donation-based classes in-person or having some flexibility in the subscription structure potentially for online classes, 5) is there the possibility of providing childcare on-site, 6) could some classes be scheduled more flexibly during times when individuals working specific shifts could be able to access them, 7) are there ways to partner with other community organizations to use common spaces that are already embedded within underserved communities, 8) your own relationship with your body and exploring how it could be impacting your approach to interacting with clients and students, 9) ensuring that your actual physical space de-emphasizes a focus on appearance while engaging in the practice (e.g., engaging in a critical examination of the complex functioning of mirrors in this context), 10) being mindful of the language that is used in guiding yoga practice that encourages an honest connection with emotions and sensations, exploring one’s own growth edge not in comparison to others in the room, and de-emphasizes striving for the perfect pose, 11) if selling merchandise including a diverse range of sizing, and 12) finding community with likeminded others on this journey by participating in trainings and engaging in critical yet compassionate dialogue that will further expand opportunities for advancing these social justice ideals into a reality for more people through collective action. It really does take a self-aware village!

Some of your research has focused on mainstream yoga media’s visual representations of the “yoga body” and concluded that they are narrow and may hinder participation from individuals and groups who remain unrepresented. What’s your advice to Yoga Journal and other yoga media outlets to become relevant for a broader range of yoga practitioners?

Yes, this was such meaningful work for my students and I to embark on. In full disclosure, I have been a long-time subscriber to Yoga Journal and have appreciated turning to it as a helpful resource over the years to keep motivating my own practice. At the same time, as our lab started shifting to embrace HAES principles, I was becoming increasingly aware of the limited inclusion of certain aspects of diversity that appeared to be reflected for example on the covers of the magazine. Instead of only relying on my own observations, our team did a few systematic content analyses of cover images, cover caption themes, as well as the advertisements within Yoga Journal spanning several years. As you noted and consistent with my observations there did appear to be a relatively homogenous “yoga body” that was being promulgated.

Around the time our research was being published I reached out to the then editor in chief of Yoga Journal to share our findings and hopefully start a dialogue about how to consider these findings in how the magazine would move forward in the future. Interestingly, after perhaps one email exchange I unfortunately never heard directly back from the editor. However, I have been quite encouraged in the last two years since our research was published with the honest efforts of Yoga Journal by taking the initiative in engaging in more authentic reflexivity about the underrepresentation of individuals from diverse social identities within the outlet.

Informally, it appears that they have now taken action to make these needed changes both with regard to cover models but also with regard to the yoga experts featured within the pages, the models included in their various practice/pose series, and in advertisements. I can’t say for sure whether our research had any impact directly but maybe it may have contributed in some small way along with the efforts of others on the frontline to encourage Yoga Journal to make these changes. Given Yoga Journal’s long-standing position as a leader within the mainstream yoga media community, I am encouraged that others will follow their lead towards increasing the inclusion of images, stories, and wisdom from individuals of diverse social identities who practice and/or teach yoga.

We’re in a period of complex messaging at the intersection of fat embodiment, curvy identification, and healthism. What’s your advice for yoga teachers and yoga therapists?

Yes, this is well-said. Individuals living in larger bodies have a diversity of ways that they feel may best capture or express that aspect of their identity. Unfortunately, one of the potential negative effects of the broader body positive movement (which has been very empowering in many ways) is how it can result in some cases of using labels like “curvy” or “fat” as ways of creating more division and reifying the same body comparison processes that underlie the body oppression of higher-weight individuals more generally. It seems important to be sensitive to how the individual wants to identify and what that label means to them specifically.

As a clinical health psychologist, I find the topic of healthism such an important and yet as you qualified complex one. As with labels reflecting body size, I encourage my doctoral students who will be working with individuals from diverse and intersecting social identities to recognize that everyone may not be operating from the same privileged perspective as to how mainstream culture may define “health”. They may also not necessarily value that version of health that is promoted even by well-meaning public health, healthcare, and behavioral health professionals and backed by research evidence.

We may benefit from taking a more critical eye to the research that promotes “health” to gain deeper insights into who is included in these studies and who may not be. Are we looking within to reflect on what health means to us and what helped to inform that definition? How narrow or holistic is our understanding of health? What automatic reactions do we have to those who may not subscribe to this version of health? Do we make automatic assumptions about the health practices of others just by virtue of the fact that they practice yoga or engage in yoga therapy? Can we be more honest with ourselves about any weight bias we may hold and compassionately explore its origins? Are we unintentionally assuming the health and ability of students or clients in the context of a yoga class or yoga therapy based primarily on aspects of their appearance such as body size or weight?

In addition to engaging in this critical self-inquiry/exploration (with curiosity and compassion!), I would also encourage yoga teachers and therapists to consider seeking out additional support and education/training in this process as they are not alone on this journey. For instance, in addition to the expertise of GBYF leadership, there are wonderful resources available from peers who have also been doing this important work of fostering greater inclusion, diversity, and access to yoga such as Amber Karnes and Dianne Bondy, Anna Guest-Jelley, Jivana Heyman, Dana Smith, Jessamyn Stanley, and Susanna Barkataki to name a few experts that first come to mind.

I think you would agree with me that “yoga really is for everybody.”  But how do we overcome the fact that wealth and disposable income play an important role in access to yoga classes, workshops and trainings?

Yes, you raise such an excellent point about the real tension between the juxtaposition of the underlying philosophy of access to the practice as an ideal with how to realize it in actuality for members of diverse groups especially within the context of economic access. It would seem aligned with the mission and model of GBYF that it takes the partnership among a variety of stakeholders in order to increase access to communities that are under resourced. It takes the recognition of our privilege and then the conscious choice to find ways of paying it forward to those with greater economic need through offering peer mentorship and trainings perhaps based on financial ability, creating scholarships, and grants like GBYF and others to improve infrastructure from a private sector standpoint. There also seem to be ways to use research and other evidence-based approaches to help speak the currency of lawmakers towards impacting policy-level changes that could result in greater government funding to help subsidize the expansion of access to yoga teacher and therapist trainings and infrastructure within underserved communities.

Your email signature line ends with this quote from Neale Donald Walsch: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” What’s that mean to you, Jennifer, day-to-day, in these turbulent times?

Thank you for taking note of that! I am always wondering if that mantra reaches others in a meaningful way as it serves to reinforce a personal intention I attempt to strive for each day. I agree the uncertain and turbulent times we are in right now make it a perfect crucible for actualizing. I think for me this quote reflects an invitation to mindfully step out of autopilot and to recognize opportunities for growth and connection. It’s noticing that if I am feeling discomfort, I can reframe it as a cue to motivate positive change. I have found that the parenting role in particular has perhaps been the most salient one for me in the day-to-day over the last 6 months of living in this zone of discomfort. For example, I experience and approach this discomfort regularly in hopes of promoting advocacy and awareness through engaging in challenging yet important conversations my husband and I have with our ten-year-old son surrounding issues of racial injustice and constructive collective response in ways that he can digest.

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