This morning I attended my first yoga class at a private studio. I’ve been practicing yoga for several years, but this was my first time at the new place, and it was immediately obvious to me that I didn’t fit in there.
Let me back up and take you on a journey back to middle school. That was where I figured out that I wasn’t part of the popular group and never would be. I couldn’t articulate why, exactly, but whatever made girls popular, I didn’t have it.
In retrospect, after having survived middle school and then spending many more years there as a teacher, I understand a bit better. There are some universal rules. You have to be smart, but not too smart. You should be athletic. You should be outgoing. It helps to be attractive. But you don’t have to be any of these things as long as you have money.
My experiences with the popular crowd must have imprinted themselves on my brain, because wherever I go, I can instantly tell if a woman comes from money. And these women at the yoga studio all came from money. They were all very fit. (I’m not. I used to be, but since I stopped breast-feeding I have a spare tire that consists entirely of Ben and Jerry’s.) They all had pedicured feet. (I didn’t.) They all had expensive yoga gear and yoga clothes from shops I can’t even name. (I was wearing an Old Navy tank top and faded yoga capris that, although freshly laundered, had seen their fair share of cat hair and baby puke.) They were all wearing makeup. (Aside from lip gloss, the last time I wore makeup was for my wedding in 2010.) But the most perplexing thing about them was their speech—their ohmygod, valley girl, soul-grinding speech. I wondered how their husbands could listen to that crap day in, day out—and I know some of them were married, because they were wearing very large diamonds. As I stretched, I let strains of their conversations invade what was supposed to be my sacred mind-space: “Like it’s crazy…barre class…we went to one in Georgetown…in New York for an interview…shape my bottom…face is amazing…sweet almond oil…you should try it…organic…tuna tartare…”
I stared at my own knees, because I felt like as soon as I opened my mouth, the Stepford Wives would know that I grew up eating Spam and Nilla Wafers, that my dad was the first person in our family to graduate from college and that my mom didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was six. I found myself getting anxious, wanting to compete with them, wanting to show them I was just as strong as they were—stronger even, because I come from a long line of farmers.
I was thinking so hard I almost forgot to do the most important thing in yoga—breathe. I was thinking about how I had an appointment for my own pedicure later that afternoon. I usually get one or two pedicures a year, and I wondered if that meant I was “one of them.” The truth is, as much as I wanted to be as good as one of them, I didn’t want to be one of them. When it comes down to it, we’re all more comfortable when we stick with what we know—and we appreciate categories such as social class, because categories make life simpler.
As an adult, I’ve suffered from a kind of class schizophrenia. It makes sense: as parents work harder to secure a higher standard of living for their children, those children have to adjust to a new identity. I’m accustomed to indulgences my parents could never afford—massages and sushi dinners and traveling. But I also still clip coupons (well, load them electronically onto my club card), pay off my credit card balance every month, and try to use every bit of whatever’s left in the fridge. Maybe it makes sense to think of upward mobility the way I think of feminism: it isn’t about doing certain things; it’s about having the choice to do certain things. Using coupons is smart. But because I’m doing better financially than my parents were when they were my age, I can buy the full-price item if I really want it.
Going out for sushi isn’t who I am; it’s just something I do. The ego-fueled existence easily becomes consumed with what our actions “mean” about us, when they really don’t mean much of anything. As the yoga session ended and I reclined for savasana, I looked at my water bottle and thought about how it was obviously wrong. The other women there had reusable aluminum ones, while mine was (horrors!) a plastic disposable one. It seemed so working-class, I was thinking, when I was jolted from my fretting by my instructor, reading to us from a little book. “The most important thing,” she was saying, “is to let go of labels.”
Touché, I thought, and breathed out.